Only 62% of our country’s eighth graders are able to read, according to the latest round of Nation’s Report Card scores. This is cause for alarm not just today, but for what our country’s future may become if this learning loss is not addressed. 

We have had a literacy crisis in this country long before COVID began. At this moment, an estimated 1 in 7 American adults, or roughly 14%, is functionally illiterate. This means that roughly 86% of American adults are literate, and yet 91% of Americans over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or equivalent. Roughly 7% of Americans have graduated high school without learning to read or write. The schools have failed them.

Adult illiteracy hurts not just the individuals who cannot read but the entire economy in which they participate. A Gallup study found that our economy could be missing out on $2.2 trillion because so many people are unable to make inferences, analyze written information, evaluate sources, and more. If this rising generation is less literate than those before it, our economy will be further hindered. 

Schools have been so bad for so long that major corporations have stepped in to make sure their employees learn the educational basics. Ford and Motorola have backed programs to teach their own workers to read. Other companies are adapting to a lack of literacy among consumers by using graphics, rather than words, to communicate with them in a retail environment. 

COVID did not start our literacy crisis, but it will make it immeasurably worse if students are never brought up to speed on reading and writing. We need students to be prepared to handle adult responsibilities like reading a lease agreement, understanding an employee handbook, and analyzing what is presented to them by the news media. Some of the most basic parts of being a productive citizen hinge on one’s ability to read and write. 

There are many ways to bring students up to speed, if only the schools will use them. The first and most obvious fix is to use the existing COVID relief dollars to fund tutoring and remedial programs for every K-12 student who struggles with reading. Billions of the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief Fund still remain unspent, and the existing dollars can be used by states and districts to help ameliorate learning loss. This can look like hiring tutors, extending classroom instruction time, purchasing learning resources that help kids to read, and more. 

Illiteracy is often a generational problem. When a child has not learned to read, especially if that child has already reached the higher grades, the parents may need extra help, too. And while it’s not the job of K-12 students to educate those who have already graduated, it would be a benefit to society as a whole if solutions pursued by schools took into account the fact that many children do not have learning support at home. 

The second way to fix the literacy crisis is to create and enforce higher academic standards at the state and local levels. In our current system, where students are promoted from grade to grade without much consideration for what they have learned, thousands of people are awarded high school diplomas each year even though they can’t read what’s printed on them. A high school diploma should be a meaningful signifier of having mastered the educational basics, not a permission slip to leave school after thirteen years of attendance. 

There’s a third solution here, which more states are embracing: school choice. If one school has failed to teach a child to read by the end of the third grade, that child deserves a chance to go to a school that will get the job done. Sending them to repeat a grade at the same school that failed them the first time gives them another year to try, but may be an exercise in futility if the school still neglects to meet that student’s needs. 

Each of these solutions requires a willingness to change the educational status quo. But without a major upgrade to student learning, our economic future will suffer.