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Literacy Is A Constitutional Right, Let’s Now Treat It As Such

“We recognize that the Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education.”

So ruled the United States Court of Appeals on a case brought by Detroit parents against the State of Michigan, arguing that the condition of the public schools were such that Michigan was denying learners their constitutional right to learn.

Two years ago, a federal judge hearing the case ruled, “does the Due Process Clause demand that a State affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy? The answer to this is no.”

In essence, that judge declared that, while a student in the wealthy Bloomfield Hills, Michigan community would of course be taught to read, a student being taught in Detroit had no similar guarantee. Or to simplify more, the initial court decision declared that family income, race, and zip code did indeed determine whether one received an effective public education, and that was OK.

Fortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals saw differently, and ruled in favor of the families and the learners. While the April 2020 ruling was extremely narrow – and limited to literacy – it is an important step forward for school improvement and school equity. Even more important, the Court ruled that classroom conditions were a driving factor of this inequity, acknowledging the families’ concerns about “missing or unqualified teachers.”

A meaningful education for all begins with literacy skills and world-class teachers who can teach virtually all learners how to be confident, successful readers. When our fourth graders – in Detroit or anywhere in the nation – can’t read at grade level, it is near impossible for them to learn content when they hit middle and high school. When they graduate high school functionally illiterate in this digital, information age, it is near impossible for them to get a good job or to truly participate in the great American citizenry. When we fail to teach our young people to read, we are literally denying them their rightful pace in our democratic society.

To meet our obligations – both legally and morally – to all of our learners, school districts like Detroit must step forward and do what is right and what is scientifically proven. For two decades now, since the release of the groundbreaking National Reading Panel report, we are clear on how best to teach reading and we are even clearer on what school districts need to do to ensure that best practice is embodied in the classrooms. 

If our schools are to get every child reading, they must:

  • Require each school to implement a comprehensive reading program grounded in scientifically based research, with careful alignment of materials, tests, and texts that are geared to students’ learning needs;
  • Ensure that certification and licensure requirements of teachers reflect knowledge of, and ability to use, scientifically based reading instruction techniques in the classroom;
  • Establish high-quality pre-service and in-service staff development that focuses on the application of scientific, research-based concepts of teaching literacy;
  • Provide for adequate and uninterrupted classroom time for reading instruction to enable every student to reach grade-level performance standards;
  • Establish a system to regularly evaluate student progress, using valid and reliable instructional assessments, throughout the school year;
  • Use data from classroom assessments to determine where help is needed at student, classroom, school, and district levels; and
  • Require that, before determining that children require special education services for a learning disability, mechanisms are established to determine if the student receiving appropriate literacy instruction in the regular classroom.

During the George W. Bush Administration, then-Education Secretary Rod Paige declared that closing the achievement gap in our nation was the greatest civil rights issue of our time. A decade later, Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary, used similar rhetoric. As of April 2020, those words are now backed by law, at least when it comes to literacy instruction as a right protected by the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Those who have fought in the Reading Wars, those engaged in education reform battles, those who are championing equity and equality in public education know, however, that talk is cheap. Even the strongest of laws or court decisions can be delayed, waited out, or ignored until the winds change. Defenders of the status quo can demand we wait until state legislatures can find the necessary funds, until colleges of education catch up to the needs, or now until we navigate through coronavirus education and its aftermath. With each of these waits, another generation of learners loses out on the quality public education they both demand and deserve.

We have long had an obligation to the learners in Detroit and to similar learners in communities urban, rural, and suburban across the nation. The court has now decreed we have to honor that obligation. What is expected of us is fairly simple.

Literacy is an educational right. Every learner needs to be reading at grade level by fourth grade. The science is clear on how to best teach young children to read. Our educators and the teacher education programs that prepare them must adapt and transform to embrace both these obligations and the science on effective instruction.

What Do You Think?
Patrick Riccards
Patrick Riccards is the executive director of Best in the World Teachers. Patrick previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as director of the federal Partnership for Reading Collaborative. He is the author of Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education.

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