Education, literacy and the 2020 campaign
As the 2020 Democratic Primary heats up, it’s increasingly evident that healthcare will, yet again, be at the top of the campaign issue list. Likewise, climate change is sure to remain atop the list. Candidates are right to speak with the urgency each crisis demands because, almost daily, we’re confronted with the dire consequences of our inaction on both fronts.
But, as I gird to hear “healthcare should be a right, not a privilege” repeated 47 times in the first five minutes of the next debate, I sincerely doubt any of us will hear the candidates frame the issue of education in the same light as they do healthcare or climate change. That is a problem — and it is not a new problem.
For decades, American children have been marginalized by the cruelty of congressional lip service because, while 76 percent of voters believe all children should have an equal opportunity to get a good education, no matter their economic circumstances, we clearly don’t see the problem as urgent enough to hold our elected representatives accountable. So it continues.
Thomas Jefferson said that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free… it expects what never was and never will be.” And Abraham Lincoln called education “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” If we are to preserve the American experiment, it won’t be done in the halls of Congress, it will be done in our classrooms.
First, we must understand that an educated citizenry cannot exist without a literate citizenry — and the data on literacy should shock Americans as much or more than the next news update telling us that July beat June as the hottest month ever recorded:
- More than 30 million adults in the U.S. can’t read or write above a 3rd grade level;
- 50 percent of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at an 8th grade level.
The long-term consequences of these numbers are clear:
- 43 percent of adults who read below the 5th grade level live in poverty;
- 70 percent of adult welfare recipients have low literacy skills;
- 75 percent of state prison inmates can be classified as low literate;
- Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.
This represents a crisis because it’s now evident that inadequacies in American education have greatly exacerbated almost every other problem we face. The less educated we are, the harder it is to improve health outcomes, combat climate change, reduce poverty, fight bigotry, and galvanize civic participation.
Let’s start with healthcare. Illiteracy is said to be connected to over $230 billion a year in health care costs because almost half of Americans cannot read well enough to understand basic health information. While the hefty cost of “Medicare for All” is debated, perhaps we should consider whether “Literacy for All” could help foot the bill?
Beyond dollars and cents, this is a matter of life and death. Across the globe, illiteracy has been cited as a driver of worsening mortality rates among the elderly and a primary reason for high infant mortality rates in cases of illiterate mothers.
As for the economy, America’s high school graduation rate ranks 36th worldwide. Put into context, if the 1.3 million dropouts from the Class of 2010 had graduated, the nation would have seen $337 billion more in earnings over the course of those students’ lifetimes. Improvements in education represent a pathway to GDP expansion and job growth that hasn’t occurred in decades.
And speaking of jobs, our students are losing their teachers because we have failed to pay them. During the 2017-2018 school year, America faced a teacher workforce shortage of 110,000 teachers — 14 percent of new teachers resign by the end of their first year; 33 percent leave within their first 3 years, and almost 50 percent leave by their 5th year.
Student achievement is close to impossible without the retention of quality teachers, so when teachers cite pay as the number one reason for quitting, we should respond knowing full well that our kids suffer when teachers aren’t paid, and treated, like the heroes they are.
The time to act is yesterday, too, because classroom needs evolve just as fast as consumer and business needs. So, at a moment when we should be teaching our kids about the nuances and real world applications of artificial intelligence (their future workforce competitiveness likely depends on it), it should startle most everyone that more than 6 million students don’t have high speed internet in America. How many among those 6 million kids stands a chance at competing for an AI job in the 2040 job market, much less the 2019 market?
So, what’s to be done? I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’ll begin with a critical point: start with access.
This spring, my city government in Pittsburgh announced that, with the support of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, every child is eligible to receive one free book every month from birth to the age of 5. While this isn’t the silver bullet, according to the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, access to books matters. The future of our world depends on those who commit themselves to children everywhere, with no exceptions.
For nearly a century, my employer Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, has committed itself to access and works tirelessly to put books into the hands of all kids. Our work with partners like Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit dedicated to providing books to young kids during doctors office visits, coupled with efforts like those of the Pittsburgh City Government and countless organizations elsewhere, represent an appropriate acknowledgement of a simple fact: every child deserves a book.
Robert Kennedy once said that “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.”
Our national debate needs to be reframed to place education and literacy at the top of our priority list, and if Dolly Parton represents my city’s tiny ripple of hope, count me grateful (again) to be a Pittsburgher. Count me lucky to live in a community that has appropriately acknowledged the importance of giving every child the gift of literacy. And count me hopeful that the ferocity of a billion ripples from all across America will give our kids and, by extension, our future, the chance they deserve.
Casey Mindlin is the Director of Partnerships for Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books. Mindlin previously served as Director of Business Development and Legislative Associate for the lobbying firm American Continental Group. He graduated from the University of Colorado with a BA in Political Science.