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Jack Kelly: Lessons for educrats

What is required to reverse the decline in literacy

Sunday, June 06, 1999

Two-thirds of fourth-graders in New York City failed a basic test of reading and writing this year. A teacher at a school in Brooklyn wondered why a student was having so much trouble learning English: "Why is he not learning or learning so but so little, with my help?" the teacher asked in a written evaluation.


Jack Kelly is national affairs writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.


Another teacher at the same school, describing a different student, wrote: "He does not take too many things serious."

A third teacher, writing of yet another student, said: "He never spoke of anything against him or exhibit questionable behavior otherwise. At this point, I feel he should discontinued counseling."

Unfortunately, Andrea Peyser, the New York Post reporter who gathered these examples, has a whole lot more.

The problem is not confined to New York City. The reading report card for last year issued by the National Assessment of Education Progress indicated that only 23 percent of fourth-graders are "proficient" readers. Some 39 percent are "below basic" and 31 percent are "basic" readers. ("Basic" is: See Spot run.)

Things don't get much better as kids get older. Only 28 percent of eighth-graders read proficiently, the NAEP says.

It doesn't have to be this way. A year ago April, I visited a kindergarten class in the basement of a black church in Dayton, Ohio. None of the parents had ever been to college. Still, all 13 kids could read. (Two girls read me one of Aesop's fables, and explained -- correctly -- its meaning.) In addition, each of the kids could pick out any of the 50 states on a map, and they knew all the state capitals -- even though most had never been farther than Cincinnati.

And it wasn't always this way. Here is a passage from the "McGuffey Reader for Third-Graders," published in 1857:

"A farmer called, one day, upon a rich neighbor, who was very fond of hunting, and told him his wheat had been so cut up by the hunter's dogs that, in some parts, there would be no crop.

" 'Well, my friend,' said the hunter, 'I know that we have often met in that wheat field. If you will give me an estimate of your loss, I will repay you."

Compare that with a passage from a contemporary textbook for third-graders:

"Only birds have feathers. That's the special thing that makes a bird a bird. A bird has to have feathers to be a bird. If it flies or not, if it sings or not; anything with feathers is a bird."

The Dayton school is one of four in the country that uses the Marva Collins method. Marva Collins was a public school teacher in Chicago who became disgusted with the education malpractice all about her. So she started her own school. It was based on the premise that learning is important, that children like to learn, that black children are as capable of learning as anyone else, and that self-esteem can be gained only through genuine accomplishment. These concepts elude most educrats today.

The attitude of too many public school administrators was epitomized for me by a high school principal in rural Ohio who -- like many other high school principals in the rural Midwest -- is a former athletic coach. What does it matter, he asked me, if kids don't know specific facts as long as they know where the library is?

"So, it doesn't matter if your football players lift weights, as long as they know where the gym is?" I responded. For what I suspect was the first time in his life, the principal contemplated the possibility that knowledge might be important.

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, half of America's adults today possess only the most rudimentary reading and math skills. Contrast this with 1915, when the U.S. Bureau of Education could report: "Of children 10 to 14 years of age there were in 1910 only 22 out of every 1,000 (2.2. percent) who could neither read nor write."

We owe this huge national decline in literacy -- which occurred while public expenditures on education were skyrocketing -- to schools of education and to teacher unions . . . though I don't expect they'll be putting this on a bumper sticker anytime soon.

All that is required to teach is to know something worth knowing, and to be able to communicate it to others. Anyone who possesses these qualities can be a good teacher, even if he or she has no formal credentials. Anyone who lacks one or the other will be a lousy teacher, regardless of how many credentials he or she might have.

The ostensible purpose of credentials is to guarantee that only qualified people teach. But teacher unions use credentialing to keep qualified people out of classrooms, while protecting the many incompetents already there. This must change.

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