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Why schools fail

By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld

One of the points stressed by President Bush in his signing of the "No Child Left Behind Act" on Jan. 8, is that failing schools must shape up or suffer the consequences. He said:

When we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems. A school will be given time to try other methodologies perhaps other leadership to make sure that people can succeed. If, however, schools don't perform, if, however, given the new resources, they are unable to solve the problem of not educating their children, there must be real consequences.

The consequences are that parents will be allowed to transfer their children from failing schools to other public or charter schools and even apply for tutoring services at government expense. Meanwhile, those children will have wasted three years in a school that failed to shape up.

Why give a school "time to try other methodologies" if the present methodologies aren't working? It isn't as if the failing school started in business yesterday and has to experiment to find out what works. Present test scores already identify those schools that produce failure, and no child should be forced to attend such a school while it works on revamping its programs. Children would not be in a school in the process of physical renovation. The school would be closed until the renovations were completed.

The same should be true for academic "renovations." Children who fail to learn to read in a failing school should not be expected to wait for the school to change its teaching methods before remediation is offered. A 6-year-old is in the first grade for one year and then must move on. By the time he or she is in the third grade and can't read, that poor child will be in a miserable position. Meanwhile, the "No Child Left Behind Act" can't guarantee that the school will ever learn how to teach a child to read.

Without doubt, the most important feature of the new reform act is the six-year, $5 billion Reading First initiative, which has sent the Whole Language network into a tizzy. Clearly crafted by strong advocates of a phonics approach to beginning reading, Reading First requires schools to adopt "scientifically based reading instruction" in order to get some of the federal money. With the ink hardly dry on the bill, it has already provoked the expected opposition from Whole Language educators.

Gerald Coles, a Whole Language author, was quoted in Education Week (Feb. 20) as saying: "If you want to have a form of literacy education that is stepwise, hierarchical, small-to-large parts, with minimal democratic participation, that has very strict outcome goals, then you can use research to facilitate those goals." Of course, he doesn't explain what's undemocratic about phonics, which teaches children to become independent readers. You can't get more democratic than that.

In a letter to Education Week (Feb. 13), Ken Goodman, noted Whole Language guru, wrote: "Nothing less than an inquisition is being waged by federal law against teachers and school administrators to limit their practice to mandated application of officially sanctioned research findings and rooting out heretical 'whole language' practice, a term being used now as a catchall for any unsanctioned activities."

In other words, do not expect Whole Language educators to accept the "inquisition" and play dead. They, too, want some of the money that Reading First will be handing out for phonics-based reading programs. Whole Language programs can easily be disguised to look like "scientifically based reading instruction." All it takes is a little imagination and the ability to dissimulate with a straight face.

Why do schools fail? Because nothing in the "No Child Left Behind Act" will affect the dumbing-down agenda of the educators who presently control the system. Even if phonics is taught in the first grade, its advantages will be lost by the time the child reaches the fourth grade. We know this from the fact that some children who have been taught to read by phonics at home before attending school, experience a decline in academics after attending public school. Thus, don't get your hopes up too high and expect miracles in a system that keeps the Maker of miracles out.

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