Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Broken English

According to Jack Miller of Central Connecticut State University, Plano, Texas, is the 51st most literate city in America. You could have fooled me.

Miller based his rankings of the 69 best-read metropolises on six criteria: newspaper circulation, the number of bookstores, the availability of library resources, access to periodical publishing, the population’s educational attainment and internet connectivity.

There’s an obvious class bias in this list. Do people of little education read newspapers, shop at bookstores, go to the library or spend time on the internet? Do Miller’s ratings consider the number of people in a poor position to access these resources? Does Miller’s list consider the working class stiffs portrayed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s thoughtful and provocative book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” who work two or even three jobs to not quite meet all their expenses? This growing impoverished working class, because of corporate greed, has little time to read and little disposable income to spend on trashy novels like “The Da Vinci Code,” let alone serious literature. How about people struggling with English as a second language or whose chief exposure to computers comes only while they are public school students?

Each entry on Miller’s list is a tale of two cities. If Plano is one of the most literate cities in America, perhaps Miller can explain these gems from my students at the Spring Creek campus of Collin County Community College. Students authored the following statements in response to exam questions:

“In the end slaves started getting tired of working and started faking ill[ness] so they could get time off and not have to work. This started becoming a problem to slave owners and later became the cause of WWII.”

“Both Klans differed majorly.”

“Blacks would take the grunt of most of these group lynchings.”

“The Nazis wanted to extinct the world of Jews.”

“It took a series of events that spanned the globe to initiate World War II, making it a many-countried affair.”

“During World War II the country is very shaken up by everything that is going on in the country.”

“The Know-Nothings advocated alcohol and Catholics.”

“The Nazis wanted to extinct the world of Jews.”

“They figured they must advise a plan to keep immigrants and blacks from climbing to the top of society’s latter.”

“The Constitution gave support to the institution of slavery by making a law that all men, women, black and white, had equal rights.”

My students proved as creative with words as they were with the facts. Among the neologisms coined this semester:

“Ferior” as in the opposite of inferior




Collin College is what used to be patronizingly called a junior college. As such, it has open enrollment which means that a first-time applicant, even one without a high school diploma or who has flunked out of another college or university, can be admitted. Low ranking in one’s high school graduating class poses no barrier to being accepted. As such, like public schools, community colleges are open to all takers and, in many ways reflect the general population.

Why are my students who are native speakers of English so astoundingly unfamiliar with their mother tongue? Because the world described by Miller is an elite bubble. There’s a highly literate Plano where the affluent and comfortable who have schedules that permit time for leisure reading and visits to the library, or whose finances allow regular access to computers and the internet, form a cognitive elite. And then there’s the other Plano, which includes everyone else.

My students, who with many wonderful exceptions, generally come from the middle and lower high school academic ranks, are victimized by one trend in education that reduces literacy to a technical term describing minimal competence. Yes, most of these students recognize the sounds the letters on the page make, but they don’t comprehend the words, they don’t understand the author’s arguments, nor do they have any sense of word play or poetry.

This almost universalized unfamiliarity with the written word stems undoubtedly in part from standardized tests, such as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS.) Across the country, these tests are used to compare the quality of education from classroom to classroom and from campus to campus. Standardized tests have become the tail wagging the educational dog. It should be noted that these tests are products sold at a high profit to school districts by corporations that give generous donations to the politicians who then, in turn, mandate the tests.

Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson represent the four giants in this hugely profitable industry. Harcourt, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing produce 96 percent of the standardized tests nationwide while NCS Pearson serves as the leading scorer of these exams.
According to the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College, standardized achievement test sales zoomed from $7 million in 1955 (adjusted for inflation) to $263 million in 1997. Today, the big four rake in from between $400 million to $700 million a year.

These standardized tests have slowly swallowed the entire school year. George W. Bush’s Orwellian-named “No Child Left Behind” act set strict standards regarding testing scores for school districts, individual schools and teachers, standards that do not take into account the wildly different socio-economic realities faced by schools across the country. Schools get punished if their students get low scores and can even lose funding. Teachers of low-performing classes can lose their jobs, even if a teacher of impoverished ESL students is being compared to one educating wealthy preps in Beverly Hills.

Schools obviously have a vested interest in pumping up scores. As a result, students take exams at the beginning of the year so the school can calibrate where they are academically. Then students get pre-tests for TAKS and other state assessments to prepare for specific parts of the exam. After months of drilling, they take the test, along with the SAT or ACT and various Advanced Placement Exams and, by the way, exams on what they are actually being taught in the particular classroom. Constant test preparation is not only stressful and dull, but adversely affects the quality of teaching.

The consequence of this testing mania is brilliantly described by Louis Volante of Concordia University in the article “Teaching to the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-Maker Should Know,” published in the “Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy” (September 24, 2004.)

“Faced with increasing pressure from politicians, school district personnel, administrators, and the public, some teachers have begun to employ test preparation practices that are clearly not in the best interest of children,” Volante writes. “These activities may include relentless drilling on test content, eliminating important curricular content not covered by the test, and providing interminably long practice session that incorporates actual items from these high-stakes standardized tests.”

Volante argues that the obsession with testing leaves students less informed. As Volante notes:

“Teaching to the test also has a ‘dumbing’ effect on teaching and learning as worksheets, drills, practice tests and similar rote practices consume greater amounts of classroom time . . . Insofar as standardized tests assess only part of the curriculum, time spent on test taking often overemphasizes basic-skill subjects and neglects high-order thinking skills . . . Research suggests that while students’ scores will rise when teachers teach closely to a test, learning often does not change . . . In fact, the opposite may be true. That is, there are examples of schools from New York and Boston that have demonstrated improvements in student learning while their standardized test scores did not show substantial gains.”

My wife Samantha has taught English for 20 years, five in California and the rest in Texas. She has observed that as the emphasis on standardized tests has grown she has been forced to drop more and more books from her reading lists. Her students in 2008 read a lot less than did her students in 1988.

Teaching students to be good writers requires that they read and read a lot. Students need to be exposed to both good and bad writing in order to know the difference. Frequent reading of lengthy works provides students writing models, which they generally imitate until they find their own voice. Achieving true literacy, which involves comprehension, the ability to reason, an appreciation of tone, symbolism, and allusion, and knowledge of where a particular book stands in relation to other similar books, requires much more reading time than allowed by the current political monomania regarding standardized texts.

I should note that my students, both at Collin College and at the University of Texas, have referred to all books as “novels,” even works of non-fiction. This unfamiliarity is understandable since they are only transient visitors to the world of reading. As wages drop, benefits decrease, tuition costs skyrocket, and the ability of families to get by with even two salaries, only the more advantaged students have parents with the time bring true literacy to their progeny. Most children are certainly being left behind.

The real agenda behind the flood of tests, besides financial gain for the testing companies, is content control over courses.

Again, using my wife’s experience, her school district designs the entire year around TAKS. To ensure that every pupil is receiving the exact same information, all the teachers in her department are expected to be at the same point at the same time. Everyone uses almost identical reading lists and teachers use the same quizzes on assignments. This district doesn’t have schools. It has factories.

The conservative ideologues who have wanted to dismantle the public schools since the 1954 “Brown vs. the Board of Education” desegregation decision are suspicious of educators for several reasons. First, they know that liberal Democrats have been more generous in funding for public schools and have been consistent supporters of higher wages for teachers. As a result, teachers unions generally back liberal Democrats in elections. Rather than trying to win teachers working in their interests, conservatives want to shatter teacher organizations by fragmenting public education into a crazy quilt of religious schools, secular private schools, and charter schools while the remaining public schools would inevitably become a dumping ground for students of color and poor whites.

Scattered among several smaller, financially distinct educational entities, teachers would effectively be unable to collectively bargain for better working conditions or lobby for educational reforms. Wages for teachers would drop as teacher unions splintered, leaving educators with little time or money to engage in politics.

Many conservatives hostile to public education also have a conspiratorial worldview. They fear that secular teachers share a hidden agenda to promote homosexuality, to oppose Christianity and to undermine patriotism. Traditionalists attack teachers who try to impart critical thinking skills and who illustrate to students how ideologies of race, class and gender shape perceptions of reality. Such conservatives fear that all this deconstructing confuses the little ones.

Students emerging from a classroom that emphasized critical thinking might ask troubling questions about the inequality of wealth in America, or the power of corporate lobbies, or the logic of religious dogmas. Better to keep the students memorizing the names of presidents and Civil War generals that having them carefully read books and imagine a new and better world.

As Henry Gonshak, an English professor at Montana Tech noted in his review of “The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of America Schools” by Martin L. Gross, such conservatives dwell in a fantasy land, attempting to re-capture a golden age that never existed. These critics of the so-called “education establishment,” Gonshak writes, believe that “[t]he traditional American classroom--with its emphasis on rote memorization, constant testing, strict discipline, tons of homework was . . . a kind of educational Eden, until the serpent-like forces of ‘progressive education’ slithered onto the scene.

The golden age conservatives imagine never existed. In fact the schools that conservatives like Goss rhapsodize about rested on a foundation of savage inequality, and not just due to racial segregation. In Texas, until 1918, parents had to pay for their schoolchildren’s textbooks, a heavy burden for a state still consisting mostly of poor farmers. Texas didn’t even require school attendance until 1915, and the first compulsory attendance law required only 60 days of instruction and their teachers weren’t required to hold more than a high school diploma until 1949.

By 1929 the school “year” had stretched to five months, but the calendar was much shorter in poor, rural districts and at the segregated and underfunded schools provided African Americans and Mexican Americans. Those students mostly attended one-room schoolhouses with crumbling, out-of-date textbooks, little space and badly in need of repairs. Powerful growers saw poor white, black and brown children as cheap agricultural labor and so they shortened the school year for these students so they could work in the fields.

By 1944-1945 only 32 percent of African American schools met the already low standards set by the state of Texas. Texas would initiate revolutionary school reforms in 1949, the Gilmer-Aiken laws, which promised to deliver more money to the schools, improve teacher education, and increase efficiency and accountability. Penny-pinching by the Legislature, however, eventually rendered these promises hollow.

The Legislature refused to make the difficult political choice of providing reliable and equitable funding for Texas schools, taxing the poor more heavily than their wealthy political donors. Texas reaped a predictable harvest for this Legislative negligence. By the early 1980s, Texas students ranked near the bottom nationally in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and 42nd in percentage of high school graduates attending college.

Texas is the supply side paradise that conservative education critics have wet dreams about. The state has no income tax and prefers to rely on the most regressive forms of taxation, such as sales levies, for its operating budget. Texas schools rely almost entirely on property taxes, which means that for most of the twentieth century, poor school districts had dramatically less funding than rich school districts.

By the last decade of the twentieth century, one school district, the wealthy Alamo Heights community, near San Antonio, held property wealth of $570,109 per student compared to $38,854 in nearby property-poor Edgewood, a 15-1 ratio. Tired of schools with obsolete textbooks and that often lacked chalk or even toilet paper, Edgewood parents filed a lawsuit seeking equalization of school funding in the late 1960s. The suit was still winding its way through the Texas courts two-and-a-half decades later. The rote-learning schools conservatives so dearly miss created widespread structural poverty aimed at maintaining the economic domination of white elites and gave students few tools for articulating anger at such obvious injustice.

If the conservative critique of modern public schools rests on a distorted representation of the past, their views on how classes should be taught represent a more sinister threat to democracy. I noticed some time ago that conservatives are “hooked on phonics.” They really need a 12-step program. Conservatives love phonics because they see it as a retreat from “whole language” approaches grounded in critical thinking, which the right sees as an opening gate for political correctness. Conservatives also hail phonics as a return to tried-and-true basics.

Phonics, however, is based on a lie. My only direct exposure to this teaching method has been through my son’s “Leap Frog” DVDs. Phonics teaches children that letters have single sounds, like “The C says cah.” Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with English knows that letters can have multiple sounds. Furthermore, several vowel sounds so resemble each other to make this method practically useless.

Lurking behind this limiting approach is a Manichean, black-and-white view of the world in which there is one truth and one truth only and that opposing contentions are, by definition, utterly false. The epistemology behind phonics reminds me of “Newspeak,” the new form of English being created by Big Brother’s dictatorship in George Orwell’s “1984.” Newspeak aimed to limit the meanings of words so that only thoughts permitted by the government would be possible. In fascist Italy, school children were taught to say, “Il Duce is always right.” They probably read the sentence using phonics.

Unfortunately, the standardized testing virus has spread to higher ed. The Texas Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that it wants measurable learning outcomes, meaning a test that all students have to take to make sure they learn a set of facts picked as important rather than ideas. The Legislature is doing this even as they are talking about cutting funding for developmental education programs at community colleges It appears they want all college classes to be very much alike, regardless of the individual expertise or experience of any particular professor. Apparently college curricula should be made the same way as spam.

A final note: to return to Miller’s rankings the most “literate” cities, here is his top 10.

1. Minneapolis. 

2. Seattle.
3. St. Paul.
4. Denver. 

5. Washington, D.C.

6. St. Louis.
7. San Francisco.

8. Atlanta.
9. Pittsburgh.
10. Boston.

Nine of the ten cities are outside the old Confederacy. Atlanta is the only Southern city in the top ten. Other Southern cities making the top 69, in addition to Plano, include Raleigh (14), Miami (22), Austin (23), Charlotte (26), Fort Worth (45), Dallas and Jacksonville (both tied at 47), Houston (55), Memphis (59), Arlington, Texas (62), San Antonio (63), Corpus Christi (65), and El Paso (68.)

Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas could claim no cities on the list. In short, the list is dominated by cities outside of Dixie in states with a history of higher taxes, higher expenditures on public schools and generally more liberal politics. The Southern cities making the list are the ones that drew a large number of migrants from the North and the West during and following World War II, when the South finally industrialized and became attractive to skilled urban workers.

More traditionally Southern communities, those most wed to conservative ideology, low taxes, low investment in public schools, support for school vouchers, opposition to teacher’s unions and deep suspicion of secularism and science, didn’t make the grade. It’s these areas that support the conservative candidates who are the most adamant about standardized testing. Why are we taking our cues on education from a bunch of illiterates?

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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