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fixing education from the ground up
why literacy and logic are the keys to improving science & math competitiveness
by margot carmichael lester

Ever since the President mentioned our lack of excellence in science, math and engineering in his State of the Union address, everybody has been hollering about the need for improved instruction in these areas. But I think we’re missing the point.

Certainly, not enough students are excelling in science and math. And far too few of our young people are pursuing careers in these areas (America’s share of the world’s science and math doctorates is expected to fall by 15 percent in the next four years). We absolutely need to improve instruction for both teachers and students in these key areas. That’s not debatable.

But these are just symptoms of a deeper problem.

The federal government and many education boosters propose band-aid approaches to addressing this issue. Let’s increase standardized testing in these subjects. Let’s create incentives to get teachers and students to study in these areas. Let’s invite professional scientists, mathematicians and engineers into the classroom to motivate kids to learn.

It all sounds grand, doesn’t it?

But it won't make much difference. While the Department of Education devotes considerable resources to making American students more competitive in math and science, it will be siphoning away resources that should be addressing a more basic problem: our kids can’t read, write or think.

You see where this is going, don’t you? Those three core skills run across the curriculum and up and down the grade levels. Who can solve simultaneous equations or use the scientific method if they don’t possess the fundamental skills required to work through complex problems?

Study after study shows that America’s children aren’t keeping up with their international peers. In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15-year-olds ranked 24th out of 29 developed nations in these core areas: literacy, math and problem-solving.

Do we honestly think we can improve our students’ abilities to cipher, design or cure if they don’t have even basic literacy skills or a fair-to-middling ability to solve a problem?

Science and math are taught primarily through textbooks that feature highly specialized vocabulary and complex concepts that can't merely be learned by rote. Studying these subjects past the third or fourth grade is almost impossible if students can't read, write, and think critically. This is why we lag behind other nations as kids head to middle and high school.

Our failure in literacy makes it impossible for kids to succeed with even basic and math and science at the middle and high school levels -- even if they want to learn and have access to good instruction. Bringing in more teachers, even good ones, isn't likely to make much of a difference if our kids lack the basic skills they need to make sense of what they're being taught.

Instead of focusing on the latest symptom in a very complicated disease, it’s time to deal with the real diagnosis. Low literacy is a cancer that is spreading rapidly beyond Language Arts into science and math. In fact, it threatens all learning in every subject and at every grade.

Continuing to ignore the metastasis isn't going to help, so let’s do something about it. Let's admit that standardized testing and red-herring reforms like NCLB will not solve the real problems we face in education today. As a recent study by a team of researchers from Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles noted: “No consistent pattern of gains in children’s reading skills can yet be determined since passage of the No Child Left Behind reforms.”

But something does work, something that has been proven in the educational version of clinical trials for more than two decades. It’s called the workshop model of teaching and it’s amazingly successful at improving kids’ reading comprehension, writing abilities and evaluative thinking skills.

Developed in the 1970s and 1980s by well-known educators and researchers like Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins, Reader's and Writer's Workshop provides a well-documented and extremely effective framework for literacy instruction and critical thinking at all grade levels. There are hundreds of books written about this approach and thousands of teachers across the country who use it -- typically the best teachers you'll find.

We won't solve the problem of math and science achievement without raising achievement in reading, writing and evaluative thinking skills first. Literacy is the foundation of school success. Improving it through widespread implementation of the Reader's and Writer's Workshop approach should be at the top of our country's list of vital education reforms.


Margot’s a content strategist and freelance journalist. She consults with and/or writes for businesses large and small, and new and traditional media. She’s also the author of four books, including Be a Better Writer: Power Tools for Young Writers -- co-written with her husband, Steve Peha -- won the 2007 Independent Publishers Association gold medal for teen/young-adult nonfiction. She is currently working on two additional titles in the Better Writer Series, one for college students and another for corporate employees. A Southern belle and sex symbol for the intelligentsia, she was born, raised and still lives in Orange County, N.C.

more about margot carmichael lester


the cock-eyed reality of modern math instruction
a modest proposal for teaching real-life math
by margot carmichael lester
topic: general
published: 3.21.06

re-jiggering reality
the value of getting bitch-slapped by the gods
by margot carmichael lester
topic: general
published: 9.13.04


dathan wood
5.15.06 @ 7:03p

This is all very nice but until American parents turn off the TV, nothing will change.

dan gonzalez
5.16.06 @ 10:27a

Heh. red-herring reforms like NCLB won't work, that's true. But “No consistent pattern of gains in children’s reading skills can yet be determined since passage of the No Child Left Behind reforms.” is a half-truth designed to project blame rather than initiate true reform.

The quantifiably, much more truthful and thus actionable statement is "No consistent pattern of gains in children's reading can yet be determined IN THE LAST 30 YEARS.

NCLB is just LBJ's Great Society plus accountability. It's the former pieces, not the NCLB enhancements, that are positively correlated to literacy issues. But try to tell that to the NEA and see how eager those good people are to revise their flawed bullshit. Much easier and popular to blame another widespread liberal disaster on Bush. Hell, I'm half convinced it was Dubya, in diapers, on the Grassy knoll!

tracey kelley
5.17.06 @ 2:44p

Yeah - I place a lot of blame on parents:

1) Not teaching basic reading, writing and math skills before children enter school.

2)Allowing too much TV because it's a convenient babysitter.

3) Not getting involved in the school board or the PTA to care up front and personal what's being taught K-5.

4) Not bitch-slapping legistlators into being more accountable. The word "education" is tossed out every election year, but it doesn't matter if you're black, white, purple, Republican, Democrat, Ninth Party twice removed: quality education is a universal issue.

dathan wood
5.17.06 @ 3:18p

"1) Not teaching basic reading, writing and math skills before children enter school."

This is actually part of the problem. Kids are burning out early because they are forced to learn reading and math ahead of their natural development. Kids shouldn't be reading or doing math until around age 6 but they're being saddled with it between 3 and 4. At that age, they should be learning through play and imitation. Play is now considered a frivolous activity and that's a huge tragedy.

tracey kelley
5.17.06 @ 5:03p

Since I learned to read Dick and Jane at age 3 and now I create stories, I disagree somewhat. (Although, you know, you're the father. :) )

Play is indeed the key to integrating learning into a child's development as to not make it seem like it's a chore, or something to be saddled with.

But more importantly is the constant stimulation of curiousity. For the same reason why when you dress a child, it's constant verbalization "now let's put on your right shoe... and now your left shoe" or speaking in complete sentences using proper language instead of baby talk.

Reading and math would be simple, every day things that don't feel like learning if more parents would faithfully curl up and read aloud with their children, count out Cheerios, ask if they want the red juice or the blue juice, let them take care of a goldfish and look for bugs in the yard and sing learning songs with them. Just to, you know, name a few things.

But the majority of the parents we're talking about really didn't have this kind of upbringing either, so to them and their children, learning is work. Hence, that's why they get burned out at school, especially when learning isn't reinforced at home.


dathan wood
5.17.06 @ 6:01p

That's all very well put…. Kids are sponges, they WANT to learn, it's just a matter of teaching them in a way that is appropriate for their current stage in development. Asking a kid how many fingers they have is much better than counting for the sake of counting….

And you're also right that this is really about the parents that park the kids in front of the TV in the living room, go watch their own TV in the bedroom and then blame the teachers for homework that didn't get finished. Asses.

sandra thompson
5.19.06 @ 6:36p

I learned to read when I was four because I got fed up with trying to find a literate person to read the funnies to me every single day. I was very curious and very stubborn. Then I was lucky enough to live in a small town where there were never more than 20 kids in any given grade, and teachers who loved us and loved teaching in that order. Nobody ever taught me anything in order for me to pass a standardized test, either. Aye, there's the rub! NCLB is so accountability oriented it leaves no time for learning for the glorious sake of just learning something. I don't know how kids learn as much as they do these days. I watched my younger daughter whizz through a Montessori pre-school program fully prepared for the first grade when she was five. So I sent her to first grade at the least expensive private school I could find. Later she whizzed through Cornell law school and she's whizzing right on through life. I was read to, my children were read to, my grandchildren were and are being read to. There were books, magazines, newspapers and music lessons in all our lives and easy to get to. None of us have ever learned not to end sentences with prepositions, but we've all got various levels of college degrees and can argue with each other like chamnpion debate teams like you wouldn't believe. After all, winning an argument with your mother/child/grandchild about a foreign policy issue is the apex of literacy.

gordon churchill
5.19.06 @ 10:11p

#1 indicator of student achievement is parental involvement. And that's all I have to say about that.

robert melos
5.20.06 @ 2:21a

Last month we had school budget and school board elections. The budgets failed in more than 80% of the school districts in my area. I admit I voted against my local budget. Of the $6200 property taxes I pay, $3900 is school tax. The latest budget would've raised that to $4500 for my portion of school taxes. I don't have kids, but I'm tax conscious. If I weren't I wouldn't have even voted.

When the budgets were revamped by the town council most after school programs where cut, but I see the superintendents didn't take a pay cut. The teachers start at $40k and complain they aren't getting paid enough. They didn't come forward to voluntarily take a pay cut so the after school programs wouldn't get cut.

russ carr
5.21.06 @ 9:48p

Plato (through the mouthpiece of Socrates, in The Republic), knew the logic of elementary training over two millenia ago:

[N]either we nor our guardians, whom we have to educate, can ever become musical (ie, pursue higher, abstract studies - RC) until we and they know the essential forms, in all their combinations, and can recognise them and their images wherever they are found, not slighting them either in small things or great, but believing them all to be within the sphere of one art and study.

I read an article about homeschooling today, and it starts out with a quote from a woman who is a retired teacher, who now homeschools her own children. She, in turn, was quoting WB Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire."

The article continued:

Smiling, she added with unbridled enthusiasm, "I love that saying because that's what I feel I was doing as a teacher — filling a pail."

Tate's own frustrations with teaching to children within the public school system was perhaps the main reason she opted to homeschool her own children. While a teacher, she felt an underlying pressure to, as she put it, "teach to the test." She is primarily referring to assessment tests that measure student and school improvement.

Teachers recognize this. Parents and students certainly recognize it. It boggles my mind that school boards and state/federal legislators cannot.

fred goodridge
5.22.06 @ 1:57p

Since I have nothing personally constructive to add to the above, permit me to let someone else weigh in.

Last winter, I read a remarkable piece in the N.Y. Times by David Brooks. I've excerpted the meat of it here. Basically missing from discussions about education "reform" is the concept of "human capital". You may not like it or agree with it, but you ought at least consider it:

"... But skills and knowledge -- the stuff you can measure with tests -- is only the most superficial component of human capital. U.S. education reforms have generally failed because they try to improve the skills of students without addressing the underlying components of human capital.
These underlying components are hard to measure and uncomfortable to talk about, but they are the foundation of everything that follows.

There's cultural capital: the habits, assumptions, emotional dispositions and linguistic capacities we unconsciously pick up from families, neighbors and ethnic groups -- usually by age 3. In a classic study, James S. Coleman found that what happens in the family shapes a child's educational achievement more than what happens in school. In more recent research, James Heckman and Pedro Carneiro found that ''most of the gaps in college attendance and delay are determined by early family factors.''

There's social capital: the knowledge of how to behave in groups and within institutions. This can mean, for example, knowing what to do if your community college loses your transcript. Or it can mean knowing the basic rules of politeness. The University of North Carolina now offers seminars to poorer students so they'll know how to behave in restaurants.

There's moral capital: the ability to be trustworthy. Students who drop out of high school, but take the G.E.D. exam, tend to be smarter than high school dropouts. But their lifetime wages tend to be no higher than they are for those with no high school diplomas. That's because many people who pass the G.E.D. are less organized and less dependable than their less educated peers -- as employers soon discover. Brains and skills don't matter if you don't show up on time.

There's cognitive capital. This can mean pure, inherited brainpower. But important cognitive skills are not measured by IQ tests and are not fixed. Some people know how to evaluate themselves and their abilities, while others with higher IQ's are clueless. Some low-IQ people can sense what others are feeling, while brainier peers cannot. Such skills can be improved over a lifetime.

Then there's aspirational capital: the fire-in-the-belly ambition to achieve. In his book The Millionaire Mind, Thomas J. Stanley reports that the average millionaire had a B-minus collegiate G.P.A. -- not very good. But millionaires often had this experience: People told them they


fred goodridge
5.22.06 @ 1:59p

... Sorry. Continued:

..."they were too stupid to achieve something, so they set out to prove the naysayers wrong.
Over the past quarter-century, researchers have done a lot of work trying to understand the different parts of human capital. Their work has been almost completely ignored by policy makers, who continue to treat human capital as just skills and knowledge. The result? A series of expensive policy failures.
We now spend more per capita on education than just about any other country on earth, and the results are mediocre. No Child Left Behind treats students as skill-acquiring cogs in an economic wheel, and the results have been disappointing. We pour money into Title 1 and Head Start, but the long-term gains are insignificant.
These programs are not designed for the way people really are. The only things that work are local, human-to-human immersions that transform the students down to their very beings. Extraordinary schools, which create intense cultures of achievement, work. Extraordinary teachers, who inspire students to transform their lives, work. The programs that work touch all the components of human capital. "

russ carr
5.22.06 @ 3:01p

Touching on that ever-so-briefly: I'm not a fan of the GED. To me, it's like buying down your ticket from speeding or DUI to a non-moving violation. You've essentially bought your way out of attending school — doing the crime without doing the time — and tossed out all of the intangibles that would have given you a well-rounded education.

juli mccarthy
5.23.06 @ 6:13p

And then there's the other side of that particular coin, Russ. I got my GED after dropping out of high school in March of my senior year. The reason I dropped out was because I was informed that I was expected to attend a fifth year of high school, during which my schedule would consist of three PE classes and two study halls, because I had failed PE twice and had actually PASSED an adaptive PE class, but that grade wasn't correctly reported by the school I had transferred from. The two study halls were required because students had to be in the building at least five periods per day in order to be counted as students - in other words, so the school would get paid.

I failed PE twice because instead of TEACHING me any skills, the teachers thought it best to stick me out in right field, both literally and figuratively, while they concentrated on boosting the football team. The fact that I was a state champion for the bowling team ensured that I passed one year, but with a D.

I took my GED test the day after my class graduated. The six-hour test took me two hours and I scored a 100%, which prompted the local college to offer me a scholarship.

The "intangibles" that you speak of consist, for far too many kids, of near-torture at the hands of social cliques and jocks. I could tell you horror stories for HOURS.

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