BLOG > Where Is the Shame Card When We Need It?

Placeholder imageOur failure to teach reading effectively has dire consequences. Longitudinal studies show that children who are not reading at grade level by Fourth Grade struggle to catch up, with most, not at all. When reading well is the cornerstone skill to all learning, why is America willing to watch generations of children pass through it’s educational institutions if only to fail?

To quote former U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spelling, "The states have basically said, ‘We can't get all kids reading at grade level, are you crazy? Let's figure out some loopholes so we don't have to.’" She went on to say, "There's nobody pounding the table and saying, 'You've got to be kidding me.' Nobody is putting the shame card out there. This is ridiculous."

To change or challenge our nation's education system is a massive and complex undertaking, involving an insuperable group of decision makers that include: U.S. Executive Branch; U.S. Department of Education; U.S. Legislative Branch; National Associations; State Government, State Department of Education; State Board of Education; State Legislatures; State Universities; Teacher's Unions (national and local); School Leadership including: superintendents, principals, general classroom and special education teachers, school boards, teacher associations, and parents. When you add on the tides of politics, funding issues, and the conflict between the federal and state regarding education, it just intensifies the effort. To add insult to injury, academia can't come to an agreement on the best way to teach reading. What about the kids who can't read. From a philanthropic standpoint, even the biggest foundations that tackle the system reform struggle to achieve sustainable results.

Currently, the responsibility rests upon the system to enable the individual teacher (who must work within a bureaucratic, union-led system that resists change as a whole). Albert Shanker, former president of the United Federation of Teachers, was quoted as saying, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I will start representing the interests of school children." The quote's veracity has been challenged by the Albert Shanker Institute, but was used as a segue in an article written by Joe Klien, former chancellor of the New York City school system, in The Atlantic, June 2011. Klien was addressing what union members wanted. "Employees understandably want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (short days, long holidays, lots of sick days), and the opportunity to retire early (at, say 55), with a good lifetime pension and full health benefits."

Placeholder imageWe are not convinced that this statement represents each teacher's professional objectives, but it may reflect the system itself and the results of collective bargaining. Public education is criticized by one commentator and defended by another; while in the short-term our students are aging, slipping through schools that many regard as an antiquated, factory-floor processes that were built to prepare children for an earlier economic model. We read that many teachers graduated in the lower portions of their class, and that exceptional students avoid the teaching profession because of its low pay and lack of prestige. Perhaps there is truth in this, but there is also plenty of evidence to show that smart, capable and committed individuals take up the challenging career of teaching, and because they do, lives are changed.

Research shows that children in their earliest months and years, many of whom spend their days in childcare, can learn speech-to-text fundamentals and vocabulary. Teachers in Grades 1-3, trained in explicit, structured literacy instruction, can dramatically reduce the shameful statistic that 66% of our students fail to achieve 4th Grade reading proficiency. Boon seeks to help to train teachers that instruct children from birth to age 9, because this group of educators can have the greatest impact on the future success of the next generation of learners.

We know there are thousands and thousands of teachers in Grades 1-3 that are zealously committed to teaching well, and as individuals, they might take advantage of Boon's scholarship funds to receive a professional learning opportunity in explicit, structured reading instruction methods at independent learning centers across the country. Moreover, we know that there is an urgent need for more trained teachers right now, and that every school year brings a child closer to completing 4th Grade.

Training individual teachers can be accomplished. Let others work to reform our education system, one school or district at a time. This is the system, we might add, that doesn't provide teacher training in explicit, structured literacy instruction in its colleges and graduate schools, or through professional, on-the-job learning. Further, experts say that it typically takes four years to imbed this type of instruction into a school or district, and as promising as that is, it seems terribly long when the clock is ticking so loudly. So we believe teachers deserve a free training resource to meet the challenge, and that they will step up of their own initiative if what is promised is a significantly better outcome for their students.

To be sure, our education system is fundamentally a vast group of individuals, whether they are children or adults, that enter the schools every day with good intentions. With that in mind, every individual teacher that seeks training in explicit, structured reading instruction methods can make a substantive difference in the reading skills of each and every student they teach.

As Jack Jennings wrote in his book, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools, "The essence of education comes down to a student, a teacher, and something to be taught and learned. Everything else in education grows out of that relationship or feeds it. A person with a desire to learn, another person with the knowledge and skills to foster that learning.”

So if we must, shame the system, but enable the teacher.

Henry Sinclair Sherrill
Boon Philanthropy