When Reading Between the Lines Isn’t Enough

Perhaps the most powerful force in economic mobility, education, has been considered a coveted commodity for years. Opportunities for a better education have impacted immigration, created competitive admissions processes, and catalyzed an exponentially intensifying standard of what we consider to be academically rigorous. With the Internet driving this fast-paced expansion of readily available knowledge, the depth at which concepts can be learned has affected what we view as sufficient. While the United States Constitution ensures no federal rights to an education, all fifty states have adopted measures to their own constitutions requiring the maintenance of public school systems. Thus, education policy, a field that strives to reconcile the variety of definitions for an adequate education, is constantly being workshopped.

While an overwhelming majority of states provide publicly funded pre-K-12 education systems, as of 2016, an NPR report revealed that “Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming have no state pre-school program.” Within states that do provide pre-K, the allocation of funds within each state can have a significant impact on the gap between the highest and lowest performing students. In cases like this, school systems that are prioritized with funds have better opportunities to attract more highly qualified teachers who tend to receive higher compensation and access to technology that allows students to utilize resources of education beyond their particular classrooms. As you might expect, more often than not, school districts that receive more funding, hire more qualified teachers, and equip students with as many resources as possible tend to perform better on benchmark assessments than those that do not. Yes, this surface level issue seems to have a relatively simple fix—ensuring a process that makes sure each student is treated equally based on the amount of government money set aside for these programs. Nonetheless, I have learned first-hand that the number of complexities involved in remedying educational inequality has less to do about numbers and more about the context within the communities where this money is given.

When we first think of improving education, we might think about new strategies for teaching basic algebra, techniques for reading comprehension, or experiential learning in the sciences. What many states are finding, however, is that we must first work on improving education from a foundational level: literacy. Literacy is a crucial factor in the performance of students, with studies showing that reading to children from an extremely early age has significant effects on academic success within the traditional education system. While literacy is often a concept taken for granted, the statistics of individuals in adulthood considered to be illiterate in the United States to this day is astounding.

Specifically, in my home state of North Carolina, rural education is often a link to disparities in categories that affect the overall quality of life. Often times, educational setbacks and missed benchmarks correlate with these outcomes. Looking back to the source of the divergence of these outcomes, the quality of early education in fundamental areas such as literacy has proven to be indicators of future economic statuses. In an article by the News and Observer, writer Anne Blythe speaks about what she cites as 80% rural makeup of the state by saying that “Many counties are losing population; job growth is flat or on the decline and they are struggling with such basic needs as access to health care and the Internet in a fast-moving digital age.” With so many opportunities for education living online, limited access to broadband internet is a huge hindrance to the expansive amount of knowledge available to the individuals in these rural communities that may not have the same readily available connection to the web that many metropolitan areas do.

In 1994, members of five low-income rural communities brought a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina claiming that “despite higher than average tax rates, schools in these counties ended up with lower than average tax revenues. This meant that these school districts did not have enough money to provide equal education for their children. For example, they could not compete with wealthier school districts in terms of teacher pay, special services or educational materials” (Duke Law). The result of this case was a revamping of the public education system with the redefinition of what the North Carolina Constitution describes as “a sound basic education”. After revisiting the education issue, North Carolina’s governor established a commission dedicated to equalizing and improving education for all students in the state. This commission, which met for the first time this summer, has placed a heavy focus on improving literacy rates, as they tend to be indicators of future academic success. As the note-taker at the first meeting this summer, I became aware of the domino effect that mental health, physical health, and literacy rates have on a student’s ability to reach grade-level benchmarks sufficiently.

With early exposure to reading being such an impactful factor in long-term student ability, parents are generally tasked with giving their children the best shot at a great learning experience. The issue here is that many rural communities and other areas that have historically been underserved have adult literacy rates that are significantly lower than areas of more concentrated wealth. Here, the question of “If not the parents, who?” enters the conversation. With a lack of incentive for newly-graduate young adults to teach in these remote areas, many school systems in rural communities struggle to find and retain the expertise that they so desperately need. Perhaps for this reason, we should be asking “If the parents are unable, what technology?"

With the mission of addressing this question, companies such as Literator have developed strategies that recognize the gap in head starts that may exist, not only between districts but also between students within the same classroom. If we provide the infrastructure such as broadband and the technological devices necessary to access these services, products such as Literator could make all the difference. What makes Literator particularly relevant is the fact that it also acknowledges the importance of literacy as a way of unlocking the rest of the academic playing field. Teachers are able to take advantage of assessments of phonics skills and examinations which specifically report on grade reading levels. Especially when a student may hesitate to speak up when in the classroom, insights like these are crucial in preventing them from falling behind at an early stage. Striving to make the education process more individualized, Literator equips teachers with the ability to focus on the particulars where students may have shortcomings in an app that also facilitates a way to notify parents of their child’s progress. Reaching back to a primary indicator of future success, literacy, may be the solution to a lack of human capital trained in the most “up to date” methods of teaching in today’s competitive academic environments.