Beyond Common Sense

My parents were elementary school teachers in the 60’s and 70’s. So was my Aunt, my sister for a time and I married a woman who became one later in her life. My youngest daughter did it for three years and checked out. I have a life long history with public education. I feel like the background of so many conversations that are still rumbling around in my head and somehow part of my psyche recall discussions during meals about the trials and victories in and because of public education.

My public school education was great, for the most part and even that of my own children, good as well. They may think differently, but I think they received a very good education. We live in a very small town, with a rural population and many commuters. So, in this sense, we are very unlike the suburban or urban districts that house and seek to educate most of the young people in the U.S.

The urban districts in America are in crisis. Financially, educationally and institutionally. In any way you want to measure them, they are facing problems that could leave an entire generation without the ability to read, reason and understand basic math.

There is a lot to say about this, but I want to share some very personal and specific practices that defy common sense. Or at least any sense I have.

Consider an urban district, one of the poorest in the U.S., with a population that is 90% Hispanic, 8% black and 2% white and other races. In the middle school grades in language arts, teachers are prohibited by their administration from:

  • Teaching anything that is not specifically on the PSSA tests.
  • This includes grammar and the basics of sentence structure.
  • Only discussions about reading strategies were allowed, nothing about the actually story, plot and literary content was allowed.
  • No time for reading was included in the planning.
  • No required discussions, book reports or presentations.
  • After the PSSA tests were completed, some of this was allowed.
  • Use of dictionaries is prohibited. Why, you might ask? The answer was, “the kids should be able to figure it out from the context and anyway, there are very questions on ‘the test’ about this.

You may be thinking I’m making this up, but this is the official direction in an urban district in Pennsylvania, where I live. It defies common sense, does it not? The only way to read is the learn the basics of the language, which includes grammar and sentence structure and then lots of reading, discussion and use of language.

To me this is like thinking that anyone could learn to be excellent at sports without conditioning, basic drills for the sport, inspiration and lots of repeating the skills. To think that a person can learn to read without completing the basics is beyond common sense.

 

 

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