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Every semester I hope things will be different. I hope that when I walk into my English-composition and writing courses, the majority of my students will, at the very least, be equipped with the basics: They’ll know how to write paragraphs, how to read critically and how to comprehend a text in order to form their own opinions about it. As a professor, this is what I wish for every first day of class. 

Every year my hopes are utterly dashed when I begin reviewing the diagnostic essays students are required to write during the first week. The challenges are significant and include everything from poor organization of ideas to basic spelling and grammar errors. Depending on the degree of problems and the number of students who are struggling, I’m often forced to revamp my syllabus. I can’t very well discuss research techniques or argument development if my students don’t have any idea what a thesis is or, worse, do not understand subject-verb agreement.

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As an adjunct professor who, for the last decade, has been teaching at multiple schools (both two-year community colleges in urban areas and four-year private schools in suburbia), I have the unique opportunity to view the various learning levels of students across multiple demographics. So I suppose that even greater than my disappointment about students’ lack of preparedness is the tremendous frustration—or maybe it’s sadness—I feel when I see the great disparities that exist between students of color who populate those urban community colleges and other students in private and/or suburban schools. These students aren’t just demographically worlds apart in terms of race, age and class diversity. The academic gaps between them are enormous. 

Yes, I’ve read the books and heard the arguments, the primary one being that the homes and communities from which many of these allegedly disadvantaged students come are ones that do not promote literacy. In other words, if parents don’t read or don’t encourage reading and writing, then children won’t, either. And consequently, those children will grow up to be young adults sitting in my freshman comp class without a clue.

Of course there is some truth to this. Early exposure to books and libraries and storytelling can nurture an appreciation for reading and writing. I would go so far as to say that students with strong literacy skills tend to do better across multiple subjects, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes. The comprehension and critical reading and thinking skills that come from being able to read and write well are interdisciplinary.

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But I wonder if framing this issue as solely the problem of parents is too easy. Doing so seems to allow other responsible parties the chance to abdicate accountability in the matter and to allow us to ignore other factors. After all, there are people of a certain age who never, ever saw their parents read but who had their love of reading and writing nurtured by a teacher or librarian at school.

Illiteracy among students of color is not simply a function of poor parenting or lack of exposure but of an entire set of systemic problems. It is a function of race, class and, yes, even gender disparities so vast that it can have long-lasting effects if generally not resolved by the time a child transitions from primary to intermediate learning in the fourth grade. (See the chapter “Fourth Grade Failure Syndrome” in Jawanza Kunjufu’s book Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.

Effects that inevitably show up on my first day of class.

In my observations and study, there are a couple of challenges regarding literacy that my students of color have to overcome. It goes without saying that the impact of these varies with individual schools and students. That analysis is beyond the scope of this article. But mentioning them here is an important reminder that parents aren’t the only ones to blame.

Poor School District Priorities

In my neck of the woods, the Philadelphia School District is a perfect example of what not to do if a community wants to produce literate students who can perform well at the collegiate level. Claiming budget woes, the district closed 20-plus schools, with 60 closings projected over the next five years.

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And you would think that these closings would mean that money could be poured into the remaining schools to improve curriculum, conditions, etc. Nope! The school district actually laid off teachers, counselors, clerical staff and nurses—practically anyone who would be able to address any of the home and parenting issues that many cite as causes of illiteracy in the first place. You can be sure that in a city that is nearly 50 percent African American, the majority of these schools are in the same urban communities from which the open-admission community college where I work receives its students.

Oh, and did I mention that while the public school district cries broke, millions of dollars are being spent to build prisons and juvenile-detention centers? School-to-prison pipeline, anyone?

A Shifting Definition of Literacy

The second issue is one that doesn’t get as much attention as the aforementioned. Literacy in 2014 is not just about a student being able to read and write at or above grade level. True literacy today requires a student to be able to communicate effectively using technology and social media.

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I wonder if we are sending our children mixed messages. Our culture says that communicating concisely (e.g., in 140 characters and blog formats) is important—even if you must sacrifice basic grammar and spelling rules to do it. Those of us in higher education say that the ability to write complex sentences with subject-verb agreement that firmly define an argument is equally important. So when texting language and characters show up in research papers I’m grading and students genuinely don’t see the issue with that, I have to scratch my head and ask, what’s really going on?

And rest assured, if a shifting definition of literacy is an issue with students generally, it is a problem that is magnified for students of color, who already struggle with literacy as it is commonly known.

So, what now? I will continue to toil in the classroom, making accommodations and coming up with creative ways to help students “catch up” without sacrificing those who are equipped to learn at the next level. But unless we all stop shifting blame and address head-on these and the many other issues that exist around literacy inequities, I, and other instructors like me, will burn out. And our students—our society as a whole—will pay the price. We’ll have a whole generation of people who can tweet at record speed but who won’t be able to read their mortgage documents, follow the ever-changing policies of our government or express themselves clearly in words.

Shame on us—not just their parents, but all of us.

More in The Root’s ongoing coverage of educational issues: “America’s Unspoken Education Issue: Black Kids Need Black Teachers

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Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts is a writer and educator based in the metro Philadelphia area. Her work has appeared in the Chronicle for Higher Education, at MyBrownBaby.com, and in numerous other online and print publications.