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A Nation Still at Risk: Real Education Reform Needed Now

A Nation Still at Risk: Real Education Reform Needed Now

"A Nation at Risk cited some very mind-numbing statistics, including 23 million functionally illiterate adults."

Victor Lana

And things are not getting better. A Nation at Risk cited some very mind-numbing statistics, including 23 million functionally illiterate adults, 13 percent functionally illiterate 17 year olds, 17 year olds lacking “higher order” thinking skills, and American students many times placing last amongst the nations of the world in achievement (based on data from other industrialized nations). Today about 45 million adults are functionally illiterate, so despite an increase in the nation’s overall population, it is apparent that the warnings of this Reagan-era report were not in any ways tangibly effective, nor has No Child Left Behind and the current efforts of President Obama’s administration.

Why is this happening? If standards are increasingly more stringent, shouldn’t we have an upturn in achievement? Where is the smoking gun in the death of what once was the finest education system in the world? The answer is that American education has been undone by endless bureaucratic minutiae, the drive for testing without a concern for other meaningful instruction, and a feeling like the baby has already been thrown out with the bath water, so why not just give up on the baby?

The most terrifying thing about No Child Left Behind wasn’t that it didn’t work very well, but rather that it worked at all. While it seems Bush’s mandate on the surface should have been a good thing (who can argue with an “all children can learn” philosophy?), the problem is that while all children should learn, many of them learn differently. The core problem is that differentiated instruction is not at the heart of many of these initiatives, and the only way that all kids are going to learn is via it.

The reality is that now students are not reading, writing, listening, or speaking any more than they did in school back in 1983; in fact, with the Internet, video games, i-Pods, cell phones, and a host of other electronic distractions, they are probably doing much less of this. Reading a story? Reading a poem? Reading a complete book? The harsh reality – and I have asked students about this – is that many students have not read a book from cover to cover by the time they are in eighth grade. This slap in the face may be news to some of you, but couple that with less time for homework due to more time needed for texting and video horseplay, and you can get an idea of how high the deck is stacked against us.

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Some teachers are definitely the problem too. Many are not comfortable with reading long selections (let alone writing long responses). I have spoken to English teachers who have never taught writing because they are intimidated (or too afraid to mark the papers because they themselves are not sure about grammar). That is indicative of the greater problem: teacher preparation is not what it should be in this country, and because of that prospective teachers, students, and current teachers continue to suffer.

Since we are still indeed a nation at risk in terms of education, what can we do to turn things around? There are no easy answers, but someone has to be honest here. It is one thing to say a child is going to learn; it is another thing to get him or her to do it. Overwhelming teachers with standardized tests that are unrealistic, poorly constructed, and yield terrible results is one of the biggest issues. Making teachers drop their normal curriculum to teach to the test is another. Of course, in a world ruled by the test makers, the exception is becoming the rule: teaching to the test has become a normal part of the day in many classrooms.

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