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Boston's ongoing reading problem

By Samuel L. Blumenfeld
web posted July 23, 2001

One part of the Big Dig
One part of the Big Dig

Boston, Hub of the Universe, as the city was proudly called in the remote past, is full of great physical activity: The Big Dig, the most costly public works project in the history of the United States, is going to transform downtown Boston into areas of blossoming green by putting cross city traffic underground; a new Convention Center is being built to accommodate the largest conventions in America; a new stadium for the Red Sox is being planned. The Fleet Center has replaced the old Boston Garden. New hotels and condominiums are being built.

Boston's Logan International Airport is undergoing massive improvement, with a huge new parking facility, a new and bigger airport hotel, better terminal facilities, and faster access through the new Ted Williams tunnel. The beauty of Boston's great airport is its proximity to downtown Boston: a ten-minute cab drive.

Now, the airport is operated by Massport, the authority in charge of tunnels, bridges, and the Mass Turnpike. It wants to build a new runway to be able to accommodate future increased air traffic and reduce takeoff delays. But the Mayor has hired an expensive legal team to fight the new runway. Even though the city is preparing to attract more conventioneers and tourists, the Mayor doesn't want the new runway. Why? Because the people who live around the airport in East Boston don't want a new runway. They claim that it will create more noise and pollution. Massport claims that it will reduce noise and pollution by cutting down on planes idling while waiting for takeoff. But fighting airport expansion is a religion in East Boston.

Meanwhile Boston's once-great school system is in the pits. It was forcibly integrated or desegregated by U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity twenty-six years ago. That ill-conceived decision tore the city apart with riots and demonstrations. White kids were bussed into black neighborhoods. Black kids were bussed into white neighborhoods. The result is that white flight has now made the minority the majority in Boston public schools. In fact, while 25 percent of Boston's kids are white, they make up only 15 percent of the public school population. It was expected that blacks in predominantly white schools would get a better education. It didn't happen. Irrationality reigns in Boston.

Back in 1995, after twenty years of integration, Mayor Menino announced a 10-year campaign to get all Boston children reading at grade level by the time they finish third grade. The plan called for bringing together libraries, health centers, monitoring and volunteer groups, universities, corporations and parents to support early childhood programs and elementary schools.

The minute you hear that a plan calls for the mobilization of virtually the entire city to teach kids to read, you know that it is going to fail. All you need to teach kids to read is a good intensive, systematic phonics program like my own Alpha-Phonics program. Thus, it came as no surprise when the Boston Globe of July 15, 2001 published a story with the headline "Taking on Boston's reading problem." It stated:

Boston public schools this summer will begin confronting a widespread but rarely tackled problem: high school students who can't read. [Whatever happened to the Mayor's 10-year plan?]

Faced with alarmingly low reading scores-and the MCAS graduation requirement in two years-the state's largest school district is launching a $2.5 million plan to boost the reading abilities of its older students....

Boston's test scores tell the tale. Of the 14,360 students in 18 district high schools, about 29 percent of ninth-graders and 57 percent of 11th-graders scored in the "below basic" category in reading on the Stanford 9 exam, a standardized test. Scores on the more difficult English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test [MCAS]...were worse, with 74 percent of 10th graders failing. Statewide, 34 percent failed the English portion of the MCAS....

With its plan, Boston is joining a handful of school systems nationwide-from Miami-Dade public schools to Stone Mountain, Ga.-that are paying attention to the tougher problem of teenagers who can't read.

And so Boston can build the most expensive vehicular tunnel in history, a new stadium and convention center, but it can't teach children to read. Why? Because the dumbing-down agenda of the educators won't permit it.

Whole-language philosophy still dominates Boston's elementary pedagogy. It is a dumbing-down instrument of uncanny effectiveness. Here's how three whole-language professors define reading in their book, Whole Language: What's the Difference? (1991):

From a whole language perspective, reading (and language use in general) is a process of generating hypotheses in a meaning-making transaction in a sociohistorical context. As a transactional process (Rosenblatt 1978; Goodman 1984), reading is not a matter of "getting the meaning" from the text, as if that meaning were in the text waiting to be decoded by the reader. Rather, reading is a matter of readers using the cues print provide and the knowledge they bring with them (of language subsystems, of the world) to construct a unique interpretation. Moreover, that interpretation is situated: readers' creations (not retrievals) of meaning with the text vary, depending on their purposes for reading and the expectations of others in the reading event. This view of reading implies that there is no single "correct" meaning for a given text, only plausible meanings.

That's the reading philosophy that is turning millions of intelligent kids into blithering illiterates. If the quotation above is difficult to fathom, here's another from the same book:

Whole language represents a major shift in thinking about the reading process. Rather than viewing reading as "getting the words," whole language educators view reading as essentially a process of creating meanings. (See the development of this view in the writings of Kenneth Goodman [Gollasch 1982] and Frank Smith [1971, 1986].) Meaning is creating through a transaction with whole, meaningful texts (i.e., texts of any length that were written with the intent to communicate meaning). It is a transaction, not an extraction of the meaning from the print, in the sense that the reader-created meanings are a fusion of what the reader brings and what the text offers....In a transactional model, words do not have static meanings. Rather, they have meaning potentials and the capacity to communicate multiple meanings.

Incidentally, it was the nation's chief whole-language guru, Prof. Kenneth Goodman-cited by the preceding book's authors as key developer of transaction theory-who defined reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game." His fellow whole-language guru, Frank Smith, wrote in his book, Understanding Reading:

Learning to read does not require the memorization of letter names or phonic rules, or a large vocabulary....Nor is learning to read a matter of application of all manner of exercises and drills....[L]earning to read is not a matter of a child relying upon instruction, because the essential skills of reading-namely the efficient uses of nonvisual information-cannot be explicitly taught....

It should not be a cause for dismay that we cannot say with exactitude what a child has to learn in order to read, or that a foolproof method of instruction cannot be found to direct a child's progress in learning to read....But it is possible to specify conditions under which a child will learn to read, and these are again the general conditions that are required for learning anything-the opportunity to generate and test hypotheses in a meaningful, collaborative context....[T]he only way a child can do all this for reading is to read. If the question arises how children can be expected to learn to read by reading before they have learned to read, the answer is very simple. At the beginning-and at any other time when it is necessary-the reading has to be done for them. Before children acquire any competence in reading, everything will have to be read to them, but as their ability expands they just need help, the opportunity to engage in reading demonstrations.

That's the kind of idiocy that governs reading instruction in most American public schools. And that is why as long as whole-language pedagogy dominates elementary education, all the plans in the world initiated by all the mayors in the world will not solve the reading problem.

Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of eight books on education, including "The Whole Language/OBE Fraud," "How to Tutor," and "Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers." His publisher's number is 208-322-4440. Blumenfeld's Education Letter is also available on Chuckmorse.com




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