The murder of George Floyd has shined a spotlight on police brutality and racial injustice. But we also need to open our eyes to the less obvious devastation our education system inflicts on millions of black and brown students.
On national tests last year, only 18 percent of black 4th-graders scored proficient or above in reading; the figure for white 4th-graders was 45 percent. For 8th graders, the percentages were 15 and 42 percent. It’s sobering that over half of white students fail to meet the proficiency bar. But the figures for black students should outrage anyone who cares about social justice. These dry statistics translate into greater struggles in high school, lower college attendance and graduation rates, a higher likelihood of incarceration, and generally bleaker futures. And we’re going in the wrong direction: Those abysmal percentages for black students are lower than the figures from two years before.
Want to know something even more outrageous? There’s abundant scientific evidence that explains why our standard approach to reading instruction isn’t working for so many black kids—and others. But educators and policymakers are often unaware of that research; some reject it. Schools continue to double down on the same things that haven’t worked for decades, expecting a different result.
Reading scores for black, Hispanic, and low-income students have been so low for so long, and efforts to raise them have been so fruitless, that many have come to simply accept them. They’ve given up on education as a means of righting social wrongs, arguing that the effects of poverty and racism are so powerful we can’t expect education to overcome them.
They are powerful. But there’s much more that education can do, right now, for our most vulnerable children that we simply haven’t tried. When it comes to reading, what works is a simultaneous mix of two things at early grade levels: systematic instruction in phonics, and starting to build the kind of knowledge students will need in high school and beyond. What doesn’t work is what schools have been doing: giving a token nod to phonics while encouraging kids to guess at words, and scrapping social studies and science to focus on illusory reading comprehension skills. Yes, the system works for some kids—mostly, those with highly educated parents who have ample resources. A disproportionate number are white. But a lot of those kids are doing okay in spite of the system, not because of it.
To the extent that advocates for social justice still focus on education, they often call for motivating students through topics that relate to their own lives and cultures. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, as African-American educator Zaretta Hammond has observed, “It’s magical thinking to believe that despite not knowing how long vowels work, when students see a brown face in a book, somehow that will be a catalyst, and students will begin reading with greater fluency and comprehension.”
It’s equally mistaken, she says, to give kids a steady diet of racial oppression and civil rights on the assumption that it will affirm their cultural identity: “Second graders don’t want to talk about oppression, and when we as educators make that our sole focus, we’re doing students a disservice. Instead we must build their background knowledge across a wide array of topics.”
Having followed a second-grade classroom where all the students were black or brown and came from low-income families, I wholeheartedly agree. Those children were lucky enough to attend a school using an atypical elementary curriculum focused on meaty content: Ancient India, Greek mythology, the human digestive system, the War of 1812—and the Civil War, slavery, and civil rights heroes. They were deeply engaged in the material and proud of all they were learning. And the knowledge and vocabulary they were acquiring—words like labyrinth and plummeted—would provide a foundation for their success in high school and beyond.
By contrast, most elementary classrooms use a form of tracking that goes by the name “leveled reading.” Imagine you’re a fourth-grader. Periodically, your teacher takes you and each of your classmates aside and tests your individual reading levels. She’ll ask you to read a text while she counts the number of mistakes you make, then ask questions to test your comprehension. One day, she gives you a passage about how crocodiles are related to dinosaurs. You’re not sure what a crocodile or a dinosaur is; you haven’t learned anything about them in school. Nor do you know the words fossil, ancient, and grubs. Maybe you can’t even read those words because you’ve never been taught how to sound them out. After the test, the teacher says you’re a level “L”—a second-grade level.
Every day during the two- or three-hour reading block, your teacher demonstrates a comprehension skill—maybe “visualizing,” or “comparing and contrasting.” Then you and your classmates practice it on books you can choose, as long as they’re at your level. Maybe you jealously eye other kids who are reading books at level R or S—or even T, a fifth-grade level. Or maybe almost everyone in your class is also reading below grade level. In any event, you keep practicing your “skills,” because your teacher assures you that if you do you’ll become a better reader.
Now imagine your school has been closed for months because of Covid-19, and you’ve had little or no access to instruction of any kind. When school finally reopens, your teacher finds you’ve slipped to a first-grade reading level. Maybe by this time you’ve concluded that you’re just not a good reader and never will be. That it’s your fault.
It’s not. There’s no evidence that leveled reading boosts comprehension. And given stagnant or declining reading scores, there’s plenty of evidence it doesn’t. But kids don’t know that. In addition to depriving them—and us—of the opportunity to live up to their potential, this system is making untold numbers of them feel like failures for no good reason.
Especially in schools were test scores are low, students may get nothing but math and “reading” through middle school. When they get to high school, they may not know basic facts like the difference between a city and a state, or what the American Revolution was—not because they can’t learn those things, but because no one has taught them those things. Their teachers water down grade-level material because they don’t know what else to do. Even if students manage to graduate from high school, they may not be able to read and understand a newspaper article or an instruction manual—or read and write at all.
Some, apparently including Hammond, see deliberate racism at work. No doubt the American education system has long been riddled with racism, but much of the current damage is being done by well-meaning educators who care deeply about social justice. They’ve just been misled by their training. As Hammond herself has said, “Many social justice educators push back on the teaching of phonics and word study as oppressive when in fact, those elements of reading development are liberatory.”
It might be easier to muster outrage if we could point fingers at brutal racists—and if the issue were less complex. But, well-intentioned as it may be, the prevailing approach to literacy is pressing a figurative knee into the necks of millions of black and brown children. If people truly understood the needless damage being done by our schools every day, they would be out in the streets demanding change.