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Boston's ongoing reading problem
By Samuel L. Blumenfeld
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:
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:
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:
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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