Breaking the low-literacy cycle in Philadelphia


In 2016, 39.1% of School District of Philadelphia 3rd graders scored below proficiency on the literacy sections of Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. Once students get behind, it's almost impossible to catch up; as a result, one in four Philadelphia public school students drops out after years of low performance largely related to lack of literacy skills. The statistics are most dire for students from low-income families and students of color, whose rates of achievement, graduation, and post-secondary completion are far lower than those of their peers.

The achievement gap is real. Many of the middle-school students we assess are under-performing as many as four or five grade levels below their appropriate reading level. But we see it as early as kindergarten, where high numbers of children are already a year or more behind their peers.


The literacy crisis in Philadelphia's public schools produces adults who struggle to read. Philadelphia ranks 92nd out of the 100 largest U.S. cities in educational attainment; only 23% of Philadelphians 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 6% behind the national average. While as many as 225,000 adult Philadelphians do not have a high school diploma, the number whose lives are impacted by a lack of literacy skills is far larger. Just over half of Philadelphia adults are functionally illiterate, and nearly two-thirds are low-literate, reading at a middle-school grade level. This means that almost 40 percent of Philadelphia's potential workforce struggles to fill out a job application; to read doctors’ instructions on their medicines; and to help with their children’s homework.


The connection between low literacy levels and unemployment is strong. High school dropouts are three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates. As of September 2016, the unemployment rate in Philadelphia County is 46% above the national average. Without a high school credential, many Philadelphians cannot compete for jobs in the fastest-growing sectors, such education and the health services, that require a secondary degree. As a result, high school dropouts earn $9,200 less per year, on average, than high school graduates and are twice as likely to enter poverty from one year to the next. Indeed, 12.2% of Philadelphians live in deep poverty—defined as income below half of the poverty line—the highest rate among the nation's 10 most populous cities.

Children growing up in poverty are statistically more likely to enter the public school system behind their more affluent peers, often by a wide margin. More troubling is that poor students are more likely to attend schools that have less funding, lower teacher salaries, more limited computer and Internet access, larger class sizes, higher student-to-teacher ratios, a less-rigorous curriculum, and fewer experienced teachers than those their wealthier peers attend—thus widening the gap and perpetuating the cycle.