Why Literacy Is The Biggest Crisis No One Is Talking About

Five Ideas For Fixing American Education


“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglass

Imagine the next two sentences are bolded, in red, italicized, underlined, and urgently flickering akin to emergency strobe lights.

As early as the third grade, a child’s reading level can often predict the likelihood of dropping out of school, ending up incarcerated, or reaching a certain income threshold. Now consider this: in California, 60 percent of students are already reading below their grade level by the time they reach the third grade and nationwide only 35 percent of fourth graders are proficient.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Bad news about American levels of literacy, especially for the very young, seems to be in infinite supply. Studies show reading skills are at a 20-year low. Even when discussing American adults, the news seems especially bad. Only 54 percent are proficient in reading and some estimates suggest such illiteracy costs the American economy roughly 2.2 trillion dollars a year.

Forget transgender bathroom debates, Critical Race Theory (CRT) objections, and the perpetual animosity between teacher unions and charter school advocates. For all the talk about income inequality, all the hot air expended discussing systemic oppression, or the digital space that is occupied while screaming about Donald Trump and Joe Biden, nothing—absolutely nothing!—is more of an education crisis with long-term implications for American democracy than the crisis of low literacy levels in American schools.

But it gets worse: this crisis is more likely to adversely affect the poor. More likely to affect minorities. More likely to affect children whose parents struggle with literacy. In other words, if someone were looking for a culprit to blame persistent inequality in this nation, if one were probing the social fabric of the nation to discern the cause of generational and cyclic poverty, they should look no further than the crisis in illiteracy. As Senior Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute Robert Pondiscio potently observes, “Any discussion about ‘equity’ in education that is not first and foremost a discussion about literacy is unserious.” 

For years, high school teachers have noticed the death of reading in their classrooms. It used to be a feature of remedial classes that stories, essays, and articles had to be read during class time because students either wouldn’t or couldn’t read on their own. Now this reality affects all classrooms, at all levels, even in advanced and honors courses. Legions of English teachers can attest to the painfully awkward situation that unfolds when trying to discuss a piece of writing no one in the class actually took the time to read. Or, maybe some of the students simply can’t.

How did we get here?  What needs to be done?  What are the consequences if we stay on our current course?

As progressives are eternally fond of saying, “the science is clear.” There are five domains that must be taught to maximize reading capacity:  phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension. Unfortunately, for quite some time, a great many schools have embraced an alternative approach to reading instruction known as “balanced literacy” or “whole language model” in which phonics, decoding, and spelling were not systematically taught. As literacy expert Maria Chapman distills the issue, “The majority of kids I’ve seen that struggle with reading, however, struggle because of a lack of proper instruction.”   

It turns out that teaching students how to read is not a mystery, nor is there a lack of money available to address the issue.

In California, Gavin Newsom allocated$500 million over five years for high-needs schools to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists, as well as a $200 million grant program for schools to create or expand their multilingual schools and purchase culturally-relevant texts for reading instruction.” At the national level, there is plenty of Covid largesse to address issues of low literacy levels. 

The central problem is that teachers are simply not being trained in “phonics and phonemic awareness” and there aren’t enough people to go into schools to do what needs to be done. 

To a large and tragic degree, Covid simultaneously accentuated the crisis in literacy while robbing schools of both the manpower and the workplace incentives to do anything about it. Moreover, Schools of Education often do not instruct future teachers about the science of reading nor do they adequately prepare these future teachers for the level of robust hands-on commitment that is required to teach young students to master the linkage between the sounds of English and the words as they appear on the page.

Accentuating these failures is the trendy notion of empowering young students to decide what it is they want to read and doing it at their own pace. But as teacher Daniel Buck has noted, a traditional hierarchical classroom setting with a teacher standing in front of a classroom might be out of fashion. But instructing students, facilitating discussion, and –most of all– deciding which texts the class will read together, fosters a common set of practices and cultivates a strong sense of classroom community. It also ensures texts will have at least a patina of rigor to them.

The depth of this social and educational failure can’t be interpreted as anything less than a tragedy. It is a tragedy because reading is one of the sublime pleasures of the human condition, offering dimensions of life, modes of thought, and flickers of fantastical emotion few of us can produce on our own. There are not enough superlatives to adequately describe the transformative power of reading—how Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhi, who was inspired by Tolstoy, who was inspired by Christ. How Jefferson’s world-view was shaped by his triad of inspiration—Newton, Bacon, and Locke. How John Adams loved Cicero and Washington longed to be an American version of Cato.

But illiteracy, of course, has a political dimension that is especially relevant in a regime that aspires to be self-governing. The underlying assumption of democracy is that the body politic can collectively establish not just good government, but wise polity established by enlightened leaders. The machinery of liberal democracy operates by the hopeful assumption that the people are sovereign, that in a society in which ideas and information flow freely and abundantly, citizens can determine for themselves who should be leading our institutions of governance.

But citizens who aren’t literate can’t discern the difference between authentic wisdom and demagoguery, genuine leadership and buffoonery. And more to the point, those of us who cannot obtain and filter information for ourselves are far more likely to become informed by the bumper stickers and bromides surrounding us on a daily basis. In other words, an illiterate citizenry is more likely to become tribal.

This is already happening, of course. And if we don’t address this crisis, it is only going to get worse.

Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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