The Public Policy

The Kids Can’t Read

Functional illiteracy in our schools is increasing.

By 6.21.10

Forty percent of Atlanta eight-grade students tested Below Basic proficiency in reading on the 2009 edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam of academic achievement. Essentially two out of every five Atlanta students heading into high school are functionally illiterate -- unable to comprehend a work as simple as Anne of Greene Gables or even complete mathematical word problems such as "Marty has 6 red pencils, 4 green pencils, and 5 blue pencils."

Atlanta isn't an isolated case. Twenty-eight percent of Georgia's eighth-graders -- one in every four -- read Below Basic proficiency. This is a problem with nearly every race, age, and social class. Thirty-four percent of eighth-grade boys tested Below Basic in reading, as did one in every five white students and 40 percent of black students. The low levels of literacy also aren't confined to the Peach State: Twenty-six percent of America's eighth-graders and one in three fourth-graders are functionally illiterate. 

If you've wondered why 1.3 million students drop out every year, why six million students languish in the nation's special ed ghettos, or why girls outnumber boys on campus by as much as two-to-one, just take a look at America's abysmally low levels of literacy. Far too few children, no matter their socioeconomic background, can read well enough to function in an economy in which literacy is more-important than ever. Boys are especially hit hard, often trailing their female peers in reading and falling far behind in other academic studies by the time they reach middle school.

Although the problem may begin at home, America's public schools and education policies have also exacerbated the literacy problem. Few teachers at the elementary level are well-skilled in teaching children how to read; theories such as whole language -- which emphasized reading whole books without dealing with phonics or understanding the context behind sentences and paragraphs -- have also wreaked havoc on reading instruction.

The latest concerns over literacy have been, in part, spurred on by the Obama administration, which unveiled a project called Reading for Understanding Research Initiative to help improve literacy. Under the program, the U.S. Department of Education is awarding $100 million in grants to six groups of researchers (including those from the Educational Testing Service, the administrator of the SAT college entrance exam) to conduct research on how teachers can improve classroom reading instruction. This, in turn, marks the latest of several efforts (almost all ill-fated) by federal officials to improve how reading is taught in America's schools.

But concerns about reading have become especially acute because of one of the most-troubling trends in higher education: The dearth of young men on campus. Between 1995-1996 and 2007-2008, the percentage of men on college campuses declined from 48 percent to 43 percent, according to the American Council on Education; there are now 1.39 women for every male on campus. Women now make up 55 percent of overall enrollment within the State University of New York system. The gaps are even larger elsewhere: At some colleges, women account for as many as 70 percent of the undergraduate population. Society is only grasping the consequences of this achievement gap, including the high rates of unemployment among males (especially those without high school diplomas) to the rash of more men living at home with their parents. The new gender gap has also become the subject of one of the hottest books in education, Why Boys Fail, by Education Week blogger Richard Whitmire.

But many students are failing to develop all the skills for proper reading. As a result, they are falling behind long before they reach sixth grade. One out of every three fourth-graders read Below Basic proficiency, according to NAEP; although slightly lower than the 36 percent of fourth graders reading Below Basic in 2002, the average reading score remains almost unchanged. Black and Latino students -- the latter of which include first-generation Americans from immigrant homes -- do poorly; 53 percent of black fourth-graders and 52 percent of their Latino counterparts are reading Below Basic. The illiteracy levels know no income barrier: Forty-nine of poor students read Below Basic proficiency while a (less-abysmal) 21 percent of wealthier students also have poor reading comprehension skills.

Boys, in particular, are struggling mightily in reading, no matter the race or income level of their parents. Thirty-six of all male fourth-graders tested Below Basic in reading, trailing their female peers by six percentage points. One out of every four male high school seniors with college-educated parents suffered from functional illiteracy.

The consequences of the failure to achieve full literacy are wide-ranging. The very skills involved in reading (including understanding abstract concepts) are also involved in more-complex mathematics including word problems and algebra. Being a good reader may not mean being equally skilled in math, but poor readers tend also to fail in math computations as well. Fifty-four percent of Atlanta eighth-graders scored Below Basic on the math portion of the 2009 NAEP, equivalent to the low reading levels. Nor are students likely to improve over time. The result is usually the path to dropping out of school and into welfare and prison.

Poor reading also partly explains the 63-percent increase in the nation's special education population (now 13 percent of the nation's public school enrollment) between 1976 and 2006. Among the largest categories of special ed students include developmental delay -- which can just as often mean that the child wasn't taught to read at home, dyslexic as it may mean that a child suffers from cognitive damage -- or emotional disturbance (which can also be caused by the natural rebelliousness arising from frustration over poor reading skills). Reid Lyon, an education official under George W. Bush, determined in 1997 that most black boys landed in special education because they struggled in reading. As Stanford University Researchers Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles determined in a 2006 study, low literacy levels in first grade are strong predictors of long-term disciplinary problems.

CERTAINLY READING PROBLEMS CAN begin at home. Families at all income levels who spend less time reading and engaging in conversation with their children -- especially those from impoverished households whose parents tend to be poor readers themselves -- will produce children with low reading skills. But it's not all about income or interaction. Forty percent of all kindergarten students can only learn to read if they are specifically taught syllables, words, letter sounds and spelling. Boys, in particular, struggle because the area of their brains in which language and literacy is developed lags behind that of their female schoolmates.

Educators have understood these problems for decades; reading experts have spent years developing new ways to help lagging students improve reading before they reach fifth grade and work with boys to get them up to speed. This includes identifying poor readers early on and intensive teaching of linguistic skills every day. Few schools have implemented such practices in their classrooms. 

The low quality of America's teaching corps -- the biggest reason for the nation's dropout crisis -- also affects reading instruction. Few university schools of education (which educate most of our teachers) do a proper job of teaching aspiring students how to address reading. Just 11 of 71 ed schools surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2006 taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction.

A four-decade war over whether reading instruction should emphasize phonics and spelling or Whole Language (a system by which students should learn the meaning behind sentences) has also fueled the literacy crisis. During the 1970s and 1980s, states embraced Whole Language and ignored phonics, forgetting that kids need to know how to also sound words. Only after states saw reading scores decline did they reverse course. Most reading experts argue that phonics and Whole Language are both needed in order to learn reading. But schools aren't doing a good job instructing in either area.

Federal efforts to improve reading instruction -- most-notably President George W. Bush's Reading First initiative -- have either fallen to seed amid controversy or haven't gained traction. The best solution may start at home: Parents could buy a copy of Hooked on Phonics and organize community reading sessions. It may be a while before public schools actually learn how to teach reading correctly -- and improve literacy.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at