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The great American education fraud

By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld

The great American education fraud consists of not teaching inner city, minority children to read in the proper phonetic manner, then expecting them to pass an academic assessment test based on so-called high standards in order to graduate. But how can they pass such a test when they've been deliberately crippled in the primary grades? The crippling process is deceptively simple but highly efficient. All you have to do is teach children in kindergarten and the first grade to develop a holistic reflex in reading and they will become poor readers for the rest of their lives.

The recent Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests prove how successful the dumbing down process has been. In Boston, where the minority is now the majority in the city's public schools, 50 percent of 10th graders failed English, 63 percent failed math, and 69 percent of eighth graders failed history. In Brockton, a city with a large Latino population, 69 percent of eighth graders failed history and 72 percent failed science. In Chelsea, another city with many Latinos, 84 percent of eighth graders failed science, 68 percent failed history. In Holyoke, 82 percent of eighth graders failed history, 81 percent failed science, and 58 percent of 10th graders failed English. Even in a town like Belmont, where a lot of Harvard faculty members live, 22 percent of eighth graders failed history.

However, it's in the vocational schools where the wreckage of academic failure is most frightful. Only 10th graders were tested in the Voc Ed schools. In Upper Cape Cod, 70 percent failed English, 87 percent failed math, and 62 percent failed science. In Greater Lawrence, 75 percent failed English, 90 percent failed math, and 81 percent failed science. As for the state as a whole, 32 percent of 10th graders failed English, 53 percent failed math, and 38 percent failed science.

We've only mentioned the failures. Actually, there are four performance levels on the MCAS: Advanced, Proficient, Needs Improvement, and Failing. Needs Improvement is defined as: "Students at this level demonstrate partial understanding of subject matter, and solve some simple problems." If we add the "Needs Improvement" numbers to the failures, we generally get the majority of students. For example, in high-scoring Belmont, 60 percent of 4th graders were in that combined category in English. In Boston, 92 percent of fourth graders were in that combined category in English. Only 5 percent were proficient.

The rest of the country is in no better shape than Massachusetts. In Los Angeles, according to the Dec. 15, 1999, edition of Education Week, some 710,000 students are at risk of being held back a grade for failing to meet California's standards for promotion set by that state's assessment tests. The solution to the problem? Educators are thinking of making the tests easier.

In Virginia, nearly 40 percent of the state's high school students failed one or more sections of Virginia's new assessment test, and therefore would have failed to meet graduation requirements for the class of 2004. In Arizona, only 10 percent of sophomores passed the math portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS).

In New York City, with the nation's largest school system of 1.1 million students, only 55 percent of high school students passed the English portion of the state's assessment this year. This is the test which members of the class of 2000 are required to pass before they can graduate. In Texas, Latinos and blacks are failing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills at twice the rate of whites. Latinos and blacks failed at a rate of about 35 percent, while whites failed at 15 percent.

One of the biggest fallouts of the new policy, which requires students to pass an academic assessment test in order to graduate, is a large increase in the dropout rate. Why should a student who can't read stay in school if he or she is not going to get a diploma after 12 years of school attendance?

What all of these assessment tests have finally exposed is the enormity of the fraud being perpetrated by our educators on the children of this nation: pretending to teach them, while really preparing them for a life of failure and misery. If you cannot read, you cannot do well in science or history. If you are not taught math in a manner that enables you to learn it, you will fail in that subject. And if you fail academically, the chances of succeeding in the working world are reduced dramatically.

Our primary school teachers simply do not know how to teach children to read. They are using methods such as memorizing sight vocabularies and whole language, which produce reading failure among millions of children. That's what has happened all over the United States, and particularly in California, where whole language instruction caused such a literacy crisis that the state legislature was forced to act.

Why doesn't whole language work? Because it teaches children to develop a holistic reflex, that is, an automatic tendency to look at each word as a whole configuration, like a Chinese character. Children acquire this reflex before they've been taught that letters stand for sounds or that our written words have a phonetic structure. Therefore, when they acquire a holistic reflex, they not only do not see the phonetic structure of our alphabetic words, but they are prevented from doing so even when they've been taught some phonics. Mixing some phonics with whole language is now called a "balanced approach." But that balanced approach is deceptive in that it does not teach intensive, systematic phonics. It merely gives the child some phonetic clues.

It is important to know that giving children phonetic information, or phonetic clues, as part of whole language instruction does not help the child develop a phonetic reflex, that is, the automatic ability to see the phonetic structure of our printed words. In order to develop that phonetic reflex, which is the key to becoming a good, fluent reader, a child must be drilled in the letter sounds before he or she is given text to read. It is only by way of rote repetition that a true phonetic reflex can be developed. Of course, there are a small number of children who can actually teach themselves to read. But when it comes to inner city children who come from homes lacking in literacy resources, the schools must teach the children to read via intensive, systematic phonics.

This, the schools refuse to do. Why? Just ask the principal or the teachers, and you will get all kinds of excuses. "But we do teach phonics," they all say. But the kind of phonics they teach in the context of a whole language program is not the kind that helps develop the much needed phonetic reflex. All it does is provide the child with just another strategy that he or she can use in figuring out a word. If the child has a holistic tendency, that little bit of phonetic knowledge will be used sparingly if at all, because it is not automatic and requires effort.

What can parents do to prevent their children from becoming victims of this great fraud? The best solution is home tutoring in which parents can teach their children to read in the proper phonetic manner. There are many good phonics instruction programs on the market. Some are better than others. My own program, Alpha-Phonics, is simple and inexpensive. Any parent can use it. The tutoring should be done before the child enters public school so that the child can acquire that much-needed phonetic reflex before he or she gets whole language instruction in school. But if the child becomes confused because of conflicting teaching methods in school, then home schooling or a good private school may be the answer.

Remember, when it comes to learning to read, the crucial period is kindergarten and first grade. That's where the dumbing down process begins. And if you don't deal with the problem then, it will be much more expensive and emotionally trying to remediate the problem later on.

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