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Black Boys in Crisis: They Aren't Reading

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Literacy is the basic building block for the rest of an academic career and the lifetime that follows it. Research shows that kids who come from homes where reading was a priority, and they were read to by their parents, perform better academically throughout their lives. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Kindergarten students who are read frequently to at home are more likely to count to 20, write their own names, and read (or pretend to read).

Only 53 percent of children ages 3 to 5 are read to every day by a family member, though, and that number drops for families with incomes below the poverty line. The importance of parental influence in reading extends beyond the youngest grades. The U.S. Department of Education reports that fourth-grade classrooms with low parental involvement have students with average reading scores that are 46 points below the national average.

Reading isn't important just for its own sake, however. Literacy is the foundation for all other learning endeavors. The Educational Testing Services reports that students who read more in their homes perform better on math assessments. The connection between reading in early childhood and its impact on future years is clear. Since parents, grandparents, and siblings are the default role models most of the time during that vital 0 to 5 age group, the responsibility to instill early literacy falls on families.

That's a problem for black boys. Only 10 percent of eighth-grade black boys in the U.S. are proficient in reading. In urban areas like Chicago and Detroit, that number is even lower. By contrast, the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress found that 46 percent of white students are adequate readers by eighth grade, and 17 percent of black students as a whole are too.

The achievement gap between the two races is startling, but the difference between the NAEP report on black students as a whole and the stats on black boys alone is troubling too. This is where that important dissection between at-risk groups needs to take place. It is not simply black children in general who appear to be failing in the basics, like literacy; it is the boys.

Where does that disconnect arise? Hypothesizing from the NAEP data, a brother and sister from the same household could have vastly different literacy levels, even if they come from the same environment and are read to the same amount of time (even if that amount of time is none). That difference - that gap in literacy achievement - shouldn't fall on parents. That's the fault of our schools. Literacy learning is tailored to girls. So how do we adapt it to better reach our boys - particularly our young men of color?

Reading is only one piece of the school puzzle, of course, but it is a foundational one. If the eighth graders in our schools cannot read, how will they ever learn other subjects and make it to a college education (or, in reality, to a high school diploma)? Reading scores tell us so much more than the confines of their statistics and I believe these numbers are one of the major keys to understanding the plight of young black men in our society as a whole.

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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