When President Obama gave his recent inaugural address, I had some concerns when he stated that we needed more computer technology in our high schools. If one were to closely examine what is happening in education today, we would discover that we have a generation of children who cannot read well, spell correctly, write a complete sentence, let alone successfully solve basic math problems, e.g. (add and subtract).
Are More Computers the Solution?
Putting the latest technology in the high schools will only benefit those students who have had success in elementary and middle school. Based on nationally published scores, our high school graduates have not been competitive when compared to their international counter parts. This strategy will not generate the necessary numbers to impact this gap. A portion of the money to be allocated to this effort might be more wisely spent better preparing elementary students, so within a few years; there will be a larger number of eligible students able to take advantage of the expanded technology.
Educational Success: Are there Shortcuts?
I’m a retired elementary school teacher with 39 years’ experience in a public school environment and 8 years as a private tutor. My private students ranged from pre-kindergarten to adults. Some wished to learn to read before starting their formal schooling, while most were reading 2- 5 years below grade level. Others wished to improve comprehension in order to obtain a GED, employment, and/or their U.S. citizenship. However, the majority of these students came from local public schools, which continued to promote despite their reading below grade level.
Of this latter category, all had been exposed to “Whole Language” methodology, which is heavily dependent upon memorizing word lists. Sounding out words phonetically, although used at times, was not the core of their learning to read experience. Children, who had difficulty memorizing weren’t successful, fell through the cracks, and remained behind academically. Teachers had little time to work with poor readers as they were also under administrative pressure to “teach to a test”, that is teaching children to pass State Mastery tests to ensure that a school or school system wouldn’t be censored, or at risk at some future point, of losing federal or state funding. In Connecticut, the test is called Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). Critical thinking, creative problem solving, most often took a distant second or third place.
High among the several goals of an elementary school teacher are: 1) providing an environment for successful learning, 2) helping a child to learn to successfully work alone and with others in a structured environment, 3) providing creative opportunities for a student to explore their talents, other cultures and 4) develop an eagerness for learning. Not having success in learning the basics of reading in a student’s early academic career works counter to any possibility of achieving the above goals.
Educational School Reading Prerequisites
Elementary school teachers give children the necessary foundation to allow students to not only survive academically, but also assist in their maturation process by being able to reinforce success. Educational systems need to strongly consider returning to basics. Basics can be interpreted to mean using Basal Readers and Workbooks for spelling and math. This methodology wasn’t broken, and didn’t need to be fixed. Most home schooled students invariably learned to read phonetically and do amazingly well on mastery tests.
A Strategy for Change
If one of the nation’s educational goals is to prepare U.S. students to be more competitive, a change in how children learn to read is therefore mandatory. As such, I propose the following program, which is based on my experience and countless conversations with other retired and active teachers. The program could be funded via federal grants to the states. “Early Preparation of Children to Academically Succeed and Compete in the U.S, and Internationally” would be a pilot program. It would allow educators to implement proven “learning to read” methodologies so that children will be able to read, comprehend, spell, write complete sentences and solve problems. The effort is based on the simple theory that children who have poor reading skills will not be able to succeed academically, and will have difficulty reaching their potential.
I firmly believe this program will, in a short period of time, convert the naysayers and provide data, from which administrators will be able to justify making the necessary curriculum changes. The pilot would cover a two year period, and will include data collection before, during and after each school year. Information gleaned will be used to modify, fine tune approaches and provide a data base for future planning and implementation.
- Each state would select 10% of the school districts, which are considered “At Risk” in terms of low reading scores and select at least two elementary schools from each subset to participate in a two year trial.
- Each at risk school would use phonetics and back to basic methodology for two years. (Volunteer teachers would be interviewed and screened for this program. The selection process would include a review of the candidates two previous year’s evaluation. All selected would undergo a summer orientation prior to classes beginning in the fall).
- Interested parents/guardians would receive orientation and role descriptions for both students and parents.
- Each participating school would remove computers from grades K-3. (An informal survey, conducted by this writer, of over 30 retired elementary school teachers revealed that all felt computers at the elementary level produced children who were more adept at playing computer games than they were at reading and constructing a decent sentence.)
- Previous year’s reading scores would become the baseline for measuring progress.
- Documented monthly meetings in each school would be held among program teachers and related administrators for the purpose of sharing experiences and learning about creative ways teachers have addressed challenges.
- Mid term sharing by teachers and administrators via taped tele-conferencing with all involved schools within the district would provide additional feedback.
- Parents/Guardians’ Focus group meetings, preferably after each grading period, would be held to assist in the on going program evaluation.
- Comparison of year end scores would occur at least four levels for both years:
- Individual student pre-program scores would be compared to first year end scores. This data would become year two’s new baseline.
- Participating group scores would be compared to other same grades (non program) within the school.
- Program group school scores compared to the other similar grades (non program) in the district.
Level II: Feedback from the teachers/administrators/ families:
- What worked best?
- What needs to be modified or avoided?
- Personal/professional growth from teachers/administrators.
- What types of growth did the families notice?
Published state findings and feedback to the districts and
Level IV: Decisions would need to be made for program continuation involving more at risk schools at both district, state and federal levels.
The above is only one approach. However, I strongly urge Local, State and Federal Departments of Education to convene symposiums, or conduct detailed surveys of active and retired elementary school teachers and administrators to validate the assumptions made in this proposal. Obtaining a deeper understanding of how to attack the root cause of this critical educational gap is essential. Restructuring a “Going Back to Basics” curriculum must have the appropriate support base to insure goal achievement.