Recently I came across a news article estimating that 80% of NYC graduates cannot read and write and are functionally illiterate. I’d bet those numbers are not far off across the country, and it wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was what my son told me when I discussed the matter with him.
Five years ago, those numbers would have shocked me. Then my blog got invaded by “children” in the eleventh grade of a gifted and internationally respected program in the high school my son was attending. They seemed to have erratic spelling, the vaguest of acquaintances with grammatical rules and a thorough lack of ability to think. (If you tried to challenge their assumptions or what amounted to received dogma, they reverted to profanity, in the hopes that it would make you pass out or go away and stop saying things that made them uncomfortable.) It was clear their reading comprehension was iffy and their writing ability shaky. (And the scary part is half of them were accepted into Ivy League schools a year later, which put paid to any idea I had this was a meritocracy.)
As bad as those kids were, they were at least semi-functionally-literate and, yep, they were the “cream of the crop”. Since then, with the kids being in college and my having contact with kids the same age, I’ve got to see the work of the average student.
I’ll just say that I once screamed at Robert for three hours for writing something about half as bad as what I see from college students. He was in third grade. I told him unless he improved he would be an illiterate peasant at the mercy of people who could express themselves better. (More on that later.) He took it to heart and improved.
Anyway – it is neither a brag, nor preening – to say my kids are better than that. Robert is gifted with words, and Marsh is gifted with storytelling. But beyond all that they WERE TAUGHT to use language. We were reading to them from before they could talk (Ray Bradbury is as effective as lullabies) and they watched us read, write and discuss writing. More importantly, I corrected their grammar and taught him rules of exposition. While they attended public school, I mostly used it for what it does well: babysitting. Robert once let the cat out of the bag by telling his seventh grade ecology teacher that the only reason I sent him to school was to have 8 uninterrupted hours to write in, and that his real learning took place in three hours after school. It was true, of course, but stunningly tactless of him to say it.
And yes, both the kids are high IQ. However, that’s neither here nor there. So were the kids invading my blog, and they were writing at the level of D students in my day – and I was in an English as a Second Language class.
Look, we all went through school and we all saw the kids who came through. About 1% were “natural born” learners. (Though in most cases those might be from environments where learning was facilitated. It’s hard to tell where genetics ends and environment takes over.) The next 5% or so were strivers who, in varying degrees and for varying reasons (either love of learning or an interest in an intellectual profession) were determined never to have less than B and if possible to have A. After that came the large, lumpish, group of C students: some of which might have very high IQ but who had absolutely no interest in academics. Most of them, at least in my day, were intending to get jobs in that vast non-intellectual middle class, from retail onto auto mechanics or other specialty, non-academic professions. Depending on how smart they were, they were either aiming for clerk or manager, but they had their life planned and reading Shakespeare wouldn’t really have helped it in any way. Nor would quadratic equations.
So they made a mental calculation and applied their effort where it mattered, learning about life outside school.
THEN at the other end of that, and as rare as the 5 or 6% top learners, were the hopeless – the addicts, the petty criminals, and the apathetic. The ones who had already charted a course to government dependence and had no interest in ever making their way by themselves. They too had made a rational decision and since what they wanted was to drift through life, learning anything beyond basic reading/writing and how to count wasn’t in their interest.
I will note though that even most of the hopeless, unless they were impaired in some way, could read fairly fluently and could write at least enough for every day life.
So – how do you take most of the youth of a country, a country, moreover, rich enough that most kids have no major developmental disabilities, and make them functionally illiterate?
You WORK at it.
And this comes to the part I didn’t know, and the part that shocked me.
My son happened to be loitering in my office (they do this a lot) when I read that headline and I said “I’m not exactly shocked, and I’d be surprised if it were much different across the country, because I sent you and your brother to the school reading, and then spent the next three years screaming at you to sound out words and stop guessing them. So they took kids who COULD read and would have made them illiterate, if I hadn’t stayed on top of it and made you re-learn.”
At which point my son said “Oh, you have no idea. Let me tell you what happened in Title One.”
Here we break to explain that Title One is – afaik – a Colorado program for children with learning disabilities. To my knowledge, neither of the kids had been in it.
However, as I’ve learned over the years, my knowledge is often far from complete, and what happens OFFICIALLY is also not what happens in truth. (For instance, if I’d known both the kids were sent to the school psychologist once a week through elementary, to fish for stuff that might be considered “abuse” – probably because Dan and I were troublesome – they would have been out of there so fast that the school’s head would spin. Unfortunately both kids assumed this was “normal” and didn’t tell me till high school. On paper, it never happened.)
I think the other day I said it was in third grade that the school gave us trouble over Robert. I was wrong, it was actually in first grade. I sent them a kid who could read, write and was working on fractions. Imagine our shock when in our first first grade conference, the teacher informed us that Robert was learning disabled and would probably never learn to read and write. This was particularly surprising since one of her pieces of evidence was a worksheet that consisted of 1+0, 2+0 etc. across the top of which Robert had written in properly spelled words “this is stupid and boring. A number plus zero always equals the number.”
Dan and I threw a fit – we would – and they insisted Robert needed to be in Title One and remedial education. We insisted he didn’t. In the end, they had him IQ tested, after priming the school psychologist, who used a “set” that topped out at 107 IQ. Then they informed us his IQ was 107 and he needed to be in Title One and remedial education.
At that point I wanted to go raze the school or perhaps set it on fire. (I did say I’m excitable, right?) But Dan wouldn’t let me. Instead we burned around 1k dollars we didn’t have (we were so tight in those days we hugged each cent till it squealed. Considering whether to buy an extra head of lettuce was existential. We drove a $1500 car, and only had one for the two of us,) found the most reputable psychologist in town, and had him tested over Christmas break. (They were making noises about a “staffing” meeting in January and how they’d take our parental rights away if we didn’t sign Robert for “what’s best for him.”) We said nothing, just had him tested.
He tested profoundly gifted (which is a technical designation.)
So, next thing you know, Dan marches into the staffing meeting with the results, authenticated by a psychologist who was known and respected in the region. He first asked them what they thought of her, and they said she was very good, but of course very expensive. Then he laid the results on the table.
Shock, horror and confusion ensued, the most important – the teacher, who btw, we later found out did this every year to a kid she perceived as ‘minority’ (this, btw, in a town that is one of the most liberal areas in CO. I told this story to a leftist friend who absolutely refused to believe it. And yet it happened.) and her friend, the school psychologist were both present – reaction being BETRAYAL. “How could you go and do this behind our backs, without warning us?”
Then the meeting broke up in disarray, Robert got put in “gifted” classes and no more was said about it.
Which is all very well… except…
Except that not only did we have the right to have our own kid tested and no, we didn’t need to “warn” the school – but that I didn’t find out till this week that, before we had signed on to their diagnosis of him as “disabled”, they’d sent Robert into Title One. (This btw should NOT shock me, as they put Marshall in speech therapy before we’d signed an agreement to let him be put in – we never did, because the way it was worded, it amounted to signing our parental rights away, including giving them the right to put him in a foster family if they thought we weren’t making “the right decisions” for his “welfare” as determined by them. Instead, we again cut out other stuff and put him in a private speech therapist. Who, in six sessions, fixed what the school therapist hadn’t in a hundred.)
More shocking yet is what happened in Title One.
Remember, Title One is supposed to teach kids who are disabled to read at normal level. Remember too, the kid they sent to Title One was reading The Life of Caesar at four. (Though he did get stumped by the meaning of “incest.”) While they were sending him to Title One, one of the books confiscated for reading in class was one of our signed Pratchetts (can’t remember which now, but might have been The Color of Magic. I remember because instead of telling me – he wasn’t supposed to take those to school – he broke into the teacher’s closet and stole it back. He was never caught.)
He told me last week, when I said I had to fight his and his brother’s tendency to “guess” words for three or four years until they got it through their heads that these are not ideograms and you don’t “guess” (I think every other sentence out of my mouth those years was “Sound it OUT”) that when he was in Title One, they FORCED him to guess. He said, “No, look, I’d read the word correctly at a glance, and then they’d shout at me I was supposed to GUESS. And I’d have to come up with words that sounded like it, before they TOLD ME the correct one. They trained you to NOT read.”
This explained Robert’s best friend in elementary who was at least as smart as Robert but who got sent to Title One by another teacher. I tried to tell his mom at the time there was nothing wrong with the kid except maybe needing glasses. But she was working class and respected teachers. That child left elementary school unable to read.
Right here, let me tell you that if your kid is in school, chances are he or she is being taught to “guess” words, aka, “whole word.” If you ask him if they use whole word, they’ll act shocked and say oh, no, they use phonics “in combination” with other methods. They told me all of this too, at the time. However, the entire lesson plan is geared towards guessing words, sometimes working from the meaning. (I.e. Terribly and Therapy are the same word at a glance because they begin and end with the same letters, so you’re supposed to “guess” one of them, and then work out which it is by the meaning of the rest of the sentence. [This was referred to, ten years ago, as the “whole language” method.])
Do I need to tell you that in a language that is largely phonetic – yes, I know all the exceptions, but it’s easier to work to the right word from a mispronounced version than it is to do it from “meaning” or “guess” – this is NOT only the way NOT to teach reading but is, ultimately the way to teach kids not to read. By turning words into ideograms, which they were never meant to be, you make reading too difficult for all but the most dedicated strivers.
I’m surprised the literacy rate is 20% I’m surprised it’s not 5%, and I wonder how many of those kids read well enough to read for pleasure.
Now, I realize that an illiterate peasantry is needed for a proper neo-feudal regime, but I wonder how many of these people are actually malicious, and how many are just full of their own self-importance and convinced that they are doing what is best for these children?
Judging by those I dealt with, most of them aren’t bright enough to see any overarching social aims in this. They are simply full of their own “good intentions” and they’ve been TAUGHT this is the best way of teaching to read. In fact, if you push them they become either irate or lachrymose and tell you that you don’t UNDERSTAND, you’re not an expert and you weren’t taught the latest METHODS. (This reminds me of when we stayed in NYC in a new hotel and every night our bed was, essentially, short sheeted – it’s more complicated than that, but that was the effect. When we complained the maid, with an accent stronger than mine, informed us it was “latest, Russian bed-making technology. … that one too didn’t end well, at least as soon as I stopped rolling on the floor laughing.)
Dave, yesterday, made a comment that the public school system for all its flaws might teach a kid to read who would otherwise not know how. Since I don’t know every teacher in every corner of the US – but I know from other contexts that at least some of them will be decent and competent and tell the system to stuff it – nor every kid, nor every school, this is POSSIBLE. What I guarantee and would put my hands in the fire for is that the percentage of those is dwarfed by the MASS of what would otherwise be competent “middle brow” C students, who could read and express themselves passably in writing, if they were left alone/had online teachers with just a class supervisor/were taught by anyone (retirees? Mothers?) BUT people who had been convinced they were education experts and that teaching children to read – something that village teachers managed for centuries. (And BTW my first village teacher was a discarded fallen woman, whom some guy had seduced and set up in a little cottage with no running water and only two rooms. She was, it was rumored “of good families” and left with no other means of support, taught the kids to read and fancy work (needlework, guys!) to the girls and died respected and almost revered in her eighties.)
But whether it’s from malice or misguided credentialism and do-goodism, what I can tell you is that our system of education is accomplishing the “miracle” of turning out a population MORE illiterate than the poor never-taught people in Tudor England.
Malice or incompetence, it comes to the same. If you have kids in the system, look to their future. If they read by “guessing” (the signs are easy. They’ll think words that start and end with the same letter are the same) stop that right now and teach them to sound it out. They’ll hate you for a month, but the hatred will pass and the literacy will remain.
However remember most parents are too busy living their lives to follow the kids that closely/teach them after the kids get home (it doesn’t take very long. Most of the school day is filled with cr*p. You can teach them the essentials and more in two/three hours after school.), and even more most parents think they’re not qualified to teach the kids. Which leaves us in the mess we’re in.
As a nation founded on the consent of the governed, we can’t afford to have a school system that turns out illiterate peasants. Whether it’s by design or incompetence, it doesn’t matter. We simply can’t afford it.
If we are to survive as a people and a culture (and our “methods” have spread across most of Eastern Europe) SOMETHING else much arise in place of public anti-education.
Local systems, with trustworthy people, known to have succeeded in other fields, would be better, as would practically anything else. It’s time we realize that the Public Education System is designed to do the exact opposite of its stated goal.
UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit Readers. Thank you to Glenn Reynolds for the link!