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College Professors Say Student Literacy Is Plummeting


In a recent article for Slate, professor Adam Kotsko details a disturbing trend he’s noticed in his classes. It’s not phones. And it’s not Zyns. It’s this: literacy. According to Kotsko, even the best and brightest students are struggling with surprisingly fundamental concepts in literacy. They have trouble with stamina. Basic comprehension. Extracting even the simplest meaning from a written text.

How many K-12 teachers are surprised? Approximately zero.

Kotsko touches on a number of reasons for this trend, among them:

  • Book bans
  • Smartphones
  • Standardized testing favoring short passages
  • School closures and learning loss
  • Major changes in reading pedagogy

Gratefully, it’s clear that Kotsko is not issuing an indictment of the students themselves. He writes, “We are not complaining about our students. We are complaining about what has been taken from them.” I don’t think he means to indict teachers, either. His criticism falls mainly on systems, pedagogy, and cultural failings.

Still, I think there are some gaps in this conversation—gaps his readers could easily blame on K-12 teachers—that are important to fill.

Here’s what I would add:

We need to stop using cheap shortcuts on a system that needs triage.

Leaders rarely evaluate a new decision or policy for its research, whether or not it’s good for retaining teachers, and what kind of long-term data we have. Instead, we make whatever decision is cheapest, like “solving” the teaching shortage by lowering standards to become a teacher or “addressing” failure rates by instituting “no zeros in the grade book” policies.

Give teachers what they’ve been asking for all along—funded schools and a wage that can support a family—and we’ll see results.

If it’s surprising to you to learn that college literacy is in decline, ask yourself why.

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone brings up an idea you said five minutes ago, and everyone acts like it’s brand-new information—and you don’t get credit for it? Teachers have been warning you for decades. They said No Child Left Behind was bad news all around. They told you balanced literacy was going to result in an illiterate generation. Teachers were the first to tell you how smartphones were impacting learning. To constantly hear other people finally say what we’ve been saying all along—now, far too late to undo its effects, and as if it’s a surprise—is maddening.

To be clear, Kotsko is right. We should all be deeply concerned that students are increasingly showing up to college without literacy skills that should be fundamental at that level.

We should be equally concerned that the writing has been on the wall—and ignored—for decades.

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