Why Are Only 18 Percent of Black Females Proficient in Reading?

Why are Black girls having such a difficult time learning to read? Why has America been so silent? We hear so much about the fact that only 12 percent of Black boys in eighth grade are proficient in reading.1 While we understand Black boys are on life support, Black girls are in critical condition. Have Black girls been overlooked? Is 18 percent an acceptable level of proficiency?2 How can this be acceptable? I believe this is a crisis and bordering on a catastrophe.

Hundreds of books, articles, conferences, and seminars exist about the plight of Black males. Even the White House has chimed in with My Brother’s Keeper.3 Where are the books, articles, conferences, and seminars about the plight among Black females? How are Black girls going to be economically competitive with only 18 percent proficiency in reading by eighth grade?

Who is going to teach Black females how to read? Why are schools having such difficulty? Who is going to teach Black girls to love reading? Who is going to expose them to the beauty of Black literature? Who is going to make sure Black girls are reading short stories, autobiographies, poetry, essays, and other Black literature? Who is going to introduce them to the brilliance of Black female writers? Who is going to help get Black girls so passionate about authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, Eloise Greenfield, and their own writing that Black girls’ literary groups become their number one way to spend free time?

Is it possible that Black females know how to tweet, text, e-mail, and write comments on Facebook, but lack proficiency on Common Core tests? Do schools understand and appreciate Black female learning styles? Are schools expecting Black girls to behave and learn like White girls? Do some schools and teachers have low expectations for Black females? What percentage of America’s teachers are Black female? How important are Black female teachers to Black girls? How important are Black girls to Black female teachers?  Does the presence of Black female teachers raise Black girls’ test scores and enhance self-esteem?

If literacy were of no consequence, why did Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, and countless others—enslaved and free—remain determined to read? What has happened to this determination among Black people? Why is proficiency in reading critical to societal development? Or have we in America decided proficiency doesn’t matter to our future as a nation?

These questions and more are addressed in my latest book, Educating Black Girls.


1. Trip Gabriel, “Proficiency of Black Students Is Found to Be Far Lower Than Expected,” New York Times, November 9, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/09/education/09gap.html?_r=0

2. Catherine Gewertz, “NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] Scores Inch Up in Math, Reading,” Education Week, November 13, 2013. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/11/13/12naep-2.h33.html; see also NAEP 2013 Mathematics and Reading. Washington, DC: National Assessment Governing Board, 2014. www.Nations Report Card_NAEP 2014451.pdf

3. Zachary Goldfarb, “President Obama to Launch Major New Effort to Help Young Minority Men,” Washington Post, February 10, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/president-obama-to-launch-major-new-effort-on-young-men-of-color/2014/02/11/cc0f0a98-92cd-11e3-b227-12a45d109e03_story.html

Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu is the author of more than 30 books including the national best sellers Raising Black Boys and Understanding Black Male Learning Styles. He has been a guest speaker at many universities and has been a consultant at most urban school districts. His work has been featured in Ebony and Essence magazine, and he has been a guest on BET and Oprah.