DEFINING A CRISIS: Letters to this mornings Times address Bob Herberts Monday column (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/05). We were struck by the first, from a Garden State teacher. Here are her first two paragraphs:
NEW YORK TIMES LETTER (9/1/05): Regarding the state of education in the United States, Bob Herbert writes, "I respectfully suggest that we may be looking at a crisis here" ("Left Behind, Way Behind," column, Aug. 29). As a highly qualified teacher of English at the high school level, I agree.The teacher describes a crisis in our schools. But what exactly is that crisis? Heres the passage from Herbert to which she refers:
But this crisis we see in our schools has its roots in American homes increasingly devoid of books and printed material, where children turn exclusively to television, computers and electronic games for entertainment—and see the adults around them doing the same. Instant-gratification technology has, for many students, replaced the task—and the thrill—of reading.
HERBERT (8/29/05): An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following:We agree that its a crisis (indeed, a disaster) when low-income/minority kids lag so far behind—when low-income kids are three grade levels behind after just three years in school. But does Herbert describe some generalized crisis? Is it a crisis when only 41 percent of non-poor fourth graders can read proficiently? As noted on Monday, that isnt clear. How was proficiency defined by this study? What did these kids have to do to display it? Herbert doesnt say, and in the absence of such information, wed be slow to assert wide disaster.
''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. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of nonpoor students.''
How's that for a disturbing passage? Not only is the picture horribly bleak for low-income and minority kids, but we find that only 41 percent of non-poor fourth graders can read proficiently.
I respectfully suggest that we may be looking at a crisis here.
The teacher suggests that this crisis is growing as American homes get too many TVs. But as the Times reported just yesterday, national SAT scores hit an all-time high in math last year, and the verbal score has risen four points in the past decade. SATs are a limited measure of national achievement because only college-bound students take them. But did Herbert describe a generalized (and growing) crisis? The claim is hard to square with those numbers, despite what this highly-qualified teacher says. Well stick with the crisis that almost surely does exist—the crisis described by that remarkable sentence we highlight in Herberts column. See above.
Special report: Back-to-school blues!
PART 3—QUESTIONS NOT ASKED: The Posts superlative Darragh Johnson listened hard to Calixto Salgado (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/05). Her subject is 14 years old, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, and he (and his friends) told Johnson a great deal about the fault lines Calixto must negotiate as he...enters ninth grade in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a community in the DC suburbs. Johnson discusses Calixtos thoughts about gangs—the gangs which have gotten so much attention in the Washington area recently. She mentions the fact that this low-income child volunteers at the nursing home where his father works. She tells us that Calixto feels special when he serves as an altar-boy at his church. (After serving at one well-attended Sunday Mass, [Calixto] decides that being up on the altar means I'm serving for God. It means God chose me. There was a whole rack of boys in the Mass—a whole rack of boys. But God chose me. I'm up there for a reason.) And she quotes Calixto and a string of his peers explaining how they think theyre perceived by the wider society. They think we are dumb, says a contemporary of Calixto in an essay. "Because a lot of Latinos need help because we don't know the language.
And Johnson writes about Calixto and college. The boys' mothers sit together on a grassy hill behind the soccer goal, discussing college hopes in Spanish, she writes at one point. Calixtos mother refers to an unnamed Catholic university in Ohio; she hopes her son can earn a scholarship there, like another child from her church. But will Calixto make it to college? Johnsons profile isnt primarily a study of schooling. But as we noted on Tuesday, we were struck by the following passage, in which Calixto voiced anger and frustration about his eighth-grade work:
JOHNSON: 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.Calixto—an altar boy who volunteers with the elderly—had vowed to study harder. But that report card wont likely get him to college, and anyone who has been inside low-income schools has seen the frustration—the anger—described here. I cant read, Calixto fumed. But what did he mean by that?
For the record, it doesnt seem to be the case that Calixto cant read at all. At one point, Johnson describes him slowly devouring the novelization of West Side Story for ninth-grade English at Gaithersburg High. "It's the tightest book I ever read," he tells Johnson. "It's about gangs. They actually fight. But many low-income students are able to read; they just cant read anywhere near traditional grade level. In Mondays Times, Bob Herbert quoted a new study commissioned by two liberal think tanks. By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students, the study reports. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of non-poor students. Its hard to know just what these statistics mean—proficiency is a subjective measure—but they do seem to describe a familiar situation, in which deserving, low-income kids achieve far below traditional norms. And for kids like this—kids whose reading skills are far below grade level—school can be a bath of frustration, due to the massive failure of their schools to provide them with instructional programs actually geared to their existing skill-levels. Theyre handed books they cant possibly read; as they struggle and fail with these inappropriate texts, a good listener—a listener like Johnson—will often hear them saying things like, I cant read—I cant do this!
How frustrating can the classroom be for kids who are reading far below traditional grade level? In 1982, we wrote on this topic in the Baltimore Evening Sun, describing results of a study wed done of the Baltimore school systems elementary grade curriculum (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/04). We had spent a year studying the systems prescribed textbooks, using standard measures of readability (formulas used to determine the grade level on which a given book is written). Could Baltimores low-income kids really read the textbooks prescribed for their use? Well report, then you can decide. This passage concerned social studies:
SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore city teaching] guides recommend textbooks that are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books that are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.Then as now, wed guess it was true: By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students. But in Baltimore, teachers were told to hand them textbooks written on the sixth- or eighth-grade reading level—textbooks they couldnt begin to read. As we continued, we drew from things that we had observed while teaching in real public schools:
In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chus A Glorious Age in Africa—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick Kings The Social Studies and Our Country—Laidlaws sixth-grade textbook.
Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimores, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.
SOMERBY (2/9/82): The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.Or if they were taught social studies and science, they werent given reading experiences in those subject areas—the kinds of experiences that help non-poor students develop their reading abilities. Presumably, few curricula make as little sense as the one described in this study. (This curriculum was abandoned long ago.) But typically, kids who are three grade levels behind by fourth grade simply cant read any regular textbooks. Nor can they really read library books which were written for their age group. As a result, their teachers can give them few reading materials—and in the absence of reading experiences, we see a much-lamented (but rarely explained) failure to thrive. Or something else may go on in their classrooms; these students may be handed those grade-level textbooks—materials they cant actually read. In their frustration, they will often complain, as Calixto did. Because this subject is so important, lets recall what he said:
JOHNSON: 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.This child volunteers to help the elderly—and he wants to help himself, too. But is his school prepared to let that happen? Does it give him appropriate reading materials—materials he can actually read and learn from? Or does it hand him textbooks he truly cant read—materials which build his sense of frustration and lead to report cards like this one, even from this finest child, this child who would like to succeed?
These are the questions which came to our mind when we read Calixtos comments. Darragh Johnson is a superlative listener, but she isnt an educational analyst; if she got to observe Calixtos instruction, she didnt ask/answer questions like these. But then, neither did the lackluster authors of that latest important new study—the study cited by Herbert on Monday. Indeed, as we read it, our frustration grew. To our ear, it seemed like an endless string of such studies—lackluster, worthless, pretending to care.
TOMORROW—PART 4: The same old tired old same-old.