Race, wealth, and literacy in Memphis: Why third grade matters

This is the Part I of a two-part series on Memphis' biggest literacy divides and the local organizations working to close those gaps. Part II spotlights those organizations and how they're improving their tools and proving their case with real-world data. Part I asks why is third grade so important and why Memphis is struggling with pervasive low literacy.

Read Part II here: "Race, wealth, and literacy in Memphis: Who's helping kids read at grade-level?"

"We've got a major problem ... Illiteracy just damages people’s lives and communities and economies." —Lisa Wiltshire, Tennesseans for Quality Early Education

Failures in our big social institutions, like education, are often referred to as “the cracks.” In Memphis, a closer look at recent data on childhood literacy show more than cracks.

Memphis has chasms.

The biggest fault lines run alongside race and economics with fissures that can spider through whole communities. Low-income black students are at highest risk for low-literacy and a lifetime of learning deficits. 

“When you start to look at the proficiency rates [along] racial lines and equity lines, it's alarming. They can drop as low as 13 to 24% of those student populations who are proficient in reading,” said Lisa Wiltshire, senior policy fellow for nonprofit Tennesseans for Quality Early Education.

In Memphis, there are some supports for early childhood education to prepare at-risk kids for kindergarten. Head Start programs and nonprofit organizations like Porter-Leath focus there.

For older students, available support is largely based on what their schools can offer.

SCS recently upped its literacy supports with a specific focus on second graders in under-resourced schools. Organizations like TQEE and ALLMemphis are supporting students and educators up to third grade with adaptable tools backed by local data.

"We've got a major problem," said Wiltshire of the need for intense focus on birth to third grade learning. "Illiteracy just damages people’s lives and communities and economies."

Third Grade Matters

As students move through elementary school, gaps in literacy widen and the chances of catching up begin to shrink.

There's a popular adage in education that third grade is the point at which students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. After third grade, basic reading lessons drop off. So do supplemental supports that are often targeted to at-risk students.

For some students, test scores at the end of third grade can predict of long-term outcomes. This is especially true for kids with other stressors and traumas like poverty, food insecurity, housing and family violence, or those in neighborhoods with both high crime and over-policing.

There are correlations between third grade proficiencies and graduation rates, wages as an adult, even criminality.

“What we know beyond schooling is that almost 85% of teens in the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate and seven out of 10 adult prisoners in the prison population can’t read above a fourth grade level," said Wiltshire.

"We’ve got this profound rippling effect where high school dropouts make up about 95% of Americans on welfare and 75% of food stamp recipients," she continued.

Overall, only 24% of Shelby County Schools' third graders scored proficient in reading on the TNReady standardized assessment in 2019. That's 3% lower than the previous year and 12% below the statewide proficiency of 36%.

Meanwhile, five of Shelby County's more affluent, majority-white school districts were among the top ten districts statewide for 3rd grade language arts proficiency—Arlington, Germantown, Collierville, Lakeland, and Bartlett. Those districts all formed to avoid the 2013 merger of their formerly county-operated schools with Memphis City Schools.

Related: "Experts fear COVID-19 could widen Memphis' literacy divides"

Treadwell Elementary kindergarten students beamed with excitement as they prepared to sing '¿Que ves alli?' at the school's Hispanic Heritage Day celebration. (Renier Otto)

Why Are Black memphians less literate?

Memphis is diverse and complex. Its divides are not singular and simple with poor black residents with little education on one side and wealthy whites with college degrees on the other.

The city has low-income people of many ethnicities and backgrounds. The city has wealthy and middle-class black people. Some white Memphian struggle with literacy and many black Memphians are scholars, entrepreneurs, inventors, and trailblazers. 

But taken in aggregate, black residents in Memphis' city limits are more likely to live in poverty than white, Latino, and Asian Memphians. They're more likely to be behind in third grade literacy, and the 2019 American Communities Survey showed black Memphians are also twice as likely as white Memphis to have no high school diploma.

In Memphis proper, just shy of 45% of all children 0-18 years live in poverty. SCS' schools are concentrated inside city limits. Seventy-three percent of its students are African American.

Nearly 400 years of race-based social, legal, and economic policies account for much of the disparities down racial lines.From chattel slavery to predatory lending, black families and communities have been disinvested and in some cases decimated.

Related: Seeing Red I: "Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis"

The city's deepest pockets of poverty are concentrated in its oldest majority-black neighborhoods—Orange Mound, eastern Binghampton, and the communities of North Memphis and South Memphis.

“The Shelby County schools that we’re in are very spread out ... But I would say mainly North Memphis and South Memphis are where a lot of our schools are," said Krista Johnson, executive director and co-founder of ALL Memphis.

ALLMemphis has worked with 15 area schools. They train teachers and literacy coaches in a customized, multi-sensory phonics programs, including SCS educators. 

Literacy starts in the home, but if home and its community have few resources, the starting line moves back.

Low-income families value education as much as wealthier families, but higher-income parents with college degrees have more time and money to spend on their kids. They can buy more educational tools and toys, hire tutors, access more digital tools and media, and take them to more places. They can send their kids to private school or live in a wealthier neighborhood with better-resourced public schools. They're less likely to struggle with low-literacy themselves. They hold more conversations with their young children and read to them more often. 

With each advantage or disadvantage, the chasms grow. 

"It's hard to play catch up," said Wiltshire. "You need to be literate to be functional and successful in all the rest of schooling."

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute. It is part of an ongoing series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education. UCI focuses on funding, advocacy, and community support for kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy to improve overall education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.
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Read more articles by Jim Coleman and Cole Bradley.