|Back to Oct. Ed Reporter|
|NUMBER 237||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||OCTOBER 2005|
|The State of Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic|
|Literacy Remains a Big Hurdle|
Far too many U.S. students are not being taught to read, national test scores and analysts indicate. As a result, Americans are at a disadvantage in the global economy.
Toyota Motor Corp. made headlines in July when it announced plans to build a new plant in Canada instead of the Deep South, where it was offered far greater governmental subsidies. The principal reason offered by industry experts was that Ontarians are easier and cheaper to train.
'Pictorials' for illiterate workers
"The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario," said Gerry Fedchun, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association. (The Canadian Press, 8-29-05)
College students who 'don't read'
Only half of ACT test-takers have adequate college-level skills in reading comprehension, the ACT testing service reported when releasing its 2005 scores in August. One reason given is that only 56% of the test takers took a college-prep curriculum, even fewer than five years ago.
"Hundreds of thousands are going to have a hard time because of the disconnect between their plans for college and the cold reality of their readiness for college," said Richard Ferguson, CEO. The ACT is the predominant college entrance exam in about half the states, mostly in the middle part of the country. (Associated Press, 8-17-05)
Fewer than half proficient
Thousands of high school students in Florida, for instance, still can't read. "High schools were never designed to teach reading," said Raymond Gaines, supervisor of secondary education for Seminole County schools. "But because we have a flood of kids who can't read, we are being forced to refocus." Officials there have embarked on a costly experiment to determine what reading method works best. (Orlando Sentinel, 1-1-05)
But evidence has been mounting for decades that phonics works best. Pro-phonics experts such as G. Reid Lyon, director of reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (part of the National Institutes of Health), and University of Oregon professors Doug Carnine, Siegfried Englemann and Ed Kame'enui have used that evidence to influence the Bush administration's push for "scientifically based" reading instruction.
Teach phonics, not 'context guessing'
Yet education-college habits favoring discredited whole-language reading methods die hard. In one recent case, a phonics program introduced to the Lewis Lemon public school in Rockford, IL in 2001 worked wonders on the overwhelmingly low-income and minority students' test scores. The 3rd-graders ranked second of all 35 Rockford elementary schools and higher than the state average in 2003.
In 2004, a new superintendent and curriculum director inexplicably demanded a switch to a whole-language reading program - which is not endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education because the department endorses only programs supported by research - and the successful principal was transferred and demoted. Members of the school's Parent-Teacher Organization executive board have protested to the school board. (School Reform News, Mar. 2005)
Other countries' experience
The phenomenal success of Indian immigrant families in U.S. spelling bees has been partly attributed to differences in educational styles between the U.S. and India, including reading methods. "Unlike many American children who are schooled in sometimes amorphous whole-language approaches to reading and writing, Indians are comfortable with the rote-learning methods of their homeland," wrote Joseph Berger in the New York Times (5-5-05).
CA solution: shorter books?
Sponsor Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the assembly education committee, explained none too persuasively: "We're talking about a dynamic education system that brings young people into being a part of the learning process." (Sacramento Bee, 5-27-05) The measure has not passed the state senate.
Political Correctness Corrupts Math
Even as numerous other countries outperform American students in math, trendy educators have begun incorporating theories of social justice and ethnic studies into math instruction. No longer content to disparage drills of math facts, the "critical theorists" now in the ascendancy use math textbooks as a tool to advance a political agenda.
A new text, Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, covers such topics as "Sweatshop Accounting," "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood," "The Transnational Capital Auction," "Multicultural Math," and "Home Buying While Brown or Black." Units of study include racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media, and environmental racism.
"Ethnomathematics seems to have spawned directly from the minds of America's 'bash white males' contingent," writes African-American columnist Gregory Kane, quoting with approval Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s blunt comment, "Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and in other places, you run into a problem." (Baltimore Sun, 6-2-05)
See Education Reporter, Feb. 2005 for coverage of the "anti-racist multicultural math" controversy in Newton, MA as well as international comparisons of math achievement.
Ethnomathematics appears to hold little appeal for Asian or Asian-American students, whose math test scores regularly outclass those of other ethnic groups. At Quincy High School in Massachusetts, the school population is 22% Asian while the math club is 94.4% Asian, many of whom arrived with no English-language skills. "Math is a universal language," notes math department head Evelyn Ryan. (New York Times, 5-18-05)
Latest test results
On the bright side, the latest NAEP math test scores for 9-year-olds are the highest since the math test was first given in 1973, mirroring the results of the reading test. Likewise with math scores for 13-year-olds, but 17-year-olds have made no progress in three decades.
Wanted: math/science grads
Microsoft, Intel and IBM have established operations in China and India, each of which countries graduates many more engineers than the U.S. "There's no doubt that if we had easier hiring here in the U.S., we would be doing more in the U.S. and less outside the U.S.," insists Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. (Wall Street Journal, 5-5-04)
Better career paths needed?
"Given the time and effort of becoming an engineer, who wants to be unemployed every few years?" asked engineering manager James Finkel in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal (5-11-05). "Because engineering salaries barely keep track with inflation, why choose your lifetime salary the day you graduate from college? One college classmate of mine with a master's degree was featured in a New York Times article as making just $45,000 after 20 years. By the way, he was being laid off."
Princeton University engineering dean Maria Klawe told Gates in a July international faculty forum that most students she talks to fear computer science would doom them to isolating workdays fraught with boredom, doing nothing but writing reams of code. (Associated Press, 7-19-05)
U.S. creativity advantage
Their reply: "We have no Nobel Prize winners. Your schools have produced a continuous flow of inventors, designers, entrepreneurs and innovative leaders. We can make anything you invent faster, cheaper and, in most cases, better. But we want to learn" about "creative productivity." (Education Week, 5-5-05)
Writing is New Focus of Instruction
As Students Prepare for Essay Tests
Writing is a skill that is more difficult to assess by objective measures than reading or math. It seems safe to assume, however, that American students aren't writing any better than they are reading, and we know that too many aren't reading well. (See reading article this page.)
Some $221 million of taxpayer money is spent every year teaching state government employees remedial writing because it is taught badly in the public schools. So says a report from the National Commission on Writing released in July. Corporations spend as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial writing for employees.
"Long ago, the schools stopped teaching how to plan before you write," charges educator Judi Kesselman-Turkel, author of the new book Secrets to Writing Great Papers. "The best professional writers know that writing is 80% knowing what you want to say and organizing how to say it precisely, concisely and in a sentence sequence that your reader will be able to follow."
Controversial SAT section
The writing test represents part of the College Board's response to a threat by the University of California president in 2001 to drop the SAT I requirement in favor of the then-SAT II writing test and other SAT II achievement tests because he felt the SAT I was unfair to minorities and low-income students.
Hardly anyone now thinks that the revamped SAT I will boost minority or low-income students' scores. In fact, the Center for Fair & Open Testing asserts that so few colleges asked for the SAT II writing test "in part because it was a weak predictor of college grades, especially for blacks and Latinos." (Washington Post, 3-6-05) The Georgetown University dean of undergraduate admissions has said that the essay "will create more barriers to poor kids who are less well-prepared." (USA Today, 2-23-05)
Several colleges threw up their hands and joined the more than 700 institutions that don't require standardized tests for admission. (New York Times, 5-15-05)
Grammar to make a comeback
"Many members of the college community feel that student writing skills have been declining, that students do not have basic, essential skills," Long Island University official Gary Bergman told Newsday (2-8-05). The writing test will give secondary schools "an opportunity to strengthen the curriculum to help students do better in critical writing."
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) disagrees. In a May report, a task force charged that the "short, impromptu, holistically scored essay" is a poor predictor of college performance, and sample essays on the College Board web site are "focused on conventional truisms and platitudes about life."
The director of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the scoring approach used by the College Board consistently rewards length and avoids penalizing students for stating incorrect facts. (New York Times, 5-4-05)
In any case, a return to grammar instruction - repudiated by the NCTE in 1985, to the detriment of untold millions of students - is bound to help the cause of good writing.