Reading as a First-Mile Problem: Recognizing the Role of Poverty and Inequity in Literacy Development

Literacy scholar Tim Shanahan answers the question Why Is It So Hard to Improve Reading Achievement? with the following: “Classroom implementation is the last mile in reading reform.” He eventually adds, “The last mile rhetoric shouldn’t be a hair-on-fire message, but one that acknowledges both the current successes and the need to do better.”

Shanahan’s consideration of the persistent public and political concern over low reading achievement appears to offer a balanced admission that many approaches to reading instruction can be successful, but framing reading as a last-mile problem is finding yourself in a hole and deciding you just need to dig a little deeper.

Shanahan seems to accept a number of different “levers” as valid approaches to improving student reading, including a somewhat veiled endorsement of Common Core standards; in fact, he concedes: “Let’s face it. Our problem in reading isn’t that nothing works. It’s that everything does.”

In 2020, what Shanahan’s last-mile argument reveals, however, is that there is a mistake in teaching reading that can be addressed, but as a society, we refuse to acknowledge that reading is a first-mile problem.

That first mile is much larger than formal schooling, and what we refuse to recognize is that measurable reading achievement is a marker for the disadvantages of poverty and inequity in both the lives and schooling of vulnerable populations of students (students in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners, special needs students).

The accountability movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests has been paralyzed by in-school only reform. That movement is both an example of last-mile reform and why last-mile reform has failed.

First, let’s acknowledge that Shanahan does make a key argument about how reading is taught; for example, a recent review of meta-analyses of systematic intensive phonics has shown that most approaches to teaching reading are about equally effective, as Shanahan suggests.

However, the current “science of reading” version of the Reading War argues that systematic intensive phonics must be required for all students; this phonics-first claim has been concurrent with pathologizing most struggling readers as probably dyslexic.

If we shift from last-mile reform to first-mile reform, then, we must avoid both “all students must” and “everything works,” choosing instead to admit that every student deserves the reading instruction they need (regardless of what programs or standards mandate), and we must acknowledge that students living in relative privilege often acquire reading rather easily, suggesting that the conditions within which students live and learn need to be reformed—not the students or the teaching methods.

First-mile reform in reading must start with addressing poverty and inequity in every child’s life. Alleviating poverty, addressing food security, improving work opportunities and security, adopting universal health care—these are issues of equity that would allow all students to acquire reading in ways that are now common for affluent students (often before entering formal schooling).

Stable communities and homes not overburdened by poverty and inequity would have the opportunities to provide children with language-rich environments that send children to formal schooling already highly literate, often reading before direct instruction.

First-mile reform of reading, however, is not a narrow commitment to out-of-school only, but it makes primary equity-focused out-of-school reform while also including equity-focused in-school reform as secondary but essential.

Instead of digging the accountability hole deeper by seeing reading reform as a last-mile challenge, we must climb out of that silo and think differently about in-school reform.

Equity-focused reading reform starts with the conditions of teaching and learning—guaranteeing students small student/teacher ratios in early literacy classes, insuring all students have experienced and highly-qualified teachers, and funding fully the materials needed for rich literacy experiences (authentic texts for all students and robust libraries in the schools and in children’s homes and communities).

This new approach to reform would also avoid tracking students and then would monitor more directly equitable learning opportunities as opposed to narrow measurable outcomes. For example, all students should be in rich and challenging courses—and not in test-prep classes or highly prescriptive programs (reading programs or systematic phonics for all).

Last-mile reading reform continues to focus on students as inherently flawed humans who need to be fixed; first-mile reading reform recognizes that systems are flawed, and that all students can flourish if their living and learning environments are equitable and conducive to learning.

Ultimately, continuing down the current road to reading reform as if we just need to be more demanding of teachers and students in the crucial last mile is continuing to recognize the negative impact of poverty and inequity on children’s ability to read and teachers’ effectiveness in teaching reading.

We mustn’t keep our heads down, we mustn’t keep digging.

We need finally to acknowledge that reading is a first-mile problem.