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Literacy: A National Priority

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May 10, 2011 08:15 pm

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When I first moved to DC, I began tutoring and mentoring a young middle school student named Darius. To get a better sense for me, Darius’ mother invited me over for dinner one evening.  She cooked fried chicken, wild rice, buttermilk biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans.  It was an excellent meal, one that reminded me of home. But as dinner concluded, I couldn’t help but inquire about Darius’ infant sister crying in the corner of the apartment.  Her mother, Brenda, said the little girl suffered from an ear infection, but the doctor rushed the family out of the office with eardrops and antibiotics, noting the directions on the bottle.  The doctor prescribed the child with a certain dosage of both medications, but both Brenda and Darius found the instructions confusing – which led to them improperly medicating the 8-month old child. Though the baby ended up fully recovering, the situation could have been easily avoided.

I write this to say that literacy matters. Yet too many young and old people, especially African Americans, lack the skills necessary to read at grade level. In fact, only 14 percent of African American eighth graders score at or above proficiency according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress . To localize this information, 47 percent of the adult population in Detroit, MI is considered to be, “functionally illiterate,” according to the National Institute for Literacy. Roughly 50 percent of the Motor City cannot properly fill out a job application, critically read a newspaper, or accurately interpret text on a medicine bottle. Essentially, we have students and adults alike sleepwalking their way through life because they are illiterate.

The U.S. school system is primarily to blame for this. Ultimately, students with low literacy scores drop out, and these students, those who cannot read and write, cripple the economy and jeopardize the health of this great nation.  America’s dropouts cost its country $337 billion last year, according to an analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education. Of the students who do endure 4 years of high school, many of them lack the skills necessary to excel at the next level – whether that is college or a career. Hiring managers indicate they are dissatisfied with high school graduates’ ability to read and understand complicated materials, think analytically, and solve real-world problems.  In fact, the National Commission on Writing estimates that the private industry spends $3.1 billion annually to bolster literacy skills of entry-level workers.

No one wants to hire an employee who cannot read or write instructions. Businesses do not function that way. They need ambitious young people ready to decipher complex text and offer input to enhance production and efficiency.  In an age where the economy, educational achievement, and employment are so intertwined to a person’s ability to be “productively literate,” our national priority must be comprehensively and systemically focused on student literacy.

Fortunately, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced a bill, the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, that will bring an appropriate federal focus on literacy. The bill would provide federal support for literacy programs in partnerships with states and local school districts, enhance the role of states in improving strategic K-12 literacy instruction, and support the creation of high-quality literacy programs. Murray’s leadership on literacy has been vital and our country’s children will benefit from her initiative.

Our high school graduates should walk away from the secondary school system with tangible real life skills such as how to read critically, persuade an audience, problem solve, and lead. But a student who cannot read is a student who cannot succeed at any of those. At an even more basic level, a person who cannot read is a person who puts his or her life and other’s, such as a 8 month year old baby girl’s, at-risk.  Literacy must be a priority for the nation. Lives depend on it.

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