Illiteracy threatens to doom a generation of children to a bleak future



There has been a decline in the reading skills of American schoolchildren for decades – and this impairment is not confined to children alone. Only 48 percent of adults in America are proficient readers.

As the devastating impact of COVID begins to diminish, this serious educational gap is expected to worsen. UNESCO recently reported that American schools were fully or partially closed for 56 weeks, compared to 47 weeks in Canada and only 27 weeks in the UK. Locally, the data are even less encouraging; As of April 30, only 13 percent of public school students in California were in class five days a week.

After:Students struggle to read behind masks and screens during COVID-19, but ‘expectations are no different’

Students who do not achieve reading proficiency in grade three will see their educational trajectory change dramatically. This grade is when the emphasis is on reading to learn, instead of learning to read. But young people entering third grade at age 8 (or 9) face one of the most intimidating times of their lives. These students face physical bullying / cyberbullying, gender discrimination, reduced physical activity, increasing obesity, low self-esteem, and limited counseling, mentoring and tutoring.

Pupils who do not read well by the end of third grade are four times less likely to complete high school: yet another decisive marker – for students and for society. Eighty percent of inmates are high school dropouts. Declining high school graduation rates, coupled with rising dropout rates, little hope for America’s future as we fight against escalating global competition.

Most schools provide computers, laptops and tablets for students. These high-tech electronic devices are equipped with virtual assistants based on artificial intelligence (AI) (Siri, Alexa or Cortana). They respond vocally to students’ questions in real time. Reading is not compulsory. So far, schools have performed poorly in teaching students to read at school level or higher. Perhaps the larger question is: Do administrators, teachers, parents and society still enjoy reading?

What we don’t like tends to disappear; for example, the decline in newspaper circulation, the decrease in participation in community and faith-based organizations, the disappearance of cinemas, shopping malls, reduction in book sales, etc.

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Unfortunately, there is also growing evidence that subjects we once enjoyed being taken out of our schools. Civics-related courses are offered in only 25% of US schools. Art, music and physical education classes are in decline, and many schools have stopped teaching cursive writing altogether. Courses in shopping, home economics, social studies and history have ended or are in decline.

In fact, schools are also reducing the number of days students spend in class. As of May 2019, nearly 560 school districts in 25 states had adopted the four-day week (Israel requires six days a week). Colorado leads the country with four-day weeks in 60% of its districts. Some states only allow 160 days, but most require 180 days (Japan requires 220 days).

Daily teaching time in America can range from 180 minutes per day for kindergarten to 210 minutes for high school students. With such limited time, schools must maximize every hour available to teach classes that produce informed, functional and productive citizens – especially reading fluency. It should come as no surprise that Gallup reports that only a third of high school students feel engaged in their classes.

One argument is to embrace personalized learning using customizable AI with just-in-time, just-enough, just-for-me automatic assessment and correction platforms. However, during the recent rush to reconfigure education, the tech rush has landed somewhere between disappointing and disastrous in most cases.

Most schools use the “factory model,” where large, impersonal classes provide a unique education that often limits individual growth. A better option is the “medical model”, where it is assumed from the outset that learners will need varying support for different durations. But the question remains: is our sprawling education system capable of evolving enough to improve reading skills?

There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the effectiveness of our schools in the months and years to come as we struggle to recover from COVID. But every citizen concerned has the capacity to make a difference, especially parents and grandparents. Books answer questions, but they also create questions, which is the first step in inspiring learning. Every citizen must demand that reading be taught – and valued.

John Britto has taught hospitality management and the culinary arts at community colleges and private institutions in California for over 30 years. He lives in Stockton.


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