Working to get education back on track
By Alexander R. Jones
he 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education will long be remembered as the ruling that broke the back of state-sanctioned public school segregation.
The fundamental issue in that landmark case was the right to a quality education. Indeed, this historic legal battle was fought and won for one reason to ensure the right of all children to acquire the fundamental skills necessary for social and economic advancement in American life.
In the glow of that victory, few realized that the American public schools had already fallen into a tailspin. It was hoped at the time that the decision would turn public schools into an oasis of learning for African-American and minority children. But in one of historys bitter ironies, after the doors of public schools were flung open to all, the oasis turned out to be a desert.
The well-documented decline of our public schools, coupled with the advent of the information age, have turned the right to a quality education into one of the most important civil rights issues in modern American history.
Despite growing importance, educational issues have become blurred in the minds of most Americans. In the days of segregation, these issues were cut-and-dried. Today, however, psychiatrists have muddied the waters and offered a host of fabricated learning disorders to explain away schools inability to educate. Entire industries have sprouted to supposedly deal with these disorders.
Because of the influence of psychology and psychiatry, most educators today believe that if a child does not learn, it is not the schools fault, but the childs. Hence, the true reason for routine failures in public schools have been obscured, with billions of dollars poured into false solutions.
Lives of Millions Wasted
Not all Americans bought the excuses, and to these few the issue remained clear. The state, which requires each child to go to school and obligates all Americans to pay for this, has a responsibility to provide a quality education to all students.
That this does not occur is not because of poverty or broken homes, or because todays students are plagued by some strange epidemic of learning disabilities. It is because our schools do not select teaching methods and textbooks based on what works.
This is no more evident than in instruction in the most basic of all academic skills: reading.
One person who has worked diligently on this issue is Michael S. Brunner, a teacher trainer, former research fellow at the U.S. Department of Justice and author of Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential, a book on the relationship between juvenile crime and illiteracy.
Brunner is a thoughtful man pained by the consequences of the public schools failure to teach children to read. He is concerned because without this fundamental and vital skill, the lives of millions of children are being wasted. He is troubled because he is convinced this is unnecessary.
We have a free society, Brunner explained to Freedom, in that we have a right to get a job. But what if that job depends on the ability to read and comprehend written material? If more and more the ability to make a living depends on the ability to read, then in a sense they have been denied that right. They have been denied the right to learn because of the methodology.
He points out, Children do not come to school not wanting to learn to read. Its the first thing they want to do. It opens society, socially and economically, to a person, he says.
The first task is to make reading accessible, he notes. The ability to read has got to be there.
Failed Teaching Methods
Students who cannot read cannot grasp other subjects. The results are disastrous. Many are shunted into dead-end special education programs where nearly 70 percent never receive a high school diploma. The day-to-day frustration of not being able to learn drives many youngsters to juvenile delinquency, violent criminal behavior and drugs.
Brunner patiently explains these things to people. It is like listening to a man who has just returned from a pilgrimage and who shares a simple but profound realization. While there is nothing complex about what Brunner has to say, his insight is formidable.
Those who cant read are totally isolated and separated from their past as well as their future, Brunner explained. They are imprisoned and prevented from knowing what is going on outside. They cannot make independent decisions but are instead dependent on TV or radio. They cannot become independent thinkers. They are handicapped economically.
Where good character and a strong back would serve someone well in the 19th century, they are not enough for a person in the information age, he said.
Brunner is convinced that schools routinely misinstruct youth in reading by using discredited teaching methods and textbooks disproven by decades of objective scientific research.
Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential summarizes two years of work as a research fellow at the U.S. Department of Justices Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In it, he documents what many people have felt to be true for years that illiteracy is a key factor in crime and anti-social behavior among youth.
Brunner is saying, particularly in his book, explains Dr. Patrick Groff, professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University, Lets stop blaming the kids for these failures! Lets start blaming those who force the teachers to use these methods.
Groff argues that selection of teaching methods must be based on objective research instead of whim or fad. He believes the many mental illnesses attributed by psychiatrists to students are merely convenient excuses for an educational system loathe to take responsibility for its own failures.
Brunners book points up an alternative explanation for their problems and this is one which is much more difficult for the education establishment to own up to, says Groff. It is not some mysterious psychological breakdown.
Brunner challenges educators to confront that some mental illness may not be the root cause of educational failures at all, Groff explained. The root cause may very well be improper education. That being the case, it points to the use of structured education which gives the children the greatest chance to read.
Brunner challenges educators to confront that some mental illness may not be the root cause of education failures at all. The root cause may very well be improper education.... Most psychological labels being used today merely obscure what is really going on in the schools children are being misinstructed.
Dr. Patrick Groff
Most psychological labels being used today merely obscure what is really going on in the schools children are being misinstructed.
Brunner assumed the Justice Department research position because he felt an examination of the relationship between illiteracy and juvenile crime could help reduce rising expenditures of taxpayer dollars to incarcerate young offenders.
The cost to educate a public school student is $4,000 to $6,000 per year, whereas the cost to incarcerate a juvenile offender is about $30,000 per year, Brunner said. Further, the increase in violent crime is from the juvenile population, not the adult population.
In conducting his study, Brunner visited juvenile detention centers around the country and observed the ineffectiveness of current programs.
I found that the reading problem, in part, was not a problem of juvenile offenders not reading at certain academic levels, Brunner said. I discovered that many of them could not even accurately read or sound out what they could already talk about and understand.
I found that reading failure may be the cause that leads to anti-social aggression and juvenile crime. I found that in juvenile offenders that we were able to teach how to read, we were able to reduce recidivism. I also discovered that it is cost effective to teach young offenders how to read. For every dollar spent on reading instruction, it saved $1.75.
Brunner produced a companion video with the same title which contains interviews with elementary school teachers, administrators and offenders in juvenile detention centers. It paints a picture of tragedy unnecessary simply because the educational research has been, and continues to be, ignored.
Despite his findings, Brunner is no basher of teachers. No one, he noted, can expect a teacher to teach what they have not been taught themselves. He understands the dilemma confronting teachers and is expert at training them in proper reading instruction in a non-condemnatory way.
However, there is a villain in this story, Brunner told Freedom. Its not the teachers. Its not the schools. The villain is our 1,200 schools of education who are committed to psychological theories and models for reading instruction which have been utterly disproven in the classroom.
Converting Failure to Success
Brunner entered the world of education by accident some 20 years ago. He had been unable to find a job in his field of library science so instead accepted a position as a consultant for the State Department of Education in Idaho. He worked with a program created by the U.S. Congress to ensure that poorly performing children from low-income families receive extra help so they could catch up to the academic performance of their middle-class peers.
During his first year, Brunner visited nearly all of the 105 school districts which received federal funding under this program. After that, he was responsible for monitoring 45 school districts a year.
His travels throughout the state gave him an opportunity to see the nature of the reading problems children were having. In the primary grades, he pointed out, many could not decode what they could accurately talk about and understand. In other words, they could not translate the spoken word to symbols which could be put on a page or a computer screen.
It was after seeing the disparity and you might say the contradictions in the two approaches that I concluded that the reading problems with kids started in the classrooms with the instructional method being used.
Because of the work of people like Michael Brunner, the state of California recently acknowledged that the so-called whole language method it had been using in its schools during the 1980s was disastrous.
Brunners concern about the future, and his dedication to working for a better one, have put us closer to the goal of quality education and thus closer to a brighter future for all.
Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential (paperback, $14.95), is available from Halcyon House in Portland, Oregon. The toll-free number is (800) 827-2499. Michael Brunners video of the same title can be purchased for $5 from CDR Communications, 9310-B Old Keene Mill Road, Burke, VA 22015. Phone: (703) 569-3400.
For more information on programs to improve literacy in inner-cities and elsewhere, contact the Applied Scholastics World Literacy Crusade at (310) 537-2273.