Sunday, February 17, 2008

More than words

Eric Hirsch Jr. published an informative article on the failure of the No Child Left Behind law in yesterday's Washington Post. He points out that reading scores have shown gains in fourth grade but have not been maintained in higher grades when reading comprehension matters so much more.

I'm sure it won't surprise anyone who follows these education brouhahas that schools are increasingly teaching to the test rather than teaching actual subjects.

...this causes schools, as many complain, to teach to reading tests rather than educate children. But intensive test preparation by schools has resulted in lower reading test scores in later grades. "Teaching to the test" does not effectively teach to the test after all.

But this inability of so many older students to comprehend what they read, despite so many hours studying reading comprehension, is not as mysterious as it may sound.
In light of the relevant science, an analysis of the textbooks and methods used to teach reading and language arts -- for three hours a day in many places -- indicates some of the reasons for the disappointing later results. These test-prep materials are constructed on the mistaken view that reading comprehension is a skill that can be perfected by practice, as typing can be. This how-to conception of reading has caused schools to spend a lot of unproductive time on trivial content and on drills such as "finding the main idea" and less time on history, science and the arts.

Yes, history, science and the arts. Who needs em? Humans, apparently:
Studies of reading comprehension show that knowing something of the topic you're reading about is the most important variable in comprehension. After a child learns to sound out words, comprehension is mostly knowledge. Many technical studies support the assertion that after students can fluently sound out words, relevant knowledge is the crucial difference between students who are good or poor readers.

In other words, a person who knows nothing whatsoever about a subject can understand every word in a paragraph and still have no idea what the pargraph means.

But what can be done? Isn't reading comprehension one of those questions for which there are not answers? Well, no.
Consider the eighth-grade NAEP results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline. Since 1998, the state has improved significantly in the number of eighth-graders reading at the "proficient" or "advanced" levels: Massachusetts now has the largest percentage of students reading at that higher level, and it is No. 1 in average scores for the eighth grade. That is because Massachusetts decided in 1997 that students (and teachers) should learn certain explicit, substantive things about history, science and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge.

Well, duh, you'd think. So how is it that so many experts somehow manage to miss the obvious. You won't be surprised the George W. Bush and the Republicans played their usual role in fucking things up for money. This time in the form of Reid Lyon:
So, again, a tutor of George W. Bush developed a program/policy that imposed a structure on America’s public schools that further complicated the practice of educating children, while funneling federal funds to the profit margins of... friends of George W. Bush.

Whether by design or due to a series of accidents related to the hubris and incompetence of trust fund babies like Bush, vast swathes of our education system no longer teach children in a way that enables them to understand history, social studies, science, or the arts -- essentially the basics necessary for a functional democracy.

As with any great crime, its rarely a bad idea to follow the money and see who profits, in this case by the demise of democracy in the United States and you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that it's the politicians of the one dominant party and so many of the corporations that profit most from a widespread lack of reading and reading comprehension. Unfortunately, those who would profit most from a better an educated commonweal don't know what the words mean and if they do can't adequately distinguish between the constitution, the bible, and the words coming at them from the tv.