There is an old joke about the chemist, the physicist and the economist, the three shipwrecked on a desert island with only one can of food. The chemist and physicist give their ideas on how to open the can. The grace comes from the economist, who says: “First, you need a can opener.”
I’ve been pondering this joke as I watched the teachings of “anti-racism” – what some might call Critical Race Theory or social justice – taken up by the US education world with the speed of the omicron variant. Lesson plans, books, tips for classroom activities, discussion topics, and curricula flood the teachers’ internet corner. The proposals come from a metastatic number of pedagogical entrepreneurs and activist groups: some smart newbies; others, veterans like Black Lives Matter at School , Learning for Justice [Aprendendo para a Justiça] (formerly Teaching Tolerance [Ensinando Tolerância]), Teaching People’s History [Ensinando a História do Povo] (the Zinn Education Project), the Guide to Racial Justice in Education (from the National Education Association), and, of course, the star of the day: Project 1619 (from the Pulitzer Center). To me, all these ideas sound like the ruminations of the shipwrecked economist. They start with an impossible premise: that the students of these recommended texts can read.
I’m exaggerating, but not a lot. The US has a significant number of students who read fluently and well and who are on their way to becoming literate adults. But they are a minority. As for 2019, according to the National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) [Associação Nacional de Progresso na Educação], sometimes called National Report, 27% of fifth year students were reading at or above proficiency levels. Let’s say with all the letters what this means: that the vast majority – 65%, for to be exact–is less than proficient. In fact, 25% “read” (if we can put it that way) below a basic level, barely able to decipher material suitable for their age. Ninth graders don’t do much better. Only 34% of them are proficient; 10% are below the basic reading. And what’s worse, this stat represents a decline from 2019 in [O livro que lançou a teoria global se chama Why Johnny Can’t Read, “Por que Joãozinho não consegue ler. (N. t.)] States.
As is always the case in our patchwork quilt, our multiracial and multicultural country, the picture varies depending on the students we look at. If we categorize by states, the lowest scores are found in Alabama and New Mexico, in which only 21% of ninth graders are proficient readers. The best that can be said of these results is that they make the highest grade state – Massachusetts, with a proficiency of 50% of students – seem like a success story, when in fact it is mediocre.
The findings that should lead even anti-racist educators to rethink their pedagogical assumptions are those referring to black students in the country. Nationwide, 45% of black children read below the basic level in the fifth year. (Hispanics, with 45%, and Indians, with 45%, do almost as badly, but I will focus on the black students , as anti-racism clearly focuses on the woes of African Americans.)
The good numbers in cities mostly black women are so low they flirt with zero. In Baltimore, where 80% of the student body is black, 61% of these students are below the basics; only 9% of fifth year students and % of ninth graders read proficiently. (The few fifth graders who attend Baltimore Public Schools score 45 points higher than their black classmates.) Detroit, the US city with the highest percentage of black residents, has the worst fifth-grade reading scores in the country: only 5% have achieved proficiency. (Cleveland schools, also mostly black, are only slightly ahead.)
In April of 2017, the Sixth Court of Appeals ruled in favor of alumni who sued Detroit schools for failing to provide an adequate education. . The lawsuit cited poor facilities and inadequate manuals, but sub-basic literacy skills were the primary academic complaint. One of the plaintiffs was a former Detroit public school student who went to community college and ended up in recovery, needing a reading tutor. His story is so typical it’s barely worth mentioning—except for the fact that he graduated from high school as one of the top students in the school. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the numbers should still get worse with the impact of covid disorders.
It is not possible to exaggerate the tragedy of black children and their families, as well as that of a nation that tries to assess racial disparities rooted in its own history. If you want to get a sense of these disparities in high school graduation, college attendance, graduation, adult income, and even incarceration, you can do something more drastic than looking at fourth-grade reading grades. Three-quarters of readers who are below proficiency in fourth grade are below proficiency in high school. Before fourth grade, children are learning to read; after that, they are reading to learn, according to the well-known expression. All future academic learning in the humanities, social sciences, business and, yes, hard science and technology fields, depends on confident and skillful reading. “Kids at the top of the reading group at age 8 are likely to go to college. The kids at the base probably won’t,” as iconoclast Fredrik deBoer, author of The Cult of Smart
The irony would make Martin Luther King Jr cry Before the Civil War, most Southern states had laws prohibiting slaves from reading and writing. Men and women in captivity were known to risk whipping and death to learn to read, sometimes with the help of a white sympathizer, but often with the strength of their own determination. “When you learn to read, you will be free forever,” promised Frederick Douglass, one of the most famous of these readers. What would he, or King, think of this educational system that leaves more than half of black children in the 21st century illiterate?
If you see sites of anti-racist education on the internet, you will get the clear impression that no one in this field understood the implications of this reality, or that “educating children”, in any familiar sense of the term, was never really the purpose. Indeed, a number of anti-racist activists and educators have been outspoken about their indifference to teaching to read. What else could we understand when the principal of the nation’s largest school system dismisses “worship of the written word” as an imposition of white supremacy? To be fair, most educators are likely to simply assume the can opener—namely, competent readers who also have general knowledge, such as elementary facts of the world and history. The Learning for Justice entity, for example, points to a fifth-grade text about a woman named Helen Tsuchiya. Although Tsuchiya was born in the US, the site tells us that she was transferred to “ an internment camp surrounded by barbed wire after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” What are the chances that the fifth grader who reads at a basic level (don’t even think about the majority of black kids who read below the basics) will be able to decipher words like “internment,” “barbed wire,” and “Pearl Harbor,” and still catch enough of its meaning to make it easier to understand? Progressive educators are not only overlooking the sad truth about students’ reading abilities, but also the fact that US students do even worse in history and geography than they do in reading.
Another lesson plan for elementary and high school students, recommended by the portal 1619 of the Pulitzer Center, reveals the same chasm between politicized pedagogical fantasy and student reality. “In this unit, students learn to identify underreported migration stories, and what is missing from media representations of migrant experiences,” the plan reads. “They analyze non-fiction texts and images, practice identifying perspectives in the media, and synthesizing learning to form a new understanding of migration. In their final project, students communicate how their perspective on migration has grown or changed during the creative project, an original story or pre-existing story edited to provide a more holistic picture of migration.” The unstated purpose is to impress students with the alleged anti-immigration bias of the national news. But an elementary school student probably doesn’t know what “media mainstream” is. and it is even less likely that you have read anything about it. Basic readers will have a hard time deciphering words like “migrant” or “immigration”. (Unless they have family there, they won’t even know where Syria or Sweden, two of the immigrant countries mentioned in the lesson plan, are either—again, there’s a geography problem.) The same obstacles can trip up the typical high school student. medium. Remember: 68% of ninth graders do not read proficiently. This is not education, this is indoctrination. Teachers are being instructed to impose a debatable opinion on ill-informed children, while denying them the ability to critically evaluate it.[O livro que lançou a teoria global se chama Why Johnny Can’t Read, “Por que Joãozinho não consegue ler. (N. t.)] Social justice educators would no doubt object that the catastrophic literacy levels of black students are solid evidence of the structural racism and teacher bias they aim to combat. They would correctly observe that reading scores are correlated with parents’ income and education; Black children tend to come from less affluent and less educated homes, a fact linked, at least in part, to historical racism. But the evidence that racial disadvantage shouldn’t be an obstacle to literacy is there for anyone to see. Almost 60% of black children from charter schools in New York City read proficiently. This is the case only for 27% of those in schools district. (And 80% of children in schools charter from New York are poor.) Unless someone can prove that the district teachers are more racist than the charters – an unlikely theory – it simply seems that the charters are more competent at the job of teaching children to read. Differences between states also point to a pedagogical, rather than white supremacist, explanation for racial discrepancies. People can reasonably predict that poor southern states would have an overall average of and lower reading grades than the more opulent states of the northeast, and they would be right. But the Urban Institute has developed an excellent interactive graph that lets us compare states by race and poverty (or other variants). The counterintuitive results show that Mississippi, the country’s poorest state with a horrendous racial history and equally horrendous educational data, is making a comeback. The state is now more successful in literacy poor black children than the well-situated and wealthy states of Massachusetts and New Jersey.
These successes are no mystery, but they demand a short national history of the “reading wars” simmered. By now, for at least a generation, the favorite reading approach of American educators has been known as the “global method.” The global method encourages teachers to do “shared” and “interactive” reading with children, to read words that they have seen before and to try to guess, with the help of illustrations and intuition, when they find a word with which they do not know. are familiar. The guiding premise is that reading is a natural process and teachers should only guide children towards literacy. [Embora o método global tenha sido inventado nos EUA e esteja entre nós há menos tempo, a querela dos métodos de alfabetização ganhou destaque no começo do governo Bolsonaro, com Carlos Nadalim defendendo o método fônico. Você pode ouvi-lo conversando com Cristina Graeml aqui. (N. t.)]
But in recent decades linguists, cognitive psychologists and guided educators by facts they reached the consensus that this is not what makes Joãozinho read. [O livro que lançou a teoria global se chama Why Johnny Can’t Read, “Por que Joãozinho não consegue ler. (N. t.)] The beginning reader needs, first of all, to “decode”. To achieve this, teachers must systematically impart “phonic awareness”. The shorthand for this is “phonetics” – that is, the relationship between the letters on the page and the sound of speech. Children learn to put these sounds, or phonemes, into syllables, which they then combine into words. With practice, the process becomes fluent, even automatic, unlocking a broad understanding of the meaning of words. An example by journalist Emily Hanford, who has done some of the best work on the science of reading, has succinctly captured the problem when children are not taught to decode. Hanford interviewed a group of teenagers reading at a fourth grade level during a phonics-oriented class at a juvenile detention center in Houston. She asked DeShawn, from years, what he was learning in class. “Like ‘ph.’ It’s an ‘f’, as in physics,” explained DeShawn. “I never knew that.”
Although global reading has failed many millions of children like DeShawn (and an unknown number of middle-class children whose parents can afford to pay private tutors to teach the decoding skills their children should learn in school), educators were reluctant to give up on their dreams. So they introduced a (supposedly) new approach with the cute name of “balanced literacy” [letramento equilibrado]. In theory, the balance mixes the two methods, global and phonic language; in practice, phonetics is left out. Few faculties of education and training programs show graduates how to teach phonetics in the definite, logical progression necessary for students to grasp the complexities of the English language. Reading grades, at rock bottom, didn’t go up one bit.
Still, signs of change are evident. In 80, Mississippi legislators provided funding to begin training state teachers in the science of reading. I have already noticed its encouraging results. Other states, such as Florida, Colorado and Tennessee, are signaling that they will take the science of reading more seriously. And David Banks, the new principal of New York City schools, overturned his predecessor’s rejection of “white worship of the written word.” Teachers have been “teaching wrong” for 25 years, said Banks. “balanced literacy didn’t work for black kids. Let’s go back to the phonetic approach to teaching.”
The good news comes with caution. First, for reasons no one understands, a significant minority of children will learn to read competently without any direct instruction in the pronunciation of words; its success remains an unintended consequence that gives defenders of balanced litteracy a chance to cover up its disastrous results. Second, phonics has to be taught systematically from kindergarten through fourth grade; no one should expect solid results by spraying “phonic awareness” here and there, which is the practice in most balanced litteracy[letramento equilibrado] . Third, learning to decode isn’t everything; to become a proficient reader, one must know the meaning. In other words, children will need to develop a rich vocabulary and general knowledge. Finally, smart teaching methods are not a panacea for racial and income disparities. It doesn’t matter how well white and black children learned to read; white children will still be more likely to grow up with educated parents, which means they will hear greater vocabulary, more complex language, and more useful information about a wider world. This problem can be resolved over time, but only if the most disadvantaged children are given the chance to pass on the benefits of their own literacy to their own children in the future.
The emergence of literacy should be the primary focus of educators, especially those in a position to help black children. Yet a growing number of school districts interview teacher candidates, even in elementary schools, with a single question: “What have you done, personally or professionally, to be more anti-racist?” Let them do it better: change the question to: “What is the best method of literacy?”, and then we can expect some racial progress.
Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor for the City Journal, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of ‘Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys’ [Virando Homem: Como a Ascensão das Mulheres Transformou os Homens em Meninos].