Tuesday, September 14, 2004


There are some big legal and financial threats on the table against Nebraska taxpayers in lawsuits filed by public school districts. They say they have more disadvantaged kids than average, and that makes their cost per pupil much higher than average. In short, they want more dough.

In fact, they don’t need it.

Take a memo: if any kids in their districts are having problems learning how to learn, it isn’t the kids’ fault. And it doesn’t have anything to do with money. In fact, more money would probably make the problem worse, not better.

It’s all about the teaching METHODS that they are using. They are the wrong ones in those early grades. It’s so obvious: generations past in America, there was much more poverty and much less parental educational attainment, and yet darn near 100 percent of the population was literate. Why? Because teachers knew how to teach kids how to learn in those days. They Kept It Simple, Stupid.

It’s almost incalculable how much money we could save if Nebraska public schools would just teach kids to read using direct-instruction techniques, in teacher-centered classrooms, with explicit, intensive, systematic phonics and proper handwriting skills.

Instead, they’ve got ‘’child-centered classrooms’’ and ‘’teachers as facilitators,’’ with kids laying all over the floor, with crayons in their fists willy-nilly, supposedly learning from each other and from ‘’activity centers’’ how the alphabet works and how ideas are transferred from the mind to the printed page. Nobody tells them how text is recorded and decoded – they’re supposed to figure it out their own way, however it ‘’makes sense.’’


Take it from longtime Nebraska education leader Ann Mactier, formerly a member of the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education, and now on the State Ed Board.

She recently observed a phonics instruction class for teachers. You’ll note that no teachers’ college in the State of Nebraska teaches college students how to teach kids to read with phonics. Sigh, sigh, sigh. Only a handful of teachers in the whole state know how, thanks to that huge mistake. So Mrs. Mactier was at a federally-funded inservice for working teachers, several years out of college, learning the right ways at long last.

They learned how to divide a group of beginning readers into teams of two who took turns, first calling out the colors in a line of objects on a page one by one, then reading short words on lines, always going from left to right. You could get called on any time so you had to pay attention and know where the place to start reading was.

BOY! ISN’T THAT EXPENSIVE?!?! I’m being sarcastic, now. It’s just that, it’s so simple, and yet it’s the epitome of the types of simple things that are NOT taking place in public-school classrooms any more, to help kids catch on to reading correctly.

Mrs. Mactier said, ‘’This impressed me so much, because my daughter, Jan, got such a horrible start in school that she taught herself to read -- one line from right to left and the next one from left to right, all the way down the page. It ruined her life because she couldn't sound out words or spell or find her mistakes even on a page she had typed. She had letters and words out of order and couldn't see it! She was ambitious and wanted to go a top college, but she was in the bottom of her class . . . and no good school invited her.’’

Now, here’s the deal: Mrs. Mactier was one of the smartest women in Nebraska, and yet she didn’t understand what was wrong: schools had switched to the Whole Language philosophy instead of phonics. If one of the smartest mothers didn’t get it, don’t you suppose that the mothers of these disadvantaged kids that the districts are supposedly crying for more money to help don’t get it, either? And we already know that people with teaching degrees don’t get it, either. So . . . duhhhhhhh.

Couldn’t we just TRY the cheap and simple way, first, before we dump boatloads of more good money after the wrong-orrhea way?

Now, at the time, Mrs. Mactier didn’t understand that it was the school’s fault for not teaching reading in a simple, direct way, leaving the child to the four winds to ‘’discover’’ how, which a significant chunk of the student body never can do. She also didn’t know that Whole Language is at least TEN TIMES more expensive than phonics, because it uses all kinds of preengineered books and consumable materials that can’t be used over and over and over.

Here’s how Mrs. Mactier happened to figure out what was wrong: ‘’I didn't find out about this problem until I went to Crete and saw an ancient slab with the sigmas written in opposite directions on each line -- when Jan was in her 30's! The guide explained that the Greeks alternated the direction they wrote with every line.’’

Mrs. Mactier put two and two together, and for the first time, saw what her daughter had missed. And that’s why, even at her age, when other women are playing bridge and enjoying retirement, she is still going full bore to try to get this through educators’ heads, and the taxpayers’, too.

I’m saying that this kind of thing is going on all across Nebraska AS WE SPEAK . . . in the classrooms full of rich kids and the classrooms full of poor ones . . . and fixing it would not only NOT take more money . . . it would actually cost us far, far LESS.

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