The Corner

Politics & Policy

Why Are American Students Poor Readers?

Many young Americans are poor readers, as shown by various international tests. Why is that?

Leftists (such as Diane Ravitch) have a bunch of excuses, but they all fail, argues Professor Mark Seidenberg of the University of Wisconsin. In today’s Martin Center article, Terry Stoops, the John Locke Foundation’s K–12 expert, writes about Seidenberg’s challenging work.

“No cliché is more ubiquitous at teacher protests than signs that read, ‘if you can read this sign, thank a teacher.’ That is, unless you disregard variations on the theme of ‘pay us more.’ And yet, student performance on national and international tests suggest that the reading comprehension of most American students does not extend far beyond an understanding of nine-word sentences and basic signage,” Stoops begins.

Turning to the defenders of the status quo, he writes, “According to Ravitch and other defenders of government schools, isolated shortcomings in academic performance are the product of socioeconomic and political factors that can be solved by enacting ‘progressive’ laws and policies.”

Here’s where Professor Seidenberg enters the fray. One of the arguments the defenders rely on is that our reading instruction must be okay because the U.S. economy continues growing rather well. Stoops points out,

Seidenberg, on the other hand, points to the research of Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, whose research concludes that there is a meaningful relationship between student achievement and GDP growth. He misses a critical point, however, by failing to mention that America’s economic vitality may be due to the ability of U.S.-based corporations to attract workers from abroad. Highly skilled labor is drawn from nations in Europe and the Pacific Rim that have a long record of excellence on international assessments and support highly selective systems of higher education.

Stoops and Seidenberg agree that we have a reading problem and it stems from the sorry “culture of education” prevailing in most of our schools. That culture has a lot to do with our college “education schools,” which are steeped in “progressive” theories about learning, especially “constructivism.”

“This constructivist theory of knowledge,” Stoops writes, “gives way to the abandonment of practices that have solid empirical support, such as the use of phonics in reading instruction, and the dissemination of pseudoscientific approaches to reading instruction espoused by hucksters like Frank Smith, Kenneth Goodman, and Marie Clay. Of course, most teachers find constructivist theory to be appealing in theory but unworkable in practice, a fact that apparently is lost on the schools of education that trained them to adopt constructivism in the first place.”

If we want young Americans to learn to read better (and everything else they ought to learn), we need to either drastically reform or even eliminate education schools.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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