Monday, January 02, 2006

Letting Literacy Slip

The opinion below appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Letting literacy slip
Marked decline checks in as students are swamped with test-taking tips — and the latest electronic toys

Published on: 12/30/05
At every level of education, Americans are faltering in their ability to grasp a newspaper story or a passage in a book.

This skill is known as prose literacy, and it's declining even among well-educated Americans. The latest sampling of adult literacy by the National Center for Education Statistics found a 10 percentage point drop in graduate students who tested proficient in prose literacy in 2003 compared to the last time it was measured in 1992.

There was also a marked slip among college students testing proficient; 40 percent in 1992 and 31 percent in 2003.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy gauges Americans' fluency in reading text and documents such as maps and labels. It also looks at quantitative literacy, a person's ability to understand tax forms, tables or bank statements.

To be ranked proficient, an adult has to be able to read and extract information from complex materials, such as legal documents. "No group, not even those with the highest levels of formal education, had an average in the proficient level on any of the scales," says National Center for Education Statistics commissioner Mark Schneider.

The sampling found that 13 percent of adults demonstrated "below basic prose literacy." According to Schneider, that translates to 30 million Americans who "could not do much more than sign a form or search a simple document to find out what they are allowed to drink before a medical test."

What's hard to understand is how literacy is falling at the same time that schools are making reading their top priority.

The poor showing on the national literacy assessment even among college grads ought to generate discussion at both state and federal levels about whether test-driven reform is creating better test-takers rather than better readers. As schools concentrate more resources on teaching kids how to bubble in the correct answers on standardized tests, less time is available to develop critical thinking skills.

If a generation of test drilling produces adults unable to decipher nutrition labels, then education will have failed miserably.

But it's not only schools that need to re-examine their tactics. How many children received video games, IPods and DVDs for Christmas rather than any books or board games? Among the must-have items this holiday season for kids were the Xbox 360, I-Dog, an electronic dog that hooks up to a digital music player, and ChatNow, a two-way radio.

Too many children have also cleared their bookshelves of books to accommodate televisions. A survey commissioned last year by the National Sleep Foundation found that 43 percent of school-age children, 30 percent of preschoolers and 18 percent of toddlers now have televisions in their bedrooms.

Consider a new poll of public high-school students by the city of Boston. Released by the city a week ago, the survey found that half of the teens devoted three or more hours each night to watching television and that four out of 10 spent that same amount of time on the Internet or playing computer games.

The real quest of schools and parents is not to cram children full of facts, but to teach them how to gather and evaluate information. Literacy is the requisite first step to that goal.

The below was sent to us by our friend Joyce Morrison of News With Views.

"Now the Print Media Is Getting Worried"
by Donna Garner
Jan. 1, 2006

It is so ironic to me that the print media has led the fight to inundate our country in multiculturalism and to de-emphasize our country's historical foundation in Western civilization. With that has come a resistance in our schools toward teaching primary historical documents and the traditional classics which immerse students in deep vocabulary and higher-level thinking skills -- the very skills which the Atlanta-Constitution editorial board now lament have been lost by a large percentage of Americans (please see article posted below).

When whole language was exposed after damaging at least two generations of students and lowering their reading levels, the print media along with concerned Americans should have insisted that the public schools teach children to read through research-based methods and then to make sure that students are immersed in high-quality literature. Instead, the media has aligned themselves with the very organizations which have promoted the dumbing down of America (e.g., NEA, NCEE, NCTE, IRA, NCTM, NBPTS, NCATE, etc.). It is only recently that the print media has come to realize they are losing their readership; now they are getting worried.

Where were they when we classroom teachers who wrote the Texas Alternative Document (TAD -- tried to bring back quality literature to the children in our state? I don't remember the media fighting alongside us to force the education establishment to respond to the TAD's attempts to implement the time-honored classics into our state's standards.

With the power to persuade which the print media has utilized for many years, if the TAD had had the print media's full support, every child in our Texas public schools would now be reading quality literature and historical documents which would provide that much-needed foundational knowledge that helps children increase their skills and reading levels each year. Instead, our students are reading multicultural, politically correct drivel which has been chosen because of its social agenda and the ethnicity of the author instead of being chosen based upon the author's superior writing skills. Our textbooks are filled with distracting graphics which de-emphasize the written word, and students are wasting away their precious classroom minutes by playing on computers rather than on reading the time-honored literary pieces of the world.

The result will be an ever-growing slump in reading abilities which will eventually have dire ramifications for the future of our nation. It will also mean that the print media, to stay in business, will be forced to lower the reading level of its articles. This will mean shallower coverage, more bias, shorter articles, non-engaging depth, more sound bites, and less sophisticated writing style in their articles. If the print media were smart, they would use their tremendous ability to influence the public; and they would lead in the fight to get the public schools to require students to read the cherished works which have linked each generation of Americans with past generations. Instead, multicultural/politically correct pabulum reigns supreme in most public schools; and the print media will continue to lose its readership.

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