The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 20, 2014

Reading is a matter of social justice

By Andrew Johnson/My View
The Mankato Free Press

---- — In our society one must be able to read in order to reach one’s full potential. Not only do you need to know how to read, but you must be able to do so efficiently and effectively. However, according the National Institute of Literacy (part of the U.S. Department of Education), 14 percent of U.S. adults (or about 32 million) can’t read and 21 percent of U.S. adults read below a 5th grade level.

This greatly impacts their ability to earn a living wage and adequately provide for themselves or a family.

Children living in poverty score lower on all measures of academic achievement including reading. It’s not because poor people are less capable of learning and achieving; rather, it’s because the deck is stacked against them.

Environmental factors such as poor diet, inadequate neonatal and health care, lack of books and computers, and exposure to crime makes learning much more difficult for children living in poverty. Yet, it’s easy for those with means to blame parents for not spending enough time with their kids. However, time is a luxury for those with means.

If your daily existence is devoted to making sure your family has food, health care, shelter, clothes, and other necessities, there’s not a lot of time left over to spend reading to your kids (if indeed you had books), or to take them to a library (if indeed your neighborhood had a library and you had the means to get there).

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) estimates that approximately 20 percent of our children (about 14 million) have trouble learning to read. Of these, 3 percent to 5 percent (between 2.2 and 3.7 million) have a severe reading disability.

But even if one student was struggling to read, that would be too many, especially if that student was your own child. These students are twice as likely to drop out of high school when compared to their peers. As a result, they are more apt to be unemployed, underemployed and incarcerated. This means, they are far less able to contribute to society, provide for their families, spend money in our economy, and pay taxes. Thus, making sure all children learn to read is a social justice issue, but it also makes good economic sense.

There is not a simple answer to this complex issue. But there are four things that can help: First, remember that economic issues will always be tied to educational issues. Spending a little money up front to make sure that all students receive appropriate, research-based reading instruction saves society a lot in terms of money and other human costs down the line.

This includes funding the types of high-quality, pre-K programs that President Obama referred to in his last State of the Union address. In the same way, spending money on programs that enable all children to receive adequate food and health care also makes good economic as well as educational sense.

Second, schools must be held accountable for their teaching practices and not standardized test scores. Other than narrowing the curriculum and severely restricting learning, the hyper-testing movement has done nothing to fundamentally change how we go about educating our children.

If we focus instead on research-based practices the test scores will take care of themselves. This means also that school districts must be able to identify and elucidate how their approach to reading instruction is different for and meets the special learning needs of four types of readers: (a) highly advanced readers, (b) a general population, (c) struggling readers, and (d) students with a severe reading disability.

Third, we cannot teach today’s students using yesterday’s strategies and expect to get them ready for tomorrow’s world. Thus, we must make sure that the current instructional practices used for reading are informed by and reflect the latest research in reading instruction, brain-imaging, and cognitive neuroscience. Thus, present and future teachers must be provided opportunities to learn and use these new strategies.

Finally, we must make sure that struggling readers have access to appropriate research-based interventions within school as well as after-school and summer reading programs.

Enabling all students to learn to read is social justice issue. However, funding programs that enable struggling readers to read is also a sound economic investment.

Andy Johnson Ph.D., is professor of literacy at Minnesota State University