Time was — and not long ago — that news from the nation’s schools was nearly all bad: falling scores, unruly students assaulting teachers, unions thwarting reforms, bureaucrats weaving ever more red tape.
Lately one report after another suggests that common sense is returning to education. Some examples:
• Last week at my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, the chancellor apologized profusely in public for a “failure of oversight” in the case of a graduate student in the English department who planned to teach a fall course on “The Politics and Poetics of the Palestinian Resistance” He had appended this warning to the class description, “Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek another section.”
The student-teacher, one Snehal Shingavi, is a leader in an organization calling itself Students for Justice in Palestine, which recently occupied an academic building on campus.
Once the news of Shingavi’s “warning” became public, there was a coast-to-coast outcry. Chancellor Robert Berdahl’s response was quick and clear: “It is imperative that our classrooms be free of indoctrination — indoctrination is not education,” he said. Cal has come a long way from the Sixties when “free speech” meant you were free to express yourself so long as you mouthed the Marxist pieties of the day. Apparently, Mr. Shingavi won’t be teaching his propaganda course.
• In Saratoga Springs, New York, five-year-old Kayla Broadus committed the heinous crime of saying grace before downing her snack-time cupcake and milk. She even joined hands with the children on either side of her. Alert teacher Lori Maragno hushed Kayla when the little girl said, “God is good. God is great. Thank you, God, for my food.” The teacher had nipped this incipient establishment of religion in the nick of time. Lest any other toddler try such tricks, the school board issued a press release to the effect that children are prohibited from praying aloud in school.
Kayla’s mother did not roll over. She sued the school board, with the help of the tenacious religious-freedom-rights organization, the Rutherford Institute. The school board had not bargained on dealing with a nest of hornets which, figuratively, it got when Rutherford signed on. It is now talking about an out-of-court settlement. Dominus vobiscum, Rutherford and Mrs. Broadus, and pace, school board.
• As any employer whose business requires writing can attest, the nation is dealing with a generation loaded with people who cannot spell or parse a sentence. It’s not that young people going into the work force are stupid. Rather, most were taught reading by a method that ignores spelling and grammar. It is called “Whole Language.” In the early stages, this method sought to engage children’s interests by putting words into simple stories. It was supposed to draw out their “creativity” and make learning a “joyous” experience. How did it work?
California, which has the nation’s largest public school system, was by the mid-Nineties close to the bottom for reading scores. Fifty-six percent of the kids were reading below a basic level, according to state Board of Education member Marion Joseph. Children whose parents were college-educated didn’t fare much better than the student universe: 49 percent of them were reading below par. “It’s not about poverty or class or race,” says Ms. Joseph. “It’s about curriculum.”
What California is doing about this is bringing Phonics back into the classroom. Beginning in September, it will offer two curricula which emphasize phonetic skills, involving the systematic sounding out of vowels and consonants and their interaction. While this may be neither joyous nor free-wheelingly creative, it gets results. Two years ago in Los Angeles, schools with the poorest reading scores were ordered to adopt the phonics method of teaching reading in the first two grades. First-grade scores went from the 42nd percentile nationally up to the 56th; second-grade scores went from 32nd to 37th.
Meanwhile, across the continent in Gaithersburg, Maryland, high school English teacher Robyn Jackson is introducing her students to diagramming sentences. This process, nearly universal through the Sixties, places the subject (noun) and predicate (verb) of a sentence on a horizontal line, with various modifying words slanting off. It helps the student visualize the components of a sentence. Its objective is clarity in writing. Nearly a century ago, journalist Ambrose Beirce declared, “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.”
The National Council of Teachers of English decided, back in the Seventies, that sentence diagramming should go the way of the dodo bird. It was infatuated with the Whole Language approach to teaching reading, and grammar stood in the way. According to New York University scholar Diane Ravitch, the idea was to “let less motivated students express their thoughts on topics that interested them, such as skate boarding…and not discourage them by correcting their spelling and grammar until they had gained confidence in their ability to put words on paper.”
If the teacher had to teach one student this way, she had to teach all. Hence, the dumbing down of reading, spelling, and grammar across the nation.
Ms. Jackson — and a growing number of other teachers — are digging out old grammar books in order to teaching diagramming. Some of their students like it; some don’t; but all of them are learning how the language is put together.
Peter Hannaford’s column appears every Monday.