The Wainstein report covers the who, what, when, where and how questions. It even covers the little why question. Why did UNC have paper classes? The answer: to maintain athletes’ eligibility.
The big why isn’t mentioned, though. Why couldn’t these athletes maintain eligibility through standard classes? The answer: because we as a state and as a nation don’t teach young black males how to read.
The only accurate measure of reading proficiency across states is the NAEP score. This is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In North Carolina, 11 percent of black males are proficient in reading in eighth grade. Coaches who want to recruit athletes able to compete and excel at the Division I level face an insurmountable statistical challenge.
Our coaches could go to RDU and fly to the highest-ranking states like New Jersey with 19 percent proficiency among black male students. Maryland has 18 percent. Still, in these high-ranking states, the numbers remain small.
Our state tests, which are more generous than the NAEP scores, show 27.2 percent of black males in Chapel Hill-Carrboro reading proficiently. In Wake County, 28.7 percent of black males are proficient. In Durham, 22.9 percent can read their classroom materials. Research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows strong correlations between not being able to read on grade level and the dropout rate, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, unemployment and crime.
Jamezetta Bedford, the chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education, has asked how we are achieving high graduation rates with such low proficiency rates. It is a curious situation. How is a student who isn’t able to read his eighth-grade classroom materials able to graduate from high school?
An even more curious situation is the prevalence of private schools for reading instruction. When you were growing up, what was the name of your town’s private school for reading instruction? There wasn’t one in any of the places I lived. In the Triangle, we have six such schools. If your child is struggling with reading, and you have $15,000 or more, your child can learn to read. In North Carolina reading has become an elitist activity.
Given our state’s struggle with reading, as Judge Howard Manning characterized it, what is a college coach to do?
Mary Willingham, the UNC whistleblower, believes effective remediation is key. “The challenge lies with the NCAA and university admissions exceptions,” she says. “The scholarship agreement promises an opportunity for an education in exchange for talent. In order for this contract to be valid, we need to first provide many of our D-1 revenue athletes with the literacy skills necessary to compete in the classroom.”
Michael Holzman, a leading researcher and author on education matters, suggests this is an opportune time for UNC to address this disparity. He said, “If the UNC football coaches found that all of their potential recruits were undernourished, they would find some way to feed them.”
Maybe this is bigger than just a UNC athletic or academic scandal. Maybe this is our moment to address a much larger issue.
Debbie McCarthy, the executive director of the Augustine Literacy Project, a nonprofit based in Chapel Hill, insists that any child can be taught to read. Her program uses volunteer tutors extensively trained in a research-based, phonetic, multi-sensory approach modeled on the Orton-Gillingham system. Augustine tutors offer free, long-term, one-on-one instruction to low-income struggling readers across the Triangle. Orton-Gillingham is also the methodology used in most private schools for reading instruction. There must be something in this special sauce if so many of our neighbors are paying dearly for it so their children can read.
Why not consider using it in our public schools? Wouldn’t it be great if no student had to leave a school building in order to learn how to read? Wouldn’t it be great if a high school diploma also meant you could read?
UNC is facing some painful facts about its recent history. In an effort to keep athletes eligible, it worked around deficits in the education of its students. These deficits existed long before these athletes stepped foot on campus.
Rather than just examining the actions of UNC, maybe we have to look at what wasn’t done 10 years earlier.
Bedford has a valid question. How are these students able to graduate high school without being proficient at reading?
Maybe the best way to support UNC athletics is to volunteer in local schools to help our area’s struggling readers.
Maybe our checks shouldn’t be going to the Ram’s Club but rather to the Augustine Literacy Project.
Mary Carey of Chapel Hill is the founder of BootstrapsPAC, a nonpartisan volunteer group representing children who can’t read, and a columnist for The Chapel Hill News, from which this piece is reprinted.