Madison must address its crisis of illiteracy

Laurie Frost:

I am grieving the death of Toni Morrison.

I admired Morrison deeply because she had the courage to speak truth with unflinching clarity, and because she did so with a magnificent lyricism.

In the wake of Morrison’s passing, I have been feeling doubly sad because I know the vast majority of our black students in Madison will never read anything Morrison wrote. Why? Because they cannot read at the level required to enter the hallowed space of her work.

But the situation has improved for our black students, you say.

No, it hasn’t, I reply.

And because everyone claims to be data driven these days, let me offer up the cold, hard numbers.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, only 10% to 15% of our black fourth-graders in Madison are reading proficiently. (Note: Fourth grade is a pivotal year, when “learning to read” becomes “reading to learn.”) That means 85% to 90% of them are not. The situation has not changed for a very long time.

Unbelievably, things do not improve as our black fourth-graders move from grade to grade. As a cohort of Madison students moves from elementary through high school, it continues to be the case that no more than 15% of the black students in the cohort are reading proficiently. That means no fewer than 85% of them still are not.

The illiteracy of Madison’s black students is a longstanding crisis. It is time to make it our highest priority.

Literacy is a fundamental responsibility of public education. It is the key that opens the door to the wider world of opportunity, possibility and change. Literacy is a prerequisite for active and informed participation in our increasingly fragile democracy. It is the single most personally and politically empowering tool on the planet.

Let me be clear: The problem is not that our black children cannot learn how to read. The problem is our failure to teach them how to read, exacerbated by our complacency around that failure.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to go to school every day not knowing how to read. I question the value of a high school diploma in the absence of basic academic skills, such as literacy. I do not understand how our black children can be expected to feel “excellent” when they cannot read. I am baffled and outraged by the absence of honest public conversation about the unconscionably low literacy rate of our black students.

There is a long, inglorious history of the powerful withholding literacy from the powerless, which is why some people argue that our ongoing failure to teach our black students how to read is the new Jim Crow.

Agree or disagree about how to explain it. Can we at least agree that whatever we’ve been doing for so many years hasn’t worked, and that it’s long past time for us to figure out what will?

In blessed memory of Toni Morrison, let us join our hands and hearts together and finally teach our black children how to read.


Madison has long tolerated disastrous reading results, despite spending far more than most taxpayer supported K-12 School Districts.

Compare Madison, WI high school graduation rates and academic achievement data.

The Madison School District’s “Strategic Framework”.

2005: When all third graders read at grade level or beyond by the end of the year, the achievement gap will be closed…and not before:

On November 7, Superintendent Art Rainwater made his annual report to the Board of Education on progress toward meeting the district’s student achievement goal in reading. As he did last fall, the superintendent made some interesting claims about the district’s success in closing the academic achievement gap “based on race”.

According to Mr. Rainwater, the place to look for evidence of a closing achievement gap is the comparison of the percentage of African American third graders who score at the lowest level of performance on statewide tests and the percentage of other racial groups scoring at that level. He says that, after accounting for income differences, there is no gap associated with race at the lowest level of achievement in reading. He made the same claim last year, telling the Wisconsin State Journal on September 24, 2004, “for those kids for whom an ability to read would prevent them from being successful, we’ve reduced that percentage very substantially, and basically, for all practical purposes, closed the gap”. Last Monday, he stated that the gap between percentages scoring at the lowest level “is the original gap” that the board set out to close.

Unfortunately, that is not the achievement gap that the board aimed to close.

2006: “They’re all Rich White Kids, and they’ll do just fine, NOT!”

2013: What will be different, this time?

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, lead by Governor Elect, Tony Evers, has waived Massachusetts’ style elementary teacher content knowledge requirements for thousands of teachers.

Stretch Targets: