Children Will Be Educated When We Start Educating Them

by Camille Harper

(Camille Harper, a member of the national Advisory Council of the African-American leadership group Project 21, is a former Chicago public school teacher.)

A New Visions Commentary paper published January 1997 by The National Center for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax (202) 543-5975, E-Mail, Web Reprints permitted provided source is credited.)

The media mania that erupted when a white teacher wrote, "Where are my glasses?" in magic marker on the face of a black five-year-old who forgot her glasses shames us all. The hysteria involved threats of lawsuits, suggestions of permanent trauma to the child, the teacher's suspension, panels of experts, and thunderous words from poverty and race professionals. What this Super Bowl of soap opera melodrama revealed was that we have lost all common sense in dealing with the simplest -- and one of the most important -- basics in primary education, namely, effective procedure for establishing contact between parent and teacher.

The parent shouldn't have continuously let her child go to school without her glasses, the teacher should have used a more appropriate method of dealing with that parent's neglect, and the administration should have set the appropriate guidelines for resolving such a situation. Unfortunately, the loose football at the bottom of this goal line pile-up is the child.

All schools, public or private, should have a simple, effective procedure for establishing parent-teacher contact, both for ordinary consultations and for emergencies.

When parents, teachers and administrators stop communicating, and contact between the three groups breaks down, children suffer the most. Our ongoing failure to address these problems by establishing sound policies has produced the following tragic results:

In February of 1994, the National Right to Read Foundation published its "The Right to Read Report," which stated that 90 million adults (nearly half the adult population) read and wrote so poorly that they had trouble keeping jobs even though they were high school graduates. Even so, outcome-based education seeks to lower these standards even more.

In its November/December issue, the same report stated that the United States is the only nation in the world with a falling literacy rate.

The same issue cited a judge from Florida who noted that children could not read the t-shirts they wore to court, and that 90% of them were dropouts -- with or without parental consent or contact.

By the late 60's, 70% of the students entering urban high schools could not read above the third grade level. After the advent of entitlement programs , the figure rose to more than 75%.

An independent 1993 broad study by ABT Associates, cited by the Heritage Foundation, indicated that students participating in federal compensatory education programs continue to fall further and further behind other students as they progress through school.

A recent review of U.S. Department of Education programs conducted by the House of Representatives Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee (working with the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Research Service) cited 760 federal education programs, administered by 39 separate agencies, departments, commissions, and boards, costing a total of $120 billion. It showed that only 6% of the programs supported mathematics, science, or reading.

All of these incidents, facts, and figures demand that we value children and their education more than we value entitlements, money, power, or media attention. The failure to value children and their education has produced a 17-year-old age group in which 66% cannot read at a proficient level. The Ad Council estimates that by the year 2000, 67% of the American people will be functionally illiterate. In a series beginning May 15, 1994, the Law Enforcement News stated that "earning a high school diploma does not guarantee that its holder can read beyond a junior high school level." This report, entitled, "Why Officer Johnny Can't Read," by Jacob R. Clark, points out that officers who cannot read well are incapable of writing good reports or understanding the nuances of the law. The report further links poor reading skills to the increased use of force.

The information included in this editorial is not a plea to end the Department of Education, teachers' unions or Head Start.

But it is a demand that we reevaluate our policies and goals, that we place the highest value on children and their education rather than politics, and that we ask of entitlements, "Entitled to what?"


Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, not necessarily those of Project 21.