Reading, Writing, and Concentrated Poverty


Cross-posted at Education Week.

Let’s try a thought experiment.  Imagine that you are the new superintendent of schools in a city school district in which the majority of students live in concentrated poverty.  You conceive of your job as getting your students ready for some sort of college or a career that begins right after they graduate from high school.  You know they don’t stand a chance if they cannot read and write well enough to survive the first year of a typical community college program.  You’ve learned that the typical first-year community college text is set at a 12th-grade level of literacy.  So you set a simple goal for your district: making sure that your graduates can read a text written at a 12th-grade level and can write simple paragraphs that have a beginning, a middle and an end and present a set of thoughts in a reasonably logical order.  That should not be so hard.  After all, 12th-grade literacy is high school literacy.  Writing simple declarative sentences that describe something or make a straightforward argument in a logical order is not that hard.

Then you face reality.   It feels like a brick wall.  You discover that your district has been awarding diplomas to functionally illiterate students for years.  A large fraction of your graduates are simply not capable of writing a simple paragraph setting forth some straightforward thoughts in logical order. Your typical graduate is reading at the 6th-or 7th-grade level. You start looking at the data and realize that, for every year your students are in your system, they fall further behind where they need to be.  By the time they are in 6th grade, they are already four grade levels behind the students in the surrounding suburban districts.  It’s all over for them before they even begin middle school.

You do a little research and the pieces start to fall into place.  You find out that the typical high school graduate who goes to some sort of college is reading at the 7th– or 8th-grade level.  Most school teachers come from the lower half of the distribution of high school graduates going to college.  Once in college, they attend a professional school which, unlike most of the others, requires for admission no more than the university requires for general admission.  Many of these institutions will take anyone with a high school diploma.  Many states require no more than attendance to get a high school diploma.  No state requires more than an 8th-grade level of literacy for graduation.  Whenever you are able to hire really good teachers, the suburban districts offer them a much better deal. Your attrition rate is off the charts.  Your new teachers haven’t been trained to cope with many of the problems the students bring to school and are simply overwhelmed.  Most of the experienced teachers who have not given up are doing their best, but you have no reason to believe they were ever better readers or writers than the average student in your school district.

This is a city that, back in the 50s, was home to rich people and poor and everything in between.  They went to school together, married each other, helped each other, gave each other their first jobs.  Not anymore.  The manufacturing jobs went to the suburbs or other countries.  Homes and businesses are boarded up all over town.  Some of your high school kids live in cars parked in the high school parking lot.  Many have parents in jail.  Only a small minority are living with both parents.  Most of your students don’t see school as a way out because they don’t know anyone for whom that has worked.  Your schools are full of teachers who began teaching because they wanted to serve their community.  But many burned out years ago as they saw the light disappear from their student’s eyes, to be replaced by resentment and hostility.

What you have really discovered is a machine that is now reproducing failure, generation after generation.  It is harder and harder to staff your schools with anyone at all, and those you can get are more likely than not to come from the schools of education with the lowest entry standards.  Of the whole pool of available teachers, they are probably among those who read and write least well.  Is it any wonder that their students are having trouble reading and writing themselves?

When your district is able to get the highly skilled teachers it needs, the suburban districts steal them from you.  Your principals tell you that your dreams about getting capable teachers are just that: dreams.  Many of them report that they are using substitute teachers with emergency credentials halfway into the school year because they cannot find any certified teachers at all to fill their classrooms.  The idea that they should hold out for teachers who are excellent readers and writers is, they say, laughable.  Get real.

You ask yourself what it would take to turn this around.  You say to yourself, start at the beginning, or rather, the end.  What would it take to graduate students who are good writers and who are reading at the 11th-grade level?  You are a reasonably good writer and have taught others to write.  You know what it takes.  The most popular method is to share a formula with the students and tell them to write to it.  It is better than nothing, but not much better.  When you teach people to write, you ask them to write a couple of pages.  When they are done, you point to a paragraph and ask them what they were trying to say.  They tell you.  Then you ask them to read what they wrote and tell you whether that is what the text says.  They are usually crestfallen.  You ask them to tell you again what they were trying to say.  Then you say, why don’t you write that down? When they have done this for a while, you start asking them to read several paragraphs in sequence, slowly.  You ask them to tell you whether each point really leads to the next.  They usually see that it does not.  Then you ask them to tell you what the logic is underneath their text.  You keep asking questions until they produce a logic that stands up to those questions.  You do this over and over again, helping them go from simple text to much more complex text.  This is not hard but it is very time consuming and therefore expensive and it has to be done by someone who is themself a good writer.  It is called apprenticeship.  This method has been around for millennia.

But there is more to it than that.  Every good writer you see is also a good reader.  Our spoken vocabulary is much smaller than our written vocabulary.  So you don’t get your vocabulary from speaking; you get it from reading.  And that requires access to books and parents who expect their children to read.  But, even then, it is very hard to build up a good reading vocabulary unless you have a lot of experience of the world.

The students in your district typically grow up in families with very limited vocabularies, in homes in which the language that is spoken is full of grammatical errors.  They have few if any books at home.  Their friends also have limited vocabularies, limited experiences and few books.  When they get to school, at the beginning of first grade, their teachers are using school books full of words that mean nothing to them.  As first grade goes on, there are more and more of those words and they fall further and further behind, until by the end of fourth grade, they understand very little.

If these are the problems your district faces, are there any solutions, short of ending the racial and social class isolation that has produced these appalling conditions?  Is there any way to get the vast majority of your students reading at the 11th grade level and writing pretty well by the time they leave high school?

Well, to begin with, you are going to need teachers in every classroom who are well read and can write well, and that probably means that they have graduated from some of the best universities in the state.  That is an enormous challenge all by itself.  Then, even if their teachers can write well, they need much more time to do it than is available to your teachers.  The apprenticeship method is out of the question for teachers carrying the typical course load.  It might be possible if the community were mobilized, but this would not work either unless the adult volunteers themselves were good writers—something not very easy to pull off in a community suffering from terrible social class and racial isolation.

To get to your goal, the students would have to make one year of progress for every year in school, in both reading and writing.  All the textbooks would have to be replaced and much of the other materials as well.  The teachers of all the subjects would have to become reading teachers and most teachers in most subjects would have to assign writing and would have to provide extensive comments on that writing.

But none of this deals with the students’ lack of experience of the world, the reason their vocabularies are so limited.  The whole curriculum would have to be revised and the community mobilized to take students to museums and parks, concerts and workplaces.  Even then, of course, they would still not have the wide range of experiences that suburban children typically have.  But it would be a start.

Why do this thought experiment?  Because teaching students to read and write is the most basic, the most irreducible, of our schools’ responsibilities.  When school districts award high school diplomas to students who are functionally illiterate, they are defaulting on their core function. In last week’s blog, I pointed out that the 1966 Coleman Report on Equality of Educational Opportunity showed half a century ago that by far the most important determinants of educational achievement are the socio-economic status and educational attainment of students’ parents and fellow students. If that is true—and half a century of scholarship says it is—then the students we have isolated in many of our cities—and elsewhere as well—simply don’t have a chance. In states with constitutions that require the state to provide a thorough and efficient education to all students, such a situation ought to be declared unconstitutional.