Illiterate in L.A.

The Los Angeles Daily News recently lamented the tremendous increase in “functional illiteracy” among the working population of Los Angeles County. In reporting the results of a recent study, it said:

In the Los Angeles region, 53 percent of workers ages 16 and older were deemed functionally illiterate, the study said … It classified 3.8 million Los Angeles County residents as “low-literate,” meaning they could not write a note explaining a billing error, use a bus schedule or locate an intersection on a street map.

While the article took note of the wasted “hundreds of millions of dollars spent in public schools over the past decade,” it blamed the terrible results on an influx of non-English speaking immigrants and a 30 percent high-school dropout rate.

But the dropout rate can’t possibly explain the low level of literacy, because if the public school system was even remotely competent, the children would be reading adequately long before they ever reached high school.

Long-time readers may recall a column titled, “A Tale of 2 Children,” wherein I compared two 3-year old children, one of whom was being taught to read by his parents and one who was destined for public school. The two children are now 5 years old, and I recently examined their progress.

The child in kindergarten is not yet reading, but he has learned his complete alphabet now. The homeschooled child, on the other hand, surprised me by reading at an error-free fifth-grade level on the San Diego Quick Assessment test. I verified his competence by asking him to read selections from C.S. Lewis’ “Prince Caspian” to me, a book with which he was previously unfamiliar. While he occasionally stumbled on words such as versification and centaur, (he pronounced them “versication” and “kentaur”), his comprehension was reasonably good as well.

Suddenly, it was not so hard to understand how homeschooled children, on the average, test four years ahead of their public-schooled counterparts.

The problem with public schools and reading is not hard to grasp. Whole language, the favored method, is a disastrous approach to reading that is destined for failure. Children who learn to read while being taught this method learn to read in spite of it, not because of it. Anyone who speaks Japanese and has learned both kana (phonetic) and kanji (whole language) can testify to the ease of the first and the extreme difficulty of the latter.

It’s a pity that the Daily News does not have access to studies tracking the reading ability of children who are schooled at home in Los Angeles County. It would be interesting to see how well those children read compared to these illiterate workers, particularly immigrant children taught at home, because as hard as it may be for the Daily News to imagine, people who speak other languages, even Spanish, have been known to be able to read. I can’t confirm this, but I have even heard rumors that there are reputed to be one or two authors, such as the suspiciously foreign-sounding Arturo Perez Reverte, who actually write in Spanish, if you can believe anything so outlandish.

The truth is that it is extremely simple to teach any normal child to read. All it requires is a consistent 15 minutes a day between the ages of three and five. If a child is capable of rote memorization, he is capable of learning the alphabet and the basic phonics, and reading will follow within months. The fact that the public schools so regularly fail at this simple task is not indicative of anything but the absolute incompetence of the public-school system – an incompetence that is not only designed into the system, but is its very raison d’tre.

One need only look at an elementary school’s curriculum to realize that the bulk of a child’s education necessarily comes from outside the school environment. It may come from parents, peers or the television, but very little of it comes from the free day-care centers that are the public schools.

Fred Reed has a simple answer for America’s education problem. It is an inventive, capitalist solution involving the intimate interaction of cement and potassium cyanide with the teaching colleges, and bounties on certified teachers. But, as he has said himself, America isn’t interested in solutions that will work – much better to wring our hands, hope for the best and condemn yet another generation to illiteracy, ignorance and idiocy.

September 15, 2004