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J.F. Kelly, Jr. - Contributor
Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who
writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident
of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]
Blame for Declining Verbal Skills
There’s enough to go around…
[J. F. Kelly, Jr.] 4/19/05
Everyone agrees that illiteracy and declining reading skills
constitute a serious problem in the United States resulting in
a number of national and state programs to measure progress in
the schools through mandatory testing. We are not all in agreement,
however, regarding the cause and upon whom to place the blame
for our dismal progress in teaching kids to read at their grade
It is a huge problem
because reading proficiency is a reliable predictor of success
in school. Our schools have been labeled “dropout
factories” for black and Latino students, primarily because
they are not learning to read well enough to master the required
subject matter, leading to frustration and academic failure.
They are subsequently condemned to be members of a low-skill,
low-income underclass, competing with themselves and with illegal
immigrants for jobs without challenge or futures, not to mention
decline in mathematics and science competencies among our students
and graduates, with the notable exception
of Asian Americans and foreign exchange students, is also a problem,
threatening America’s leadership in technology, medicine
and other areas. But even that problem pales in comparison with
the reading deficiencies.
Notwithstanding the ritual whining of the National Education
Association and other teacher organizations, this problem is
not a result of under-funding and certainly not a lack of programs.
To be sure, teachers are underpaid for what they are asked to
do and the salaries do little to attract the best and brightest.
But teachers have always been underpaid, even back when most
of their students could read at the appropriate grade level.
Besides, no study that I am aware of shows a positive correlation
between teacher salaries and reading performance.
Most accounts addressing
these problems that I have read put the primary blame on the
schools and the teachers. In my view,
the blame is misplaced. It is the parents that should be held
primarily accountable. There are, of course, poor teachers, hanging
on until retirement rescues them from the classroom. We’ve
all had a few. There are, as well, failing schools, where lack
of discipline creates an environment that is not conducive to
learning. But kids who are instilled at home with a desire and
hunger to learn, whose parents spend time reading, and who are
socialized by their parents to value education, will overcome
the worst of distractions in the classroom. They always have.
We know that the
earliest years in a child’s life are
the most important in terms of learning. This makes the home
a more important center of learning, in many respects, than even
the school. Unless parents, or those entrusted with a child’s
care, can fulfill their responsibilities to prepare that child
for school and instill in it a desire to read and learn, that
child will probably not prosper in school. There is a limit to
what teachers can do and their responsibilities should not have
to include assuming the parents’ critical role in this
regard. Teaching their children to value education and helping
them to read by reading to them is one of the most important
of parental responsibilities and we are failing at it in large
segments of the population. The lack of reading proficiency among
students, then, is less a failure of schools, teachers, or public
support than it is a failure of parenting.
Instead of dwelling
on declining student performance, we should, perhaps, reflect
on declining parent performance and what might
be done to improve it. Of course there are excuses. Broken families,
parents who themselves can’t read, dysfunctional families,
too much TV, working parents whose kids spend more time in child
care centers than at home, homes without books, newspapers or
magazines, all contribute in various ways to the problem. These
are challenges to be sure but they do not relieve parents of
their part of the joint parent-teacher responsibilities with
regard to preparing their children for school and promoting the
reading skills without which, their children will likely be underachievers
in school and in life. tOR
2005 J. F. Kelly, Jr.