Friday, January 20, 2012

Are schools making our children illiterate to make a profit?

Professional writer and filmmaker Peter Kowalke didn't start reading until he was 11 which wasn't a problem for him because he didn't go to school.  He explained it to me this way.  
In school you read about doing things.  I preferred to spend my early childhood doing things rather than reading about doing things. 
He shared that this wasn't even something he thought about much.  When learning to read independently became more of a priority for him, he began picking up reading and from that point on there was no turning back. Peter is not unusual.  Dr. Peter Gray studies young people who were never schooled because they were unschooled or attended a Democratic school. The age these children learned to read has a wide range from about 4 - 14 years old. He found that when not coerced or forced, EVERY child learns to read well and by age 15 it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between a child who began reading at 4 and one who began in later years. (Note: This did not include children with severe cognitive impairment or those who don't speak English.)  For those unfamiliar with unschooling or Democratic schooling, it provides children with a natural learning environment where they have access to plenty of resources and support, but learning is not forced and children are given the freedom to learn what they choose when they choose. 

Reading proficiency among fourth grade students
From Students First 

There is plenty of information, research, and numerous case studies that point to the fact learning to read and write will come as naturally to children as learning to walk and talk if provided a literate and supportive environment where passions are honored. Unfortunately, school was not designed this way.  In school all children are expected to learn at the same rate and in the same way and if they don't, they are labeled, left back, and left out. What's more, in today's accountability climate, the same is happening to many of their teachers.

Most recently, we've been led to believe the cure to the literacy problem in our country can be solved by testing even more. It is thought that this will enable us to figure out where the problems lie within each student and determine who the "bad teachers" are so we can replace them with others who are good at getting the mandated results. But does obsessively dissecting what a student is doing really help them get better? Imagine if we did this while children were learning to walk or talk? Can't all this lab rat analysis take the joy out of what the child is doing? We also need to ask ourselves, are our best teachers really those who can produce good test takers? Ironically, there is new research coming out that indicates that standardized testing leads to a dramatic decrease in the joy of reading. Perhaps even more importantly, education expert Alfie Kohn explain how teachers are killing students motivation to read by relying on coercion and extrinsic inducements.

Could this all be on purpose? All this focus on testing and forcing has resulted in a nation where an alarming 67% of 4th grade students are being identified as not being able to read proficiently by the arbitrary time government officials say they should be. Could it be that the government is wrong about when it is that students should be proficient and by forcing a factory model of learning they are actually keeping students behind? Could it be that Americans are being purposely mislead to feed the money-hungry testing and publishing companies that are now literally pulling in billions of dollars? After all, like it or not, this is huge business! These are companies that are backing and supporting politicians. These are the companies who came together and stood arm in arm with the politicians from each state in the creation of the Common Core standards and now stand to make billions in profits . Are American schools actually causing the illiteracy issue because it results in a tremendous amount of money for big business rather than useful resources for children?

And, come on! Let's face it. Teachers were trained to develop materials for teaching and they are experts at assessment. Why on earth do we need to pay someone else to do the work teachers were hired to do?

If 2/3rds of children aren't reading on level, isn't it clear that perhaps it is not the children or the teachers that are the issue??? Maybe the developmental level identified is wrong or maybe there is purposely a curriculum in place that makes us want to do more testing, test-prepping, and publishing of materials to meet a "crisis" that is non-existent for those who venture to learn to read and write without the benefit of school.

Perhaps this chart below explains the impetus to do this to children. With 5.3 billion dollars out there for the taking, there is a significant incentive to perpetuate the problem.

A little less coercion, force, and mandating that every person achieves by date of manufacture can go a long way in saving our children and saving dollars for our education system. Will this happen? Probably not. There are too many people who stand to profit off our children.

You can keep the conversation about this going on my Facebook page here or in my learning group here.


  1. Lisa, unless I'm misinterpreting the stats on reading proficiency (or it's time for new glasses), it looks like you may have switched your numbers. If 67% of 4th graders were "below proficient", wouldn't that mean that only 33% are at grade level? This paints an even darker picture....Love the visuals, btw!

  2. Oh, heck! I seriously think I have math dyslexia. Thanks for the major edit. Time to update and yes, much darker!

  3. Can I get an AMEN?

    I love everything about this post. Had I printed it out, the marginalia would just be a chorus of "Amens" over and over and over again.

    Love the visual, too.

    Thank you for this.

    People can become readers at any age. I see it happen all the time in my college reading courses.

  4. Funny. Nowhere in that graphic on $5.3 billion is there anything about paying teachers a living wage.

  5. OR ... where on that graphic is the number of new teachers that could have been hired?

  6. @Lori Oster, Great to hear!

    @Anonymous, I'm sure there are an endless number of things the author could have focused on. While she didn't focus on teachers, she did indicate the number of para-professionals that could be hired which does give a sense of staffing that can support students. I didn't make the graphic, but the author is cited. Perhaps you want to contact her with your suggestion or if you'd like to create a graphic that represents that, send it my way and I'll include it, or if you want to do the math, add it in a comment.

  7. Before you accept NAEP 'proficiency' levels as accurate, please see:
    (first half of Low-Level Testing paragraph)

    I think too many of us accept the NAEP categories when we should do anything but.

  8. During the two years my now 16 year old son was in school, I was a parent volunteer in his school's remedial reading program. I couldn't have contrived a more effective way of killing a child's interest in reading if I'd wanted to. It was torture. I was bored senseless myself and I was supposed to be helping. It was impossible not to notice too that, whereas remedial reading when I was at school was for the few who had fallen behind everybody else, it seemed like half my son's school was in the remedial reading program. My son's experience of it in his second year taught him to hate books; he hasn't read one since he was removed from school. Perhaps I should have had a bumper sticker made: "If your child hates books thank a teacher" - I can imagine the knee jerk reactions that would get. Fortunately, my son's reading in itself is excellent and became so within a year. His grammar, spelling and vocabulary are also excellent. That all emerged from having fun playing video games.

    I'm reminded as I write that way back in 1976, eight years after I'd left school myself, I decided to study for some academic qualifications I'd failed to get at school through a correspondence college. My own time, my own money and, even given that assignments had to be sent off and returned by snail mail, I completed what had been a four year syllabus at my high school in six months while having a full-time job and passed all the exams, including getting an A in the math exam I'd failed twice at school.

    So it seems to me the educational efficiency of schools has never been anything to write home about.

    Now of course we have the internet and mobile technology that frees us comprehensively from the classroom and as the new and unprecedented educational opportunities evolve the discrepancy between what's possible and what schools accomplish seems to be wider than ever. Perhaps Alfie Kohn is right when he suggests that the business of modern schools is seat time, not necessarily education. I don't know whether it's intentional or not or whatever the reasons for it, but having spent nine years sharing an adventure with my son of learning at the speed of thought through electronic media, one thing I don't hesitate to suggest myself is that in 2012 at least the educational efficiency of a typical school is simply pathetic.

  9. Bob, if you haven't read Readicide, I highly recommend it:

    Glad both your and your son's stories had happy conclusions! :)

  10. I personallyloved every minute of high school, and while I didn't always love the book choices my teacher made, it sure made me appreciate the wide variety of literature available. Many people in my family are teachers and work their tails off for the kids. often the curriculum and book choices , etc are chosen by people other than the teachers themselves, or a chosen as a demonstration of a particular literary style or time period. Often, though certainly not always, the children who do not succeed at school are involved in difficult home situations where the parents just don't have the time or the desire to work with the teachers to help their child/ren. My mother sees this all the time in an affluent public school district, so can you imagine the difficulty for students in lower income areas! Unfortunately, many parents just don't care about their children's education, and that is probably the largest undocumented cause of a students lack of classroom success.

  11. Anonymous, I also have a grown up daughter who went to school through the 1990s, who liked school and excelled, graduating from high school in the 99th percentile. I agree - it took a massive commitment of attention and energy from her parents year after year to ensure that she had a good education. All it took with our son was to get up in the morning and learn stuff. I was there every day and I've never been better educated myself in my entire life, including in my own school days in the 1950s and 60s when schools were genuine places of learning not teach to the test hamster wheels. Thank you Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, the three guys who invented YouTube and the rest. It's not the 1990s any more. We're an entire decade into a new century during which schools have behaved like Luddites and now, as far as my personal experience is concerned, they've had their ****s kicked by the "digital revolution" and I can't honestly say that they don't deserve it.

  12. I have a question. I think it is legitimate. Have they changed the reading levels over the years? Have the numbers changed significantly? I don't remember a large amount of my fellow classmates in school having trouble reading, and we started in 1st grade. I am simply curious. Have the expectations changed with the numbers?

  13. Great point @Scott McLeod. I think standardized tests in general are poor measures of student achievement. Thank you for the link that points to why NAEP should be added to the list.

  14. I think this is hogwash. I don't remember learning to read but I do remember people who loved to read around me. My mother did not watch TV she read. What is missing is not the passing of a test but the joy of reading as the basics of reading is passed on. I do know adults who are poor readers they never learned to loved reading. NOT EVERYONE will learn if left to themselves.