“What good is it to be able to sit at the lunch counter if you can’t read the menu?” -Dr. Howard Fuller
There is something that feels kind of crazy about our state treasurer, Seth Magaziner, pushing for passage of a bill —introduced by Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket and in the House by Representative Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick—to mandate financial literacy classes in our schools when we haven’t even come close to fulfilling our moral obligation to our children around basic literacy. Most Rhode Island children do not read at grade level—and basic literacy is a necessary building block on the road to financial literacy. Before we support a bill that mandates financial literacy, we need to know that our legislators think basic literacy should also be mandatory. And the reason we don’t know that is because most of them are wholly uninformed on the issue and don’t want to talk about it.
But we have to talk about it.
Literacy is highly predictive of social mobility, civic engagement and overall life outcomes—and at the moment, only 33.7% of students in grades 3 through 8 scored proficient or better on the reading portion of the RICAS assessment. And that 33.7% figure hides how dire our literacy situation really is—it doesn’t tell us that only 5.8 students with disabilities scored proficient. Nor does it provide specifics about our urban districts that further illustrate the literacy crisis we must address before we focus on financial literacy.
Here are the percentages of students who can read at grade level in our state’s urban districts:
Central Falls 10%
These are breathtaking numbers, literally. The pathways to empowerment and true freedom do not exist for a person who is not fully literate. So tell me, why aren’t we screaming from the rooftops and creating a hashtag campaign about that?
But wait, there’s more. There is a twelve point gap between girls and boys in reading and writing. Here in RI we hear girls only Governor for a Day contests, and coding and STEAM initiatives for girls but where are the dollars and energy dedicated to addressing this consistent and predictable lag in boys’ literacy? This is hardly a new phenomenon and yet we ignore it. And while less than 20% of our low income children are reading and writing at grade level, our non-low income students still don’t even hit 50% so let’s hold off on any high fives and fist bumps there too.
So I Ask
Where is the legislation to mandate teaching kids to read properly?
Where is the demand that all of our teacher prep programs actually prepare our teachers to teach reading in a scientifically based way?
According to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 2 teacher preparation programs in the state receive a passing grade for how they train teachers to teach reading and the program that trains 70 percent of our teachers is not one of them.
(Note: Rhode Island College disputes these findings but NCTQ has confirmed them. Some of the confusion may emanate from the fact that RIC is currently in the process of redesigning its program but these ratings are accurate based on materials being used in RIC elementary education preparation courses for undergraduates in 2016. Methodology for determining quality of programs can be found here.)
If all the folks in our state—and across the nation— who claim to be committed to social justice are really serious—and genuine—about their calls for equity and dismantling the school to prison pipeline, literacy has to be a top priority. Michael Sainato writes in The Observer that “an often overlooked aspect of mass incarceration and the criminal justice system in the United States is the abhorrent illiteracy rates in prisons throughout the United States.” He reports that “The Literacy Project Foundation found that three out of five people in U.S. prisons can’t read and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have trouble reading” and adds that “other research has estimated that illiteracy rates in prisons are as high as 75 percent of the prison population.”
None of the elected leaders who are cheerleading this financial literacy bill have picked up their pom-poms on behalf of our literacy crisis or the need to dramatically change the way we teach reading. Governor Raimondo has certainly championed her 3rd grade reading initiative but we haven’t seen much change on the ground in terms of instructional practice or screening children for dyslexia. Thankfully (as in thank you Jesus!), our new education commissioner, Angelica Infante Green, came in with her literacy pom-poms in hand and in her first public remarks, talked about science based reading instruction—she cited Orton Gillingham—and spoke truth about how the programs that serve dyslexic children well also serve all kids well. She brings an urgency, at least in her comments, to elementary reading that we desperately need. Let’s just hope that the same folks on the financial literacy bandwagon will acknowledge the much greater importance of basic literacy and find the collective will to finally become informed and take meaningful action for our kids.