“Literacy is the fundamental civil right of our time.” So says Kareem Weaver of the nonprofit FULCRUM, Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate. Weaver is the main voice in The Right to Read, a new documentary produced by Levar Burton of “Reading Rainbow” fame. The film takes a firm stance in the “reading wars” on the side of phonics instruction, which actually works, unlike long-popular programs that encourage children to guess at words rather than read them.
Colorado’s public schools, like those nationally, are turning far too many students into functional illiterates. To again review some results from the recently administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 35% of Colorado eighth graders read at a proficient level or higher. A full 27% read below a basic level. (The test breaks results into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced.)
For minority students, outcomes are much worse. Whereas 82% of eighth-grade white students read at or above a basic level—bad enough!—only 55% of black students and 59% of Hispanic students do. Relative to white students (43%), only about half that fraction of black students (21%) and Hispanic students (19%) read at or above a proficient level.
Where is the outrage? Where are the marches in the streets for literacy? Where are the serious plans from legislators and school boards to fix this deep-seated problem? The NAEP numbers have been reported for months. But, other than an occasional news story, opinion piece, or remark by a losing Republican politician, the abysmal NAEP numbers were met mostly with silence.
The caveats: Schools are not solely responsible for literacy, obviously. Families matter. Resources matter. A student stressed from living in poverty or a chaotic home is hugely disadvantaged relative to a student from a stable and well-off family. Yes, the pandemic hurt scores a little, but they were already bad. Yes, many school districts already are replacing failed reading programs with ones based on phonics, which hopefully will help students improve their reading abilities over the coming years.
Still. Change has come too slowly. It feels like the civil rights issue of our time mostly has been relegated to an afterthought.
Public concern on the rise
Much of the public has noticed problems, though. Colorado public education is on the wrong track, people recently told pollsters by a margin of 47% to 31% (with 23% unsure).
Many Coloradans are open to some novel approaches. By a margin of 49% to 26%, people have a favorable view of charter schools, and most (65%) think they should be funded on par with other public schools.
What about overall funding? Informed that “Colorado public schools receive about $15,000 per student,” by a margin of 50% to 33% people think schools are underfunded as opposed to overfunded or adequately funded. Two-thirds of people think teachers are underpaid. But most people (78%) think more school funding should come through reprioritizing existing tax dollars.
Demonizing charter schools
A surprisingly common approach in some quarters is to disparage efforts to give parents more choices in education and to rally around the same bureaucrats and special interests that have failed our children for decades. For example, in back-to-back columns for Colorado Politics, Paula Noonan complained of “deleterious effects of the charter movement on public education.”
What are these “deleterious effects”? “The charter schools in Colorado have essentially re-segregated . . . student communities.” Wow! You mean, like Ruby Bridges, black students can get into charter schools only under armed guard? Of course not. Noonan’s remark is inflammatory, indeed defamatory, nonsense.
Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools responded: “Overall, public charter schools in Colorado look demographically similar to traditional public schools and that includes racial segregation and integration. Specifically, the charter school sector and the traditional public school sector both serve approximately 50% students of color. Among public schools that enroll at least 50 students, 57% of traditional public schools have a majority white student body versus just 55% of public charter schools.”
Noonan further claims, “The demographics of many charter schools show they significantly skew toward ethnic/racial background, either mostly white or mostly minority.” Uh, guess what: this is also true of “many” other public schools. Try checking out schools in different areas via Public School Review, something Noonan references. Shocking to no one but Noonan, schools often reflect the demographics of their communities.
Why is Noonan so quick to denigrate parents who choose to send their children to schools with mostly minority students? A parent who puts their child in a charter school does so by choice and with special effort. Maybe we should presume that parents know best for their children.
All that said, charter schools are not a panacea. According to a Keystone Policy Center analysis, in 2021 charter schools outperformed other schools in language arts, based on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success test, with 44% of students meeting or exceeding expectations, versus 38% of other students. But 44% is still depressingly low.
A parent-led revolution
I am thankful that my family has been able to bypass the problems in the public schools through homeschooling. One resource we found helpful is The Reading Lesson by Michael Levin and Charan Langton. Another is the Khan Academy Kids app. My seven-year-old now is happily reading (among other things) the Wings of Fire series about dragons.
Several of our friends enthusiastically put their kids in charter schools; others are perfectly happy in their neighborhood schools. I am pleased that Colorado parents have a fair amount of control over where their children go to school. In my book, we need more parental choice, not less.
Meanwhile, a substantial fraction of Colorado students still are not becoming good readers. Parents need to understand that they cannot always rely on their children’s schools to teach them to read. Often it’s up to parents to choose a better school, teach their kids themselves, or find the help their children need.
We need Colorado schools to do better. Children deserve literacy.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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