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Why children fail

By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld

Last week, the people of Massachusetts were given the results of the MCAS tests, and they were pretty dismal. The fourth and eighth graders showed a little improvement over last year, but the tenth graders did worse. MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, is supposed to measure the educational performance of students in the fourth, eighth and tenth grades. Needless to say, the results were disappointing. Of course, those of us who have been watching the deliberate dumbing down of American schoolchildren for the last 30 years were not surprised. What the results of the tests will call for is more "reform."

All of this comes at the heels of the mammoth reform that was legislated in Massachusetts six years ago. Although that reform resulted in the expenditure of millions more for education, the results prove, as has been proven time and again, that throwing money at education doesn't give us better education. More often than not, it results in worse education. Why? Because educational malpractice is much more expensive than old-fashioned traditional education, and schools today now specialize in educational malpractice.

What sort of malpractice? Let's take whole-language reading instruction for example. Whole-language practice de-emphasizes phonics in favor of a holistic approach, in which children are taught to look at each word holistically, as if it were a Chinese character. The child is taught to look for picture clues, configuration clues, context clues, syntactic clues, and as a last resort, phonetic clues. The result is that children do a lot of guessing, misreading, substituting words, mutilating words, leaving out words, putting in words that aren't there -- in general, making a mess of the text.

That then creates a large number of children who need remediation by a cadre of trained professionals, or reading specialists, whose salaries are higher than the normal classroom teacher's. Thus the teaching of reading becomes far more expensive than if the schools used the ancient, time-tested way of teaching reading: intensive, systematic phonics. That's the way reading was taught in America until the 1930s, when the professors of education threw out the alphabetic phonics method and put in a new whole-word approach, better known as the Dick and Jane method.

Back in the old days, when Dick and Jane and their imitators were put in the schools, there were still a lot of older teachers who knew how essential phonics was in learning to read. And so they used the Dick and Jane books, but also taught their young charges how to read phonetically. But when the older teachers retired, the new young teachers, fresh out of the progressive colleges of education, simply did not know how to teach phonics. The professors of education had made sure of that.

None of the education reforms in Massachusetts, or elsewhere in the United States for that matter, have called for a return to alphabetic phonics as the approved method of teaching reading. And therefore, none of the reforms can possibly result in an improvement in student performance. In fact, there is not a college of education that I know of in the entire country that teaches its students how to teach intensive, systematic phonics. These miseducated teachers enter primary classrooms imbued with the false knowledge that whole-language is the best way to teach reading. After all, would their professors lie to them?

Joan Vennochi, in a Boston Globe column entitled, "Confused by the MCAS tests," wrote, "The real issue is how to design a public school system that gives students the basic building blocks and still gets them to that next great stage of learning. The experts don't know the answer, and neither do I."

Hey, Ms. Vennochi, I know the answer. John Taylor Gatto knows the answer. Charlotte Iserbyt knows the answer. Marva Collins knows the answer. The trouble with you, Ms. Vennochi, is that you've been listening to the wrong experts. You've been listening to the experts in the education establishment, the very experts who have caused the education problem.

The answer is fairly simple: return to the ways and practices that created success before the progressives took over. I was educated under that old system, and I was taught to read by phonics, write in cursive, and do basic arithmetic. That system produced what Tom Brokaw calls America's greatest generation, the generation that won World War II. That doesn't mean that the system in those days was perfect. Far from it. But it certainly provided the kind of basic academic foundation on which one could build a creative intellect, something quite lacking in today's younger generation.

But the children who are suffering most under our present progressive system come from the minorities. According to the Nov. 12 Boston Globe, "83 percent of Latinos and 80 percent of blacks failed the 10th-grade math exam last year, providing the first glimpse of the huge disparity dividing students among racial and ethnic lines. ... Latinos fared the worst in every category -- English, math, and science -- and in each of the three test grades. In most of the tests, blacks fared slightly better. In a couple of tests, they failed in equal numbers."

All of this horrendous failure comes after years of forced busing and six years of educational reform. The fear now is that most of these failing students will drop out of the system. And who can blame them? Why should they stay in schools that have failed them so miserably? These were the very people that free public education was supposed to help. Yet, they suffer most under the present system.

It is said that only about 20 percent of all Americans can be considered truly literate, in the sense that they can deal with the written word at any level. This was more or less confirmed by the U.S. Department of Education's own survey of adult literacy in America, published in 1993, in which it was revealed that half the adult population of this country can barely read or write. This prompted Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to comment: "This should be a wake-up call for all Americans to consider going back to school and getting a tune-up." The man obviously is a retard. It was the school's educational malpractice that caused the problem to begin with. You don't go back to the mechanics that ruined your car for a tune-up!

The only solution available to parents at this time is simply home education or private schools that know how to teach the basics. But since most parents cannot home educate or afford private schools, they will have to suffer victimization. It's horrible to have to admit this, but it is our present unpleasant reality.

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