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WHY CALIXTO CAN’T READ! We asked ourselves what Calixto meant when he fumed to a scribe, “I can’t read:” // link // print // previous // next //

ALL WEEK, THOSE BACK-TO-SCHOOL BLUES: All week, we’ll be discussing reports about those back-to-school blues. Since we think low-income kids deserve what they so rarely get—full attention—we won’t likely mix in other topics. Our conclusions on The Survivor will have to wait, although there is more to be said.

Special report: Back-to-school blues!

PART 2—WHY CALIXTO CAN’T READ: Obvious point—Bob Herbert’s heart is in the right place when it comes to American education (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/05). But sadly, that just isn’t enough—and it hasn’t been enough for the past thirty-five years. During that time, well-meaning liberals have mouthed bland cant about the problems of urban schools—and little real progress has been made in fighting the problems which Herbert describes. How bad are the actual problems? In Monday’s column in the New York Times, Herbert discussed the latest new study of American schools, this one commissioned by two liberal think tanks. Just try—just try—to comprehend the gravity of the situation described here:

HERBERT (9/29/05): An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following:

''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.

Try to grasp the meaning of that highlighted sentence! After attending school for three years, low-income students are “about three grade levels behind” non-poor students! Say it again, and let it sink in: After three years, they’re three years behind!! But Herbert shows no sign of grasping the enormity (or the absurdity) of the situation described here. Nor do the business-as-usual bafflegabs who authored this latest new study, bafflegabs who complain at one point that American kids attend school 180 days per year while the international average is 193. After three years in school, low-income kids are three years behind—and those thirteen days seem the culprit? But so it has gone for thirty-give years as detached, inept but credentialed elites tut-tut about schools they have never set foot in, offering worthless “recommendations”—recommendations which often stand out for their lack of scale or their grinding illogic.

Low-income fourth graders can’t read at all—so we need to toughen our standards! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/05.) After three years, low-income kids are three years behind—so we ought to extend the school year three weeks! But this is the kind of bafflegab our liberal elites have churned out for three decades. Result? In our own experience, low-income fourth- and fifth-graders were often three years behind back when we started teaching fifth grade in Baltimore, back in 1969. And if this latest new study is right, such kids are still three years behind—thirty-six years of high claptrap later! Meanwhile, the authors of this latest new study know to offer standard cant about how low-income kids can achieve just like everyone else, offering bogus, feel-good examples that are an insult to good research methods (details later this week). But so it has gone for thirty-five years as our liberal elites have worked their high magic, wedding prescriptions which are utterly trivial to others which make no earthly sense.

When we read such studies and such mainstream journalism, we often get a feeling we have noted before—a sense that the plainly well-meaning authors have never set foot in an urban school, have never spent as much as ten minutes watching what happens to actual low-income children. But a very different type of study appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post. The front-page profile carried this headline: “Calixto at a Crossroads; A 14-Year-Old Enters High School, Pulled Between Gangs and Dreams.” “Calixto” is Calixto Salgado, of suburban Gaithersburg, Maryland, the teen-age son of Salvadoran immigrants. Early on, Darragh Johnson explained how her profile was produced:

JOHNSON (8/28/05): For the past five months, with Calixto's and his parents' permission, The Washington Post has been following him at school and in church, at home and on the soccer fields, on the Ride-On public bus and into the nursing home where he volunteers—all to chronicle the fault lines Calixto must negotiate as he, like thousands of others like him across the Washington region, enters ninth grade. The year of make or break.
God bless Darragh Johnson, who actually spent five months with an “at risk” child, hoping to chronicle his actual experiences! And for our money, Johnson succeeded brilliantly at her task, “chronicl[ing] the fault lines Calixto must negotiate as he...enters ninth grade.” This is not a study of this child’s schooling, although Johnson does describe her subject’s experiences at Gaithersburg's Forest Oak Middle School. (She also reports what Ever Salgado, Calixto’s older brother, says about life at Gaithersburg High.) Johnson chronicles many parts of Calixto’s life—and she clearly isn’t writing as an educational analyst. But at one point, Johnson discusses “the transformation”—Calixto’s sudden maturation two years ago, in seventh grade. And she captures her subject making a comment that instantly caught our eye:
JOHNSON: Maybe it was the letter Forest Oak Middle sent home, warning that if Calixto didn't bring up his grades, he would have to go to summer school—or repeat seventh grade.

Maybe it was his aunt, dying of diabetes, pleading, "Do not let this happen to you." He started going with his dad to the gym and spending five minutes on the treadmill, then lifting weights.

Maybe it was the Identity program. Or confirmation classes at church. Or that in eighth grade many kids turn serious. No matter, the result was striking. Calixto launched into "this incredible personal transition," as one teacher called it, and when eighth grade began, he was noticeably slimmer and vowing to study harder. He still approached his reading class angrily. "I can't read," he would fume. "I can't do this!" But first quarter, on a report card with three C's and a D, he also earned two B's.

"I can't read," Calixto would fume. "I can't do this!” Because we actually spent years in schools with deserving low-income kids—because we’ve seen them cry because they “can’t read,” because they know they “can’t do this”—we wondered what Calixto actually meant by the statements which Johnson recorded. And a lot of questions came to mind about Calixto’s eighth-grade classes—questions which simply never appear in well-meaning columns or in the latest new study about the lives of these kids.

MORE PRAISE FOR JOHNSON: Googling Johnson to nail down (her) gender, we ran into praise for her work. Last October, Graham Strouse wrote a letter to Poynter in praise of her listening—her empathy:

STROUSE: Back when I was interning at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1997 I became friendly with Darragh Johnson—the main bureau's junior cop reporter. She was very sharp, she read a lot, she was an ok writer & one of the most gifted listeners I've ever met...

That last really struck home one afternoon when we were having lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Sarasota. We were waiting for our fajitas (or something along those lines) when it struck me that I'd been gabbing for 20 minutes straight. And she was still listening. Part of it was body language. Part of it was eye contact. And part of it was knowing when to interject with just the right question, keep me blabbing that much longer. But the biggest part of it, I think, is the fact that Darragh is genuinely interested in what people have to say. She makes space in her head for people. She puts them at their ease. And because she's interested in people she makes them feel...more interesting. Better.

Many of these skills can be learned, but the gift, the engagement, the empathy, whatever you want to call it, is something you just can't teach. You admire it & try to emulate it & pick up as much as you can. For a lot of us "listening" is best defined as that pause when you decide what you're going to say next. I'd like to think I've gotten past that some. I've worked on these skills & I think I've gotten pretty good. And I do like people. I've even learned how to shut up on occasion.

Anyway, Darragh's writing skills got a hella lot better & her listening skills never waned & last I checked she was a feature writer at the Washington Post. Take from this what you will.

We’ll take from that the following: We got the feeling from Sunday’s profile that Johnson had listened quite hard to Calixto Salgado. We rarely get that sense from the latest new studies which pour out the pap about public schooling—the lazy piles of bafflegab which have failed to serve the nation’s low-income children over the past thirty-five years. Details on this latest new study as the first week of school rumbles on.