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Read this — US literacy gap needs closing

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The Oklahoma teacher strike reminds us that our nation does not adequately fund public education. Oklahoma teachers have not had a raise in 10 years. Starting pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in the state is $31,600.

The lack of adequate funding in education is not simply an Oklahoma problem — it is a national crisis with deep moral implications. Children across the U.S., particularly those of color, bear the burden of our broken education system. 

{mosads}In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional, and with that decision came the hope that integration would give young people of color access to an equitable education. The recent passing of Linda Brown, the young black girl then at the center of the case, begs the question. Has the promise of integration and equitable education been fulfilled?


School segregation still exists, as a 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently shows. Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of K-12 public schools that had high numbers of poor black or Hispanic students increased from 9 to 16 percent.

Since the 2000-2001 school year, students eligible for free and reduced lunch also increased by 142 percent. Black and Hispanic students have poverty rates two to three times higher than white students.

Low teacher pay, segregated schools and equity gaps that continue to fall squarely along racial and income lines 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education are keeping whole generations of children in our country from reaching their full potential.

Early literacy is one area where lack of progress is particularly alarming. A student’s ability to read on grade level by the end of 4th grade is a key indicator of future success in school and in life.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that 74 percent of students who tested below the 25th percentile in reading were from low-income families. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), are considered “catastrophically low” for children of color. Nationally, only 18 percent of black students and 21 percent of Hispanic students tested “above proficient” in reading by the end of 4th grade.

 As the Executive Director of Readers 2 Leaders, a Dallas-based nonprofit that provides literacy programs to underserved children, I see parents who sacrifice daily to give their children opportunities that are difficult to come by in most of America’s underserved neighborhoods.

Last summer, Isabel, a young, Hispanic mother, walked her four young sons to our reading summer camp every day for more than a mile in the Texas heat. Once we discovered this, staff quickly assisted in setting up transportation for the family. Her dedication struck a chord; the lack of affordable, high-quality educational programs for the families who need it most is astounding.

In Dallas, the three largest early literacy nonprofits have combined budgets of about $3.5 million. Yet, only 40 percent of children in Dallas County are reading on a college-ready pace by 3rd grade. It is clear that community investment in early literacy does not match the great need in this community and communities across the country.

In Michigan, early literacy scores have fallen dramatically. Since 2003, 4th grade literacy scores on NAEP dropped from 28th in the nation to 41st in 2015.

North Carolina students also struggled on the NAEP assessment in 2015. By the end of 4th grade, only 51 percent scored at or above proficient, but among black and Hispanic students that number was much lower — only 23 percent for both groups.

Despite the grim facts around early literacy, research from the Wallace Foundation shows that high-quality summer programs offering a combination of academics and enrichment can help. Children with high attendance in five to six-week voluntary summer learning programs experienced meaningful benefits in reading. Students who attended these programs 20 days or more for two summers gained the equivalent to 20-25 percent of a year’s learning in reading. 

Investments in early childhood and pre-K efforts around the country are promising, but cuts to public funding nationwide are cause for grave concern.

Only about half of underserved children who would benefit from pre-K are enrolled in these programs. Not only is more federal, state, local and private investment in schools and pre-K needed, but funding dollars must follow students through 4th grade and beyond.

More community-wide efforts need to focus on scalability and measurable results. After-school, summer camps and low-cost tutoring programs focused on underserved youth are key areas for investment that have been historically under-funded.

It is urgent to start thinking about early literacy through a wider policy lens. Housing inequality, childhood trauma, mental health issues and lack of work opportunities in underserved communities all contribute to our nationwide early literacy crisis.

Without local, state and national policies that support low-income families, it is unfair to place the burden entirely on our public schools.

Investment in early literacy is critical. Students who do not read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, and low literacy in pre-teen girls is a strong predictor of teenage pregnancy.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that investments made in the first four to six years of school (including pre-K) produced a long-term return to society of $8.24 for every $1 invested.

It is time to recognize that all children, regardless of income or race, deserve the basic human right of early literacy.

It is critical to align policy, funding and community efforts to make this happen. Early literacy is not just a “nice to have,” it is vital. Our children deserve the chance to succeed. 

Norma Nelson is the Executive Director of Readers 2 Leaders, a non-profit organization focused on childhood literacy in Dallas, Texas. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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