Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Did you catch this excellent op-ed in USA Today the other day, by William J. Moloney, Colorado's educational commissioner? He's right on. It's so encouraging to find someone in high ed office who "gets it."

I have the first book he mentions, and intend to get the other two. Colorado is doing some cool things with merit pay for teachers, requiring 100% of high-school seniors to take the ACT, and so on. Would that we had someone like him in charge of our state ed department:



A half-century ago, Rudolf Flesch wrote his classic Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do About It, in which he described how a growing confusion in American academic circles was undermining the literacy of future generations.

In the years since, the malady revealed by Flesch has grown to epidemic proportions in which nearly one-third of all U.S. school children have serious literacy deficits. If you think this is just a problem of poor children, think again. Among first-year college students, one-quarter require remediation for literacy deficiencies.

Actually, poor children do quite well regarding literacy — as long as they don't live in the USA. As former U.S. Education secretary Rod Paige frequently pointed out, all of the generally impoverished English-speaking nations of the Caribbean have higher literacy rates than the USA's. Similarly, studies among poor children in Africa show levels of English literacy that would be the envy of any U.S. city. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. economy not only sustained global dominance but provided satisfactory employment for the marginally literate. Today, that economy is being replaced by an increasingly complex information-based economy that will reward only those who have the skills to serve its changing needs.

Beyond the lower rung of the agricultural and service sectors, this economy has ever fewer places for the marginally literate. In short, the person who cannot read will be disconnected from the promise of the American Dream.

As the ominous implications for our future gradually emerge, U.S. policymakers to ordinary citizens will be left wondering how to explain this education deficit. How can a nation where education spending is nearly twice the average of those in European Union countries produce such woeful results? Furthermore, if one of the most common excuses for educational dysfunction — poverty — cannot be invoked, what can explain the inferior performance of U.S. students in virtually all international comparisons?

In the past year, two books have appeared that, taken together, not only capture the full dimensions of our problem but also offer useful advice on possible solutions.

In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman introduces readers to the looming economic tsunami best exemplified by the Asian giants India and China, now riding their powerhouse educational systems toward an international dominance in the 21st century that has the potential to equal the U.S. dominance in the 20th century.

While Friedman compellingly describes the educational strength of America's economic competitors, the second book — The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch — provides an equally persuasive analysis of the educational weakness of the USA. Blending both intellectual history and cognitive psychology, Hirsch unmasks the faddishness, incoherence and hostility to research-based practice that characterizes most of the U.S. reading establishment.

Anybody who doubts Hirsch's devastating critique should look at the recently released report of the National Council on Teacher Quality, “What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading — and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning.” This study examines 72 schools across the nation and measures them against the extent to which they teach the five common tenets of reading research (phonemic awareness, phonics, guided oral fluency, vocabulary building and reading comprehension). The result: 31% use none of those tenets, and only 15% employ all.
These figures help explain the assertion of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that 85% of U.S. reading teachers were never properly trained.

When those who teach our teachers are clueless about or even outright hostile to reading research, is it any wonder that our children become the victims of a monumental literacy deficit traceable not to problems of poverty or funding, but to an unwillingness or inability to grasp realities that have been clear to professional educators in every other industrial nation?
Robert Kennedy once said that the “fate we impose on our children today shall be the fate of all of us tomorrow.”

Absent dramatic corrective action in America's classrooms, the fate of our nation is in serious peril. Not because of what others have done to us, but because of what we have done to ourselves.

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