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3rd March
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, March 3, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

A report was issued on Wednesday that should come as a surprise at least to those who don’t have contact with college students.The nonprofit company that administers the ACT tests, an alternative to the SATs that is more widely used in other parts of the country, concluded “too many American high school students are graduating without the reading skills they’ll need to succeed in college and in workforce training programs.”
It seems that barely half of the graduating seniors have the skills needed to handle the reading requirements for typical first year college classes. Remember, we’re not talking about the students who drop out. We’re talking about the students who do graduate.

American school districts are measuring educational success largely by the high school graduation rate. What the ACT does is tell us is that only half of these students are really prepared for the rigors of college, accepting for the moment that our colleges are really maintaining the same academic standards that most of us would equate with higher education.

Most point to the high schools as the problem. The National Governors Association has made high school reform one of their key initiatives. Enormous private resources have gone into various restructuring schemes to “fix” the high schools, leveraging tens of billions in public expenditures.To date, none has worked.

Here in New York, an effort a decade ago to create small high schools, using funds from the Annenberg Foundation, crashed and burned. Since there appears to be no shortage of billionaires willing to give the same groups that failed before even more money, we are now replicating the original failure ten times over, drawing on the fortune of William Gates, who is, unlike Mr.Annenberg, a relatively young man likely to witness the failure of mere structural change with his own eyes.Already, right in his own back yard of Seattle, Washington, his foundation is backing away from the small high school effort that is failing there.
Rather than examine the growing evidence that merely changing the structure of the schools is not the answer, we are told, for instance, that attendance rates are higher in the new small high schools than in the old behemoths.This is true, but deceptive. Most new high schools, in business for a year or two, are dealing primarily with pupils in ninth and tenth grades, where high school attendance rates are highest. It is in the upper high school grades that things really fall apart. Moreover, the new small high schools are not servicing nearly as many special education and English language deficient students, left to languish (and pull down statistics) in the old schools.

The ACT people are on the right path when they suggest that it is what and how students are taught that is behind the disturbingly low performance of the graduates. “Many high school teachers are not incorporating higher-level reading materials … into their classes.”

I suspect that most high school teachers want to teach at a higher level. It is, after all, more satisfying to them if they can do this.What I believe they have discovered is that the problem is not really at the high schools, but one inherited from a K to 8 system that increasingly relies on failed pedagogy such as “balanced literacy,” the new term for the whole language boondoggle that research here and abroad has shown to be ineffective. Their students come to them totally unprepared for high school level work.

It is the imbalance in “balanced literacy” that is at the root of the problems faced by high school teachers. A look at the elementary and middle school classroom libraries,so highly touted for providing a “literature rich environment that will foster a lifelong love of reading,” discloses far more books of fiction than non-fiction. Couple this with the virtual abandonment of the use of textbooks in many classrooms, and you are left with a contentpoor environment.And since teachers are discouraged from direct instruction, the burden is left to students to “construct their own knowledge.”This is “progressive education” that is the official pedagogy practiced in most American schools.

That is why our schools will continue to fail no matter how much money is poured into them or how many structural fixes we try. This system insures that lower performing students fail miserably and good students slide into mediocrity.Nothing will change until we get back on the path that Mayor Bloomberg originally suggested before he was seduced by the educational establishment and fellow naive rich folks. Get back to basics.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

1 Comment

  1. [...] exit, their ability to provide an educational that results in a meaningful diploma has largely failed.  We produce students less qualified to go out into the workplace and more qualified to take [...]

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