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The New York Sun


Fighting Words in Education Crowds

February 28, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Neither Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, nor John McCain has had a whole lot to say about education during this campaign. It's not hard to see why.

Vouchers and No Child Left Behind have not yielded really big news. There's a war and a teetering economy to discuss. But it's also because in some quarters, the longer school day is fighting words. Nobody wants to touch this third rail when the issue is not as screamingly urgent as warfare, an impending recession, or an attack ad.

But once we've settled on two nominees, I'm going to be waiting to see which one of them really wants to take on the forces united against a policy that could help public school students come out actually knowing some things.

It can be quaint reading of Congressional debates over instituting what we now know as Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other aspects of our safety net. Quite a few were afraid such "handouts" threatened socialism.

Seventy years from now, ambivalence over the extension of the public school day will look similar. Despite Knowledge is Power Program and charter schools working wonders with the longer school day, Concerned Folk grouse over whether it's "fair" to give more attention to disadvantaged urban students. Meanwhile, many teachers balk at the idea of putting in the extra work. "I don't want to babysit someone's kid from four to six," goes one typical Web log comment.

One wonders whether people of this stripe truly understand what barriers poor kids face to learning how to read in a truly functional way. In countless American communities, flyers are routinely full of major misspellings, more than a few are only fitfully comfortable with e-mail, and few read newspapers above the tabloid level. Life is fundamentally oral.

Students from places like this—which include Appalachia and the rural white South as much as black and brown inner cities—get next to no reinforcement from home life in acquiring comfort with the written word. Eternally dismal reading scores make it clear that a school day ending at 3 p.m. is not alleviating the problem. We have become sadly familiar with every second black 8th grader reading below basic level.

Reading is not the only cultural hurdle. In black culture, for example, the direct question is not as central to normal communication as it is in mainstream culture (consult, for example, Shirley Brice Heath's "Ways With Words"). For kids from this kind of setting, getting comfortable with being asked point-blank "When was the Declaration of Independence written?" and answering clearly and directly takes work. Many black people of working-class or poor background mention how ticklish this kind of interaction felt when they first went to a decent school.

Direct questions as regular interaction are largely an epiphenomenon of the printed page. Most humans on earth lead fundamentally oral lives in the linguistic sense, and need to adjust to direct questions. Middle class American kids inhale them at the kitchen table. Poor kids learn how to deal with them in school, and it takes practice.

One objection is that supposedly, in the old days even poor kids just sat down in school and learned what they needed to know. But the grandparents who recount this were among the sliver of poor kids who even made it through school. A century ago, only 14% of native-born American kids even made it to high school, and more to the point, only 2% of Italian and Polish immigrant kids did.

Here is Betty Smith in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" on what poor children's schools were really like one hundred years ago this year:

"Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and 1909. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days.... Few teachers had the true vocation for their work. They taught because it was one of the few jobs open to them; because they had a long summer vacation; because they got a pension when they retired."

Few children stayed around in places like this any longer than necessary. Today, however, even low-skill service jobs require a basic comfort with the written word. A school day that ends at 3 p.m., in the America that we live in, isn't enough to give that to people from bookless homes whose parents are unsure how to make the system work for their kids.

So far, on the longer school day, Mr. Mc-Cain is a question mark, Mrs. Clinton approves but has no actual plan, and Mr Obama supports it only for problem kids. This isn't good enough—let's see which of them will offer more.

Original Source:



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