Systemic Failure

The Zimmerman trial in Florida created a new ‘celebrity’ who outlasted her 15 minutes of fame for several hours. An achievement she did not want. She was the main prosecution witness and the defending attorney tore her apart and brought the entire case into question.

But this post isn’t about the trial. It’s about the woman on the stand and why she is a poster-child of modern education. You see, she’s a senior in high school and barely literate. She supposedly wrote a note to the parents of her friend. It was written in cursive. When she was asked to read a copy of that note while on the stand, she couldn’t. She couldn’t read cursive, she admitted.

At first she said she wrote the note. Later, she admitted she had a friend write the note. Why didn’t she write the note in print instead of cursive? She’s barely literate and not only can she not read, she can’t write either.

She was steadily promoted through school—social promotions, up through high school and has not the reading and writing skills to write a short note by herself. That is one of the tragedies exposed during this trial.

I grew up in a teaching environment. My mother was an elementary teacher. She was my teacher for a couple of grades. My older sister was a high school teacher teaching History and Government (Government was a required course in Illinois high schools at that time.) My father, while not a teacher, was on the school board and later the President of the school board.

Everyone in our family were readers. My father had less than an eighth-grade education but he was literate and was an avid reader. We subscribed to our local daily paper, had numerous magazine subscriptions, a bookcase full of literary classics and mom and dad belonged to the Reader’s Digest book club and the Book of the Month Club. Dad liked westerns, Mom liked mysteries. My sister was married then and out of the house. I don’t know what she liked. Grandma, who did live with us at that time, read the Bible and subscribed to several commentary magazines.

We were all literate. In fact, everyone in my school was literate, even those on “relief” whose parents weren’t.

How was it possible then when it isn’t now? A number of reasons. First, we were taught to read using phonics. I still remember my teacher when I was in the early grades, to tell a struggling reader to “sound it out.” You see, in our reading classes, we ALL read aloud in turn. Each of us had to read a number of paragraphs, no one was skipped and everyone in turn read their parts in class.

Our school was in the country and included a full eight grades. There was a junior high school (seventh and eighth grades) in town. There was no middle school. When we graduated the eighth grade into high school, everyone read and write at the eighth grade level, could do math up through algebra, name every state and state capital, every nation and capitol, name all the US Presidents and Vice-Presidents and their originating states, and describe the structure of our state and federal government. We could also recite the Declaration of Independence and the Preambles to the U.S. and our state Constitutions.

Now, with social promotions, children are graduating high school who would not be able to graduate from my eighth grade…or sixth grade…or third grade. How could those kids from sixty years ago do so much better than the kids today?

They weren’t allowed to fail. Some just weren’t ready to enter school. I remember one boy, one of many from his family. I think at one time he had four sibling all attending our school at the same time. Donnie McP was…well we called him slow. In retrospect, he may have been autistic. Maybe not. Donnie started school two years before me. He was “retained” or held over, twice. When I was started the first grade, Donnie was there, too. He sat at the desk in front of me.

My school had three teachers for the eight grades. Mrs. Williams was my teacher for the first three grades. She would allow no one to leave her class unless they met her expectations. Reading and writing was one of her requirements.

We were taught to print in our first grade. We were taught cursive beginning in the second grade. We were not allowed to print in class thereafter. We were also taught grammar and sentence structure. That included parsing sentences. Sixty years later, I can understand why we were taught that. Such knowledge enables me to write this blog. We were continually taught grammar until I finished my Freshman year of high school. I got more, when I was in college.

Reading, writing, knowledge of grammar is as essential as math and an understanding of basic science to be called educated. Our current schools fail in all aspects compared to sixty years ago.

Sixty years ago, Mrs. Williams allowed no child to pass to the fourth grade without being able to read, write and understand the basics of grammar. Donnie McP had problems. He lived in an old house a couple of hundred yards from the school. After school, Donnie was in the care of his older sibs until his parents came home hours later, usually.

Mrs. Williams kept Donnie after school. She persisted teaching Donnie to read, write and insured he was able to meet all her requirements for being promoted. After an hour or more, she would take him home. I never knew if Donnie’s parents knew of the extra help he received, nor, if they cared. Many didn’t and still don’t.

That is the situation that young woman in Florida found herself—in the national spotlight that exposed all her failings. No, not her failings, the failings of a school system who is more interested in maintaining statistics—graduation rates, than in actually teaching their students.

When educators drop phonics in favor of ‘sight reading’, stop teaching grammar, stop teaching cursive writing, they fail their students and should be removed from any educational position.

They have created generations of illiterates and semi-illiterates. In a just world, those so-called educators would be held up for ridicule.