Saturday, April 1, 2023

Literacy: The Forgotten Social Justice Issue

My grandfather was in his late 30s when he first learned to read and later went on to complete his GED at the age of 42. With his formal education ending around age nine so he could start working, and during a time when if caught reading he would be attacked, threatened, or possibly murdered for daring to be a Black man reading in the Jim Crow south, he took the risk and taught himself to read using the bible. 

I tell this story not to celebrate the strength of my family, but to paint a picture of how woefully detached the debate over basic literacy is from the desires of families. Just two generations ago people risked their lives to be able to read and here we are today watching the educational establishment—through its degradation of standardised assessments, emphasis on the individual over the collective whole, and dismissal of science—risk the subjugation of an entire people to second class citizenship. It is frightening and marks the gravest miscarriage of justice we have seen this side of educational history. An entire generation of children is not being taught to read. 

No Expectations, No Problem

In 2017, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that sixty percent of children nationwide are not reading proficiently. If we look to the disaggregated data by race, it becomes even more stark. Though these levels of proficiency have not improved in the last 30 years, we’ve been made to believe that tests don’t matter. That tests are racist and cannot accurately measure what our students know. We can call tests racist (the people making them might be), and  inaccurate measures of achievement (they actually measure general knowledge), but overall, what has this amounted to? A lowering of expectations across the board. 

A school can earn a designation of *high-performing with just 60% of its students on grade level. This means that 40% of the school is not reading and comprehending texts proficiently. Which 40% of our children don’t deserve to read? 

A public school in my neighborhood has approximately 34%  of students meeting or exceeding standards in reading, yet is categorized as “changing the odds” for African-American students. 70% of Black children in this school are still struggling to read, but this is the best choice that parents have for instruction in the area. 

We cannot place our individual notions of what progress and performance looks like on a community that we do not know. Before deciding for our students that tests don’t matter, a proclamation that comes from the privilege of never having had to worry about the implications of tests on our lives, in all things, we must partner with parents and ask: Do they care that their child isn’t reading on grade level? Do they care that faulty theories are being used in their child’s classroom? 

For the families that I’ve worked with during my short time in education thus far, the answer is a resounding “yes”.

How We Read is Settled Science: Let’s Use It

The National Reading Panel was convened by Congress in 1999 to determine the most effective method of teaching children to read. The panel, comprised of 14 reading experts, reviewed more than 100,000 studies on how children learn to read and concluded that students need explicit instruction in “The Big 5” of reading,  phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, and that teacher education programs needed to train teachers in these methods. 

Despite the overwhelming evidence published by the panel,  less than 40% of elementary education programs nationwide have adopted the teaching of all five components of reading in their methods courses since then, and as a result, millions of children are still being taught to read with a flawed theory of reading. Schools have been allowed to fail our children without consequence, and more money for schools won’t solve the literacy crisis when the fundamental issue is that we aren’t being prepared to do our jobs. We must raise our bar. We can no longer be complacent and accept mediocrity as evidence of change. We must be the ones to demand evidence in our classrooms.

So, while the traditional model of social justice educator has become a rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” with a performative poster in a classroom, I take a different lens. I am a social justice educator with roots in the history of my grandparents, in the history of my community who has been failed by shoddy science in the name of a “progressive” education. Yes, Black lives matter. But in the context of schools, as educators, as people who claim that their life’s work is for Black, brown, and disenfranchised children, we can not fully proclaim that Black Lives Matter until Black literacy does.  

Black lives matter in schools when Black grades, scores, and academic outcomes do. 

*I compared data of high-performing schools from Minneapolis School Finder to the Minnesota Report Card. Many of the high-performing schools had a reading proficiency of 50-60%. 

Jasmine Lane
Jasmine Lane is an early career English teacher from north Minneapolis. She's worked in various roles in education from literacy-based after-school programs with the YMCA, to working as a paraprofessional in a charter school, to her current role as a KS3 coordinator for English in a London school.  She has a master’s degree in education, is licensed to teach 5-12 English Language Arts, and is an advocate for phonics, knowledge, and evidence-informed teaching practices. She blogs at


  1. The soft bigotry of low expectations ! (my apologies to the author as I have forgotten who put these few words into such a powerful and meaningful phrase). I have seen this applied to different cohorts in Oz – our indigenous, our students with disabilities, our low SES students, etc.
    I shudder every time I hear these words – we can’t expect as much from them! It breaks my heart to acknowledge that these misguided beliefs underpin the teaching practice of the status quo in some Oz schools.

  2. Thank you for this and in particular for calling out how the dismissal of testing results in lowered expectations. I am shocked by the failure of my district leaders to face this problem with the equity lens it deserves. Ensuring literacy is their most basic job, and yet it gets little attention in my large, urban district.

  3. Dear Jasmine Lane–

    You may the only person I’ve tried to share all of my work with who knows that literacy is the answer.

    I am reaching out to you as you may be able to share this piece with anyone in the education field and with those who are so deeply affected by the racial divides and disparities currently dismantling our country, and with anyone else you deem potential audience for such ideas.

    Some back ground here:

    40% of the adult population in the US today is completely illiterate (15%) or functionally illiterate (25%), not being able to read above a 3rd grade level.

    The current population of the US as of August 20th, 2020 is 331,293,410.

    49,650,396 (approximately) are completely illiterate.

    82,750,662 (approximately) are functionally illiterate.

    These approximate numbers are real.
    The fields directly impacted by these horrific numbers are:
    Discrimination, housing, crime, unemployment, drug addiction, incarceration, brutality, inequality, welfare, education, promotion, political power, Malnutrition, homelessness, social inequity, etc. etc. etc.

    Our Federal government currently spends over 300 billion dollars annually trying (and failing) to clean up the societal messes caused by illiteracy.

    For my background:
    My name is Tom Gilbert. I live in Lakewood, Ohio. I’ve spent the better part of the last 51 years in the field of intellectual disabilities and the last 29 years developing a program for teaching full literacy skills to those within this population (aspergers, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, dyslexia, traumatic brain injury, ADD, ADHD, etc.). I’ve tutored over 50 individuals from northern Ohio long term (years) one-on-one in one hour weekly sessions in a cooperative learning style taking many from beginning emergent literacy skills to independent reading. I’ve logged now more than 10,000 hours in the process.

    Dr. Monica Gordon Pershey (Asst. Professor speech and hearing dept. Cleveland State University) and I have spoken all over the United States and in Canada at various academic conferences over the last 25 years and have also been published in academic journals regarding the means for acquiring literacy skills.

    Although all of my students have progressed in their learning at tremendously different and varying speeds, they have all (without exception) learned following the exact same developmental progression; and considering the extremely eclectic mix of diagnostic variability amongst all of my students, I must conclude that I’ve actually discovered how literacy is in fact acquired.

    As stated above, the USA currently spends over 300 billion dollars annually attempting (and failing) to clean up the societal messes caused by illiteracy: through incarcerating criminals (60-80% of all prisoners in city, county, state, and federal prisons are illiterate or functionally illiterate [and quite likely are in prison as a direct or indirect result of the illiteracy]), welfare rolls (Housing, unemployment compensation, food stamps) utility payment support (PIPP and HEAP), hospitalizations, health insurance, decreased federal and state tax accumulations due to chronic unemployment and unemployability, homelessness, elevated school drop out statistics, juvenile delinquency, high teen pregnancies, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, etc.

    Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams [I spoke with her last Fall regarding this], the world’s leading authority (most probably) on literacy and illiteracy (author of the seminal text, “Beginning to Read”), did a massive meta-analytic study of American schools and adult educational programs in the 1990s and determined through statistical analysis that less than one minute per day per student per classroom in all educational settings is actually devoted to oral reading. This fact, together with teacher/student ratios between 1-25 and 1-30 per typical classroom, resulting in a rampant inability to spend the necessary one-on-one time with students, actually implies that real literacy acquisition rarely takes place in schools, and hardly ever has, but is acquired in homes where parents and grandparents spend quality one-on-one time teaching children how to read. Schools then provide the ancillary learning after literacy is acquired.

    The students from poverty stricken under-privileged homes who eventually fall within the national 40% becoming illiterate or functionally illiterate rarely acquire literacy within their homes, when most of the adults are working 2 and 3 jobs to support the household; and the impoverished homes are completely devoid of books and toys as literacy artifacts. Parents within these homes expect schools to help their children acquire literacy when this expectation simply rarely happens. These are the collective reasons for there being a massive 40% number of adults in this country who are and remain illiterate, as no one ever has provided them with the necessary one-on-one tutoring to become literate.

    My own work and research have proven that the only necessary prerequisite for learning how to read is the capacity for carrying on a give and take two way conversation with another, which is at about a 3.0-3.5 mental age (M.A).

    If the federal government were to initiate and spend far less than the 300 billion it is currently spending to clean up the societal messes caused by illiteracy and begin a nationwide program of paying literacy tutors to help in the schools, the adult Ed programs, and the prisons (etc) to tutor one-on-one those who are most vulnerable and most at risk, illiteracy could be erased in a generation; for if one can read, one can tutor, in much the same way, as if one has a license to drive one can then teach another who is learning how to drive. A national literacy program using the current Bureau of Motor Vehicles model (where those with valid drivers licenses are legally allowed to teach others with valid learners permits) could be replicated where those who wish to tutor, and earn money doing so, could be accredited as qualified tutors by demonstrating their capacity at reading and then work one-on-one with those most vulnerable in the schools, in the adult Ed programs, and in the prisons. Policemen and pro football players (and basketball players, as well as baseball and hockey players, etc.) could, under such a program, join the ranks of literacy tutors working together to help alleviate the rampant illiteracy by each tutor reading with one student for one hour a week, every week, and by so doing bring in other volunteers wishing to help out.

    In the middle 1990s I came up with an idea for a children’s learning toy Children’s Learning Toy, January 23, 2001, for patent U.S. # 6,176,704 B1, that would help with visual discrimination skills for the discernment of differences and similarities in letter and word formation so necessary for emergent literacy skill acquisition. I built the prototype and had the device patented (I was unable to afford the expense that was required for financial upkeep to hold onto the patent so the device has gone “public” whereby anyone now can manufacturer the toy). I would still like the device manufactured and sold everywhere as it is a marvelous device as a supplementary tool in helping with reading acquisition.

    Also, as I have had a very difficult time trying to recruit others to do what I do with tutoring, I have developed a theoretical algorithm for a computerized APP to be used for phones, tablets, laptops, and computers that would be a speech recognition interactive APP that completely replicates my process of tutoring. I would very much so like that APP to be developed (as the technology today is available) to be made for anyone’s use anywhere and everywhere. Considering this current pandemic, having an APP produced would by-pass the one-on-one tutoring necessary for learning how to read and all those at home could learn to read in private.

    I also now have a web site up and running which has most of my work, history, discoveries, theories, methods, and curriculum materials that are all 100% FREE to use and share and download:

    If curious about my work, discoveries, history, methods, and curriculum materials, please do not hesitate to call or email. I am literally available 24-7 to help out with any questions, comments, suggestions, and/or criticisms of the work and process.
    With your connections, sharing all this with the NFL and other business leaders (or anyone else nationally) is an open option for you, if you so choose.

    Illiteracy is the highest statistical variable in correlation with both poverty and unemployment. If illiteracy is not dealt with and eliminated, the fire effects of illiteracy will continue unabated and the social discord will remain. Illiteracy may be the largest elephant in the room that all are ignoring.

    Thank you ever so much for the work you do and for taking the time to read all of this.

    Tom Gilbert
    1436 Elmwood Ave.
    Lakewood, Ohio 44107
    [email protected]
    [email protected]
    Specialty Services Coordinator
    NCC Solutions, Inc.
    12627 York Road
    North Royalton, Ohio 44133
    440-582-3300 ext. 424

    PS — If you are wondering if my working with individuals with intellectual disabilities could possibly translate to working with individuals with “normal” or “above normal” intelligence, please read the following:
    After I received a patent for a children’s learning toy back in 2001 (January 23, 2001, for patent U.S. # 6,176,704 B1), I tried to make contact with many and various toy companies and discovered that all toy companies deliberately hire “in-house” inventors that are paid regular salaries for coming up with newly invented marketable toys, and the companies own the patents, thereby bypassing any patent holder fees for the individual inventors.

    With this in mind, I made contact with The Cleveland Foundation and expressed an interest in trying to make contact in any way I could with toy companies and they directed me to a special branch of the Cleveland Foundation called the Civic Innovation Lab. I applied for consideration by their team (application attached in full) and was accepted, after three intense and lengthy interview sessions.

    Over the next several months I and two others from the Lab discussed how we could possibly go about marketing the toy, or getting toy companies to look at the toy, or get civic and business leaders and/or philanthropists involved in education to look at the toy, etc. After many failed attempts at this, our discussion centered on my being able to see what other types of similar toys had been marketed and where they had been successfully marketed. I made the observation that my toy seemed to be quite typical of the types of toys made for and used by Montessori schools.

    I was asked by the Lab personnel to then investigate the Montessori school systems and find out how to best describe my toy so that it might be eligible for consideration by toy companies.

    I went to the Library and got out several biographies on Dr. Maria Montessori and began to read. The following is what I discovered:
    Dr. Maria Montessori was the first female in Italy ever awarded an MD degree. She was pretty much hounded (hazed, continuously) by the Medical establishment and her male peers for ever wanting to attain, or for pursuing, a degree in Medicine. Undaunted she graduated at the top of her class in Medical school. However, after she had graduated with her degree, no hospital of clinic would ever employ her as she had broken a cardinal and sacred code. Therefore, her first and only patients that she was ever granted were a barn (with a dirt floor) full of handicapped individuals as her patients. Taking full advantage of this unusual opportunity, she fed them, bathed them, clothed them, taught them, and medically provided for all of them with interventions she could devise for their benefit.

    After 20+ years of working with them she had compiled a complete curriculum on how and with what they could be taught to get to become more civilized, trained, and successful with daily living skills, as well as being provided with academics.

    She then went on an extensive international lecturing tour over the next several years in Europe and America to initiate help for individuals who are multi-handicapped.

    Though her messages and techniques were praised and extremely well received in her sold-out lectures, no one other than herself was ever willing to attempt teaching individuals labeled developmentally disabled with the techniques that she espoused.
    But some educators realized the power of her work and decided to initiate the building of Montessori schools everywhere, named after her, but for individuals who were of “normal” or above normal intelligence. Today there are innumerable Montessori schools in every state in the country and in most countries in the world.

    However, being the curious teacher that I am I decided to call up every Montessori school in the state of Ohio and inquire respectfully whether or not any of these schools allowed in any individuals who were developmentally disabled and/or multi-handicapped to attend. I discovered that not a single school in Ohio did or does so. As a matter of fact parents wishing their children to attend these very privileged schools have to fill out a voluminous admission packet, while their children must be tested to see whether or not they meet the very competitive admission requirements, and then get on a lengthy waiting list to be considered for acceptance.

    I hardly was able to pick my jaw up off of the floor with all of this very startling information. I quit working with the Civic Innovation Lab as they were not able to help me gain admission into the closed shops of the toy companies. I am still pushing for greater awareness of what I have discovered regarding literacy and am still trying to get my invention marketed though I no longer own the patent as it has gone “public” which means that anyone can now make it anywhere.

    So, how does my work with folks who are clearly intellectually and developmentally challenged possibly translate and carry over and work with folks who are neuro-typical (of normal or above normal intelligence?
    Simple, although Dr. Maria Montessori spent over 20 years in a barn with a dirt floor working with her state-designated patients, a diverse collection of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, 100% of her methods, procedures, educational tools, models, and philosophies, etc. were formulated and developed by working with these individuals with profound handicaps and disabilities. Here is a listing of a few accomplished individuals who have graduated from Montessori school systems that have all used the incorporated methods, procedures, educational tools, models, and philosophies, etc. created by Dr. Maria Montessori:

    * Bell, Joshua GRAMMY award winning violinist
    * Bezos, Jeff Founder of
    * Blaine, David magician
    * Brazelton, T Berry Pediatrician author, Harvard Medical school emeritus
    * Brin, Sergey Founder of Google
    * Child, Julia First TV chef
    * Clinton, Chelsea, daughter of Bill and Hillary
    * Combs, Sean famous rapper
    * Curry, Seth NBA Player
    * Curry, Stephen, NBA player
    * Doerr, Anthony author, Pulitzer Prize recipient
    * Drucker, Peter, Author, awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
    * Erickson, Erik psychologist and author
    * Fanning, Dakota Academy award nominated actress
    * Frank, Anne famous child diarist from WW2
    * Gilbert, Melissa Actress
    * Gilbert, Sarah Actress
    * Graham, Katherine Pulitzer Prize winning author
    * Hunt, Helen Academy award winning actress
    * Keller, Helen Political activist, author, lecturer
    * Ma, Yo Yo, 15 GRAMMY awards, cellist
    * Marquez, Gabriel Garcia Nobel Prize-winning novelist
    * Noor, Her Majesty Queen of Jordan
    * Page, Larry Founder of Google
    * Prince George of Cambridge
    * Saylor, Morgan actor
    * Smith, Will Jr, Maryland Sate Senator
    * Sridnar, Devi Rhodes Scholar
    * Swift, Taylor GRAMMY award winner
    * Wales, Founder Wikipedia
    * Webber, Andrew Lloyd, Composer
    * Wright, Will video game designer
    * Zuckerberg, Mark Founder of Facebook

    Our current educational systems, nationally, have used the same theoretical models of learning transmission, seemingly forever, and have continuously produced an astonishing 40% of graduating seniors who remain illiterate or functionally illiterate.

  4. I’ve been trying to share my work, research, methods, theories, and curriculum materials FREELY for years and have had incredibly low reaction and response from politicians, civic leaders, academics, celebrities, etc., but it is phenomenally difficult to change directions in national literacy acquisition policy, even when all current and historical efforts currently result in 40% of our adult population consistently remaining completely illiterate (15%), or functionally illiterate (25%), not being able to read above a 3rd grade level. Although it is erroneously attributed to Einstein (he never said it), it does apply here: “Insanity, doing the same thing over and over and over again, and expecting different results.” Maybe a new direction in literacy acquisition process needs to be considered.


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