Why Literacy? Why Now?

Written by Amber Gustafson – Policy & Digital Engagement Consultant, 313Reads

It was an historic moment: In 2016, multiple families sued the state of Michigan over their access to a literacy education in the city of Detroit, and in 2020, a court agreed that they were in the right. All children have a right to a basic level of education, including and perhaps most importantly, the right to learn to read.

In the 2 years since the closing of this case, and the allocation of over $2.7 million to support literacy efforts in Detroit, where are we now? We have endured school closings and other systemic barriers due to a global pandemic, there is a disproportionate exodus of Black and Latinx teachers from the classroom amidst a larger educator shortage, and a new Michigan education budget severely lacking in funds that most districts need to combat these issues and more. The odds are stacked against us. But the fight for educational equity has never been easy.

This fight is a personal one. I joined Teach for America in 2016, the same year that Detroit’s Right to Read lawsuit started. I had no idea how much better I would understand Jamarria Hall and other plaintiffs in the case when I began my teaching career in Memphis, Tennessee. My first year, I taught multiple high school subjects, including a targeted intervention literacy course aimed at students who tested more than two years below their grade level in reading. I was not given access to formal professional development training that would have helped me better understand this content, like the basics of the science of reading. I was told to perfectly implement a scripted curriculum (meaning everything I said and did each day was planned for me), but I was not well supported in learning and understanding it. Meanwhile, I had 9th and 10th graders in my classrooms who, for a variety of reasons both inside and outside of school, were regularly testing between 3rd and 5th grade in their reading levels. I was expected to catch them up to a 9th grade reading level in one year.

I only taught the literacy intervention course for that one school year. Still, I remained an English teacher: moving on to teaching 12th grade English and then moving into ES/OL (or English as a second or other language instruction). I got better at understanding and developing my own curriculum and I learned what strategies worked for my students. But the access to high-quality professional development that I so desperately needed never came.

After five years of teaching, and seeing the disastrous effects of COVID-19 on the educational system, I decided to return to school in my home state and devote my attention to a wider impact than just my classroom. I saw the need for larger scale changes to be made to education and policy and knew that I wanted to focus my personal efforts on the broader struggle for educational equity. This is when I started the Michigan Education Policy Fellowship with 313Reads.

313Reads is Detroit’s chapter of the National Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a collective impact coalition designed to address the many systemic barriers students like Jamarria Hall face in receiving a literacy education. In 2021, students in Detroit have around 10% reading proficiency in third grade. That means that about 90% of students in Detroit are at higher risk of many negative outcomes in academic success, high school graduation, career success, financial stability, incarceration, health outcomes, and overall life expectancy. Those outcomes are disproportionately linked to Black students, because Detroit’s population is over 77% Black, making Detroit literacy an issue of racial equity.

I sometimes felt powerless in the classroom to provide the literacy education I knew my students deserved, but now I am working with an organization that seeks to remedy the issues we faced. I knew that students who were not reading on grade level had a harder time completing other assignments and getting good grades, and this effect was compounded by the difference between their actual grade level compared to the grade level they were tested on for reading. Now, I am working to provide professional learning opportunities for educators and other professionals to better their practice. I was setting up the pieces for 313Reads to work on Detroit- and Michigan-wide educational policy supporting early literacy, so that eventually children wouldn’t get to the 9th grade and be placed into a literacy intervention course, like my students were.

So, where are we now in 2022, two years after the Right to Read lawsuit decision that literacy is a student’s educational right? I will graduate with my master’s degree in August, and my fellowship with 313Reads wrapped up in June. All the while, the fight continues both in Detroit and in Michigan to improve systemic barriers like teacher training and retention, school building maintenance, summer and out of school time programming, community and family literacy, dyslexia screening policies in schools, and many other avenues. I’m not sure of my next steps, but I am excited to keep working alongside communities to realize educational equity. Continue following the 313Reads Policy Blog Series to see how you can become involved with this fight.