Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Problem With Literacy In America

Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.  ~Nelson Mandela

Yesterday, I was reading about a Stanford University study about brain waves and how different teaching methods affect reading development. They looked at brain waves as teachers worked to teach their students to read and their findings were actually the opposite of what I would have expected.

Of course, I've never tried to teach children how to read, and I never will, but there are a lot of preschool and kindergarten teachers out there who are expected to, despite the overwhelming evidence that early reading instruction actually damages a child's reading future. What I do, what is appropriate for children under seven, is read to them, write down the stories they tell me, play stories with them, tell stories as they happen, encourage dramatic play, write the rules we make together and post them on the wall where we can all reverently "read" them, and make sure there are always books among our loose parts.

This Stanford study talks about things like phonics and whole words and the rest of the stuff direct instruction focused teachers do with the children in their charge. So let me be clear, this wasn't a study about how children best learn to read, but rather on how teachers can best "teach" children to read. This is the kind of research that I equate to studying the orca whales at Seaworld and claiming to understand orca whales, but that's not the point of this post.

As I reflected on what I'd read, I thought about how high stakes standardized testing is increasingly narrowing our public school curricula to the point that they we focus almost exclusively on math and literacy. Then I asked myself: what problem are we trying to solve, especially when it comes to literacy? So I looked it up. I checked several sources. There are lots of different ways to measure literacy, but most agree that our average literacy rate, as compared to other nations, has declined over the past couple decades, a timeframe that matches exactly with the advent of No Child Left Behind and other federal interventions into our public schools. Perhaps these efforts aren't hurting our literacy rates, but they are failing to reverse the trend.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do anything; I'm just saying that we appear to be doing it wrong.

Meanwhile, tracking quite closely to the illiteracy rate, one in five American children now live in poverty. I'd like to suggest that instead turning our educational system upside down and spending billions on unproven efforts that may actually be eroding our children's ability and desire to read, maybe we should spend our billions on doing something about the 22 percent of our children (and fully 50 percent of public school students) who go to bed hungry each night. We know that poverty is directly linked to lack of success in school. There is nothing we could do that would have a greater impact on education in America.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you! I am a teacher and parent. I do not agree with the changes being made to public education and have greatly appreciated your posts regarding public ed reform.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated this post and have no doubt that there are more complicated causes for educational outcome trends than the curricula used. However, I wince at the statement "22 percent of our children (and fully 50 percent of public school students) who go to bed hungry each night." I think you are probably taking great liberties with that statistic, and the statistic itself is, no doubt, imperfect. Can you honestly say there is evidence that 50% of public school students "go to bed hungry each night" -- taken quite literally to mean that they don't eat an adequate portion of food every single evening -- or is this an exaggeration of the fact that the parents of 50% of public school students fall under some government poverty criterion or another (which in itself is only a very rough picture of the household finances and conveys almost nothing about the food supply in those households).

Teacher Tom said...

@Anon ... It's a common figure of speech synonymous with "poverty." What a silly nit to pick ... That's another figure of speech. You are not literally picking nits as far as I know. The very serious point is that our nation has a horrible problem with childhood poverty with, by far, the highest rates in the industrialized world. Until we deal with that, the rest is pretty meaningless.