Reading and the Black-White Achievement Gap

Since childhood, I have been an avid reader. In elementary school, I almost failed fifth grade because of my love of reading. When the teacher gave the first worksheet of the day, I’d finish it as quickly as possible so that I could reach for the book that I had stashed in my desk. Every now and again, I’d look up to see what the rest of the class was doing. If they were still working, I kept reading. I always marveled at how long it took my classmates to complete a worksheet. It wasn’t until the “D” appeared on my progress report that I realized that my peers had been moving on to new assignments while I was reading.

With a toddler around, I don’t often have the luxury of becoming so engrossed in books that I’m oblivious to what’s going on around me. But I am addicted to books in the way that some women are addicted to shoes. Give me a free minute and there’s likely to be a book in my hand. When I leave the house – whether it’s for a day of work or for extended travel – I often spend more time agonizing over which book(s) to take than what to wear. I swear I get a contact high when I walk into a bookstore.

So it’s probably no surprise that I would really, really, really love to have one of the new e-readers on the market now. The idea of being able to carry thousands of books on one device is euphoria-inducing. And to be able to buy and instantly read a new book no matter where I am…OMG! Given the number of books that I have to buy for my classes and research each year, the comparatively low cost of e-books could mean a pretty significant savings. Well, in reality it’d just mean that I could buy more books for the same amount of money. Okay, but it’d definitely be less weight to carry around, which would help my chronic back pain. Not to mention it’d save on shelf space.

But every time I think about these miraculous devices, I experience a twinge of reluctance. There’s just something about a physical book that can’t be replaced. I tried to convince myself that I’d adjust to an e-reader over time, but I still couldn’t imagine switching over to a virtual library.

A few days ago, I finally realized why a Kindle, Nook, or iPad could never replace physical books for me. It’s because my library is not just for me. It’s for my children.

For years, I’ve been trying to accumulate a library that includes books that I think all progressive families should own. There are certain books that I want to have sitting on the shelves so that my children might be compelled, in a moment of boredom or curiosity, to pick them up and read them. These include books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Carter G. Woodson’s Miseducation of the Negro, W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Not to mention Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lewis’ Narnia series, and the entire Harry Potter series.

Last week, as I was writing in the journal that I’m keeping for my son, I felt compelled to list these books, and others, as required reading for him to be a thinking Black man (I’ll post the list sometime soon). It turns out that I was making this list in the same week of publication of a study showing that the number of books that a family owns is a better predictor of children’s academic success than the education, occupation, and socioeconomic status of the parents. Children who grow up in a home with 500 books complete an average of 3.2 years more schooling than children who grow up in homes without books. And the effect is even greater for children from the poorest families. For parents with only primary-school education, having as little as 25 books in the home means that children will complete 2 more years of schooling than their counterparts with no books. USA Today has a brief article on the study, which appears in full in the June 2010 issue of the journal, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

While the study didn’t look at race, I can’t help but to wonder about the impact that a family library can have on academic achievement among African American children. Studies like these often focus on poverty (and they should). However, there’s a long line of research documenting a significant and persistent achievement gap between middle-class black and white children in America. As one researcher states, “the school performance of middle-class black children is closer to that of poor white children.” By the age of 5, black children in middle-class homes own an average of 60 books; their white counterparts (i.e., children of parents with similar levels of income and education) have 100.

More than once, I have visited the homes of middle-class African American friends and family and have noted that there are few, if any, books in the household. In contrast, these homes are usually well-stocked with DVDs and state-of-the-art entertainment and gaming systems.

A few months ago, when I proudly posted a video of my then 20-month-old practicing his alphabet, a few family members asked what our secret was. Quite simply, we limit his television consumption and we read to him often. We take him to story hour at the library, buy at least two new books each month (at not quite two, he has at least 60 books), and have read a minimum of 4 books per day since infancy (the current average is 6-8 books per day). In fact, 99% of the time, if he brings a book to us, we will stop whatever we are doing and read it. Even if he brings 12 books in a row (which he likes to do), we read all of them. You might call us a child-reading-centered household.

Does it mean that he’ll be smarter than other kids? No one can predict that. There are a ton of social factors out there waiting to influence him as he grows up. We may not be able to combat all of them. But hopefully, our attempts to raise a reader will give us a head start.

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