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Education Reporter

The State of Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic
Literacy Remains a Big Hurdle
Far too many U.S. students are not being taught to read, national test scores and analysts indicate. As a result, Americans are at a disadvantage in the global economy.

Toyota Motor Corp. made headlines in July when it announced plans to build a new plant in Canada instead of the Deep South, where it was offered far greater governmental subsidies. The principal reason offered by industry experts was that Ontarians are easier and cheaper to train.

'Pictorials' for illiterate workers 
A low-skill and often illiterate workforce reportedly has posed problems for automotive manufacturers Nissan and Honda in Mississippi and Alabama plants in recent years. In Alabama, trainers had to use "pictorials" to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech plant equipment.

"The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario," said Gerry Fedchun, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association. (The Canadian Press, 8-29-05)

College students who 'don't read' 
Illiteracy is not confined to blue-collar workers in rural states or inner-city schools. It looms as a pressing issue even in some colleges. In a documentary aired on PBS in June, Western Kentucky University history professor Nathan Phelps lamented, "We have students who don't read, period. They don't read anything from newspapers to books, and they come here expecting to somehow get through their college course work without changing. It's a real problem." (Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk)

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U.S. 17- and 13-year-olds are reading as poorly as ever, according to the 2004 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released in August. The silver lining is that 9-year-olds posted their best scores in more than three decades and the gap between white students and minorities narrowed. The Bush administration claims some credit for these gains, which occurred about a year after the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) went into effect.

Only half of ACT test-takers have adequate college-level skills in reading comprehension, the ACT testing service reported when releasing its 2005 scores in August. One reason given is that only 56% of the test takers took a college-prep curriculum, even fewer than five years ago.

"Hundreds of thousands are going to have a hard time because of the disconnect between their plans for college and the cold reality of their readiness for college," said Richard Ferguson, CEO. The ACT is the predominant college entrance exam in about half the states, mostly in the middle part of the country. (Associated Press, 8-17-05)

Fewer than half proficient 
NCLB sets a deadline of 2014 for bringing all grade-school students to proficiency in reading. A report by the RAND Corp. last winter suggested "major concerns about the ability of states to meet the ambitious goal" set by NCLB. Examining data on state assessments and the NAEP, the researchers found "fewer than half the students meet the proficiency standards, and in no state do even half the students meet the NAEP national literacy standard of proficiency."

Thousands of high school students in Florida, for instance, still can't read. "High schools were never designed to teach reading," said Raymond Gaines, supervisor of secondary education for Seminole County schools. "But because we have a flood of kids who can't read, we are being forced to refocus." Officials there have embarked on a costly experiment to determine what reading method works best. (Orlando Sentinel, 1-1-05)

But evidence has been mounting for decades that phonics works best. Pro-phonics experts such as G. Reid Lyon, director of reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (part of the National Institutes of Health), and University of Oregon professors Doug Carnine, Siegfried Englemann and Ed Kame'enui have used that evidence to influence the Bush administration's push for "scientifically based" reading instruction.

Teach phonics, not 'context guessing' 
Remedial reading educator Linda Schrock Taylor notes that "once a new or delayed reader develops a firm basis in handling the code in which English is written, limits to reading at ever higher levels are removed." Eschewing politically correct textbooks, she reports, "I do not choose reading selections with any illustrations or photographs since I believe that my job is to teach reading, not globalization, art appreciation or context guessing." (LewRockwell.com, 12-13-04)

Yet education-college habits favoring discredited whole-language reading methods die hard. In one recent case, a phonics program introduced to the Lewis Lemon public school in Rockford, IL in 2001 worked wonders on the overwhelmingly low-income and minority students' test scores. The 3rd-graders ranked second of all 35 Rockford elementary schools and higher than the state average in 2003.

In 2004, a new superintendent and curriculum director inexplicably demanded a switch to a whole-language reading program - which is not endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education because the department endorses only programs supported by research - and the successful principal was transferred and demoted. Members of the school's Parent-Teacher Organization executive board have protested to the school board. (School Reform News, Mar. 2005)

Other countries' experience 
The United Kingdom education secretary in June ordered British schools to try phonics a month after a damning report from members of Parliament stated that illiteracy was "unacceptably high." Amid concern that one in five 11-year-old Britons are unable to read or write properly, Secretary Ruth Kelly said, "The debate now centers not on whether to teach phonics, but how." (thesun.co.uk, 6-3-05)

The phenomenal success of Indian immigrant families in U.S. spelling bees has been partly attributed to differences in educational styles between the U.S. and India, including reading methods. "Unlike many American children who are schooled in sometimes amorphous whole-language approaches to reading and writing, Indians are comfortable with the rote-learning methods of their homeland," wrote Joseph Berger in the New York Times (5-5-05).

CA solution: shorter books? 
A decidedly non-Indian way to tackle the problem of illiteracy is to ban long books. That was the goal of the California assemblymen who voted in May to outlaw school purchases of textbooks and other instructional materials longer than 200 pages - which would rule out, for instance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. AB 756 passed the house by a vote of 42-28, with most Republicans opposing it.

Sponsor Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the assembly education committee, explained none too persuasively: "We're talking about a dynamic education system that brings young people into being a part of the learning process." (Sacramento Bee, 5-27-05) The measure has not passed the state senate.

Political Correctness Corrupts Math

Even as numerous other countries outperform American students in math, trendy educators have begun incorporating theories of social justice and ethnic studies into math instruction. No longer content to disparage drills of math facts, the "critical theorists" now in the ascendancy use math textbooks as a tool to advance a political agenda.

A new text, Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, covers such topics as "Sweatshop Accounting," "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood," "The Transnational Capital Auction," "Multicultural Math," and "Home Buying While Brown or Black." Units of study include racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media, and environmental racism.

As explained by New York University education historian Diane Ravitch, "Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction. One of its precepts is 'ethnomathematics,' that is, the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture. From this perspective, traditional mathematics . . . is the property of Western Civilization and is inexorably linked with the values of the oppressors and the conquerors." (Wall Street Journal, 6-20-05)

"Ethnomathematics seems to have spawned directly from the minds of America's 'bash white males' contingent," writes African-American columnist Gregory Kane, quoting with approval Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s blunt comment, "Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and in other places, you run into a problem." (Baltimore Sun, 6-2-05)

See Education Reporter, Feb. 2005 for coverage of the "anti-racist multicultural math" controversy in Newton, MA as well as international comparisons of math achievement.

Ethnomathematics appears to hold little appeal for Asian or Asian-American students, whose math test scores regularly outclass those of other ethnic groups. At Quincy High School in Massachusetts, the school population is 22% Asian while the math club is 94.4% Asian, many of whom arrived with no English-language skills. "Math is a universal language," notes math department head Evelyn Ryan. (New York Times, 5-18-05)

Latest test results 
While ethnomathematics sounds like a bad joke, the lagging achievement of American students in math and science is no laughing matter as employers increasingly draw from a global workforce. In an AP-AOL News poll released in August, almost four in ten Americans surveyed said they hated math in school - double the number who hated any other subject. 2005 ACT scores indicated that only 41% of the test-takers (who aspire to go to college) are likely to succeed in a college math course.

On the bright side, the latest NAEP math test scores for 9-year-olds are the highest since the math test was first given in 1973, mirroring the results of the reading test. Likewise with math scores for 13-year-olds, but 17-year-olds have made no progress in three decades.

Wanted: math/science grads 
A national business coalition in late July announced a goal of doubling the number of American graduates in math, science, technology and engineering in the next decade. Headed by Business Roundtable, the group called the decline in the number of U.S. students pursuing higher education in those subjects "a national problem that demands national leadership."

Microsoft, Intel and IBM have established operations in China and India, each of which countries graduates many more engineers than the U.S. "There's no doubt that if we had easier hiring here in the U.S., we would be doing more in the U.S. and less outside the U.S.," insists Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. (Wall Street Journal, 5-5-04)

Better career paths needed? 
However, if America really wants more engineers, maybe would-be employers need to develop better career paths for engineers. Stanford University scientist Christopher R. Moylan perceives no surplus of engineering jobs in Silicon Valley. In a letter to the editor to the San Jose Mercury News, he asked, "Why should my students major in a field where they will be stuck in a cubicle, only to be laid off every four years, while the folks from marketing are off playing golf with customers?" (4-4-05)

"Given the time and effort of becoming an engineer, who wants to be unemployed every few years?" asked engineering manager James Finkel in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal (5-11-05). "Because engineering salaries barely keep track with inflation, why choose your lifetime salary the day you graduate from college? One college classmate of mine with a master's degree was featured in a New York Times article as making just $45,000 after 20 years. By the way, he was being laid off."

Princeton University engineering dean Maria Klawe told Gates in a July international faculty forum that most students she talks to fear computer science would doom them to isolating workdays fraught with boredom, doing nothing but writing reams of code. (Associated Press, 7-19-05)

U.S. creativity advantage 
The U.S. continues to hold one advantage over Asian countries in math and science: creativity. When the Japanese Ministry of Education sent three visitors to the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, the center's director asked why they had come when Japan has the highest scores in the world on international achievement comparisons.

Their reply: "We have no Nobel Prize winners. Your schools have produced a continuous flow of inventors, designers, entrepreneurs and innovative leaders. We can make anything you invent faster, cheaper and, in most cases, better. But we want to learn" about "creative productivity." (Education Week, 5-5-05)

Writing is New Focus of Instruction
As Students Prepare for Essay Tests

Writing is a skill that is more difficult to assess by objective measures than reading or math. It seems safe to assume, however, that American students aren't writing any better than they are reading, and we know that too many aren't reading well. (See reading article this page.)

Some $221 million of taxpayer money is spent every year teaching state government employees remedial writing because it is taught badly in the public schools. So says a report from the National Commission on Writing released in July. Corporations spend as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial writing for employees.

"Long ago, the schools stopped teaching how to plan before you write," charges educator Judi Kesselman-Turkel, author of the new book Secrets to Writing Great Papers. "The best professional writers know that writing is 80% knowing what you want to say and organizing how to say it precisely, concisely and in a sentence sequence that your reader will be able to follow."

Controversial SAT section 
The addition of a 25-minute essay to the SAT I this year has given new urgency to teaching writing, both in schools and through private tutors and test-preparation firms. (See Education Reporter, Apr. 2005.) The other major standardized college entrance exam, the ACT, has added an optional writing component. Despite the enormous cost of paying graders to score about 1.4 million essays every year, the College Board (which administers the SAT) is urging colleges not to use the SAT essay scores at all in determining admissions this year, and few colleges have asked to see the essays. (Wall Street Journal, 8-31-05)

The writing test represents part of the College Board's response to a threat by the University of California president in 2001 to drop the SAT I requirement in favor of the then-SAT II writing test and other SAT II achievement tests because he felt the SAT I was unfair to minorities and low-income students.

Hardly anyone now thinks that the revamped SAT I will boost minority or low-income students' scores. In fact, the Center for Fair & Open Testing asserts that so few colleges asked for the SAT II writing test "in part because it was a weak predictor of college grades, especially for blacks and Latinos." (Washington Post, 3-6-05) The Georgetown University dean of undergraduate admissions has said that the essay "will create more barriers to poor kids who are less well-prepared." (USA Today, 2-23-05)

Several colleges threw up their hands and joined the more than 700 institutions that don't require standardized tests for admission. (New York Times, 5-15-05)

Grammar to make a comeback 
Still, the College Board predicts that the new essay requirement will spur greater attention to writing, and many educators welcome the change. College Board surveys found a 13% decline in teaching formal grammar in high school in the past decade. (Boston Globe, 4-3-05) In addition to the essay, the new SAT I includes multiple-choice grammar questions that account for 75% of the writing score.

"Many members of the college community feel that student writing skills have been declining, that students do not have basic, essential skills," Long Island University official Gary Bergman told Newsday (2-8-05). The writing test will give secondary schools "an opportunity to strengthen the curriculum to help students do better in critical writing."

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) disagrees. In a May report, a task force charged that the "short, impromptu, holistically scored essay" is a poor predictor of college performance, and sample essays on the College Board web site are "focused on conventional truisms and platitudes about life."

The director of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the scoring approach used by the College Board consistently rewards length and avoids penalizing students for stating incorrect facts. (New York Times, 5-4-05)

Essay-grading software? 
A subjectively graded essay is inherently problematic for nationwide standardized testing. It could be worse, though: Computer software is now being used to grade essays for high school English teachers and the GMAT business school admissions test. (Associated Press, 5-10-05)

In any case, a return to grammar instruction - repudiated by the NCTE in 1985, to the detriment of untold millions of students - is bound to help the cause of good writing.

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