by Bruce Price 12/12/13
The Virginian-Pilot (the newspaper in Norfolk, Va.) recently ran a report on the dropout problem: “Program tries to put 9th-graders back on track.”
The emphasis was on monitoring and mentoring the at-risk kids. The article notes, “Last year, nearly one in four local students didn’t graduate within four years.”
Nationally, 40% of the students in America’s fifty largest cities don’t graduate at all. More than 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year. All of this failure is Scandal One.
Here is what struck me as odd: the article tended to treat this problem as mysterious and unexpected, almost as if it were as asteroid from deep space. The only remedy seemed to be identifying these kids in the ninth grade, and then having meetings, counseling sessions, and remedial help.[pullquote]How bizarre and disingenuous is all this? Here is information easily found on the Internet: “When the State of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who read well in fourth grade[/pullquote]
In truth, education officials know much earlier which kids will have the most problems. Tests of eighth-graders reveal routinely that one-third of them can’t read at grade level. Tests of fourth-graders find that one-third of them can’t read at grade level. Probably you would find the same percentage in the second and third grades. These are your future dropouts.
Reading is the essential skill, and the one best indicator of subsequent academic progress. Making sure kids can read is the absolute requisite to anything educational. And yet for more than 60 years, our Education Establishment has insisted on using a method that results in a large group of subliterate children. This is Scandal Two.
The obvious way to treat Scandal One — lots of kids dropping out — is to eliminate Scandal Two. That is, make sure kids can read at the age of 6, 7 or 8. Then most of your problems disappear. Why isn’t this done?
In fact, the single biggest mystery in American history is the long-time use of Whole Word (aka sight-words) to teach children to read. This is a non-phonetic way to teach the reading of a phonetic language. Kids are told to learn English words by their shapes, designs or configurations, as you would learn Chinese symbols. The results are typically disastrous, for the simple reason that memorizing thousands of word-shapes by sight is impossible for most people. Many children can’t memorize even 500, and thus never become literate.
Note that the massive failure rate was well established back in the 1940s. Professor Paul Witty, a leader of the Whole Word fiasco, mused in 1950: “Why are there so many poor readers in our schools?…Is it true that one-third of our high school students can’t read at the fifth grade level? That’s what one magazine writer estimated in 1946. Other articles have painted almost as bleak a picture.”
Note the weirdly detached and ignorant affect. This is the guy causing the problem. It’s like a Mafia don musing about why so many bodies are turning up in the New Jersey marshes. Who could imagine such a thing!! Life is full of mysteries!!
Isn’t this exactly the same reaction we see in the public schools as they try to treat the problem in the ninth grade? Gee, these kids start staying away from school and we have no idea why.
How bizarre and disingenuous is all this? Here is information easily found on the Internet: “When the State of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who read well in fourth grade (Arizona Republic, 9-15-2004). Evidence shows that children who do not read by third grade often fail to catch up and are more likely to drop out of school, take drugs, or go to prison. So many nonreaders wind up in jail that Arizona officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs.”
A reading coach told me about this phenomenon three years ago; and you see the quote is dated 2004. So this is common knowledge for any administrators who bother to look up from their desks.
So, as I say, we have two separate scandals. The schools use flawed methods to teach reading. And then they pretend not to notice the early bad results. If they did bother to notice, they would have to conclude: hey, our methods aren’t very good. Instead they allow these children to be deformed and retarded — that’s exactly what happens — and then everyone reacts with surprise when, years later, the kids drop out.
Low literacy, in young children, is like a time bomb, a deadly virus. All subsequent attempts to educate these children will necessarily fall short.
I don’t mean to imply that Norfolk is any different from hundreds of other places. This is a national pattern, and has been since the 1940s. Perhaps now you can understand why I’ve become cynical about this country’s Education Establishment.
Here is the central fact everyone should know about reading. All the phonics experts make the same claim: nearly every child can be taught to read in their first year or two of school. Now, it seems to me obvious that the Education Establishment has to prove all these phonics people are liars and can’t do what they claim. Otherwise, our Education Establishment has to drop its hustles and hoaxes, and use a proven method that actually works, phonics.
Perhaps I should clarify that there are many approaches to phonics. Many highly verbal children learn almost without instruction. I believe the great majority of children, if they were immersed in songs and stories, including the memorization of famous poems, would learn to read in a year or two. I call this approach “informal phonics.” A somewhat unexpected irony is that it’s the slower kids who seem to need the most intensive phonics. These kid want rules, otherwise they feel lost and disoriented. These kids are the ones most damaged by Whole Word.
The key thing about phonics is simply that the letters on the page stand for sounds. If children are processing letters and syllables from left to right, and know that the letters and syllables represent sounds, these kids have grasped the central truths of phonics.
Conversely, if children are trying to name English words as they name cars, electrical symbols, or kinds of trees, literacy is typically at a dead-end. You don’t need to wait until high school to discover that the children aren’t advancing. You simply hand a newspaper to a nine-year-old and say: read this. If the children leave out words, substitute words, guess wildly, or reverse words, they are probably victims of Whole Word. The cure is obvious.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org • (924 views)