The right to be taught how to read is a birthright of all Americans, argues attorney Mark Rosenbaum. And schools have a responsibility to teach them, says reading expert Nell Duke. They are allies in a series of legal cases to try to establish the “right to read,” and they join podcast co-hosts Karin Chenoweth and Tanji Reed Marshall in this second installment of a series of podcasts about reading instruction. (The first was a conversation with reading researcher Alfred Tatum.)

Among other things, they discussed the three legal cases Rosenbaum has brought:

  • Michigan: In 2019, a panel of the federal Sixth Circuit Court agreed with Rosenbaum’s argument that the 14th Amendment requires that all children be taught to read. Although the case does not provide a legal precedent for other federal courts, it did lead to an unprecedented settlement with the state of Michigan to be spent on schools in Detroit.
  • California: In 2020, the state of California agreed to a settlement in a case in which Rosenbaum argued that children have a right to read under the California constitution. The case cited an analysis of reading instruction in some of the lowest performing districts done by Duke and other scholars. In response, the state agreed to spend $53 million on California’s lowest performing schools to improve reading instruction.
  • New York City: This month, Rosenbaum filed suit against New York City arguing that it operates “racialized pipelines” where African American and Latino children are funneled into dilapidated school buildings with few books and harsh disciplinary practices, while some children—primarily White and Asian—are funneled into “gifted and talented” programs and specialized high schools. “If you had to design a caste system, you could do worse than coming forward with the New York City school system,” Rosenbaum said.

“Public education was the great innovation,” Rosenbaum said. “It was supposed to be the great equalizer. The reality is that it is the great un-equalizer. It is the strategy and the methodology for separating and for saying that certain groups will be treated as if they are superior to others.”

In order to ensure that every child has access to a quality education, Duke said, the field of education, should develop minimum standards of care. Such standards might include, for example, that every school ensure that elementary children are read aloud to every day, based on a huge body of research that demonstrates the importance of reading aloud to children. Although the Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences does provide practice guides, Duke said, few teachers know about them and they are not comprehensive.

Such minimum standards of care would ensure that no schools would have few books, few teachers, and no reading specialists, as was the case in some of the schools she studied in California.

“The vast majority of children can learn to read with the right instructional supports,” she said. “And it’s absolutely an appropriate mission for schools. In fact, one might argue the primary mission for schools is to develop citizens—and, to be a citizen in this country who can actively participate in the democratic process, reading and writing is so fundamental.”