Illiteracy is the Defining Education Problem in Today's America

I have this delirious dream of controlling all national media for 5 minutes. If I could snap my fingers and have every American’s attention, this is what I would tell them: “There are entire schools, neighborhoods, cities of children who cannot read, and you should care!” These children are not in a far away developing country; in fact many of them are just a few miles away from you. In Los Angeles, where I live and teach, these children are just a few freeway exits from the more affluent neighborhoods.

The fact that there are thousands of children who cannot read is the greatest threat to justice we face. This is the greatest civil rights issue of our time and here is why: Illiteracy is drawn along class and race lines, and is the most insurmountable barrier to accessing a quality life.  

Imagine you could not read this. Imagine you could not read multisyllabic words. You would struggle to maintain any job that required reading more than a few sentences. Your chance of graduating high school would be slim, and the chance of ending up in college damn near impossible. Think of any form you’ve had to fill out for the government, for any social services, to enroll in classes, or tovisit the doctor. If you were not functionally literate, you would not be able to complete those forms and would not have access to any of those services. 

The people for which these dismal outcomes are a reality are already the most disenfranchised demographic in our population: low-income, African American, and Latino children. Without learning to read, they have no chance of improving the situation they were born into. Thus, low-income students, mostly African American and Latino, are systematically denied access to social mobility.

At the middle school where I teach in south L.A., the average reading level is 4th grade. My special education students in the 8th grade read, on average, at a 2nd grade level. The gap between the reading abilities of low-income, minority students and their more affluent peers grows as they progress into high school. I have friends who teach at high schools of a similar need who recount heartbreaking stories about their seniors who are reading at a kindergarten level. What options could these kids possibly have? How did this happen? I am still bewildered by it, but there is not just one factor making this next generation more illiterate than the last.  

Low-income students begin kindergarten at a disadvantage, they hear less words, and have less books in their homes than their more affluent peers. But if public education were doing its job, these students could be caught up because they are not of a lower intelligence or ability than their richer, whiter peers. Instead, we tolerate mismanaged schools with a high turnover of teachers and fad programs to send kids on to the next grade, without having mastered requisite reading skills.  I cannot imagine any other industry surviving in such a state of disrepair without consumers being up in arms about it.

In California, officials forecast the growth of prisons based on the reading levels of 3rd graders. That means we know very well the link between illiteracy and delinquency and are choosing not to address it. If we really want to end racism and poverty, we need to stop ignoring illiteracy, we need to talk about it, and we need to get angry about it. Illiterate children grow up to become illiterate adults, and that is everyone’s problem.

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Lila Kalaf

After graduating from Stanford University with a B.A. in International Relations, Lila joined Teach For America . She is pursuing her masters degree in Special Education from Loyola Marymount University and currently teaches special education science and mathematics at a public middle school in south Los Angeles.

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