How was the literacy rate of Americans impacted by the establishment of public schools?

How was the literacy rate of Americans impacted by the establishment of public schools?

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I've heard that people in the United States were mostly literate before Government took over education and literacy rates have been on the decline since. I haven't been able to find any proof of this idea. Likely I don't know where to look.

I don't doubt the second part, with literacy rates so low today, but I still wonder, if not to educate people better than the free market was, why federalize the education of children?

According to this government site, illiteracy has been shrinking almost steadily from 1870 on (with one little hiccup between 1947 and 1950). According to Wikipedia, the US had a very high literacy rate in 1870, and this was during the creation of a national public school system. With increasing school availability and legal requirements to attend, it appears that illiteracy has gone down.

Therefore, the question has factual inaccuracies. The current illiteracy rate is very low, and has declined during a period of expansion of public education.

Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years

Schools usually focus on teaching comprehension skills instead of general knowledge—even though education researchers know better.

Every two years, education-policy wonks gear up for what has become a time-honored ritual: the release of the Nation’s Report Card. Officially known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the data reflect the results of reading and math tests administered to a sample of students across the country. Experts generally consider the tests rigorous and highly reliable—and the scores basically stagnant.

Math scores have been flat since 2009 and reading scores since 1998, with just about a third of students performing at a level the NAEP defines as “proficient.” Performance gaps between lower-income students and their more affluent peers, among other demographic discrepancies, have remained stubbornly wide.

Among the likely culprits for the stalled progress in math scores: a misalignment between what the NAEP tests and what state standards require teachers to cover at specific grade levels. But what’s the reason for the utter lack of progress in reading scores?

On Tuesday, a panel of experts in Washington, D.C., convened by the federally appointed officials who oversee the NAEP, concluded that the root of the problem is the way schools teach reading. The current instructional approach, they agreed, is based on assumptions about how children learn that have been disproved by research over the past several decades—research that the education world has largely failed to heed.

A Century of Reform

Public education and public-education reform share a common history. There is no past paradise when all students excelled. There is no perfect prototype for public education hidden in history, to be uncovered today and bestowed on a thankful nation. Rather, American public education is best thought of, historically, as mediocre. It was a serviceable system for preparing students for an agrarian or assembly-line world in which only an elite pursued higher education.

Public education in America really began in earnest after the Civil War, when government-funded and -controlled schools supplanted the earlier system of private education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, some 57 percent of the 12 million school-aged Americans in 1870 were enrolled in public elementary or secondary schools, though only about 60 percent of those enrolled attended school on any given day and the average school year was 132 days. By the turn of the century, the percentage of school-aged children attending public schools had risen to 72 percent, with almost 70 percent of enrollees attending on any one of the 150 days in the school year. Most public education still occurred in the early grades—only two percent of the student population were in ninth grade or higher.

By 1989 almost 90 percent of school-aged children attended public schools. Almost all attended class daily (with some important local or regional exceptions) and the average school year had grown to 180 days—still too short, say many modern critics, but a 40 percent increase since Reconstruction. Most students stay in school at least throughout the high-school grades, while a record number are pursuing higher education.

American policy-makers and educators began to create in earnest our centralized, monopolistic public education system at the turn of the century. For example, over a relatively brief period from 1890 to 1910, public schools increased their share of the high-school population from two-thirds to about 90 percent—a proportion of public to private schools which has persisted until the present day. There were a number of factors motivating this change. During the last few decades of the nineteenth century, public education had grown steadily as a primarily locally controlled phenomenon, often emulating or taking over ownership from private schools. Education was still basically focused on learning skills, such as reading or arithmetic, and schools often reflected their communities in very obvious ways.

But by the start of the twentieth century, a number of different groups began to believe that a comprehensive, centrally controlled (at least on the city or state level), and bureaucratic public education system was crucial to America’s future. The Progressive movement, for example, sought to replace haphazard government decision-making (such as that provided by political machines or community schools) with a more standardized, “predictable” approach. At the time, they viewed such change as necessary to eliminate corruption and graft. Similarly, the child welfare movement began to press for changes in family life—for replacing child labor and family neglect with public education.

Simultaneously, American business leaders began to see a decentralized, “patchwork” education system as a liability in international competition. U.S. manufacturers, especially, saw the rise of Germany as a significant economic threat and sought to imitate that country’s new system of state-run trade schools. In 1905, the National Association of Manufacturers editorialized that “the nation that wins success in competition with other nations must train its youths in the arts of production and distribution.” German education, it concluded, was “at once the admiration and fear of all countries.” American business, together with the growing labor movement, pressed Congress to dramatically expand federal spending on education, especially for vocational instruction. Also, business and education leaders began to apply new principles of industrial organization to education, such as top-down organization and a “factory-floor” model in which administrators, teachers, and students all had a place in producing a standardized “final product.” These leaders created professional bureau cracies to devise and implement policy.

Finally, perhaps the most important boosters of America’s new public education system were what we might today call “cultural conservatives.” The turn of the century, after all, was a time of tremendous immigration. As more and more immigrants arrived in America, bringing with them a plethora of languages, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs, American political leaders foresaw the potential dangers of Balkanization. The public education system, once designed primarily to impart skills and knowledge, took on a far more political and social role. It was to provide a common culture and a means of inculcating new Americans with democratic values. Public schools, in other words, were to be a high-pressure “melting pot” to help America avoid the dismal fate of other multi-national politics. American political leaders were all too familiar with the Balkan Wars of the early 1900s, and were intent on avoiding a similar fate.

How African Americans Emerged from Slavery with a Hunger for Education

Church deacons, Savannah, Georgia, 1888. For many slaves in the American South, the African American church was not only a house of worship but a schoolroom for acquiring literacy. After the Civil War, freed slaves themselves took the initiative to push education beyond religious instruction. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By Abraham Ruelas | July 28, 2017

The focus of my research and writing is women’s involvement in higher education, especially women from the Pentecostal and Holiness faith traditions. While conducting research on African American female seminaries, I found myself reaching back to a very rich yet little-known history of educational efforts by African Americans both during and after slavery. The narratives of those days should remind us just how stubborn and enduring the hunger for education has been in American life.

In the United States, slave masters were intent on keeping their slaves illiterate. Two events drove Southerners to discourage literacy. In the Stono Rebellion of 1739, more than 20 whites were killed by slaves attempting to escape to Florida. In 1842, the revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, cost the lives of 55 to 65 whites and more than 100 slaves. Each event led to new restrictions, in the form of anti-literacy laws and punishments for slaves who tried to learn to read and write.

The objections to slave literacy were threefold: 1) Slaves did not have the mental capacity for education and would only become confused 2) Slaves might learn to forge passes to non-slave states and, 3) Insurrection and rebellion might result from slaves reading abolitionist writings.

But some slaves found ways around prejudice and law to satisfy their hunger for knowledge. Their main antebellum sourcebook for literacy was the Bible.

Some masters permitted it, because they saw the Bible as teaching slaves their “divine” role as servants. Beverly Jones, a former slave in Virginia, would write: “Always took his text from Ephesians, the white preacher did, the part what said, ‘Obey your masters, be [a] good servant’ … They always tell the slaves dat ef he be good, an’ worked hard fo’ his master, dat he would go to heaven, an’ der he gonna live a life of ease. They ain’ never tell he gonna be free in Heaven. You see, they didn’ want slaves to start thinkin’ ‘bout freedom, even in Heaven.”

The Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) changed the educational calculus, by putting at the forefront the belief that all men and women from every race were in need of salvation, and that all redeemed individuals were to be “useful” in God’s kingdom. The efforts to reach African American slaves for Jesus resulted in the “planation missions” movement of the 1830s and 1840s. African Americans who embraced Christianity became not only church members but also preachers and ministers.

Plantation missions were part of a greater reform movement to bring about holiness to the whole nation, including to the Negro slave. To accomplish this, leaders of this movement had to demonstrate to the plantation owners that its religious efforts were not antithetical to slavery. Additionally, there was resistance from Southerners because they believed that African Americans didn’t have the capacity for religious experience.

Despite Southern resistance, the efforts of plantation missions were fruitful and many slaves became Christians. A multi-part process of religious instruction unfolded. First came regular sermons geared toward the perceived level of the slaves’ mental capacity. That might lead to a weekly lecture which the master and his family were encouraged to attend in order to provide a good example for his slaves. After that, Sabbath schools were established, and instruction at these school was expressly oral (and not written) “religion without letters” utilizing a question-and-answer method from printed catechisms, homilies and visual aids to achieve learning. Once schooled in Christianity, slave converts participated in regular gatherings at times and places approved by the plantation owner.

That was often as far as things went—until the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent end of the Civil War. In post-bellum Southern states, initiatives were carried out to educate freed slaves in subjects beyond religion. The foundation for these efforts came from the freed slaves themselves.

According to James Anderson, author of The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, “Former slaves were the first among native southerners to depart from the planters’ ideology of education and society, and campaign for universal, state-sponsored public education. In their movement for universal schooling the ex-slaves welcomed and actively pursued the aid of Republican politicians, the Freedman’s Bureau, northern missionary societies, and the Union Army.” Not only did African Americans improve their own educational opportunities, but they also helped improve education for whites by challenging the plantation owners’ educational paradigm that schooling happened in the home, and not in public schools.

Religion retained a powerful, if different, role in education after the war. As African Americans emerged from slavery to freedom, churches became central to their communal life and a foundation for many of self-improvement initiatives in education. The church’s ability to sustain the infrastructure of an informed society—including numerous newspapers, schools, social welfare services, jobs, and recreational facilities—mitigated the dominant society’s denial of these resources to the black communities.

As Northern missionary societies and the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freeman and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Board) entered the South in the post-bellum era to educate African Americans, they found that they would be building on educational efforts already established by slaves and free blacks. White teachers, mainly from the Northeast, joined a cadre of African Americans teachers.

One of the important educational innovations in the immediate post-bellum era was the academy—primarily parochial day or boarding schools where the curricular focus was on reading, writing, and mathematics (although courses in cooking, sewing, and domestic arts were also offered.) When these schools were first started, the hope was that students would gain basic literacy so they could read the Bible, complete basic math computations, and understand labor contracts. Instead, a classical liberal arts curriculum was brought to the school by white teachers, many of whom had gained experience in New England boarding schools, and then taught by African-American teachers as they took over instruction. Practical courses in industrial arts were added to the curriculum, although the emphasis was on Latin, algebra, English literature, and foreign languages such as Greek, French, and German.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a self-proclaimed disciple of Booker T. Washington, founded Palmer Memorial Institute, but steadfastly resisted efforts to make industrial education an emphasis at her school. Instead, she utilized a college preparatory approach in which her students studied Latin, French, English, algebra, geometry, and science. To balance out the students’ educational experience, students took courses in agriculture, home economics and industrial education, and helped raise food for the school by working on a 120-acre farm. Brown’s school was representative of the pedagogical tension experienced by many academies.

Henry Lyman Morehouse coined the term “Talented Tenth” (popularized by W.E.B. Du Bois) to make the case that developing an African American elite was essential for the advancement of all Blacks. This concept had appeal for both African Americans and Northern missionary groups, especially the American Baptist Home Missions Society (ABHMS). For African Americans the concept of the “Talented Tenth” represented the hope of gaining respectability in American society. For many Whites, the “Talented Tenth” represented a buffer group to negotiate with the “field Negroes” revolt in the post-bellum era.

For all the devotion to education in this era, the schools developed by and for African Americans did not produce a level of property ownership and economic self-sufficiency among its graduates that were among the primary goals of these schools. Education accomplished much, but it was no match for the racist structures of the society, particularly after the end of Reconstruction.

However, this continual thirst for education among African Americans and their continued efforts to achieve it resulted in many institutions of higher education that continue to make significant contributions in the world of academia and the broader American society. Among these were Spelman University—which began as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in the basement of the church.

Jim Crow's Schools

In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed a "separate railroad cars" law, stating that "no person or persons shall be permitted to occupy seats in coaches, other than the ones assigned to them on account of the race they belong to." The law required railroads to provide "equal but separate" facilities to those different races, but it did not define "race" and left to conductors the job of assigning passengers to the proper cars.

A legal challenge to the "separate cars" law began on June 7, 1892, when Homer Plessy entered the New Orleans station of the East Louisiana Railway and bought a first-class ticket to Covington, La., a town about 50 miles away. According to the Supreme Court's later statement of facts, Plessy "entered a passenger train and took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated." The conductor then ordered him "to vacate said coach" and move to one "for persons not of the white race." When Plessy refused to move, "he was, with the aid of a police officer, forcibly ejected from said coach and hurried off to and imprisoned in the parish jail of New Orleans." His stay in jail was brief, and Plessy was released after arraignment in the local court.

Homer Plessy had arranged his arrest to challenge the "separate cars" law, which was especially galling to "Creoles" like him, descendants of the French settlers of Louisiana who often fathered children across the color line. Plessy was an "octoroon," the word then used to describe people with seven white great-grandparents and one who was black. Plessy and his fellow Creoles wanted to expose the absurdity of a law that made a railroad conductor "the autocrat of Caste, armed with the power of the State" to decide which travelers were white and which were not, using only his eyes to measure racial purity. The prosecutor at Plessy's trial in state court, before Judge John Ferguson, claimed that "the foul odors of blacks in close quarters" made the law a "reasonable" exercise of the state's "police powers" to protect the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the public. Plessy's lawyers argued that the law imposed a "badge of servitude" on him and others with any black ancestry, and deprived him of the "privileges and immunities" of citizenship.

After the Louisiana courts upheld Plessy's conviction for violating the law, the Supreme Court heard arguments on his appeal in April 1896 and decided the case the next month, on May 18. Justice Henry B. Brown wrote for all but one of his colleagues in upholding the Jim Crow law. His opinion displayed the attitude of educated whites who conceded the "political" equality of blacks, but shrank from having any contact with them in such "close quarters" as railroad cars and restaurants. Brown brushed aside the "equal protection" promise of the Fourteenth Amendment with the cavalier statement that "it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as opposed to political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either." The only question in the case, Brown wrote, was whether the Louisiana law was a "reasonable regulation" of railroads that were licensed by the state. "In determining the question of reasonableness," he said, state lawmakers were "at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order." The "people" who Justice Brown had in mind, of course, were only the white people of Louisiana who did not want to share railroad cars with blacks, even those as light-skinned as Homer Plessy.

Brown had great difficulty in finding legal precedent for his claim that the "established usages, customs, and traditions of the people" supported the racial segregation of railroad cars in Louisiana. In fact, blacks had not been forced to ride in segregated coaches before the law was enacted in 1890, and the railroad companies did not support the law, which cost them money to maintain separate cars. And a federal court had recently held that Louisiana railroads could not segregate passengers who held tickets for travel across state lines. Instead, Brown looked across the tracks for cases upholding laws that required the separation of whites and blacks "in places where they are liable to be brought into contact" with each other. He found the precedent he needed in the judicial opinions that turned back challenges to Jim Crow schools, citing the cases decided between 1849 and 1890 by courts in eight different states. These cases all dealt, Brown wrote, "with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which have been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of states where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced." It was the widespread and long-standing practice of school segregation that gave the Supreme Court a foundation in precedent for the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

There were good reasons for the Court to base its endorsement of "separate but equal" public facilities and institutions on the long practice of school segregation, in both North and South. Beginning with the 1849 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Roberts v. City of Boston, these rulings gave the United States Supreme Court a line of precedent going back almost 50 years. In addition, the state cases involved the institution at the core of the Jim Crow system, the public schools in which white and black children first experienced the reality of segregation. And the opinions in these cases all shared three assumptions: first, that judges should defer to the judgments of elected lawmakers and school officials that segregation was in the "best interest" of all children, black and white alike second, that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of the "equal protection of the laws" to every person did not apply to education, which was solely a state and local affair and third, that the "prejudices" of white voters and parents were "not created by law, and cannot be changed by law." The Plessy majority easily transferred these assumptions from schools to railroad cars thus, the long-standing existence of Jim Crow schools in both the South and North became the justification for segregation in virtually every facet of daily life.

At the turn of the century, the basic curriculum of black primary schools reflected the jobs open to black workers. In 1900, when 90 percent of all blacks lived in the former Confederacy, six of every 10 employed blacks labored on farms, mostly as sharecroppers perpetually in debt to the white landowners to whom they gave a share of their crop as rent. Almost three in 10 blacks, mostly women, worked in domestic service as cooks, housekeepers, laundresses, and nursemaids for white children. More than half of all southern white families employed a black "girl" to cook and clean. Most of the remaining 10 percent of black workers were laborers in shops and factories only two percent held professional jobs, serving the black community as teachers, doctors, and ministers.

Jim Crow schools—which taught their students only those skills needed for agricultural work and domestic service—fit the needs of the white economy and society. Booker T. Washington reflected the reality of the situation facing southern blacks when he said in 1915 that "white men will vote funds for Negro education just in proportion to their belief in the value of that education." The only value to a white landowner in educating black children lay in their ability to pick cotton or wash laundry. Any education beyond the rudiments of literacy and figuring would not only be wasted on them, but it might encourage them to seek higher education, which would make them unfit for working on white-owned farms and in white homes.

By the 1930s, some three decades after the Plessy decision, more black children attended school in the Jim Crow states, stayed longer in school, and earned higher scores on achievement tests. Yet they still lagged far behind white children, whose schools were bigger and better and whose teachers had more training. Measured solely in numbers, however, blacks had made substantial educational gains. For example, the federal Census Bureau reported a literacy rate for black adults in 1890 of slightly more than 40 percent. This meant that six out of 10 blacks could not read and write at all, at a time when nearly seven out of 10 white adults were literate. Forty years later, in 1930, the reported literacy rate for blacks had doubled, to just over 80 percent, while more than nine in 10 white adults were literate. In some of the Jim Crow states, the black literacy rate shot up dramatically between 1890 and 1930, from 30 to 74 percent in Georgia, and from 28 to 77 percent in Louisiana. But these seemingly impressive figures masked a serious problem. Asking people if they are literate is not the same as testing their reading and writing skills, and possessing the rudiments of literacy will not prepare anyone for more than manual or domestic work. Among the 80 percent of black adults whom the Bureau reported as literate in 1930, only a few stayed in school beyond the primary grades and virtually all had attended inferior Jim Crow schools.

The obstacles facing black children who thirsted for education in the 1930s—the great-grandparents of today's black students—were enormous. More than three million school-age black children lived in the 17 states that continued to operate separate schools, along with 81 percent of all the nation's black population. In the Jim Crow states that stretched from Delaware to Texas, local school boards spent almost three times as much on each white student as they did on blacks. The funding disparities in the Deep South states, where blacks outnumbered whites in hundreds of rural countries, were far greater. Alabama spent $37 on each white child in 1930 and just $7 on those who were black in Georgia the figures were $32 and $7, in Mississippi they were $31 and $6, and those in South Carolina were $53 and $5, a disparity of more than 10-to-one.

The largest chunk of the school budget in every district goes to pay teachers and the salaries of black teachers during the 1930s were far below those of whites. The monthly salary of black teachers in the South in 1930 was about 60 percent of the white average, $73 for blacks and $118 for whites, with the yearly school term in white schools about two months longer, which added to the salary gap. Poorly paid teachers are not necessarily poorly trained or unable to educate their students, but the meager wages of black teachers in the 1930s did not lure the most promising college graduates into rural Jim Crow schools. Horace Mann Bond, a noted black educator, administered the Stanford Achievement Test to a large group of black teachers in Alabama schools in 1931. He discovered that their average score was below that of the national level of ninth-grade students. Almost half of the black teachers had not mastered the material that eighth-graders were expected to know. And many of these teachers were assigned to teach students in grades above their own level of knowledge.

During the late 1930s, the American Council on Education sent a team of investigators into the Deep South to conduct a survey of the schools in which black children were educated. These schools were, of course, segregated by law and long-standing custom. The report of the investigators who visited the black grade school in Dine Hollow, Ala., reflected the study's findings across the "Black Belt" that stretched from southern Virginia through eastern Texas:

A typical rural Negro school is at Dine Hollow. It is in a dilapidated building, once whitewashed, standing in a rocky field unfit for cultivation. Dust-covered weeds spread a carpet all around, except for an uneven, bare area on one side that looks like a ball field. Behind the school is a small building with a broken, sagging door. As we approach, a nervous, middle-aged woman comes to the door of the school. She greets us in a discouraged voice marked by a speech impediment. Escorted inside, we observe that the broken benches are crowded to three times their normal capacity. Only a few battered books are in sight, and we look in vain for maps or charts. We learn that four grades are assembled here. The weary teacher agrees to permit us to remain while she proceeds with the instruction. She goes to the blackboard and writes an assignment for the first two grades to do while she conducts spelling and word drills for the third and fourth grades. This is the assignment:

Write your name ten times.
Draw an dog, an cat, an rat, an boot.

The American Council on Education let black parents and students in Jim Crow schools speak for themselves in its report, Growing Up in the Black Belt. What they said was both sad and sobering. Almost without exception, parents wanted their children to learn and succeed. "I believe children ought to get all the education they kin," said a farmer's wife in Coahoma County, Miss. "I'd like to see 'em all finish the 12th grade at least. My daughter is the only one that goes now. The rest have to chop and pick right now, but they be going 'long soon." Almost all black children in the South missed school to do farmwork. A tenant farmer in Shelby County, Tenn., spoke of his vegetable farming: "The children need all the education they can get, but we need them to help on the farm. If you don't make your crop, the white man will put somebody else here to do the work. The children go to school when there ain't no work for them in the fields, but where there is work, they has to stay home and do it." White landowners had little interest in educating the children of their black tenants. "It just isn't safe for me to go on a plantation to bring students to school," said a white truant officer in Shelby County. "The landowners show absolutely no concern and they tell me to let the ‘niggers' work." The demands of farmwork took a heavy toll on black children in the Deep South states that had the highest rates of sharecropping. In Mississippi, where almost 90 percent of black farmers were tenants in 1930, the average black child spent just 74 days in school, while the average in Virginia, with a tenancy rate of 38 percent, was 128 days in school. Most black children in the Deep South attended school just 15 or 20 weeks each year in the 1930s.

Very few of the black children who finished grade school in the 1930s had the chance to attend high school. In 1932, only 14 percent of those between 15 and 19 years old were enrolled in public secondary schools in southern states. From Virginia to Texas, only in North Carolina did as many as 20 percent of blacks attend high school the rates in Mississippi and Georgia were 5 and 8 percent. A report on secondary education for blacks in 1933 showed that between them, the states of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina had a total of 16 black high schools accredited for four-year study. This report also noted that "89 percent of all Negro secondary schools are essentially elementary schools with one or more years of secondary work included at the top—often at the expense of the lower school." Even the four-year high schools had few resources they averaged just five full-time and two part-time teachers, and most often one of the teachers doubled as principal. Hardly any of these black high schools offered science courses or had laboratories, and very few had courses in foreign languages, music, or art. Their curriculum was limited and their teachers had little training in academic subjects.

The educational status of blacks in the Jim Crow states remained abysmally low in 1950, falling below the level of whites in 1930. Black adults in Mississippi had completed an average of 5.1 years in school, while those in Georgia and South Carolina had even lower figures of 4.9 and 4.8 years. For the nation as a whole, just one of every eight black adults had completed high school, while four of 10 whites had earned their diploma. While only nine percent of white adults had attended school for less than five years, 31 percent of blacks fell into this category. At the other end of the educational spectrum, almost 16 percent of white adults in 1950 had attended college and six percent had graduated the figures for blacks were five and two percent. These numbers should be viewed with awareness of the glaring disparities in quality of the black and white schools in the Jim Crow states a black student who completed eight years of schooling in one of these states had attended schools that were in session two months less each year, had been instructed by teachers whose own education averaged just 10 years, had used out-of-date, hand-me-down textbooks from white schools, and had received little help at home from parents who were most likely illiterate or barely able to read and write. A white student who completed the eighth grade was almost certainly far ahead of the black child at the same grade level.

The black community had no illusions about Jim Crow schools in 1950. In a special mid-century issue, the Journal of Negro Education asked leading black educators to assess the educational system. Without exception, these experts laid the blame for inferior black schools on racial segregation. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, wrote that the Jim Crow system "with its inevitable consequences of inequality has warped the minds and spirits of thousands of Negro youths. They either grow to manhood accepting the system, in which case they aspire to limited, racial standards or they grow up with bitterness in their minds. It is the rare Negro child who comes through perfectly normal and poised under the segregated system." Mays concluded that "the greatest thing that anyone can do to improve the morale of Negro children and youth is to continue to fight to destroy legalized segregation."

Peters Irons is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, director of the Earl Warren Bill of Rights Project, and a practicing civil rights and civil liberties attorney. This article is excerpted with permission from Jim Crow's Children, by Peter Irons © 2002 Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

The Carlisle Indian School

As part of this federal push for assimilation, boarding schools forbid Native American children from using their own languages and names, as well as from practicing their religion and culture. They were given new Anglo-American names, clothes, and haircuts, and told they must abandon their way of life because it was inferior to white people’s.

Though the schools left a devastating legacy, they failed to eradicate Native American cultures as they𠆝 hoped. Later, the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the U.S. win World War II would reflect on the strange irony this forced assimilation had played in their lives.

𠇊s adults, [the Code Talkers] found it puzzling that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service,” recounts the National Museum of the American Indian.

In addition to the Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota and native people of Alaska are also seeking the return of children’s remains from Carlisle, reports Yet if the results of Northern Arapaho’s search are any example, this may prove to be quite difficult.

Yufna Soldier Wolf wipes away tears while kneeling at the grave of her great-grandfather, Chief Sharp Nose of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, at the family cemetery on the Wind River Reservation near Riverton, Wyoming. 

Dan Cepeda/The Casper Star-Tribune/AP Photo

On August 14, 2017, the Army sent the remains of Little Chief and Horse back to their relatives on the Wind River Reservation. The Northern Arapaho will bury them on August 18, 2017. Little Plume, however, was not sent back because he wasn’t found. In what was supposed to be his coffin, archaeologists instead discovered the bones of two others who couldn’t have been Little Plume because their ages didn’t match his.

Researchers aren’t sure who those two people are or where Little Plume could be, and the Northern Arapaho haven’t stated whether they’ll continue to search for him. For now, the Army has reburied the two people found in his coffin, and Little Plume remains one of Carlisle’s many missing children.

Financial Literacy Starts with Public Awareness

The public, often concerned about the quality of their public education systems and the strength of their economies, miss the crucial fact that financial literacy is necessary for the upcoming generation to succeed professionally. Financial literacy statistics reveal a negligence among public educators and communities in equipping their youth with the financial competencies that will help lay the foundation for a chain of positive financial choices. Working with programs run by both the public and private sector, communities can foster an understanding of the benefits of financial literacy among their citizens.

States with the High Literacy Rates

1. New Hampshire

New Hampshire has the lowest percentage (5.8%) of adults lacking basic prose literacy skills, making New Hampshire's literacy rate of 94.2%. About 36.6% of adults in New Hampshire have a Bachelor's degree or higher, the seventh-highest rate in the country, and 60.8% of the population are registered library users, also the seventh-highest in the country.

2. Minnesota

Minnesota has the second-highest literacy rate of 94.0%, with only 6% of adults lacking basic prose literacy skills. About 69.9% of Minnesota residents are registered library users, the second-highest in the country.

3. North Dakota

North Dakota has the third-highest literacy rate of 93.7%, with 6.3% of adults lacking basic prose literacy skills. North Dakota, however, has the lowest percentage of registered library users of 35.9%.

4. Vermont

Vermont has the fourth-highest literacy rate of 93.4%, with 6.6% of adults lacking basic prose literacy skills. Vermont is also the fourth-most educated state in the U.S.. Vermont has the highest number of libraries per 100,000 people of 29.8 and has the eighth-highest Bachelor's degree or higher attainment of 36.4%.

5. South Dakota

South Dakota has the fifth-highest literacy rate of 93.0%, with 7.0% of adults lacking basic prose literacy skills. South Dakota has 16.4 public libraries per 100,000 residents, the fifth-highest in the country.

Improving Literacy in the United States: Recommendations for Increasing Reading Success

Adult illiteracy directly affects an individual’s employment options, likelihood to live in poverty, likelihood to be incarcerated, access to adequate health care and health outcomes, and life expectancy. Generational illiteracy makes it increasingly difficult to escape these circumstances, and millions of Americans face this reality every day.

From 2011 to 2014, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies conducted a study of adult literacy in the United States, finding that approximately 43 million Americans possess low literacy skills and 8.4 million American adults are classified as functionally illiterate—defined as having literacy skills at a third-grade level, or “no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.” In the past decade, average reading proficiency scores across the country have decreased, leaving millions of students without the necessary skills to become active and informed members of society. Particularly vulnerable are Black, Latinx, and low-income students, who score well below the national average. The wide-ranging consequences of functional illiteracy include large-scale political disengagement aggregated economic loss in the form of suppressed GDP greater dependency on social welfare programs and higher incarceration costs. In total, these consequences represent an estimated 2 percent of annual GDP in developed nations—equivalent to an opportunity cost of $428 billion in 2019. Solving illiteracy will require greater federal investment and leadership, including by providing specific avenues for local literacy programs to access and utilize federal funds and supporting states that adopt explicit literacy training standards for teacher certification.

Rate of reading failure and contributing factors

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment charts the reading proficiency of fourth, eighth, and 12th graders in school districts across the United States, utilizing a 0–500 reading scale to establish the achievement levels Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. In the past 27 years, reading gains have only marginally increased (from 217 to 220 for all fourth-grade students from 260 to 263 for all eighth-grade students and from 292 to 287 for all 12th-grade students).

In order to address the widespread problem of low literacy, educators and policymakers must first understand why so many students struggle to read. One reason is undiagnosed reading disabilities such as dyslexia or other brain-based learning difficulties, which are more effectively addressed when identified in children as early as kindergarten and ideally before the second grade. Environmental factors such as low exposure to literature or language barriers can also limit reading success. Many experts also argue that a major contributing factor is the lack of training teachers receive in identifying children who are at risk of reading failure and in building oral language and linguistic skills. Additionally, teachers may not receive explicit instruction on how to teach reading skills, and existing reading curricula often do not align with the current science on how students learn. Studies suggest that incorporating the science of reading practices studied by psychologists, linguists, and neurobiologists into the classroom will dramatically reduce the number of children who are on track to become functionally illiterate adults.

The role of reading intervention programs

Interventions for struggling readers have a long history in U.S. education and varying degrees of success. One of the most widely used reading programs in the United States, Reading Recovery, was developed in the 1970s and targets first graders for specific reading instruction. A four-year study revealed that students in the program realized significant gains in reading ability equivalent to 6–7 months of learning in a 5-month period. This was made possible by teacher training sites and partnerships with local universities which train and develop teachers in reading instruction. Though proven to be effective, this approach is not always feasible for district leaders due to the high cost of implementation—including materials and supplies, graduate studies at universities, training site setup, and teacher leader and reading instructional specialist salary pay—which varies greatly by district and by state.

Since 2001, the federal government has given greater priority to increasing literacy skills. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act mandated all children read at or above grade level as measured by standardized testing beginning in the third grade. Under recommendation from the National Reading Panel, the NCLB Act established two literacy initiatives to provide for the attainment of this national standard—the Early Reading First and Reading First programs—targeting pre-K to third-grade students. Since its inception, thousands of schools across the nation have benefited from available funds, which have improved professional development and coaching for teachers on working with struggling readers, diagnosing and preventing early reading difficulties, and monitoring student progress. While these are important gains, studies show that Reading First has not significantly improved reading comprehension among students. However, these initiatives marked an unprecedented federal investment to promote language and literacy development through research-based instructional methods, professional development, and program quality assessments on early reading. These efforts also paid particular attention to early literacy, which is linked to later academic achievement, reduced grade retention, and higher graduation rates. A poor reader at the end of the first grade has a 90 percent chance of still being a poor reader at the end of the fourth grade, and as many as 74 percent of these students may still struggle by the ninth grade, making it critical to identify and support struggling students as early as possible.

Since 2005, Reading First and similar federal literacy initiatives have been subject to significant funding cuts. In 2005, $1.04 billion was appropriated for Reading First while today only $190 million is set aside for literacy initiatives in the form of Comprehensive Literacy State Development (CLSD) grants. Competitively awarded to states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, CLSD grants support literacy from birth to 12th grade and are disbursed among school districts and nonprofits with “a demonstrated record of effectiveness” in improving language and early literacy development and in providing professional development in language and early literacy development.

Policy interventions

Given the relationship between literacy and outcomes related to health, employment, and poverty, the federal government should view funding toward literacy programs as a long-term investment and priority, especially for underserved and marginalized groups. The NAEP reports that Black, Hispanic, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students—defined as those who qualify for free and reduced price lunch—score lower in reading at all levels in every reporting year. In addition, English language learners (ELLs) are found to score significantly lower than their non-ELL peers. Patterns of reading difficulty due to generational illiteracy, low exposure to literature at home, and language barriers disproportionately affect students of color differentiated curricula that are culturally relevant to students of color or that are bilingual for ELLs may help combat this issue.

Provide clear guidelines on federal funding for local literacy programs

The U.S. Department of Education should include grant application guidelines on how to utilize CLSD funds to specifically support effective local literacy programs. Providing clear avenues for the use of federal funding for effective programs may benefit students and families by removing barriers such as cost and transportation. Additionally, federal guidance should define how to recognize effective local programs for districts where low NAEP scores have persisted. For example, in some communities, reading clinics—independent entities that provide one-on-one services to struggling readers—may be the best method for increasing literacy and may be supported by CLSD funds. When allocating these funds, the Education Department should give competitive preference to clinics and other educational programs that provide teachers with opportunities to work with certified reading specialists to identify struggling readers, learn best practices that can be applied to an entire classroom, and provide resources to support students in clinic, in class, and at home. Competitive preference should also be given to programs that have an explicit multigenerational mission such as those that offer free or significantly reduced-price courses in English, literacy, high school education, or child development for low-income and immigrant adults. To accomplish these goals, the Education Department should also commission a national study on the effectiveness of local reading programs in establishing research-based standards for implementation at scale.

Establish new requirements for pre-K and elementary certification

The federal government should encourage incorporating reading instruction standards across disciplines for teacher preparation programs and early child and elementary licensure. In applying for CLSD funds, for example, a competitive preference could be given to states that require teachers to complete coursework in the science of reading—broadly defined as the methods or approaches that have been found to give students a learning advantage, which include oral reading fluency and text comprehension. Currently, 32 states require elementary teacher preparation programs to include science of reading instruction for initial licensure. Of these states, only 21 are considered to require sufficiently rigorous demonstration of knowledge by assessing all five components of scientifically based reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Federal funds could also be used to support professional development on best reading instruction practices through research-based methods, including one-on-one approaches or full-class methods.

The future of literacy

Educators at the K-12 level have tested various ways to disrupt the pattern of illiteracy and support struggling readers, but the advancement of literacy as a national priority has thus far been inconsistent. Fundamentally improving literacy will require applying an explicit equity lens to understand gaps in developing education policies and standards increasing investment in public schools and targeting funding to those with the greatest need and modernizing the teaching profession to meet the needs of students. Without large-scale investments, equitable resources to low-income schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty, and teachers explicitly trained in science of reading practices in every classroom, efforts to progress literacy and reading success will be blunted.

With minimal gains in literacy in the United States over the past several decades, educators and policymakers must continue the conversation on how to increase reading success and comprehension. This is particularly important as the country finds itself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to school closures and new challenges for educators with the transition to extended remote learning, likely exacerbating the gaps in reading proficiency many K-12 students already experience.

Alpha Diallo is a former intern with the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

Literacy Tests and Voting Rights

Some states, such as Connecticut, used literacy tests in the mid-1800s to keep Irish immigrants from voting, but Southern states didn’t use literacy tests until after Reconstruction in 1890. Sanctioned by the federal government, these tests were used well into the 1960s. They were given ostensibly to test the voters' ability to read and write, but in reality they were designed to discriminate against Black American and sometimes poor White voters. Since, at that time, 40% to 60% of Black people were illiterate, compared to 8% to 18% of White people, these tests had a large differential racial impact.

Southern states also imposed other standards, all of which were arbitrarily set by the test administrator. Favored were those who owned property, or had grandfathers who had been able to vote (“grandfather clause”) people with “good character,” and those who paid poll taxes. Because of these impossible standards, of the 130,334 registered Black voters in Louisiana in 1896, only 1% could pass the state's new rules eight years later.   Even in areas where the Black population was substantially greater, these standards kept the White voting population in the majority.

The administration of literacy tests was unfair and discriminatory. If the administrator wanted a person to pass, they could ask an easy question—for example, "Who is the president of the United States?”   While the same official could require a much higher standard of a Black person, even requiring that they answer every question correctly. It was up to the test administrator whether the prospective voter passed or failed, and even if a Black man was well-educated, he would most likely fail, because the test was created with failure as a goal.   Even if a potential Black voter knew all the answers to the questions, the official administering the test could still fail him.

Literacy tests were not declared unconstitutional in the South until 95 years after the 15th Amendment was ratified, by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Five years later, in 1970, Congress abolished literacy tests and discriminatory voting practices nationwide, and as a result, the number of registered Black American voters increased dramatically.

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