City Journal Spring 2014

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Spring 2014
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Sol Stern
A Solution for Gotham’s Reading Woes « Back to Story

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Sol Stern constructs a dichotomy between Hirsch's "background knowledge" and the scorned "comprehension strategies" favoured by the deluded educational theorists of whom, of course, Hirsch is one. For Stern such background knowledge - one consisting of an "accumulation of facts" - is what enables young readers to gain "a deeper comprehension of complex texts" while the scorned (but unspecified) comprehension strategies employed by misguided teachers produce zero gains.

But, on the one hand, Stern fails to demonstrate any causal connection between his accumulation of facts and that deeper comprehension of complex texts while, on the other, he gives short shrift to the context in which those facts are learned, that is, to comprehension itself.

To cite a list of spectacular test results indicates little more than the questions were tailored to the lists of items - suprise, suprise - closely resembling if not identical to the facts found in Hirsch's "background knowledge" and not, as Stern seems to suppose, that teaching for contextual comprehension is simply a non-starter. In other words, such "test results" are little more than a function of the tests themselves.

But then, of course, Stern is a fan of his tests and certainly not of teachers who, as we have been told, produce zero gains. In his view, the time has come for a rigid and mandated results-driven pedagogy, one devoted to an unswerving "teaching to the test." But, Hirsch and Stern nothwithstanding, is it education?
Teach our children how to fish, don't give them a fish. However, if our children don't know what a fish is, that it lives in water, that it is attracted to worms or little insects, or that certain fish are good to eat, then how can they learn to fish? It is those basic facts that are necessary to learn how to fish. Unfortunately, those who are "ever so much smarter than we common people are" can never understand that.
Katie this may be of interest
As a teacher I am never amazed when something that works doesn't continue through a new administration or funding decrease.
I found this to be a very interesting article. In addition, it made me think about the language of mathematics. I believe that growing up in a "rich" math language environment, and being taught math by teachers who are "fluent" in math, helps students learn math. The Website discusses these ideas.
I'm a nationally licensed starter marshal and flagging and communications marshal with the San Francisco Region of the Sports Car Club of America
build castles in the air (or in spain) this separate the sheep from the goats
plymouth meeting school district

Thank you.
The most reliable predictor of future academic achievement for American students about to enter high school is the socioeconomic status of their parents.
Another good article for you to read is "Smart Teachers in Stupid Schools."

To the people who seem to think having two parents is important they should see Ben Carson's story. Yes parents are important, but with the right curriculum in place that is direct, systematic, explicit and multi-sensory, good teachers CAN make up lots of the difference.
I wrote an article called "Can We Fix Our Failing Schools" published here Please take a look. Many teachers are overwhelmed with the workload now being poured out on them, if we would just use good curriculum and train our teachers AND supervisors, we would get good results. The problem is this JUNK curriculum gets sold over and over again to the Curriculum Directors (who should be sued) and teachers must use their junk. Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop is nothing but a repackaging of the failed Whole Language which is from the failed Look-Say method, which is found in most Basals, and which is sold to the districts by uninformed salespeople. E.D. Hirsch's work is amazing and I wish NYC would have PILOTED Teachers College and just signed up for his stuff. Ridiculous that we have to pilot stuff that works and use stuff that is not scientific.
I shake my head in wonder when articles come out like this, where the assumption is that there is some teaching panacea out there that will somehow change things around, that the problem is the way we are teaching. You hear about it every year or so, something that, THIS TIME, will work. Then time passes, the solution proposed fades away, until the next time we hear that - THIS method, THIS time, will work.

As noted in the other comments, there is no substitute - NONE - for TWO parents involved not only with their children's education, but all of their children's development. Parents who will work with educators to find the right way to teach. Problem solved, right?

Well, no. It helps - lots and lots - if the children are in a culture that values education. Since, despite statements to the contrary, American culture, that is the popular culture that every child is exposed to since birth and is now synonymous with American culture, puts little, make that NO, none, zero, value on education. In short, you see a culture that places value not on education, but on failure. The heroes are those who essentially fail, but what is never shown is the consequences of these actions - the dead end jobs, the awfulness of not having only enough money for the basics, if that. What is not shown is the sheer ugliness of being uneducated.

No, you cannot tell media what to program, but involved parents can tell children what to watch, or you can do what we did and toss out the television entirely. It has not been missed. Perhaps if more people did that, or understood that every time they watch something they make an endorsement. And right now most of what is being shown is, for children, pure poison.

The other part of this is the politics of single parenthood. Can we - finally - admit that this is not a recipe for good parenting, despite anecdotal examples to the contrary? And maybe the expression, "we stayed together for the children" was something that did make sense - that people should understand that having elected to bring a child or children into the world, that they should buck up and shoulder the consequences, which include staying together and getting along with your spouse/partner?

And maybe we can also agree that subsidizing single parenthood is not a good idea, that there has to be more consequences than an easy check plus food stamps every two weeks.

Sorry for the rambling, but this issue is infuriating, since it deals with children, who are being punished on a massive scale since as a society we have fallen for the nonsense that has been broadcast at us since the 1960's. And African Americans most of all. Can we even say that the African American family is in ruins, leading to crime and lack of motivation to get an education, without running into some politically correct reinforced silence, meant only to protect those who are responsible? And (my opinion) to keep the poverty gravy train running?

In short, as a society we need to face the fact that experiment in moving away from the two parent family has been an utter disaster - which has affected some groups more than others. Hopefully, we are not like Humpty-Dumpty and we can put the pieces back together. I do not, however, have the slightest idea how to do that.

Yes, this is far afield - but no reading program will ever fix what has gone wrong. Because if we can't solve this then we are finished as a first world nation, and the consequences of failure is poverty on a scale not seen for generations.
"Don’t give students a fish; teach them how to fish. Don’t tell them what to think, teach them critical thinking skills. Don’t teach them factoids, teach them comprehension strategies.”

There is definitely a place for this teaching strategy-at home with the parents.The problem is that kids don't have parents that care.
One problem is that teachers don't take many courses in the subject areas. They are stuffed full of theory but take away the textbook and they are lost. I teach children's literature and my students are, for the most part, clueless. They have difficulty pronouncing big words and when I throw out terms like protagonist, foil, and point of view, they have no idea what I am talking about. On the other hand, I have a student worker who is an engineering major who can talk intelligently about many, many subjects.

I am seriously thinking about home schooling my granddaughter.
"Among Hirsch’s insights is that disadvantaged kids quickly fall behind in reading because of inadequate background knowledge;" and he is more accurate than he knows. Here in San Antonio, one of the largest school programs for 'disadvantaged' children is one which attempts to teach 7, 8 and 9 year olds the meaning of word pairs such as "up" and "down", "higher" and "lower", "there" and "here" ... I confess to being shocked by that and cannot conceive of parents who are so .. deficient as to fail to teach their young such things, in the course of everyday living. "Junior, put that on top of the red box." "Your bunk bed is higher than your brother's." Unimaginable.
In order to create a successful student, it requires motivated teachers and motivated parents. As long as one half of the equation is lacking, success will be elusive.
We’ve already spent millions of dollars on dubious programs, because we assume the blame lies always with the educators. Since so many of these low-performing students come from disadvantaged homes, it’s time we addressed the parents about the importance of having an educated child.

Nothing else is going to work.
Look at the difference between a home schooled child versus a government educated child. Home schooling provides almost the same curriculum that I was exposed to way back in the decades of nineteen forties and fifties. The delivery of basic education has changed dramatically beginning when my own children were schooled in the mid to late sixties through the seventies. Remember the "grid" that was supposed to simplify arithmetic? I put that point as the beginning of the downfall of public education. How many times did I hear the phrase "newer and more efficient teaching methods"? Our children were used as experimental subjects to some of the most outlandish teaching plans. As far as reading literature goes, the classics were tossed out the window in favor of "contemporary classics" such as "Go Ask Alice" and "The Outsiders", just to mention two. Not two good examples to use for teaching style, plot and character development or critical thinking, in my opinion. The teaching of grammar was neglected or omitted entirely. Ask a high school student to diagram a sentence and you will get a blank stare of incomprehension. Then community service was tossed into the mix as a credited subject along with media studies and other non essential subjects. Progressives wrecked the educational system in this country by abandoning the tried and true methods of instilling knowledge to generations of Americans. Political correctness overtook the entire system and what we see today is a train wreck. We might try going back to the McGuffey's Eclectic Readers and maybe we'd get better results. And don't get me started on parental responsibility. That would take another comment column.
I have wondered for years how it is that along with my friends, I was able to accumulate so much information during my elementary school years. I have watched my own children move through the k-8 years and they remain painfully unaware of so many things we took for granted. When did I learn the capital of Iceland or who Copernicus was? Davey Crockett, Charles Martel, Clara Barton? We used to argue about which river was the longest in the world, which mountain range was our favorite. But it was not just nerd trivia, do kids memorize batting averages any more? We played Stratomatic and calculated ERAs and BA. Soon we could do in mentally.
I joke that much of the data I memorized has prepared me to do well on Jeopardy, but this article seems to imply that it did so much more. It is funny when we sit and watch Jeopardy or Millionaire, the younger folks always wonder how I came to know the answer to so many of the questions.
I guess they were too busy solving problems. Just like it is impossible to think without ideas or facts, it is impossible to solve problems if you can't define them.
Honestly, having been on both sides of the educational process I am convinced that the real problem is that most k-8 teachers are not really adept in the areas they are required to teach. How will they communicate their interest in reading or history or math if they have none?