Monday, August 23, 2010

Who Is To Blame For School Failure? Part 1 of 5

I wrote this orignally a couple of years ago, but I'm sharing again!

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I know its long, I typed it up in Word and it was 14 1/2 pages long. I'm putting it on here in smaller sections. Please read all the sections and then feel free to comment, give your opinion, or add to what I've come up with...

I recently posted a blog on the failing test scores of Oklahoma students. One of my friends left me this comment:

OK Heather, I figure it's not the kids fault, they are mostly ready to learn at that age. Is it the teachers, the curriculum, or is it the parents? Where are we as a society failing the kiddos? I really would like your opinion and the opinion of other parents...

Wow, now if that isn’t a loaded question, I don’t know what is! It was certainly too much to answer in just a comment, and I fear may be even too much to answer in just a blog, but I’m going to try my best.

I’m going to start out by sharing some excerpts on the history of education in America from the excellent book, Public Schools, Public Menace by Joel Turtel…

From the time the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 until the 1850s, most parents taught their children to read at home or sent their children to small private or religious grammar schools. Education was voluntary and local governments did not force parents to send their children to school. Yet, literacy rates in colonial America were far higher than they are today.

In 1765, John Adams wrote that “a native of America, especially of New England, who cannot read and write is as rare a Phenomenon as a Comet.” Jacob Duche, the chaplain of Congress in 1772, said of his countrymen, “Almost every man is a reader.” Daniel Webster confirmed that the product of home education was near-universal literacy when he stated, “a youth of fifteen, of either sex, who cannot read and write, is very seldom to be found.”

After the Revolutionary War, literacy rates continued to rise in all the colonies. There were many affordable, innovative local schools parents could send their children to. Literacy data from that early period show that from 1650 to 1795, the literacy rate among white men rose from 60 to 90 percent. Literacy among women went from 30 to 45 percent.

In the early 1800s, Pierre Samuel Dupont, an influential French citizen who helped Thomas Jefferson negotiate for the Louisiana Purchase, came to America and surveyed education here. He found that most young Americans of all ages could read, write, and “cipher” (do arithmetic), and that Americans of all ages could and did read the Bible. He estimated that fewer than four Americans in a thousand were unable to write neatly and legibly.

From 1800 to 1840, literacy rates in the North increased from 75 percent to between 91 and 97 percent. In the South, the white literacy rate grew from about 50 to 60 percent, to 81 percent. By 1850, literacy rates in Massachusetts and other New England states for both men and women were close to 97 percent. This was before Massachusetts created the first compulsory public-school system in America in 1852. Of course, these literacy numbers did not apply to black slaves since many colonies had laws that forbid teaching slaves to read.

Another sign of high literacy rates in early America was book sales. By 1776, the colonies had a population of about three million people. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, sold 120,000 copies. That was equivalent to selling ten million copies today. By 1818, the population in the United States was about twenty million. Between 1813 and 1823, Noah Webster’s Spelling Book and Walter Scott’s novels sold over five million copies. That would be the equivalent of selling sixty million copies today. Europeans who visited American in the 1820s and 1830s, such as Alexis de Tocqueville (author of the great classic, Democracy in America) and Pierre du Pone de Nemours, marveled at how well educated Americans were.
OK, so far so good, right? America is chugging along, fast become one of the most industrialized, civilized, and well-educated countries in the world.

What on earth happened?


Well, travel forward in time about one hundred years, and read what John Taylor Gatto has to say in his book, The Underground History of American Education:

At the start of WWII millions of men showed up at registration offices to take low-level academic tests before being inducted.

The years of maximum mobilization were 1942 to 1944; the fighting force had been mostly schooled in the 1930s, both those inducted and those turned away. Eighteen million men were tested, seventeen million, two hundred and eighty thousand of them were judged to have the minimum competence in reading required to be a soldier, a 96 percent literacy rate. Although this was a 2 percent fall-off from the 98 percent among voluntary military applicants ten years before, the dip was so small it didn’t worry anybody.


World War II was over in 1945. Six years later another war was begun in Korea. Several million men were tested for military service, but this time 600,000 were rejected. Literacy in the draft pool had dropped to 81 percent even though all that was needed to classify a soldier as literate was fourth grade reading proficiency. In a few short years from the beginning of WWII to Korea, a terrifying problem of adult literacy had appeared. The Korean War group received most of its schooling in the 1940s, it had more years in school with more professionally trained personnel and more scientifically selected textbooks than the WWII men, yet it could not read, write, count, speak or think as well as the earlier, less-schooled contingent.


A third American war began in the mid-1960s. By its end in 1973 the number of men found non-inductable by reason of inability to read safety instructions, interpret road signs, decipher orders, and so on – the number found illiterate in other words – had reached 27 percent of the total pool. Vietnam-era young men had been schooled in the 1950s and the 1960s – much better schooled than either of the two earlier groups – but the 4 percent illiteracy of 1941 which had transmuted into the 19 percent illiteracy of 1952 had now grown into the 27 percent illiteracy of 1970. Not only had the fraction of competent readers dropped to 73 percent but a substantial chunk of even those were only barely adequate; they could not keep abreast of developments by reading a newspaper, they could not read for pleasure, they could not sustain a thought or an argument, they could not write well enough to manage their own affairs without assistance.


In 1940, the literacy rate for the general population was 96% for whites and 80% for blacks.

By the 1990s, surveys showed that 17 percent of whites and 40 percent of blacks could not read at all.

Illiteracy had doubled among blacks and quadrupled among whites.

More from The Underground History of American Education:

[Regarding the results of an adult literacy survey performed by the Educational Testing Service in the 90s] :

Forty-two million Americans over the age of sixteen can’t read. Some of this group can’t write their names on Social Security cards or fill in height, weight, and birth dates on application forms.

Fifty million Americans can’t recognize printed words on a fourth or fifth grade reading level. Consequently, they can’t write simple messages or letters.

Fifty-five to sixty million Americans are limited to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade reading. A majority of this group could not figure out the price per ounce of peanut butter in a 20 ounce jar costing $1.99 when told they could round the answer off to a whole number.

Thirty million Americans have ninth and tenth-grade reading proficiency. Neither this group nor any of the preceding groups could understand a simplified written explanation of the procedures used by attorneys and judges in selecting juries.

About 3.5 percent of the 26,000-member sample demonstrated literacy skills adequate to do traditional college study, a level reached by 30 percent of secondary students in 1940 and by 30 percent of secondary students in other developed countries today.

Ninety-six and a half percent of the American population is mediocre to illiterate where deciphering print is concerned. This is no commentary on their intelligence, but without the ability to take in primary information from print and to interpret it they are at the mercy of commentators who tell them what things mean.


Well, now, that’s just downright scary, isn’t it?

I’d like to take a moment to address the people who might read that and think ‘That can’t be right!’

I know that it seems incredible, and is hard to believe that there could possibly be that many illiterate people in America, in your state, your town, your neighborhood.

I couldn’t believe it either. So I started asking around, and observing what I saw.

I was told of a child who told her Sunday School teacher that her father couldn’t read. This father would be about my age.

I was told stories of parents with kids in the schools who were beyond frustrated because their kids couldn’t read simple books like Dr. Seuss.

I watched as a grown man had to put his money on the counter at QuikTrip and let the cashier tell him if he had enough to pay for his purchase because he couldn’t do the math himself.

I sat in Sunday School and listened to adults stumble over words in Scripture readings: words like “incensed”, “associates”, “captivity”, and the ever-popular “persevere” (which I have heard countless people pronounce as “preserve”). I put these same words in front of my second grader and she read them perfectly without pause.

I observe the writing skills of people who post blogs, and people commenting on news stories.

I begin to see that which seems so impossible. America really is a nation of much-educated, but not well-educated people.

How on earth did it happen?

In the 1840s, American education theorists like the infamous Horace Mann traveled to Germany to observe their “superior” school systems. They came back giving glowing reports and encouraged Congress to adopt a similar system.

In 1852 in Massachusetts, legislators created the first state-run school system. Over the next 50 years, all the states in the union created similar systems.

The difference, at that point, between the American schools and the German model was that American schools were not compulsory. So, Horace Mann and his colleagues pushed for compulsory-attendance laws to force parents to send their children to these government-run schools.

By the early 1900s, most states had adopted the compulsory school attendance laws, but not without resistance.

Many parents were unhappy, realizing that their parental rights were being violated by these laws, and were unwilling to hand their children over.

In Massachusetts, almost 80% of the voters resisted compulsory education. So, in 1880, the Massachusetts state militia was dispatched to “persuade” the parents on Cape Cod to give up their children to the state schools.

Another quote from John Taylor Gatto:

A small number of very passionate American ideological leaders visited Prussia in the first half of the 19th century; fell in love with the order, obedience, and efficiency of its education system; and campaigned relentlessly thereafter to bring the Prussian vision to these shores. Prussia’s ultimate goal was to unify Germany; the Americans’ was to mold hordes of immigrant Catholics to a national consensus based on a northern European model. To do that, children would have to be removed from their parents and from inappropriate cultural influences.

Remember that the 1800s were a time of great immigrant movement into the United States, and public-school activists saw compulsory education as a tool to “achieve a uniform culture among an increasingly heterogeneous people.” (Turtel, 26).

Mann and his followers pushed for the three main ideas of the Prussian school system to be integrated into American schools:

The first was that the purpose of state schooling was not intellectual training but the conditioning of children to obedience, subordination, and collective life. Thus, memorization outranked thinking. Second, whole ideas were broken into fragmented subjects and school days were divided into fixed periods, so that self-motivation to learn would be muted by ceaseless interruptions. Third, the state was posited as the true parent of children. (Gatto)

And so we have:

Education Mistake #1 – Giving the Government Control in the First Place

Read Part 2...

2 comments:

  1. Well, I think you've just saved me a lot of trouble. More than a few times, I've thought about writing something like this, but now, I think I'll just put a link to this series in my sidebar.

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