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J.F. Kelly, Jr. - Contributor

J.F. 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]

Assessing 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 level.

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 benefits.

A well-documented 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

copyright 2005 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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