Commentary: Solving the Literacy Crisis

by Jonathan Butcher


Learning to read is trending. The most fundamental of K-12 subjects is fueling YouTube videos and feature stories in People magazine and is now the subject of a report from Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Let’s hope the renewed interest spreads, because a shocking proportion of American children cannot read, and the data have profound implications for these children’s futures—and the entire criminal justice system.

Oliver James is the former convict who announced on social media that he taught himself to read as an adult, which sparked media coverage on how learning to read changed his life. As a student, James had been passed along from grade to grade without learning this basic skill.

James took a video of himself in his van saying, “What’s up? I can’t read,” turning him into an internet sensation and attracting the attention of the “Today” show, among others. James has since posted videos of his improvements and making his way through everything from Greek mythology to books on mental illness.

James would find value in Cassidy’s report released this week. Cassidy’s team uses the abysmal reading test scores of fourth and eighth grade students to demonstrate that there is a reading crisis in schools, and it does not take long for the report, titled “Preventing a Lost Generation: Facing a Critical Moment for Students’ Literacy,” to link incarceration and illiteracy.

“Many previously struggling students end up as part of our nation’s institutionalized population,” reads the report, and at a significant cost to taxpayers. Taxpayers spend some $80 billion per year on the corrections system, five times the amount taxpayers spend on education for children in low-income areas.

In fact, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy finds that two-thirds of students who cannot read by the end of fourth grade will be incarcerated later in life or will be living in poverty as adults. Two out of three inmates did not have a high school diploma when they entered prison. Nearly 75% of incarcerated adults are illiterate.

Not learning to read in school creates a chain reaction: Individuals have fewer opportunities in the workforce and become more likely to find themselves incarcerated. Sure enough, 51% of inmates were not employed full time before they were incarcerated, and 1 in 5 was unemployed. Despite the best efforts of education advocates in the justice system, 60% of incarcerated adults do not participate in education programs while they are in prison.

While more research is needed to make causal claims, the overlap between illiteracy and incarceration has been widely studied—which makes data on improved reading scores invaluable to policymakers.

Cassidy’s report is an urgent warning that the data on student illiteracy is effectively data on the next generation of incarcerated adults and the cost to taxpayers of corrections and the justice system. Cassidy’s report cites figures from a National Reading Panel report and estimates the cost to taxpayers of adult illiteracy is $409 billion annually, counting “welfare payments, crime, job incompetence, lost taxes, and remedial education.”

Some state lawmakers have adopted solutions that can serve as a models to improve student literacy rates. Legislators in states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and Florida have adopted provisions that require third graders to demonstrate proficiency in reading before they can advance to the next grade level.

Mississippi is home to the Barksdale Reading Institute, which promotes the “science of reading,” a method that combines phonics instruction, which research demonstrates was a method that should not have been abandoned over the last 50 years, with other techniques to improve instruction. The average score of fourth graders in Mississippi has jumped nine points since 2013, the largest increase in the country over that period, and 19 points since 1992, the second-largest increase in those years. Florida students have seen similar increases.

Lawmakers can easily reach across the aisle on this issue. Creating better readers would benefit all Americans—across racial and economic lines. Working-age black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison than employed, and 1 out of every 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated.

It has great significance, then, that the average reading scores in Florida for black students in fourth grade have increased 22 points as state officials have adopted reforms focused on reading and education choice options such as education savings accounts. Mississippians are watching the same improvements unfold.

Senate committee reports do not often go viral, but the state-based solutions Cassidy’s report contains should inspire teachers and state officials nationwide.

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Jonathan Butcher is the Will Skillman fellow in education at The Heritage Foundation and the author of “Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth” (Post Hill Press/Bombardier Books, 2022).




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