Now, let me say right upfront - I had a number of absolutely outstanding teachers during the course of my education. I had teachers who encourage, supported, believed, and pushed me to believe in myself. Their efforts helped me to rise to a high academic level. I have nothing but respect for the majority of teachers, their hard work, their care, their out of pocket expenditures for their students, and their passion for teaching. Those were the kinds of teachers I was fortunate enough to have, from first grade on up. I was fortunate to grow up in a state (NC) that had an outstanding public school system, as well as outstanding state universities.
But I know not all teachers are like the majority of the ones I had, unfortunately. And it is to that point that Brooks writes:
I started covering education reform in 1983, with the release of the “Nation at Risk” report. In those days everybody had some idea for how we should reorganize the schools or change the curriculum—cut school size, cut class size, create vouchers, create charters, get back to basics, do less basics, increase local control, increase the federal role.
Some of the reforms seemed promising, but the results were disappointing, and tangential to the core issue: the relationship between teacher and student. It is mushy to say so, but people learn from people they love.
Today, aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come on the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America. These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit. The reform environment they find themselves in is both softhearted and hardheaded. They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship. This includes union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal laws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien régime.
Ah, and we have come to the crux of the matter - the unions:
The past few years have seen an absolute change in the correlation of forces. It used to be that a few policy wonks would write essays assailing union rules that protected mediocre teachers; these pronouncements were greeted with skepticism in the media and produced no political movement. Now powerful political players, most notably President Obama, are making such arguments. The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet. They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class. They still fight to preserve their interests, but they’ve lost their moral authority, as we’ve seen in New York City, Denver, Chicago, and even Washington, D.C.
The battle is not over, not by a long shot. Although the environment for change is more fertile now than ever before, we have yet to see what it can yield. An education reformer sent me an e-mail a few months ago saying he had never been so optimistic about the state of education reform—and yet never so pessimistic about the government’s ability to solve fundamental problems.
As I was saying above - there are concerns about this new Plan of Obama's being little different from Bush's in the overall effect. And, of course, the issue of unions protecting teachers who shouldn't still be teaching (or in some cases, never allowed to start).
That brings me to the article that was in my paper on Sunday. What I didn't tell you was the full headline, particularly the subheading, which, frankly, brought me up short: Literacy Rates Show Improvement; In Charleston County, fewer incoming freshmen reading at fourth-grade level or worse. Did you catch that? High school students reading at a fourth grade level or BELOW. To me, it begs the obvious question - how in the HELL did they make it to high school??? Honestly, this just does not compute.
I might add, this is being said in a positive way. Here's more:
The Charleston County School District's new and aggressive campaign to improve students' reading already has sparked notable improvements, with the superintendent calling the gains a "great reflection of progress."
New figures show the percentage of next year's freshmen who read at a fourth-grade level or worse has dropped from 18 percent to 14 percent. Last year, nearly one in five students couldn't read better than a fourth-grader. This year, it's one in seven.
"When they came to me with these numbers, it was the best day I've had in a long time," said Superintendent Nancy McGinley. "It proves when we focus on something, we can get it done."
School officials learned about students' weak reading skills last year after The Post and Courier requested this analysis. The superintendent and school board responded by making literacy the district's top priority, and the emphasis on reading has permeated every school.
Oh, yay! But here is the take home message:
Still, while this year's results seem promising, it will take several years to know whether it's a one-year blip or part of a long-term trend. The district didn't track this information until last year.
Which begs another question: why not? Had the Post and Courier not asked them, they wouldn't have known how many of their Senior High school kids could not read the level of material for the class they were in?
But here's my favorite part:
Schools always have worked on literacy, but teachers and principals received a clear message this year that they would be accountable for students' reading skills, McGinley said. She said she thinks this year's results reflect several years of attention on the issue.
All evidence to the contrary, apparently. I am just saying, to claim they have "always worked on literacy" when such a large number of students cannot read anywhere CLOSE to a high school level, is laughable.
The good news is, though, they are going to work harder at it:
District officials made new efforts this year to promote literacy, and they plan to roll out a more expansive, intensive, multi-million-dollar plan this fall to identify and help weak readers.
The programs for struggling readers will be mandatory instead of voluntary, and the district will expand its reach to include first-graders and sixth-graders across the district. McGinley said she expects to see more progress among students as those plans take effect. (Click here to read the rest.)
I would certainly hope so.
Bear in mind, this is but one county here in SC, and holds one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the country within its confines (not that I am biased). To learn the level of literacy (or lack thereof) here is just astonishing.
Or is it? Maybe we're doing better here in Charleston County than I thought judging from this study, which has higher numbers for literacy (or illiteracy). Wow. This just blows me away.
Let me add that it isn't like I didn't know illiteracy was a problem in our country. I remember well working with prisoners and discovering they couldn't read (which meant they couldn't read the legal documents I presented to them), and being very surprised by the numbers (higher than I thought they would be). That was in MA, back in the '90's. But it was still a shock to realize how many people in this country, are reading far below the levels they need to be.
How about in your area? For the teachers in the crowd, what are the issues that get in the way of our children learning how to read and be functionally literate? What is happening in our schools that one-fifth of our students can't really read by the time they get to high school (again, how are they getting to high school???)? And what can we do to change these numbers? I look forward to your responses.