The new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) figures show that only 35% of our younger students are "proficient" in reading, and only slightly more are "proficient" in math.
That word suggests a low standard. In any case, these statistics are screaming the real news: roughly TWO-THIRDS of American 10-year olds are effectively illiterate; and they can't do much in math either. It’s the same story with 14-year-olds. (NAEP tests only fourth-graders and eighth-graders.)
But the weirdest part of this whole story is how our media report it. Ho-hum. Business as usual. Here’s the actual headline written by AP and repeated in scores of newspapers: “u.s. school scores show progress but ways to go.”
In truth, the scores show no progress and we have a thousand miles to go.
Our public schools are so bad that the majority of the children in them are functionally illiterate, and don’t seem to be improving. However, AP’s tone reassures us that there’s nothing unusual here, and no reason for silly you to be upset. Just keep paying your taxes so that our Education Establishment can go on doing the bang-up job they always do.
This weirdly detached and disconnected tone is, in fact, the real story.
We have a media so comfortably in bed with the Education Establishment that their reporting basically consists of see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil. In short, the mainstream media have abdicated their journalistic responsibilities just as the Education Establishment has abdicated its educational responsibilities. Yes, Tweedledum and Tweedledee do come to mind. Yes, this whole situation is so extreme and surreal that there are definite comic overtones, as when an army marches in the wrong direction and surrenders to one of its own cooks.
But never forget that these statistics apply to millions of young Americans. And this is your country going downhill.
Now, let us suppose that the AP and local papers around the country actually cared about this problem. They would be SCREAMING!!!! (Like the last time somebody dared to trespass on one of their pet prejudices.)
There would be huge scary headlines: Nation’s literacy crisis continues!!! Most children unable to read anything more difficult than “Cat in a Hat”!!! Public schools in state of disarray!! Nation’s top educators evidently unqualified!!! President should declare schools in the nation’s capital a disaster area!!! Education scandal grows: never has so much money been spent with so little results!!!
Bottom line, we have a media that won’t report; and an Education Establishment that won’t teach. Personally, I think these people should be prickly with shame. How can I say that?
All the experts I trust -- Rudolf Flesch, Samuel Blumenfeld, Marva Collins, Mona McNee, Don Potter, Siegfried Engelmann, Sue Dickson, to name a few -- are unanimous in insisting that virtually all children, when properly taught, learn to read in the first grade. By the second grade they should be reading what are called “chapter books.” Each of these experts has personally taught hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of children to read. They all report a 99+% success rate.
Meanwhile, our Education Establishment, by using a method that does not work, teaches less than half the children to read, prevents all but the most verbal kids from becoming really fluent readers, and condemns more than one million children to serious reading disabilities.
The method that does not work is variously called Whole Word, Sight Words and many other names that all mean the same thing. Flesch explained in his famous “Why Johnny Can't Read” bestseller why the method doesn’t work. Not a sentence of that book is less true today than when it was written 55 years ago.
How can the Education Establishment continue to use failed ideas, and then come before us with their pathetic grades? They -- the emperor with no clothes -- should be too embarrassed to appear in public.
How do they continue to get away with the charade? Simple. We let them.
Not all, of course. The main motive for most homeschooling is to teach children to read properly. The main reason many parents sacrifice to send their children to private schools is to make sure they will be able to read, do basic math, etc. Similarly, millions of concerned parents start tutoring their children at an early age, in the hope of countering the nonsense the children will encounter later. This is a good start.
But what we really need in this country is a protest movement. It might be called Occupy The Schools. This movement would focus on the obvious: if more than half of our students can’t read, the people in charge need to be replaced.
The first step is to realize that we are often lied to. Has your local paper ever explained to you why Sight Words might be a hoax? Have the media ever told you the full extent of the resulting illiteracy?
Ideally, every citizen would spend a few minutes learning why Whole Word can’t work. Then they can be more involved in school reform and in resisting the ineptitude of our Education Establishment.
Chapter 1 in Flesch’s book is 21 pages long. Everything you need to know is right there. (Available used on Amazon for less than $1.)
For a one-page explanation of what went wrong, please see my “42: Reading Resources” on Improve-Education.org.
Then join the protest.
(Basically, the central problem is easy to understand. English is an alphabetic/phonetic language; and children need to learn the letters and their sounds. However, our deeply confused Education Establishment decided that children did NOT need to bother with the alphabet and the sounds, but should instead memorize the graphic shapes of words. This is a monumentally goofy idea. Only people with a nearly photographic memory have any chance of reading like this. The average kid has trouble memorizing even 500 sight-words, and is pretty well destroyed as a student by the fourth grade. That is precisely what all these tests and statistics are telling us. Of course, progress in the traditional subjects--History, Geography, Science, etc. --is nearly impossible.)
(Note that the Education Establishment--for PR purposes, I would guess--has come up with many hybrid programs, such as Whole Language and Balanced Literacy. But when you look closely, you find that the children are still forced to memorize several hundred sight-words. This interferes with normal development, and often locks the brain into bad habits that forever interfere with fluent reading. What we typically find today is that schools will praise phonics but they have perversely entangled sight-words into every aspect of the child’s instruction. Here is just one of a thousand examples I could tell you. Scholastic.org recommends that children memorize “are” as a high-frequency sight-word. Why isn’t it obvious to these people that 1) this is a waste of time, 2) “are” is better learned as a member of the phonetic group “arc, ark, arm, art, etc,” and 3) “are”-- which has a silent e--is also very nicely learned as a member of the rhyming group “car, bar, far, par, tar, etc.” Memorizing “are” as a graphic design is not a short cut but a dead end. This memorization would not assist you in the reading of any other word. As I say, our so-called experts have got reading so tangled up, I now believe that the quickest road to recovery is to eliminate entirely both the sight-word concept and the term “sight-word” from every classroom.)