Why Reading Is Fundamental to Racial Equity

Dr. Stephanie Hull with, from left to right, Girls Inc. alumna Giselle Fonseca and National Scholars Jariah Chapman and Claire Jensen. (Alex J. Berlinger)

America is finally waking up to the full scope and severity of its oldest illness: racism. We cannot afford to hit snooze. And yet this awakening comes at a time when coronavirus-related school closures are exacerbating racial inequalities in our education system, even as the virus and the recession disproportionately hurt communities of color.

Our schools are the very place where racism does perhaps its deepest and most lasting damage to the body politic. As schools begin to announce their fall semester plans, we must do all we can to make sure that remote learning and part-time schooling do not continue to leave Black and brown children behind.

It has been 66 years since Brown v. Board, and public schools are still not the equalizing institutions they should be. Even before the inequities of this pandemic hit, children of color, particularly those from under-resourced communities, faced serious barriers to education. In 2016, the national graduation rate was 84.1 percent, an all-time high. Yet the graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students were 76.4 and 79.3 percent, respectively. Educator Gloria Ladson-Billings refers to such unequal outcomes as the “education debt” that results from our society’s systemic and historic racism.

Repairing the race gap in schools would take significant political will even in the best of times. Teachers need to be trained on implicit bias and on the impact of trauma on student behavior and learning. Overly punitive discipline policies need to be replaced with restorative justice practices — as it is, Black girls are seven times as likely as white girls to be suspended and four times as likely to be arrested at school. But most communities are a long way from implementing such reforms. Not only are schools strapped for the resources they need to adapt to the pandemic, most have not even been able to deliver equitably on the fundamentals of learning.

Take something as basic as literacy: Reading is the foundation for all future learning. It is vital for critical thinking, problem-solving, writing and math. While the national average for reading proficiency among all U.S. fourth-graders is at a low 36 percent, just 18 percent of our nation’s Black fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2015. Children who are proficient readers by the end of third grade graduate from high school on time at four times the rate of those not reading proficiently, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

These disparities are not only due to economic inequality, although there is a strong correlation between income levels and reading proficiency. Still, the link between poverty, low reading proficiency and race is also clear: About 31 percent of poor Black students and 33 percent of poor Hispanic students who did not hit the third-grade proficiency mark failed to graduate, compared with 22 percent of poor white students with weak reading skills.

This is not only a civil rights issue but also an economic one: The lifetime cost of a student who leaves school without graduating is $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity. Students who complete associate’s degrees earn on average 18.7 percent more per week than those with a high school diploma alone, while those with a bachelor’s degree earn 44.7 percent more than high school graduates.

A good start would be expanding access to high-quality early education and afterschool and summer learning opportunities. Such programs — once appropriate safety measures were identified and taken — would also help parents get back to a normal working schedule. It has become crystal clear that the U.S. economy simply does not function when children have no daytime care, yet in 2017 only 47 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide were enrolled in preschool programs of any kind. State-funded programs remove the financial barriers many families face, but six states still have no public preschool programs.

Despite the best efforts of schools last spring to remain relevant and connected, many of those that served low-income communities and students of color were not able to maintain their connection with and support for students. School districts partnered with internet service providers to increase connectivity, distributed laptops to students, lent wireless hotspots and strengthened Wi-Fi connections at schools to narrow the digital divide for nearby families. If schools are to continue remote learning in any capacity, these efforts will need to continue and even increase.

Parents have a major role to play as well. Evidence shows that spending time together reading — at whatever level and in any language — makes a big difference to a child’s educational outcomes. Nevertheless, parents cannot be expected to shoulder this burden alone, especially given the challenges of the current environment.

Closing the achievement gap means being intentional about creating environments that affirm the inherent potential of every student. Equipping students to be strong readers, engage in school and graduate from high school will not achieve racial equity alone. But if we do not get this right, the gap will only grow. This is not the moment to abandon children to remote-learning solutions that at best are ineffective and at worst serve to exacerbate the inequality between white and Black children.

Our social and political systems are not race-neutral, so our education efforts must create not only parallel learning environments but also equitable ones that will ultimately allow all students to enter the classroom — and their adult lives — on equal footing.

Stephanie J. Hull, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Girls Inc., a national organization that inspires all girls to be strong, smart and bold through direct service and advocacy. Girls Inc. works year-round with girls across 79 local organizations in 350 cities.

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