Who’s Responsible for Literacy?

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Last week, the New York Times reported that a federal judge “dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by students at troubled schools in Detroit and found that ‘access to literacy’ is not a constitutional right…”

My organization and I easily qualify as pro-universal literacy. So, should we be happy or distressed by this legal determination that access to literacy is not a constitutional right for American citizens?…that all literacy issues fall upon the states, communities and individuals to handle?

My initial response was “Not again!” and I experienced feelings of distress because, once again, this primary goal of all education–to produce a literate, thoughtful citizenry–has been taken off A young cowboy steps up onto the steel panels around the permiter of the corral on the Melin Ranch near Pray, Montana.the table as a national responsibility. This is yet another news reminder why my country’s ongoing ability to develop capable, avid readers has not improved in the last 25 years, despite millions of dollars paid out each day to purchase the latest and greatest published instructional programs, literacy expertise and technology.

However, after a good night’s sleep, my second response was, “No, wait. That’s right.” Literacy is about communication between writers and their readers. When literacy is working, it is about the sincere creation and eager celebration of personal messages, which sounds and feels essentially like a local issue to me.

country kid 2City children, southern children, children of the plains and the coasts, children of varying ethnic and religious groups, and children of all economic levels and genders need to learn to personally respond to their reading in ways appropriate to the culture and language of the communities and families that spawned them. That personal power is what drives the lifelong, avid reading that is the hallmark of a good education. Each step away from instruction that leverages very personal language and culture in creating unique meanings of what is read furthers separation of school learning from the lives of learners.

So, this legal determination that equal access to literacy is not something that the constitution and the federal government are required to provide places the responsibility for literacy back into homes, schools and communities where, it seems to me, it belongs, at least for K-12 school children. That is where the solutions for poorly funded libraries and poorly conceived instructional practice must be owned and acted upon.

This legal finding is a call to action for each family, school and community to own its children, to treasure them in an embrace of culturally coherent support for developing a full education. That kind of education should not of course reflect only the life and commerce in a specific locale, but to do that while also building a vision and strength for whatever continuing learning will take its children out of the home and neighborhood and into the world with a strong chance of Mixed race teenager loading car for collegepersonal fulfillment and success.

Creating and properly funding that kind of education will take citizens who own, even cherish, their responsibilities to educate their children fully in literacy. I’m not meaning the kind of literacy that results only in chest thumping or finger pointing about test scores, but the kind of rich literacy that will provide its children with sufficient vicarious experience and wonder about the world to empower them to thrive in ways that nobody has yet considered.

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