I should mention at the start of this that this post is not about the cases in Detroit or Rhode Island directly. If you’ve read about those cases, you’ve likely been moved to sorrow, frustration, and possibly outrage over what’s transpired. It’s inexcusable for many reasons, the reading and education portion just being one part of that.  

With that said, I am not surprised at the legal results thus far, and that’s more of what this post is about — signs like the one posted here, and a general discussion about the responsibilities and roles of schools in regards to teaching our children to read.

Cropped image from Leigh Taylor / The Detroit News

This sign is an iceberg of frustrations. Personally? I’m afraid we’re barking up the wrong tree, though. 

Be patient with me for this, we have a lot to unpack. 

First, having family and friends working in the education system, I’ve come to understand that the difficulties we face and the solutions we need are not as simple as our protest signs make it seem. There are layers upon layers of complexities for how we’ve gotten to where we are, and why it’s hard to make a systematic change. 

On one hand, our lack of acknowledging that complexity contributes to large amounts of unhelpful tension, outrage, and impatience. People placing blame and solutions on one or two factors does nothing to help awareness, or bring tangible results. 

On the other hand, it’s very sad it’s not simple, because we really do hold the power to scrap everything and start over if we want to. It may not be practical, but it is possible

No matter how simple or complex any of us believe the situation is, we can all agree it’s not pretty at the moment. And this sign, especially for anyone who’s had a child in a low income district, or who has been an educator in a low income district, hits very close to home. As they say where I’m from, a sign like this? “That’ll preach.” 

The unfortunate reality is, even a lay person such as myself can see how in courts an argument like this, and many like it out there, no matter how loaded they may be, most likely won’t hold up. Why? For one reason, if you can somehow establish that the ability to read at a certain level is a lawfully guaranteed outcome for everyone (which is a tall task in and of itself), you then have to answer the question, “Who is legally responsibility to teach a child to read?” Schools? Or parents? The answer to that may depend on whose child it is, or who is the “owner”/responsible party if you will.  You? Or the State? More on that in a second. 

I would also assume in a court case, a school probably cannot be obligated to succeed in teaching every child to read, but only to try. After all, teaching is not a guaranteed result, it is a methodology used to get a desired result.  Schools, no matter how bad at it some may be, do in fact teach (to some degree) children to read. Whether every child “gets it” and can read, that’s a different discussion. And whether we agree on the method they’re using or not, so long as a portion of children do in fact learn to read, there’s little grounds to accuse them of not doing their job, even if commonsense tells you no child should leave a school unable to read.  Again, this isn’t a legal argument about “best practices and results” (which is subjective and difficult to win in court, especially since those in the literacy community cannot agree on what is the best method), it’s about if schools, which you have access to, are teaching children to read. The fact is, even bad ones technically do. 

If the question is about a child’s “right to learn/read”, a school would technically meet that requirement, too, much like the local DMV or BMV meet the requirement in granting you the “right to get your driver’s license.”  They can’t make, force, or guarantee you’ll get a license, nor that you’ll have a tester, vehicle, or driving route best suited for your strengths. They simply offer you the opportunity to come in and take the test. A “right” is not a “guaranteed equal outcome,” no matter how much we associate the two in our minds, or feel they should be synonymous. (Hence the tall task mentioned above of establishing that reading is a guaranteed outcome.)  

Continuing with this driver’s license example for a moment, if we need additional training? That’s on us. Need a specific car? That’s on us. We know this and we accept this dynamic for driving, and as a result, many of us pay to send our kids to a school where they sit in a few hours of lecture, and receive a few hours of behind-the-wheel instruction. We all know, though, that not a single school in the history of the Drivers Education world would ever guarantee your child will get their license by the end. In fact, many would say they’re simply supplementing what you, the parent, are to be doing. Our education system is very similar to this set-up, yet somehow along the way we’ve come to assume they must take FULL responsibility for teaching our children to read. I’m not saying driving and reading are 1 to 1 comparisons, nor am I trying to sound unsympathetic, nor am I saying I’m not as upset as you are at what’s going on, I’m simply saying, good luck winning a court case using the “rights” angle.  

Ask yourself what happens when lawyers are involved. You can bet questions will be asked, words will be broken down to their rawest definitions, and everything will be examined and made so convoluted, progress will be the last thing anyone ever sees. I wish I was more optimistic, but laws coming from cases like this would result in such systematic changes and ramifications, it seems unlikely to happen. 

Here’s the real kicker, though. If we go back to the initial question, “Whose child is this?” I believe every one of us would say the children belong to the parents.  If that is the case, then who has the ultimate responsibility of raising and teaching that child, legally and/or morally/ethically? The “owner” (parent)? Or the “hired help” (school)? 

Interestingly, we almost always place more responsibility on business owners, principals, the president, and those in higher-up positions than we do on the workers themselves. Yet, in this case, we think it’s on them, not us. They are OUR children. We can’t forget that. So, if we somehow established a precedent that reading is a guaranteed outcome, we must also then be ready for what happens if the courts decide we, as parents, are the ones ultimately responsible to ensure that happens. We could enlist all the help we want, but if our children cannot read, we (the “owner”) will be the ones who are held accountable, not schools (the “ hired help”). 

Be careful what you wish for. 

Personally, I agree with Israel Wayne. In his book, “Education: Does God Have an Opinion? A Biblical Apologetic for Christian Education & Homeschooling”, he makes the case the ultimate person(s) responsible for teaching our child is us, the parent. That means that for me, it doesn’t matter what courts do or don’t say. Even if I send my child to a school, and said school is failing, ultimately it is still on me to set my child up for success

If a school is failing at one of the core things I entrust my child to them for, it begs the question, though, “Why am I sending my child there in the first place?” That’s a great question and opens up a can of worms far too deep for this post, but we’re talking about who is responsible to teach my child to read, and that, as we’re seeing, is not a clear cut as our outrage so quickly assumes.

As a country, we created institutions to educate our kids. That’s not inherently a bad idea. Unfortunately, the sad part is that ever since then, we as parents have willingly and increasingly abdicated our responsibilities to them. We’ve done this so much and to such and extent that teachers are now required to be counselors, psychologists, nurses, cheerleaders, parents, and a dozen other things on top of trying to actually teach. Our expectations of what a school and its teachers are for, and what they can and should do, is often times neither healthy, nor realistic. We think because we contribute to paying their bills, we’re absolved of our part in the equation, and that they should create a certain result no matter how much responsibility we dump on them.  Is it possible at least a portion, not all, of what’s happening is because we’re hindering them by piling on responsibilities outside of their initial purpose? I think it’s certainly a factor worth considering. 

Now, before you get up in arms, I don’t think schools are fully absolved from their part in this illiteracy crisis we’re facing. That goes beyond wearing too many hats. No matter who has the ultimate responsibility, a school is a place where every child should be taught to read successfully

Period. 

Double period. 

Add in the fact that we do pay for schools, it seems reasonable to assume said service will be met with satisfaction. As we just went over, though, how much we can expect and hold them too becomes a little harder to discern. (Not to mention, depending on how your school gets funds, not everyone actually pays, so what right would that person have to have any expectations? But I digress.) 

Before we slap the majority of the blame on the schools and only some on us, let’s not forget that many of our universities are not properly equipping teachers to teach a child to read. Our teachers are showing up with great hearts, but the wrong tools for the job at hand. That’s not a recipe for success, nor is the teacher’s fault. 

In defense of the colleges, though, how can they decide how to equip teachers when the biggest proponents of literacy, who are often also those best suited to provide answers on what to change and how to do it, are divided and fighting constantly among themselves? Is it any wonder that outsiders and politicians sift through the latest research and then often pick poorly from the options out there? Many of us get lost navigating the current studies, so who am I to place too much blame on them for not knowing the “correct” processes to enforce? 

As I said, this situation is DEEP, and blame can be passed out like gifts at an Oprah Winfrey show. You get blame! And you get blame! And you get blame! We all get blame! Hurray! 

Setting aside blame, let’s say for the sake of argument that we agree that the parents are ultimately responsible for teaching children to read. Where does that leave us? Supplementing your child’s public or private schooling requires yet more time many of us are very short on, and feels like it should never be necessary given a school’s primary purpose. Alternatively, the complexities of homeschooling if you go that route, can be many. Also, not everyone is equipped to educate their kids, and in some cases, it would be better if they didn’t. Some children with “neurodiversity” require additional assistance, much of which is beyond untrained people, so how does that work? I didn’t say it was easy, but this is not a problem that’s going away anytime soon, so perhaps we need to resolve ourselves to that fact and get busy working. 

As near as I can tell, we can either get lost in the battle for rights and responsibility, or we can say bag it, I’m going to help my child. Regardless of how much of a responsibility we think we and the school have, if a school won’t/can’t/is unable to do its part, why will we let our children suffer because of someone else’s inadequacy? 

Continuing to allow them to be educated poorly, rather than getting in there ourselves and closing those gaps is, well, doubly foolish. Our kids suffer twice. Once because one side is failing them by not teaching them, and then again because the ones who see the inadequacy aren’t helping directly either. They spend their time griping and complaining, and in some cases lobbying and protesting, but rarely actually sitting down and taking matters in their own hands by teaching their child to read. 

Some of us do sit down and help. Many of us don’t. That’s as big of an issue as anything else. (Blame is all over the place in this messy, messy situation!) 

My plea to you is this, for the sake of your kid, forget any injustices — real or perceived — and close the gaps. Take that energy and frustration and put it to use where you can know it will have an impact. You, them, and good ‘ol fashioned one-on-one teaching. 

There’s merit to continuing to urge our education system to reform. That shouldn’t stop. We can and should correct this situation and improve our ability to teach children to read in schools. Especially since we have many among us who are parenting alone, whose job and/or physical health makes one-on-one with their child nearly impossible, who need help shouldering the burden of their current circumstances.  But time is precious, your child’s ability to read is precious, and I’d rather look back at my time and see I helped my child read, more than I spent hours upon hours urging and petitioning and meeting with others to teach my child, while they still remain illiterate.

Perhaps that feels daunting. Take heart, we live in a time and place where we have unprecedented access to resources. Teaching our children to read ourselves IS possible, even if we feel inadequate. Yes, there’s a lot to sort through, but there are many groups and resources for even that. Don’t let it deter you. Maybe progress won’t be fast or all at once, but every little bit is of benefit. 

I’m not sure about you, but for me, it is frustrating living in an era where we “have it all”, yet very little of it seems to be working. Maybe it’s time we went back to when we didn’t have it all. Perhaps we should return to “how it was”; when we did it ourselves with a little help from our friends.    

As you probably can guess, as for me and my house, at the end of the day I’ll do what it takes for my children. I’ll work with them myself, regardless of what is or is not happening in our public or private schools. I care less about what is “right”, and more about my children’s success. If I don’t have time to push for progress on both fronts, you can bet I’ll be devoting my energy to my child directly, first and foremost. If that means extra time and sacrifice to make it work, then so be it. The last time I checked, that’s what parenting — and humanity (especially if you claim to follow Christ) as a whole — is all about; setting aside myself for the betterment of those around me. 

I love this sign. I’m frustrated about the literacy situation in our country. I just don’t think the situation is as simple, or the blame as obvious, as our signs and tweets make it appear. And I fear all that outrage will ultimately still leave our children unable to read because we keep depending on others to do it for us. 

I hope I’m wrong. I really do. I only understand a peripheral view of all the layers and obstacles, and I can already tell this is going to take some major work to change. But rather than waiting and seeing, I’m taking charge of the only thing I can, my child’s learning.

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