If They Haven’t Learned…

by Deana Chadwell8/3/18
Picture 10-year-old Johnny, his masculinity threatened on every level, his mental and physical energy denied expression, his home life hectic and unsupportive, his continued inability to read becoming more debilitating every year, and his boredom level has climbed off any available chart. Imagine being him. And yet, we know that his disadvantages will not be met in 5th grade any more than they were in 1st. We know – looking at the recent educational studies – that in seven years, he will graduate, in much the same condition — if he graduates at all. Given the odd assumption that graduation proves effective education, and the pressure schools are under to up graduation numbers, he probably will walk away with a diploma, but it will be a meaningless one.

We know that the graduation rate and the proficiency levels no longer correlate at all.  Over 80% of our high school seniors “earn” diplomas, but only 37% of them can read at grade level. Only 25% of them can do math at grade level. And yet our schools are more concerned about programming young people for sexual deviancy and multicultural hatred of their own country than they are in turning out thinking, informed, skilled adults.

So why can’t our schools fix this problem? There are many answers – teachers’ unions, left-leaning educational institutions, leftist textbooks, etc. But our schools are filled with wonderful teachers working appalling hours and wanting desperately to see their students learn. So what is in their way? How is it these kids can get all the way through 13 years of schooling and know nothing?

Look back at Johnny. In first grade he didn’t learn to read, but what happened to him? He went on to 2nd grade where he had even less opportunity to figure it out. But did he stay in 2nd grade or a remedial class until he caught on? No. On to 3rd where his dismal scores on standardized tests demonstrate clearly his inabilities, but still nothing will be done.

One year during my tenure as a high school English teacher we were required to attend evening classes instructing us in how to teach our students to read – in addition to everything else we were supposed to be inculcating. The lessons in these classes were all geared to 3rd grade, which bothered us all – if this approach didn’t work when these kids were 8-year-olds, why would it work when they’re 17? I asked about the viability of this approach for high school and the instructor admitted that they had no idea how to rescue a teenager who had never mastered reading.

Fifty years ago schools quit holding Johnny back a grade when he didn’t reach the set standards. Administrators deemed it too rough on his ego to admit his problem and fix it. We would damage his self-esteem and we heard over and over again that the self-esteem deficit would render any increase in skill null and void. No one ever proved that, but say something often enough and it becomes gospel. No one considered what damage Johnny’s ego would sustain in high school when reading and writing and computing skills were both assumed and necessary.

Once the schools cannot hold kids back because they haven’t mastered reading and math then subsequent teachers are under pressure – political, professional, and pragmatic – to keep the momentum going.

Some dumbing down has to happen if a teacher has a classroom full of students who are below grade level. There is nothing to be gained by failing them all. And as teachers, we are taught to meet our students where they actually are. That is good pedagogy.

However, if an instructor’s students don’t meet the standard, the teacher gets in trouble, the students become demoralized, and the parents get angry. Angry parents make for nervous and defensive administrators who, in turn, pressure the teachers into – what?  Passing the students whether they’ve cleared the hurdles, or not.

This continues until high school when the problem just blows up. Unless the district chooses to do what my district did – we “raised the bar.” You’ve got to love educational jargon.  We did this by —

1. Cutting out the “D” as a grade option – which, of course, merely inflated the grades.

2. Demanding students turn in ALL assignments. I know, this doesn’t seem out of line, but most students miss an assignment now and then, and no one could see that a do-or-die turn-in policy only erased the ability to insist on due dates. We couldn’t legally fail a kid for being late on an assignment. One of my students said to me one day, “Ah due dates, schmoo dates.” Kids were turning in papers that were months late and we had to accept them.

3. Forcing kids into honors level classes whether they were capable or not.  And then when too many began failing, the administration demanded that teachers dumb down the curricula. Then the following year, students were assigned to the next level up and they weren’t ready to do the work because the previous curricula had been so simplified.  That was “raising the bar.”

Then these kids go off to college and the colleges face the same problems. I’d like very much to increase the rigor of the college classes I teach – in spite of the fact that transfer students find my classes much more rigorous than their state junior college classes have been. But if I really expected kids to actually function at what we used to call “college” level, they’d fail. It’s mind boggling, and frustrating, and knowing where it came from is not much help.

It’s not like we don’t know what can be done about it. In the last couple of decades brain research has taught us quite a bit about how the brain learns. We know that that the more background knowledge a child has, the better reader he will be– yet we spend most of the school day drilling kids on “reading skills” rather than teaching them anything factual. We know that movement plays a big role in brain development, yet we cut back on recess. We know music and art improve brain function, but we cut art.

We must remember that the original purpose of John Dewey’s educational scheme never was to produce thinking, critical, knowledgeable human beings. It was to create drones. And we have succeeded in that.

Plus, the society in general discourages facing ugly truths and makes pretending fairly easy for a long period of time, but here in 2018 it’s clear that the make-believe fairy tale is over. Millennials are finding that they are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and yet they know little that is actually true. They have learned attitudes, but not facts. We’ve hit that wall.

So what does public education do? Nothing. I’ve been involved, either willingly or otherwise, in half a dozen educational reforms designed to fix our problems. They all fail. The solution lies outside the auspices of government and teachers unions. The responsibility for educating our young has to start with the family. It can easily blossom into private enterprise, charter schools, school vouchers. The homeschooling industry is thriving and so are the students educated at home.

For the last nine years I’ve been involved in building a school, a Bible-based junior college. Accreditation took us that long, and raising money isn’t easy, but it can be done. We can crawl out from under the crushing weight of a system devoid of reality. We just have to begin.

High School Graduation Rates Hit an All-Time High

Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years

2015 Average Reading Score Not Significantly Different Compared to 2013


Deana Chadwell blogs at ASingleWindow.com. She is also an adjunct professor at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. She teaches writing and public speaking.
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Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I'm blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing -- and more keeps popping up -- needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation. I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.
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17 Responses to If They Haven’t Learned…

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    We had a discussion here some years back on the Destroyer series book Mugger Blood (I think it was in the book recommendations). One section is set in a ghetto black school (Malcolm-King-Lumumba, as I recall). Remo meets a high school teacher who simply lets her kids run wild, helped by very strong earplugs.

    He then finds out that she tried to be a real teacher there, but that meant handing out lots of Fs. Of course the parents objected that their budding geniuses didn’t have their brilliance recognized — and the school administration didn’t back her up. So she gave up, handing students test sheets with their names already on them, and passing them if they just handed them back without answering any question. (Her best student got 25 of 26 letters of the alphabet right on one quiz.)

    Her argument was that by the time they reach high school it’s too late for them to learn anything in school. They needed to be forced to learn and read by grade school. I think you would agree.

    • She has a point. We have a certain window of opportunity with kids and if they miss out then…..And parents who think all teaching is up to the schools are sending their kids off to kindergarten already behind the curve.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I recall the teachers covering phonic, I think in kindergarten. (This was at Fort Leavenworth, 1956-7. I seem to recall walking home from school and counting to 100 for the first time. I just assumed I had it right, naturally.) I know there were books I read when I was very young, but don’t remember how early.

        I do remember that in my interim first grade (my father was stationed in Galveston, and Texas law required being 6 by October to go on to the first grade), one of my concerns was reading without moving my lips. That was also when I had some problem with my eyes requiring glasses (I remember going to the private school with my eyes dilated).

        By the third grade (and maybe earlier), I was in the “reading to learn” rather than “learning to read” stage. When we visited the Gettysburg battlefield, we saw an electric map study of the battle, toured the battlefield, and picked up, if nothing else, a cartoon history of the battle (which I devoured, and still remember portions).

        Even earlier we had picked up Texas History Movies, a cartoon history of Texas (particularly the first half of the 19th century, such as the brief Republic of Fredonia), and still remember considerable portions of it. I also recall a small booklet from the National Zoo on the various animal types, though I also recall my incorrect pronunciation of “coelerenterates”.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Millennials are finding that they are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and yet they know little that is actually true. They have learned attitudes, but not facts. We’ve hit that wall.

    I believe that is what pot stores are for.

  3. Rosalys says:

    I hate to sound like I’m wearing my tin foil hat, but gosh, this looks deliberate. The three R’s. Reading was destroyed by the swapping out phonics for “look/say.” (W)Riting has gone by the wayside as the vast majority of schools no longer teach cursive. (There are a few holdouts, and I have heard recently of a school or two which have decided to reverse that dreadful policy.) I’m less versed in what has happened to ‘Rithmetic, but I see the results of it all around.

    I think this is by design. It has to be. Why else would a provable failure be perpetrated for so long? There may be many fine teachers out there, but if they aren’t allowed to do their job, what good are they. There are also bucket loads of barely competent, and downright awful ones.

    Barring any real learning disability (and I will not include dyslexia, because there is evidence to suggest that it is caused by teaching via the look/say method) it isn’t difficult to teach a kid to read. Phyllis Shlafley kept her kids home – long before the home schooling movement – for the first two grades, specifically to teach them phonics and keep them away from look/say. My own mother taught fourth grade catechism for a year or two. At the local elementary school, there were two first grade teachers; one taught phonics and the other look/say. My mother could tell which kids had which teacher for the first grade.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I suspect I had some of both methods in my younger days, or at least the readers the look-say fans liked. (“See Dick boff Jane” and that sort of stuff.) But I also specifically recall being taught phonics. As for why they don’t go back to what works, there are probably several reasons.

      For one thing, as Ignatz Semmelweiss learned, people making errors are often very reluctant to admit them, and thus to correct their errors. For another, I gather that look-say works for most students. And when you don’t think in terms of the rights of all individuals, that’s good enough. (I gather phonics has a much lower percentage of failures.) It’s also possible that phonics is harder to teach, and perhaps requires better educated teachers.

      And then there’s always the point that the Thernstroms made in America in Black and White regarding segregated education: people who aren’t taught their rights are much less likely to seek to exercise them. And there are plenty of rights leftists don’t want people to exercise — pretty much any rights not linked to sexual license.

      • Rosalys says:

        English is a (largely) phonetic language. The letters of the alphabet represent sounds, either alone or in combination, and there are rules governing the application of those sounds. There are sight words which defy the rules, and have to be learned apart from phonics, but they are very small in number. One learns to read English by learning the sounds of the alphabet. Come to a word you don’t know? Sound it out. That’s what I told my kids when doing their reading homework. Telling them what is, and insisting that they recognize the size and shape of the word may work with hieroglyphics, but not English.

        They came out with this stuff when? In the 50’s? 60 or 70 years of failure has provided enough time for the original perpetrators to have gotten over their embarrassment and shame – or been gotten out of the way through natural causes – and for the path to be corrected.

        As Deana said, “We must remember that the original purpose of John Dewey’s educational scheme never was to produce thinking, critical, knowledgeable human beings. It was to create drones.” Our self appointed betters are not aiming for an educated populace.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Sounding out strange words is one of the biggest advantages of phonics over look-say. The latter involves memorizing words by their shapes, and is useless with new words (which might even be read wrong if they look enough like an old word).

          And it’s always well to remember that John Dewey was a socialist. This has always been the goal of leftism, and in itself should be enough to show why leftism is inherently wrong.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The questions to ask about all of this:

    1) What motivates the softer standards?

    2) Why no penalties for poor performance?

    • Rosalys says:

      “What motivates the softer standards?”
      The desired destruction of western civilization.

      “Why no penalties for poor performance?”
      Who says they’re performing poorly? In my opinion they are doing a bang up job!

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        In the long view, Rosalys, I couldn’t agree more. And let’s be up front about it. To those of the non-historical mindset (aka “utopian”), Western Civilization represents racism, sexism, slavery, stealing the wealth from third-world nations….basically any ill that you can conceive of is some white man’s fault.

        And if all that were true, hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ probably ought to go. But what they’re doing, of course, is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They have no conception of the good, and most of the bad has little to do with Western Civilization but is simply endemic to human nature.

        The premises of the above have been indoctrinated into people’s heads. These are, for all intents and purposes, the Useful Idiots. Almost certainly few of them think in terms of wrecking Western culture. But they are the tools of those who very consciously want to do just that.

        I’m trying to weigh whether I can speak frankly on the subject. I don’t think I can. I’m not as close to the situation as Deana is, but I can guess why standards are lowered. There is a “mongrelization” factor here. It’s an expansion of a good education being thought of as “acting white.” Who are we to hold our standards to the “people of color” who have different measures of what is right and what is important?

        The Sword of Damocles stands over the head of every man or woman — whether white or not — if they should dare to hold some “person of color” up to high standards. The easy and safe thing to do is to just fudge everything and call it good. That’s exactly what is happening now while we drown in reams of rationalizations.

        Did I speak too frankly?

        • No. You speak accurately. Much of what we see today in education, in the media, in the culture at large is a tendency toward whatever is easy. It’s easier to brandish “tolerance” than to truly love others. It’s easier to praise “diversity” than it is to make value judgments about what works, about what is right, about what is Godly. Just accept everything, no matter how perverse, how non-sensical, how dangerous, pat ourselves on our backs and call it good. But. Alas. It’s not.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Deana, I think back to my school days and my worst teachers (although I’m sure I liked it at the time) were the lax ones. I remember wasting plenty of times (might as have not attended at all) in Mrs. Krom’s 5th grade class. She was a sweet, dear lady but anyone could, and did, get away with proverbial murder in her class. I don’t remember what, if anything, I learned in the fifth grade.

            Then there was 4th grade Mrs. Irons (perhaps named by Dickens) who was a near ideal teacher. She was kind, but forceful. She was not a bitter old school marm but she could turn that aspect on if you were slacking off. She provided plenty of carrot but also had a stick. At the end of the day, I had respect for her.

            I think the reality is that public schools are now irredeemably corrupt. Private and home schools are the best option. There are too many incentives and excuses for doing a slack job, and the system itself (even if political correctness and Progressivism were distilled out of it) is such (an almost government monopoly) that the quality-inducing elements of reward and penalty are almost non-existent.

            Kudos to you for working in the private sector, although I’m sure government has its hands even in private bible colleges to some extent. And enjoy today’s 100+ weather. Yikes.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I’m afraid I can’t remember too many of my pre-high school teachers. Going from school to school probably plays a role in that, though I remember some of the later ones, at Fort Campbell HS (8th and 9th grades). But they did discipline when I (frequently) needed it, and I did learn. What the connection was between the two I can’t say.

  5. Pst4usa says:

    Very good post Deanna. I have to say this could have been me, Johnny that is. I always struggled to read and had it not been for my parents, 3 older brothers and 1 older sister to demand or shame me into working harder, I could have turned out the same.
    We moved around a lot when I was a kid and I always hated bullies, so when we moved, (until the 10th grade I did not finish at the same school where I started the year off), so I got the chance to meet quite a few bullies and over the years I won more of the battles that I lost but the school system was never able to take that from me, no matter how many times I warmed up the paddle.
    We have a superintendent of my wifes school board who started a program called “Graduation Matters”, and you can guess how much people like it when I say, “No it does not, education matters!’ Graduation rates are just an artificial way for you leftist to make yourselves feel like things are getting better. Make the standards low enough and everyone gets their “trophy” diploma. 100% graduation in our time, gosh I sure “feel” good about that.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      “Graduation Matters”, and you can guess how much people like it when I say, “No it does not, education matters!’

      Wow, Pat, you are just so right-on as usual. My goodness, the deceptive, feel-good ways people use rhetoric. Well said.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        This reflects an odd form of credentialism. Literacy is generally not defined functionally (which would have to be individually tested for everyone), but statistically on the basis of how far you went. That’s fine if promotion to the next grade means you mastered the previous one, but that hasn’t been true for decades. So I think they came up with “functional illiteracy” to cover those who are officially literate, but not in reality.

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