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On Education: If you are waiting on a judge to rule that your child should be able to read & write effectively by the 12th grade, well…

“Michigan judge rules kids don’t have a fundamental right to literacy”

 “Some folks,” as one Brooklyn NY elder once told the teenage me, “are focusing on the ice cubes in the glass, even as they are melting!” If parents are waiting on a judge to rule that their children should be able to read and write by the 12th grade, then sad to say, but the battle is already lost. I have not spoken to the judge, but I imagine that several questions & concerns may have entered his mind:

  • How can a child spend 12-14 years in an “educational system” and end up not being able to read? Since children are normally inquisitive learners (ever chased a toddler around the house), language acquisition is a “natural” event and given the number of years available to accomplish literacy, there would almost need to be an antiliteracy plan in place for a child to be semi- or fully illiterate at the end of such a long process!
  • The now-illiterate teenager would have been exposed to large numbers of professional school district personnel, teachers, support staff, reading specialist, administrators who were responsible for making him literate. Did any of these professionals: lose their jobs, were suspended, demoted, lose pay, have their licenses and certifications revoked?
  • When the child was in 1st, 3rd, 7th, 9th and 11th grades, did anybody notice that the child could not read? If so, what radical intervention actions were taken; like putting the best, most effective teachers in front of the literacy-weakest students? Extra mandated 2 hours of school? A “reading for fun” rewards program? Providing free home/family libraries? SYEP summer “learning to read” jobs?
  • And especially scary is if the child graduated from high school how on earth did they accomplish that goal being semi- or fully illiterate? (employers & college officials have been asking that question for years!)
  • How did the parents of children who could not read in the 2nd, 4th, 8th and 10th grades respond when they found out their children could not read? How did the local, state and federal political leaders respond, the “woke” folks, the civic and religious leaders in the communities where these children live; what did they do in the face of a clear crisis?
  • What role did the federal, state and local governments play in continuing to fund school systems annually (including additional funding specifically for reading intervention services) when these districts were not successfully producing an outcome for which they were being paid. And,
  • What statutes, laws, labor contract (or political) agreements have the above entities and both major political parties put in place that would allow for educators to keep their jobs, get increases, even paid to not work, in the face of clear teaching literacy incompetence? How did schools fail to fulfill a fundamental institutional minimum mandate, the very reason for their existence?
  • It seems that the “illiterate group” is concentrated in specific zip codes, neighborhoods, schools, on children of color, poor children and the children of parents with missing political clout and organizational strength. Meanwhile, the children of entitlement flourished in the school system. And so obviously, when it chooses to do so, the educational system could teach children to read and write before they reached the 12th grade!

Parents, it is you who must build a love of books, reading and writing in your child. My mother only stepped onto a college campus to attend a child’s graduation ceremony. Daily, she traveled a long distance by subway to work a very exhausting domestic worker job. As a single parent, she then had to come home, cook and maintain her own home. And although she was often tired from a day of maintaining two homes, she somehow found the strength at the end of the day to read to me during my baby-through-toddler stages. Being read to daily, despite her personal exhaustion, eventually as an adult, took on for me, the meaning of an act of love.

In my elementary school days, I met her at the IRT Eastern Parkway subway stop every month as she labored to carry a heavy shopping bag of magazines destined to be trashed by her employer. I looked forward to, and cherished those month-old copies of Life, The New Yorker, Look, Natural History and National Geographic magazines! My mom taught me to read, exposed me to books long before I started school. Every summer school break, I had mother assigned reading and writing goals to meet; and at some point, in my preadolescent life, those exercises became self-motivationally initiated. It was not that my mother held any animosity toward the public school or judicial systems. It’s just that she did not fully trust them with matters of literacy and her child; and so, like all good education parents, she took (reading & writing) matters into her own hands.


Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal, and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently published a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership…



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