By Lucy Hubbard
The Maryland Initiative for Literacy & Equity aims to use research, outreach and public policy to combat a decade of declining reading scores among Maryland children.
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, reading scores have steadily declined since 2013. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the already declining literacy in the state.
“We’ve seen a decline in the assessments of reading, especially for fourth graders and eighth graders over the course of the past few years and especially after COVID,” Associate Professor and MILE Lead Donald Bolger said. “We’ve seen a steep drop. Maryland, which used to be above the national average for literacy rates, is now falling below the national average substantially.”
MILE is an intercollege effort to increase literacy across the state. MILE studies education, speech pathology, library science and community outreach to create educational practices that address the declining literacy rate.
Maryland’s College of Education, College of Arts and Humanities, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, College of Information Studies and School of Public Policy are involved in MILE. Additionally, MILE has partnerships with Morgan State University and Maryland Speech & Hearing Association.
According to Bolger, MILE’s research will address how marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by inequity in the education system, and how children of color and multilingual students face larger barriers in achieving full literacy.
“This is an issue in which the barriers to literacy and barriers to achieving full literacy need to be broken down,” Bolger said. “One of the places where we need to solve that is from our research institutions, our institutions where we teach practitioners and then beyond.”
While MILE will train teachers and practitioners, it will also take a broader approach to literacy by addressing specific issues: public policy, community outreach, research and education.
According to the director of the Maryland Language Science Center, Colin Phillips, what sets MILE apart from other literacy initiatives is the broadness of their approach.
“People tend to assume that it’s all about early childhood reading,” Phillips said in an email. “That’s important, for sure, but it also brings in speech pathologists who are experts in pre-literacy skills (before kindergarten), librarians, public policy experts, and experts in diverse languages, since multilingualism is such a big issue for literacy currently.”
MILE will begin focusing their outreach on local communities in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, Howard County, Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
Community outreach is central to MILE’s work because literacy is not exclusively achieved within a classroom but is developed within the community, in places of worship and barbershops.
“This is a lot about community partnerships,” Bolger said. “Because it’s not just about us dictating to these communities about how things should go but also learning and listening and drawing from the assets of those communities and the different ways that they do things.”
Through their research and community outreach, MILE hopes to better understand inequities in education and how they impact marginalized groups. According to Assistant Professor and MILE researcher Rachel Romeo, declining literacy rates is more than an educational issue, but a social justice issue.
“One of the reasons we’re interested in this [is] we want to both understand the root causes of these inequities and then also some solutions,” Romeo said. “We’re well aware that it’s probably a multi-pronged issue, but we see it as a civil rights issue to reduce the inequities in reading development.”
Addressing the disparities in literacy could impact economic inequities in Maryland as well. Those who do not achieve functional literacy often lack economic mobility and are more likely to live in poverty, as well as be unemployed or incarcerated, according to Bolger.
“Literacy is critical for all of life,” Bolger said. “There’s a lot of pieces to be unpacked in terms of just the mental freedom, the ability to learn about anything, but also the ease of economic freedom.”
While many think of literacy as something that is taught early on in one’s life, it is still an important component of secondary and higher education. Even outside of the classroom, those who are not functionally literate struggle with health forms in doctor’s offices and voting on election ballots.
“It is really the key to so much of what we do as a society,” Romeo said. “Literacy is tied to so much of our participation in society and who we are and our health and our well being.”
According to Romeo, a lot of the researchers with MILE have witnessed inequities in literacy firsthand.
“Almost all of us have experience in the field in some way,” Romeo said. “Whether it be in schools, whether it be in libraries, whether it be in the legislature, whatever it is, and we all have seen these inequities firsthand, and many of us experience them personally and so that’s really kind of like the heart and soul of the driver.”
Featured: The Benjamin Building, which houses UMD’s College of Education, is photographed on April 27 2023. Photo by Lucy Hubbard.