What Minorities Need Most
AT a campaign stop last week, Barack Obama scoffed at the idea that our schools should put a premium on teaching English to Spanish-speaking kids: "Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English - they'll learn English - you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish."
Indeed, he called it "embarrassing" that Americans don't speak foreign languages.
What should embarrass him is that, in the communities he claims to know so much about, schools are failing to teach black and Hispanic children how to read English - the prerequisite to all other learning.
Two-thirds of black children in urban US school districts can't read at the minimally appropriate level by fourth grade - a failure that is at the heart of the "racial achievement gap."
Inner-city black children, research shows, begin school with only half the vocabulary of white middle-class children. Typically, they soon fall behind in trying to decode how written English blends the sounds made by letter combinations into words. "Difficulties in decoding unfamiliar words rapidly are at the core of most reading problems," says Reid Lyon, former head of reading research at the National Institutes of Health.
Kids who can't read proficiently by fourth grade aren't likely to understand math problems, social-studies texts, computer manuals or much else. They're almost doomed to fall further and further behind. By their later school years, remediation is too late.
The only way to end this ongoing national tragedy is for our nation to undertake a massive reading intervention, targeting inner-city black and Hispanic children in the early grades - a Marshall Plan for America's schools.
Starting in kindergarten, we should teach those children to read with instructional programs that meet the standards of scientifically based reading research and have been proven to work in actual classrooms.
That means early mastery of phonics and phonemic awareness: Three decades of scientific, peer-reviewed reading studies show that beginning readers - above all, those from disadvantaged homes - benefit from reading classes in which students learn systematically and explicitly to hear and identify the different speech sounds in spoken words, to recognize the symbols that represent the speech sounds, and to blend them into words, while also building fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
Tragically, "progressives" in America are leading the way backward on this vital issue. Congress just cut off funding for the federal Reading First program - which gave inner-city schools extra federal aid to use scientifically-based reading programs in K-3 classrooms.
Democrats claim the reading program was tarnished by "scandal" - yet a year of thorough investigations turned up nothing more than a few minor violations of federal rules designed to prevent the appearance of conflict of interest.
Democrats surely enjoyed scoring political payback against the Bush administration. But they also likely trust the education establishment - which, for reasons of pure ideology, is broadly resistant to doing the right thing in reading instruction.
This anti-science approach has done enormous harm here in New York. Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Klein deserve credit for talking of ending the racial achievement gap - but they made the mistake of relying on the wrong "experts." In 2003, they entrusted most instructional decisions to educators who deem it a crime to teach children how to read through scripted phonics lessons.
These experts imposed an approach called Balanced Literacy on virtually every elementary school in the city. The thinking behind the program, which has never been proven to work, is that children can learn to read "naturally" by immersing themselves in print.
Six years later, we're seeing the fruits of that tragic decision. On the federal NAEP tests, known as the "nation's report card," New York City showed no improvement from 2003 to 2007 in both fourth and eighth grade reading.
Obama (or John McCain) will soon have a chance to make a difference on the nation's real language deficit - the inability of so many children to read our own language. A Marshall Plan for reading is a worthy platform for any candidate who wants to truly help disadvantaged Americans achieve real progress.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/07142008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/us_english_tragedy_119809.htm