Recycling Kids

The U.S. Department of Education has just issued a devastating study. Nearly half of American adults read and write so poorly that they have trouble holding down decent jobs. More than one-fifth are practically illiterate. Yet when asked to evaluate themselves, most of those who scored low described themselves as being able to read "well" or "very well." What's more, half were high school graduates. What a stunning indictment of our educational system. It's churning out people with such ridiculously high self-esteem that they don't even know they lack the skills to function in modern society. Ironically the Department of Education, which issued the report, is poised to make things worse. The Clinton administration is committed to a proposal called Global 2000, which incorporates a method of teaching called outcome-based education (OBE). In outcome-based education, students are taught the same lesson repeatedly until they answer correctly. There are no grades, no standards, no failure. You didn't get it right the first time round? Fine, do it again. And again. And again. As a method, this may work in some remedial situations, but in the normal classroom, it spells disaster. Quick students are held back while slower students are recycled over and over-a system sure to destroy the brighter students' initiative. And since there are no grades, slower students have less incentive as well. It's like playing basketball with no scores, no statistics, no play-offs. Even more disturbing, many of the "outcomes" don't look much like traditional academic skills. For example, instead of learning how to write, students in Washington State learn how to "communicate effectively and responsibly in a variety of ways and settings." Whatever that means. Instead of learning the multiplication tables, students in Oklahoma learn "mathematical insight, reasoning, and problem solving." Though how they can practice mathematical reasoning without first knowing things like 2+3=5 is beyond me. As for teaching reading, most outcome-based programs positively reject it. The Oklahoma guidelines state that students should be taught to "attend to the meaning of what is read rather than focusing on figuring out words." But no one explains how students are supposed to grasp the meaning if they haven't first figured out the words. No wonder illiteracy is rampant. But the proof is in the practice, and places that have experimented with outcome-based education have consistently seen test scores drop. Chicago used it for 10 years and overall scores plummeted to the 25th percentile. Some schools even dropped to the 10th percentile, the same score you get from random guessing. Frustrated inner-city parents filed a lawsuit, charging that their school had been turned into a "factory of failure." The decline in literacy ought to be of special concern to Christians. Christianity has always fostered literacy: from the Reformation, when Martin Luther translated the Bible into the language of the people, right up to modern Bible translators, who brave jungles and swamps to reduce tribal languages to writing. You and I ought to carry the same tradition into our own communities. We ought be taking a stand for real education, real learning . . . real literacy.


Chuck Colson


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