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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Want to be antiracist? Teach kids to read

Education Week reports that a growing number of school districts are asking would-be teachers: “What have you done personally or professionally to be more antiracist?”

“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free,” wrote Frederick Douglass. Photo: Everett Collection/Newscom

The best answer, writes Kay Hymowitz in City Journal, is: Teach black children to read.

Nationwide, 52 percent of black children read below basic in fourth grade, according to federal data, with Hispanics at 45 percent, writes Hymowitz.

Reading scores correlate with “racial gaps in high school achievement, college attendance, graduation, adult income, and even incarceration,”  writes Hymowitz. More than 70 percent of prison inmates “cannot read above a fourth-grade level.”

Social-justice educators recommend “culturally relevant” lessons that can’t be understood by students who lack background knowledge in geography and history, vocabulary and grade-level reading skills, she writes.

Some states, districts and charter schools are doing better, writes Hymowitz.

People might reasonably predict that poor Southern states would have lower overall reading scores than more affluent states in the Northeast, and they’d be right. But the Urban Institute has developed a nifty interactive chart that lets us compare states adjusting for race and poverty (or other variables). The counterintuitive results show that Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation and one with a dreadful racial history and an equally dreadful education record, is turning things around. The state is now more successful at teaching disadvantaged black children to read than top-ranked and affluent Massachusetts and New Jersey.

What’s making a difference? Instead of “whole language” or “balanced literacy,” more states, districts and schools are paying attention to the research on reading.

Credit: Alberto Mena

“Over recent decades, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and data-driven educators have reached a consensus” that beginning readers need to learn phonics as the first step to reading comprehension, writes Hymowitz.

Some students are “natural readers,” as whole-language believers would say. Most need to be taught.

“In 2013, legislators in Mississippi provided funding to start training the state’s teachers in the science of reading,” she writes. Florida, Colorado and Tennessee are “taking reading science more seriously.”

In New York City, David Banks, the new schools chancellor, said schools have been “teaching wrong” for 25 years. “‘Balanced literacy’ has not worked for Black and Brown children,” he said. “We’re going to go back to a phonetic approach to teaching.”

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