'Illiteracy epidemic' exists in CPS, but don't dismiss progress

There’s clearly more to do to improve reading among lower-income students of color. But over the last two decades, no other large city in the nation has made as much progress, as quickly, as Chicago.

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Chicago Public Schools

Parents and students arrive at George Armstrong Elementary School, 2110 W. Greenleaf Ave. in Rogers Park, for the first day of school in August 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Taal Hasak-Lowy’s recent op-ed about third grade illiteracy in Chicago was a powerful call to action about a really important issue. And she was right to point out that long before the pandemic, an “illiteracy epidemic has plagued Chicago’s most vulnerable students for decades.” But describing this problem without also acknowledging Chicago Public Schools’ steady and impressive progress with it doesn’t advance the cause.

How impressive? For close to two decades, University of Illinois Chicago’s Center for Urban Education Leadership has used data provided by the Illinois State Board of Education to track the percentage of Chicago students who score at or above statewide averages. When Chicago students took the state reading exam in 2019, 40% of Black third graders from low-income families scored at or above the average score for all children tested statewide, up from 29% in 2014 and 17% in 2001. Citywide, a little over 50% of all Chicago third graders scored at or above the statewide average in 2019, up from 36% in 2014 and 19% in 2001.

There’s clearly more to do. But over the last two decades, no other large city in the nation has moved this far, this fast.

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None of this makes Hasak-Lowy’s call to action any less urgent. She’s right that all children can learn to read. Anything short of 100% is an unacceptable organizational failure. She’s also right that supporting literacy is at least as much about providing safety, dignity, and personal affirmation as it is about teaching phonics and sight words. Finally, unlike the strong recovery from pandemic disruptions that CPS students achieved in grades four through eight, third grade reading and math scores fell much farther . . . and recovered way less . . . between 2019 and 2023 than scores for students in other tested grades. If third and fourth grade achievement from this current year don’t show strong signs of recovery, the prospects for growth in later years will be deeply at risk.

But as urgent as these challenges are, framing them as part of an “illiteracy epidemic that has plagued Chicago’s most vulnerable students for decades” makes it sound like Chicago educators have been almost completely ineffectual at helping all of Chicago’s children become proficient readers by the end of third grade. However well-intentioned that messaging may be, it just isn’t true. And it paints a picture that doesn’t give Chicago’s students, parents and educators the credit they deserve.

Paul Zavitkovsky, assessment specialist and policy advocate, UIC Center for Urban Education Leadership, former Chicago Public Schools principal

Many more CPD officers needed to put a dent in crime

Mayor Brandon Johnson has has said that more policing will not aid in decreasing crime. I think if more officers, hundreds more, would walk their beats and drive the streets in full uniform and marked police cars, it would aid in the reduction of street crimes. Of course, hundreds to thousands of new officers have to be hired. Perhaps the state could assist by creating additional funding to Chicago for the hiring of thousands of new officers.

George Pfeifer, Evanston

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