Reading Is FUNdamental

Some teachers asserted that remote learning during the pandemic was going swell. You can’t argue the point if that’s what they claim, but was it real or their “truth,” that education was doing what it could to accommodate the pandemic, but it sucked and wasn’t even remotely close to actual education. But then, students are back in school, and the stories told before can’t cover the reality in the classroom.

Each fall, about five students show up to Ms. Layne’s class at Sevilla Elementary School East in Phoenix lagging far behind fourth grade-level reading skills. This year, she was stunned to find nearly half of her 25 students tested at kindergarten to first-grade reading levels.

When the pandemic disrupted schools in spring 2020, educators predicted remote learning would set up many children for failure, especially students of color and those from poor families. Test scores from the first months of remote learning showed students falling months behind in reading and math. This fall, as many students returned to classrooms for the first time after 18 months of disruptions, some teachers have found the learning loss is worse than projected.

Fourth grade students reading at a second grade level or worse is a serious educational problem. And you’ll never guess what races suffer most. So it would only seem natural that the education and political establishment would gird its loins to deal with this looming catastrophe. And they are.

Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City is eliminating gifted programs so no student can excel beyond the lowest common denominator. Oregon has eliminated the requirement that students be capable of reading or doing math to graduate, while others try to use “woke math” to make it relevant to students by making arithmetic secondary to social justice. Schools have adopted curriculum from the 1619 Project, even though it’s historical nonsense.

And now California Governor Gavin Newsom has made ethnic studies a requirement for graduation.

The state’s ethnic studies framework, approved in March, promotes “a social consciousness” and will address “institutionalized systems of advantage” and forms of bigotry including anti-Blackness, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

It’s not just that schools can offer a course in ethnic studies, but that it’s a requirement to graduate. Competence in core academic subjects are no longer requirements to graduate. Taking an ethnic studies course is. Competence in core academic subjects wasn’t good before, and is far worse after the pandemic. The New York Times’ solution was not to test for such matters, as ascertaining that our students were failing in basic skills would make them feel badly about themselves, and to make a big deal out of the fact that students can’t read would be to stigmatize a generation as being uneducated just because they are uneducated.

But others are pushing back against the concept of “learning loss,” especially on behalf of the Black, Hispanic and low-income children who, research shows, have fallen further behind over the past year. They fear that a focus on what’s been lost could incite a moral panic that paints an entire generation as broken, and say that relatively simple, common-sense solutions can help students get back up to speed.

Solutions like tutoring students to learn to read, to add and subtract, are raised, as if that’s not what they’re supposed to be learning during the school day in school. But the “higher math” solution to a problem is to eliminate ascertaining a problem. If you don’t know it, it doesn’t exist.

Others go further, arguing that regardless of what terminology is used, standardized testing to measure the impact of the pandemic is unnecessary or even actively harmful. Voices as prominent as the former New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest educators’ union, have encouraged parents to opt their children out of state tests during the pandemic. “We do not want to impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized,” Mr. Carranza said.

Of course, we’re somewhat post-pandemic now, with schools back in session and students back in classrooms. Even if you’ve opted out of testing, it’s not going to make little Johnny able to read just because you’ve hidden the evidence.

For those of us who lived through earlier iterations of pedagogical fashion trends, new math and Ebonics for example, two lessons were learned. The first is that children shouldn’t be the lab rats in pedagogical experimentation. The lofty rationalizations of untested and radical approaches to fixing something that was broken in some ways and worked spectacularly well in others managed to improve little and damage a lot. These are children. They don’t get a second chance at being educated if their public school education was a hip new idea that just failed miserably.

The second thing is that public school education was meant to teach all children the basic academic skills needed to succeed and thrive. Parents send junior to school to learn to read, write, learn math, science and history. Even then, there wasn’t enough time to do most of this well for the students for whom it didn’t come easily. And it wasn’t going well before the pandemic, and the loss of education, the regression no one wants to talk about because it will further traumatize the kids, exacerbated a problem.

When Newsom announced the ethnic studies requirement, the content of which may not be entirely clear even though its prior iterations suggest that it’s very ideological indoctrination wrapped in a rosy bow, it reflected the trend of other states trying to craft laws to prevent teaching critical race theory, to the extent legislators have a clue what CRT is. Whether you think this is swell and important or social Marxism isn’t the point.

The point is that schools are doing a lousy job of fulfilling their basic duty of teaching public school students core academic subjects, and rather than facing the reality that American school children are doing very poorly, are using compulsory education at public expense to achieve ulterior goals.

Years ago, there was an educational non-profit whose promotion was “reading is FUNdamental,” to get children to want to read more. We’re now at the point where the cute capitalized “FUN” is no longer quite so cute, and “reading really is fundamental” if a child is to succeed in society is more the message. And Johnny can’t read, but he will be required to take ethnic studies,* learn woke math and will receive a diploma even if he can’t spell the word. Better that no one know to prevent Johnny from being stigmatized than Johnny be taught to read.

*As an aside, it’s become increasing clear that young people, even those disinclined to progressive views, fail to see why any of this should be controversial. They perceive requirements for ethnic and cultural studies as being a common and normal part of their education, no less so than geometry, and can’t imagine an education that does not include  mandatory cultural awareness. If anything, it’s far more basic to their grasp of an appropriate education than geometry.

31 thoughts on “Reading Is FUNdamental

  1. Tom Johnson

    The most important skill I learned in junior high was logical thinking. A great teacher taught me to question why something was “true”. It is now called the “5 whys”.

    Reply
  2. Jim Majkowski

    I fear your ending “aside” is too true and may actually be the largest single part of what you and some others, including me, perceive as a big problem: too few others see it as one.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I am perpetually surprised by how much of this ideological nonsense has already been normalized for young people, no matter how they otherwise identify politically. When they see no issue, there’s no reason to challenge it. They’re already lost to a far greater extent than older people realize.

      Reply
      1. Miles

        Sorry if this is too far off topic, but the fact that the kids believe they need a class to learn how not to be racist, etc., is shocking. Can they not think for themselves? Can they not just not hate people? Do they need a teacher or a book to tell them everything? They believe they’re all brilliant critical thinkers, but they can’t think their way out of a paper bag without some adult holding their hand and giving them a trophy.

        Reply
        1. rxc

          You’ve got to be taught
          To hate
          And fear
          You’ve got to be taught
          From year
          To year
          Its got to
          Be drummed in your dear little ear
          You’ve got to
          Be carefully
          Taught

          Reply
  3. Guitardave

    If I may, an little story on our hosts assertion about students being ‘lab rats’ …

    Halfway thru 3rd grade we moved from a more suburban area to a rural one. The school district I moved into had been using a phonic based reading program ( I think it was called ITA ) for K thru 2nd grade, whereas the one I came from did not. The whole class was hobbled when it came to reading…even the smart kids that were eventually in the academic sections in middle and high school. The transition from the phonic system to normal reading was clearly a stumbling block.

    The FUN part was that my 3rd grade teacher called on me to read out loud in class way more often than others. When she did call on others the difference was painfully obvious. Although I did enjoy reading, ( motorcycle magazines) I think its obvious by some of the shit I say here that I’m far from being any kind of genius. But in relative comparison to the the class, I could read at a conversational speed, while the rest of the class still had that one word at a time ca-dence.

    I never brown nosed, but being perceived as the teachers pet ain’t a whole lot of fun for a big, shy, naive nine year old ‘new kid’, in a school with mostly poor hardscrabble farm boys. ( Please, spare me any sympathy, as I find it darkly hilarious now… it all reads like some bad Hollywood tragi-comedy.)

    It definitely did add to my learning experience … neither me or my parents realized I was involuntarily signed up for those lovely extra-circular programs titled; How to take a sucker punch and Self Defense 101. A little inadvertent boots-in-the-mud ‘ethics’ program if there ever was one.

    Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          I trace a lot of the tendency to rationalize violence back to “punch a nazi,” which I believe to be more about troubled kids wanting an excuse to punch someone than anyone being a nazi.

          Reply
  4. Elpey P.

    Dismantling the competency requirements for core courses is a separate problem from what the scope of a public education should include.

    Various strains of “citizenship” courses have been a longstanding feature of public education. These have gone beyond mere Constitutional literacy to the point of affirming national identity, respect for authority/policing, gender roles, the virtues of free enterprise, etc.

    So-called “ethnic studies” may be corrupted by CRT-infused ideology the way these courses have historically been with conservative social forces, but better to fight for fixing it than to shun “social studies” (i.e., cultural studies) education completely.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Longstanding is relative, El Pepe. That civics is part of an American history curriculum isn’t surprising. This is America. Where else are students supposed to learn that the three branches of government are the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria?

      Reply
    2. norahc

      They might as well call the class what it is: Investigating National Discrimination Of Color. Off course the class abbreviation in the syllabus could be problematic.

      Reply
  5. Paleo

    I won’t go on a diatribe about having to walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways, when I was a kid, but I’ll just repeat myself. Our political “elite” – the elected officials themselves, the people that staff their offices, and the media watchdogs (lol) that cover them – are intellectually and ethically bankrupt. The education establishment certainly falls within that group and fits that description.

    Although a lot of normies out her don’t think of it that concisely, they sense it. That’s how we got Trump, and will get more Trumps. Although he’s reprehensible, he’s not one of that group. And having caused a Trump, the elites totally missed the opportunity for a little helpful self- reflection, instead blaming us for our “isms” and pushing hard to replace him with a guy that met their standards. We’ll, we did, and although it seems impossible, he and his people make Trump look competent by comparison.

    I’ve always been sanguine about this stuff, assuming that we ordinary folk out here would push forward and the country would be fine despite the foolishness of our leadership, but in beginning to worry that these clowns are going to do too much damage to repair.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I think of the education establishment like fashion designers, constantly moving the hemline up or down so they have something new to sell or their existence as the intellectual elite at Columbia graduate school of education would be worthless.

      Reply
      1. L. Phillips

        Amen. My wife taught in elementary schools in the same medium sized K-12 district of about 300,000 students for 28 years. We lost track of the number of times she stormed into the house after school, slammed her books and papers to be graded on the kitchen table and stormed, “Someone’s idiot son-in-law with a brand new degree just got a job at the “ed shed” and now we are to begin teaching third grade in a completely different way – in the middle of the year! Why can’t they let us just teach the children?”

        This generally involved new books, work books, films or videos, extra teacher training, and often a whole new bureaucratic arm at the shed. The prior materials went into dumpsters.

        Reply
  6. MIKE GUENTHER

    Mr. Carranza speaking about traumatizing students by testing them for competency, obviously he was never traumatized when he brought home a less than stellar report card. He probably didn’t get the ” Son, you’re not living up to your potential” speech, as I’m sure a lot of us of a certain age did back in the day.

    Kids have to be tested, otherwise you can’t know where their studies and knowledge are lacking.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I bet he was traumatized as a student, and swore never to subject another student to the brutal expectation of minimal competence.

      Reply
  7. KP

    You’re only a couple of short steps away from the South African solution.. Compulsory for all businesses to have a black foreman, then a black manager, and later black directors. A triumph of ideology over economics.

    The option is join the rest of the West and have a full welfare state where no-on has to work if they don’t want to, and there’s nothing like a growing list of ‘clients’ to make any empire-building bureaucrat’s heart glow.

    So, Mandarin it is then? Better sooner than later.

    Reply
  8. LTMG

    Gov Newsome states that soon California high school graduates will have to take an ethnic studies course. Note that he didn’t state that students must actually pass the course to graduate.

    Reply
    1. MIKE GUENTHER

      We used to have that back in the day…it was called Social Studies. It wasn’t so ethnocentric as what progressives want today, though.

      Reply
      1. SHG Post author

        There are legitimate complaints that the traditional history/social students/civics curriculum “whitewashed” history, leaving out the sordid parts, spinning American history to its most positive characterization and indoctrinating students to nationalism, a love of country without a fair recognition of its problems.

        But these issues can be addressed by fixing the curriculum to be more historically accurate and honest rather than presenting countervailing spin and “anti-racist” indoctrination.

        Reply
  9. Jardinero1

    “Learning loss” is a nonsense phrase. While it is common to forget what one might have read in History or Government, reading is not subject to loss at any stage of mastery. Learning to read can best be likened to learning how to ride a bike. Once you do it; you don’t forget. If a student arrives at the fourth grade, long absence or not, and reads at kindergarten level; they lost nothing. That was their actual level of competence, where last they left off. Also, regarding the Sevilla Elementary example, having half a class of starting fourth graders, at kindergarten level, is not that uncommon. Reading ability is going to follow a normal curve. If a fourth grade has one hundred kids, total, then about 12 are going to be reading at Kindergarten level. You will also have twelve reading at 8th or 9th grade level. Sometimes those kids get lumped, by chance, into one 25 student class. It happens.

    Reply
      1. Jardinero1

        Also a teacher here. Ad hominems are no substitute for logical argument or facts. Learning loss is not real. Elementary reading teachers find that idea really offensive, but other content area teachers don’t. Nobody forgets how to read, even first graders. As a factual matter, the student’s reading ability, when he returns to school, at the beginning of the school year, is the best measure of his level of mastery. You can push and prod kids all year long and have a seemingly higher level of mastery in late May or early June But if the student doesn’t retain it eleven weeks later, then that mastery was an illusion. The student was not cognitively prepared to read at that level the prior May or June.

        Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          First, that’s not an ad hominem. Second, I have a couple elementary teachers in the family and they too say learning loss is real and you’re an idiot. It seems the only person impressed with you is you. You are, of course, welcome to persist in arguing that you’re right, but do it elsewhere.

          Reply
    1. Andy

      Even the “like riding a bike” metaphor is itself a lie.
      I learned to ride a bike as a small child. Then, the skill being totally useless in the hilly, forested terrain where I grew up, I spent a couple decades never riding a bike. And you know what? I have no idea how to ride a bike.
      The human body doesn’t have a “cache” to store things indefinitely in case they might be useful later. Maintaining a skill means allocating scarce resources within the brain, and, if those resources are not paying dividends, they will be reallocated somewhere else. Reading is the same. Use it or lose it.

      Reply
  10. tom Johnson

    The advance in reading skill is comprehension. Comprehension is familiarity with a increasing vocabulary. No reading – no new words, no increase in reading skills. Reading is fundamental. Phonics is reaching a child to be like Alexa.

    Reply

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