by Martin Harris
One place where the over-used marketing phrase “back by popular demand” is literally true is in the re-printing, after 125 years, of the McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers series. The new editions are being bought primarily by home-schoolers, who don’t like the quality of reading instruction in the public schools. McGuffey’s delivered step-by-step literacy -letter recognition, pronunciation, short sentences, longer ones-in a framework which, in the background, simultaneously taught young pre-literates the basics of civil responsibility and behavior.
Similarly back in print after a near 30-year hiatus is the Dick and Jane basal reader series, new to the public classrooms when your Humble Scribe first entered them, using a full-word-recognition (as opposed to phonics) method which came into disfavor in the 70’s. My generation didn’t need to use them much; we had all been pre-K’d by our parents on such children’s books as “Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain”, and arrived in school maybe as little semi-savages, but also as semi-literate ones. And similarly for basic math. In a nearly-full 36-nailed-to-the-floor-in-seat-and-desk-rows classroom, I can’t remember a classmate who hadn’t arrived knowing all 36 letters and numbers and the beginnings of how to use them. Once we arrived, our teachers did the rest. That isn’t the case today. And yet no one, not even the pedagogical experts, wants to recognize why a public education system which once functioned so well (and so frugally, to boot) now doesn’t.
When your Scribe was in grade school, the NAEP achievement tests and the “Proficiency” label were still decades into the future, but weren’t needed. Instead, every school had end-of-year grade-promotion tests and any of us who didn’t pass wouldn’t be. I recall but one instance of the disgrace of being “left back” in those years, and that miscreant re-joined us halfway through the next grade, somehow. Today, national averages show that about 2/3 of our descendants don’t make “Proficient” but make promotion anyway, and the average Federal Grade 4 and 8 reading and math test scores are in the low 200’s out of 500, which explains why all States except Nebraska have purchased, deployed, and report the results of such easier tests as (in Vermont) NSRE, NECAP, and a new one yet to be selected. These preferred tests seem to show not 2/3 non-Proficiency but 2/3 Proficiency results. But the stats, like the experts, don’t answer the “why” question.
Set aside the SWWL question -in our grade-school days, Students-Who-Wouldn’t-Learn wouldn’t have been allowed to stay for long in our classrooms, and therefore such types were never there to disrupt the rest of us. And set aside the teacher-competency question, because the early-grades competencies are so easy even parents can teach them, even if not all of us can follow up with later-grade subjunctive-mood or pre-calculus explanations. What’s left is that modern educators have chosen to reverse the McGuffey’s and Dick & Jane models, which put major emphasis on literacy and numeracy and only minor emphasis on socialization expectations, and today devote so much time and effort to the latter that the former goes largely untaught. Here in the Upper South, and here and there across the country, public schools are recruiting volunteer adults, all of whom in earlier decades became fairly Proficient in math and reading, to tutor the 2/3 of grade-schoolers who, for (Humble Scribe opinion) the above reason, now don’t. The K-12 schools are emphatically not recruiting non-volunteers, parents or taxpayers who wish to sit in on a class to see and hear what’s actually being taught; such intrusions, once accepted although rare, are now mostly prohibited. Even so, the prevalent instruction emphasis can be gauged from three sources: first, of course, the proven inability of most grade-schoolers to handle basic reading and math, as shown by achievement tests; second, the classroom-activity accounts brought home from school by students; and third, the inevitable reaction, exemplified by the fairly speedy adoption of a new set of Common Core (reading and math, primarily) Standards by a growing majority of States. We don’t yet know, but can guess from the recent Maryland experience, that the pro forma adoption of CCS doesn’t necessarily mean the actual return of basic literacy and numeracy instruction to top priority in the contemporary classroom. In earlier-column quotes from a typical Vermont School Superintendent, you can see the reasons why (not): William Mathis wrote of “civic virtue”, “preservation of a democratic government”, and, for good measure, “the shy child who bloomed”, as the teaching objectives of grade schools. All such historically-complex and elevated subjects and motives militate against the mere teaching of the basal level of reading and mathso simple even parents can be drafted to tutor in it. Now, time constraints keep Grade 4 kids from learning that content, because they’re subjected to teacher discourses on governance, ecology, cultural sensitivity, or ‘social-justice’ content which, in the old days of all-students-Proficient, weren’t considered appropriate subject matter until college, for the same maturity-of-understanding reasons that voting isn’t considered appropriate until college-age.
Because most grade school educators find the basics less fun than the advanced (all adults do) they now deplore the parental demand-for-basics as ‘teaching to the test’. Thanks to the electronic magic of the Web, you can see the test they don’t want to teach to: on the edu.gov website, the NAEP page offers a short publication entitled NAEP Grade 4 Mathematics/Reading Sample Questions. For math, students are asked to do a clock calculation to see what time it is 2 and 3/4 hours after 10.30, and to add and subtract some 2- and 3-digit numbers. Those are the harder questions. For reading, students are asked to read about bees, and then are asked what the writer wrote about them. Pretty basic, but that’s what grade school education was (and should be) all about. It wasn’t (and shouldn’t be) about the internally-contradictory notion of a K-12 university. For the 8th grade teacher who enthuses (as does your Humble Scribe) over the historic sequence of events from the English Revolution of the 1600’s to the American Revolution of the 1700’s, it might be an extra-credit treat for teachers and already-Proficient-in-reading-and-math students, but not for those who aren’t.