To know the future of Black America in 15 to 20 years, one need only look at the dismal academic performance of 3rd- and 4th- grade Black students today. The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress Report reveals that only 16% of African-American 4th- grade students in Illinois read at a proficient level or above. Unfortunately, Black students throughout the rest of the country do not fare much better.

As a group, without the ability to read well, no future exists for Black children in America. The real tragedy is that Black American students are no longer just competing against White American students. They are competing educationally against the best and the brightest students globally. And Black students are failing miserably.

This failure exists after six years of No Child Left Behind, 53 years of Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education, and 142 years of being technically removed from slavery. If Black children cannot read today, they cannot become the Black doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, bankers, accountants, technologists, business people or educators of tomorrow who will make Black communities successful. If Black children cannot read today, they are really no better off than their forefathers who were slaves.

Schools cannot fix the problem without the support and participation of parents, families and communities in the learning process. This academic achievement gap -- the precursor to quality-of-life gaps in employment, income, health, housing, marriage and wealth -- begins before Black children start school, widens between kindergarten and 2nd grade and is locked in by the 3rd grade. Before schools can address this educational gap, it must be addressed in the homes, communities and value systems of all Black Americans.

Reading means freedom. Reading means prosperity. Reading means power. Reading well, with comprehension, is the purest indicator of academic and economic success. Reading well is the essential step to solving almost every problem in the Black community. Reading well is the gateway to success for Black Americans in the 21st century. There is no other way.

Black people must be responsible for teaching Black children to read. No other strategy or approach has worked. Encouraging the Black community to take responsibility for Black children learning to read does not mean that integration was a failure or that many White teachers are not doing a good job. Nor does it mean that Black people should only allow their children to attend majority Black or Black-operated schools. It does mean, however, that no matter who teaches our children, Black people must develop and enforce our own educational standards.

Unless, we, Black parents and other Black community members immediately take the issue of poor reading skills by African-American students into our own hands, the work of the 20th century civil rights movement will have been in vain.

Here are some ways to address the national emergency of Black children reading poorly:

  1. Model reading for Black children -- read for knowledge, read for self-improvement and read for pleasure.
  2. Read to very young children and have young children read to siblings and adults.
  3. Encourage your children to read for 30 to 60 minutes every day.
  4. Encourage your pre-school through high-school children to read to you every day.
  5. Encourage younger children to read rather than play video games or sports.
  6. Give books for birthdays, holidays and other meaningful occasions.
  7. Ask your church to offer children's weekly reading classes and to encourage children to read church lessons on Sundays.
  8. Praise Black boys more for reading well rather than for engaging in other activities.
  9. Encourage your children to join a book club for youth.
  10. Build a household library with books and magazines for your children.
  11. Reward your children for reading often and reading well.
  12. Organize reading parties or events with other families for your children.
  13. Visit bookstores and libraries regularly with your children.
  14. Ensure that the books at your children's school are up-to-date and relevant.
  15. Encourage your children to read in one or more languages in addition to English.
  16. Enroll your children in a free or low-cost tutoring program.
  17. Ask every Black child that you meet: "What are you reading today?"

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