The Basics of School Reform

AMERICAN education is ``standing still,'' says Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores are down, and we have more dropouts. Our reaction to these statistics says as much about the state of reform as do the statistics themselves. SAT coaching courses have multiplied like rabbits in spring. Test ``prepping'' has trickled down to first grade. At least one Midwestern high school has paid potential dropouts to stay in school. Some states deny them a driver's license.

Does making children ``test wise'' amount to educating them? If we can coerce (or bribe?) more teenagers to stay in school another year, are we really helping them?

Instead of treating the symptoms of maleducation, we must look for causes in the first years of schooling. As a teacher, I've seen many normal teenagers handicapped by problems in reading and writing which could have been avoided by better teaching early on.

In recent decades, elementary schools have replaced traditional teaching methods with an ever increasing number of experimental programs based on unsubstantiated theories. One of the first, look-say reading, stresses limited vocabulary and word guessing, instead of systematically teaching children the ``code'' for printed words. Despite more than 120 studies proving it a failure, 90 percent of public schools still use look-say. We now have 28 million illiterates, costly remedial programs in all school districts, and ``dumbed down'' textbooks in Grade 3 through college.

``Whole language learning,'' a method adopted by thousands of schools in the '80s, is the latest version of look-say reading. Whole language not only neglects reading skills, but also encourages children to spell ``inventively.''

Let's not forget the ``new math,'' which handicapped millions of students in math and science. It was supposed to present an overview of how numbers behaved and interrelated. Instead, it confused children and failed to teach arithmetic.

Now the same educators who backed new math are advocating calculators in elementary classrooms and telling teachers not to stress ``accuracy, speed, and memory'' in math.

Such classroom experiments put American school children at risk academically. True, a small percentage excel, and others learn well enough to get by, but too many normal children flounder or fail. Even in upper middle-class districts, 25 to 30 percent of public elementary students need remedial teaching, proof that schools don't teach basic skills very well in the first place.

Small wonder that millions of students don't realize their potential in high school. Some earn a mediocre instead of high SAT scores. Others, unprepared for algebra, settle for ``consumer math.'' Still others struggle with reading problems, endure years of frustration in school, and finally drop out.

A very small number of public elementary schools throughout the United States have discarded ineffective methods in favor of those proven successful over time. Often parents have led the way in getting these schools started.

One such school, serving a cross section of students in a Southwestern community, consistently tops the other 30 schools in the district in academic achievement. It ranks in the top 5 percent statewide. The success of this public school and the few others like it shows that when teachers use effective methods, the overwhelming majority of children succeed at reading, writing, and math. Yet teachers are strongly influenced by education professors, by education journals, by professional associations and unions to use experimental teaching methods, and those proven ineffective in helping average children learn basic academic skills.

The best hope for counteracting this influence lies with parents and citizens in each of our 15,700 public school districts. If they wage a vigorous campaign to put sensible, proven teaching methods in their local elementary classrooms, American education can move ahead. If not, Secretary Cavazos's observation, ``There's not enough demand at the local level that the system improve,'' will become the epitaph for education reform.

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