Failure to teach reading inexcusable

| November 9, 2014

imagesby Charles Davenport, Jr.,  Editorial Board Member, Greensboro News-Record, November 9, 2014.

UNC’s flagship institution made national headlines last month, when investigator Kenneth Wainstein exposed Chapel Hill’s massive academic fraud, the beneficiaries of which were disproportionately football and basketball players. More than 3,000 students reportedly obtained lofty grades (and by extension, college degrees) from classes that never met.

When confronted with the fact that UNC students were awarded unearned, meaningless credits, North Carolinians were disappointed and outraged. Justifiably so. But academic fraud is not confined to Chapel Hill.

Every year, our public schools award bogus high school diplomas to thousands of functionally illiterate young men and women. As a direct result, many such “graduates” are doomed to lives of unemployment, poverty and criminality. The illiterate and the functionally illiterate are commonplace in all three categories.

The squirm-inducing truth is this: The parents of illiterate students are co-conspirators in a scheme that dwarfs events at Chapel Hill. Such parents —those who can read — are guilty of criminal negligence. And the rest of us, by looking the other way, are complicit.

Reading and writing are fundamental skills that should be mastered by every high school graduate. Math is important, too, of course, but the student who struggles with mathematics is not necessarily crippled for life. According to Marilyn vos Savant, the intellectual giant of “Ask Marilyn” fame, “Reading is much more important to everyone.” She continues: “Some students are surely drowning in math that they’ll never even come close to using, much less needing, in their chosen professions or in life. Math doesn’t enlighten us the way literature, social studies or art appreciation do.”

My life experience verifies vos Savant’s claims.

In a front-page article in the News & Record two months ago, officials with Guilford County Schools boasted of the system’s 88.5 percent graduation rate. Meanwhile, we learned from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card,” that 26 percent of America’s high school seniors scored “below basic” in reading. Below basic translates to “functionally illiterate.”

Even in my math-challenged mind, something doesn’t add up. Let’s be generous and assume, for the moment, that “only” 20 percent of seniors in Guilford County Schools are functionally illiterate. If so, shouldn’t the graduation rate be 80 percent? One detects the odor of academic fraud.

The NAEP exam is almost universally respected by educators, parents and politicians. It is not the work of a right-wing, voucher-promoting organization. According to the U.S. Department of Education (again, not a bastion of conservative thought), 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. The problem is particularly acute among blacks and Hispanics, whose scores lag far behind those of whites and Asians. On average, black high school seniors read on the same level as white eighth-graders.

Reading problems begin early. Here in North Carolina, 80 percent of black fourth-graders are below proficient in reading. From the same N&R article about Guilford County’s “88.5 percent graduation rate,” we learned that only “43 percent of Guilford third-graders demonstrated a limited or partial command of reading.” Consequently, for six weeks during the summer, 768 third-graders were required to attend reading camps, during which they received what was billed as “intense, targeted” help. (Forty-four of the 768 didn’t show up.)

Local educators patted themselves on the back for not “teaching to the test” at the remedial sessions, which led to predictable results. As reported by Marquita Brown in August, “By the end of the camps, more than three-quarters — 622 students — still didn’t make the grade.” State law requires that third-graders with inadequate reading skills be retained, but every student who attended camp has been promoted to fourth grade (with transitional reading classes).

Academic fraud in our public schools is exacerbated by the economic fraud perpetrated by apologists for the establishment — including those who championed a quarter-cent increase in Guilford County’s sales tax. Anita Bachmann of the quarter-cent for schools committee, for instance, argued in these pages that the increase was needed to “maintain excellence in our schools.”

Many of us question the existence of the aforementioned “excellence.” We also emphatically reject the deeply flawed premise of the tax increase: that additional funding equals improved academic results. The myth has been repeatedly debunked. To cite but one example, compare per-student funding in the District of Columbia with that of North Dakota, and then compare their respective test scores. Even though North Dakota spends far less on education, its students outperform D.C.’s in every category, and by significant margins.

Critics of public education are routinely demonized and cast out of polite society. So be it. Issuing high school diplomas to kids who can’t read Harry Potter books is academic fraud on a massive scale, and arguably, state-sanctioned child abuse.


Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

Comments (2)

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  1. jimmy rouse says:

    The public education system is one big monopoly which is designed to benefit the staff and not the students. Passing the students along keeps the boat from rocking and everybody is happy. Promotion and bigger budgets abound.

    Of course athletes are going to be pampered. Athletes are any school most valuable asset. Team spirit trumps being able to read any day!

  2. Richard Bunce says:


    … and parents cannot be trusted with education vouchers?

    Traditional government school systems cannot be trusted with the parents children.