In 1812 (forty years before the passage of our first federal compulsory school laws), Pierre DuPont de Nemours published the book, Education in the United States. Dupont, one of the founders of the DuPont fortune, known to be brutally honest and direct, spoke of the phenomenal literacy rate in the United States; was amazed by the difference he saw when compared to European literacy. Dupont said that less then 4 people out of every thousand in the new nation could not read and do numbers well.
In 1992 (one hundred and forty years after the passage of compulsory schooling laws) Regna Lee Wood, Director of Statistical Research for The National Right to Read Foundation, published the article, “That’s Right — They’re Wrong.” In that very important piece, Wood compared the literacy rates of World War II recruits with those of the Korean War. She discovered that,
AFQT scores indicated that illiteracy (defined by the War Department as inability to read 4th-grade lessons, or today’s 5th-grade lessons) among millions of prospective recruits with at least four years of schooling soared from almost zero (0.004) during World War II to an unbelievable 17 percent during the Korean War. (“That’s Right — They’re Wrong” National Review, 9/14/92)
Such information should be considered as explanations are sought for the massive failure of our schools in these years since World War II; a massive failure that has occurred just within my lifetime. We should also consider whether those “4 people out of every thousand”; that “0.004″; might be a more accurate reflection of the true occurrence of severe handicapping conditions in the general population.
Might “4 out of 1000″ be the actual number of unfortunate individuals born with true handicaps so severe that the achievement of literacy is simply not possible? The observations of Dupont, and the statistics examined by Wood, certainly suggest a very different — and a vastly smaller — group of nonreaders than does the current educational Alphabet of Excuses (AE) for school failure — ADD, ADHD, ODD, BD, EI, LD, SLD, HI, VI, EMI, MR, MI, CI, AU, TMR, POHI…
No Child Left Behind should be identifying and using research like that done by Regna Lee Wood. Actually, NCLB should have done its homework before it forced narrow certification and ever-broadening assessment guidelines on each school and every teacher in the land; before it acted on such a massive scale to violate the sovereignty of local jurisdictions to make the educational decisions that best serve the local people who are actually the ones financing their local schools.
NCLB should have attempted to discover: the full impact of basic literacy upon the total educational experience and life of each individual. NCLB should have discovered: exactly how literacy was so skillfully brought about back when the purported 996 out of every 1000 Americans were literate.
NCLB laws; accepted by lock-step and/or ignorant administrators; enabled by uninformed and/or incompetent school board members; have failed to identify the vital issue upon which all other aspects of schooling rest; the one single element; the Rosetta Stone — READING!
With that foundational academic need in mind, the effectiveness of any school can be assessed, and the decision made as to whether a school should remain open, — based upon whether a school passes or fails The One-Question Test:
“Does said school absolutely, positively, insure that 996 out of every 1000 children are literate prior to the end of third (3rd) grade?”
(Now, this is the kind of outcome-based education that America needs and has needed for at least seventy-five years.)
One-roomed schoolhouse teachers were able to teach reading to almost every child. More importantly, back then the goal was to have every child literate by the end of first grade — in an era when homes owned few books other than the Bible; Webster’s “Blue-backed Speller”; a reading book filled with wisdom, intelligent stories and big words; and a slim arithmetic book.
Children came to school — many without breakfast — carrying a lunch pail that might hold something as simple as a butter sandwich (made more nutritious by being provided by the hard work of the parents rather than by funds stolen from the taxpayers to feed someone else’s child). The children often came from extremely poor homes; many where chickens and more, might have shared the dwelling on bitterly cold winter nights. The children often came in rags or hand-me-downs. But…the main difference between schools then and schools now is that then schools taught almost all children to read. The schools back then leveled the population UP!
For this massive increase in illiteracy, coming so soon after the prior war, our welfare-growing, prison-building, America can thank Sight Words and Dick and Jane, including all their offspring and clones, including Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, and any other avoid-systematic-phonic-instruction fads.
Most children, who learn to read well in our current educational climate, learn to read in spite of the teaching. Until such time as teachers are trained to skillfully and effectively teach phonics, spelling, writing and reading, this method of not-so-benign neglect, which fails the majority of the children, will continue to be used with each generation, with ever-worsening results. That steady decline has been the norm since the sight word fad usurped educational decisions and destroyed the meaning of scholarship.
The educational culture must drop pet theories and favorite fads in order to properly train teachers to skillfully teach reading, spelling, and writing skills. Educators would be wise to seek out the few remaining one-room schoolhouse teachers and ask them to teach the professors at all the schools of education How to Really Teach Reading. My Great-aunt Mildred, who taught for fifty (50) years, probably knows, herself, more about reading instruction, than most graduate schools of education currently know collectively!
Those graduate degrees are quite impressive on paper, but too often the schools of education only require that professors who train future teachers in How to Teach Reading have “an earned PhD and three (3) years of classroom experience.” Three years!! Almost every teacher spends the first three years getting organized and learning more from the kids than the teachers were able to get taught. Yet, inexperienced teachers are actively recruited to train America’s future teachers! It is no wonder that American education has lost its footing on the shifting sands of fads and theories. PhD research papers abound, as each tries to outdo the next.
I confronted one such theorist at Michigan State University. He had made up a flyer to advertise the graduate class that he would be teaching. On the flyer he explained that the outcome of the class would be that the students would know about a lot of different theories of reading. I acted naïve and explained that I wanted to learn how to teach reading so I was wondering if his class would provide me with the skills I would need. He danced around my question, never answering it. He knew full well that I would waste my time and my money, yet be unable, at the completion of the class, to teach a nonreader of any age how to read.
Graduate degrees are given for the study and research of theories (pet or otherwise). In all likelihood, a teacher with a master’s degree in Reading will still lack the skills and knowledge necessary to effectively do the job for which such teachers are certified, recruited and hired. Still, the certification process, as well as NCLB, refuses to acknowledge that literacy is the cornerstone of education; which is the foundation of scholarship; which is the basis of intelligent, logical thought and decision making.
Instead of asking the only question that matters, NCLB flounders in ever-widening circles of failure and rights violations, fruitlessly searching for potential demons to exorcise: Physical education teachers; Physics majors; Career counselors; Early childhood teachers… On and on the search goes — at all levels; throughout all subject areas; losing all effectiveness, and most certainly all focus, in that process.
There is only one question!
“Does your school insure that 996 out of every 1000 students are literate prior to the completion of third grade?”
One question — yet fifty-one departments of education; scores of colleges of education; thousands of school districts; are unable to pass the most important test of all.
Unless foolish and progressive (a misnomer if ever there was one) fads are thrown out of schools, and teachers return to the explicit and accurate teaching of phonics, any attempt to save the schools will be meaningless rhetoric. Until the first weeks of school, at every grade level, in every building, are used to teach reading until 996 of every 1000 children are literate enough to be successful in all other areas of study, all else is a sham.
The future of America is at stake, yet the Fascist educational establishment is uninterested in actually educating the populace. Our schools educate for ignorance. The deck has long been stacked against teaching children to read early and well.
Remember…Thomas Jefferson said that if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be, and prepare for the end of America as a sovereign, civilized and free country.
Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] is an educational consultant, homeschooling mom, and public school special ed teacher. She is available for presentations, inservices, and workshops.