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Home » Chalk Talk – Why Mommy and Daddy Can’t Read – Public Education’s Crisis and The Stockholm Syndrome

January, 2006

Nearly 50 years ago, Rudolph Flesch wrote a best-selling book called Why Johnny Can’t Read, and identified for the first time the epic proportions of illiteracy that were then plaguing our nation. The book put the blame squarely at the feet of poor reading instruction, and the lack of phonics which years later would also be identified as the number one cause of poor reading proficiency. While some believe Johnny’s prospects may have improved a bit since then, and there is evidence that some students are making progress, it seems that grown-up Johnny has equally paltry literacy skills. As parents, Johnny and his wife also have trouble meeting the basic demands of a literate society.

Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that fully a third of college graduates are incapable of reading “lengthy English texts and making complex references from the readings.” According to former California prosecutor and now – high school teacher Patrick Mattimore, “while the educational attainment of America’s adults increased between 1992 and 2003, the percentages of college graduates scoring at the proficient level declined by nine percentage points.”

Hard to believe that only roughly a third of college graduates are well educated? The issue becomes all the more clear when you consider the magnitude of the problem from our earliest encounters with school. To do that, I took a Crash Course with Chris Whittle, the founder and CEO of Edison Schools and a totally insightful “dude,” as my kids might say.

His fascinating bio notwithstanding – having moved from Esquire magazine, to the creation of television news programming for schools through Channel One, to the oft-controversial Edison Project (now Edison Schools) – Chris reveals a very scary picture of an America that fails, in the worst areas, to educate over 90% of its children, and in the best still leaves a third behind.

In his effort to build up to his recommendations for how to create better public education, he takes the reader through a mind-boggling introduction to how badly we treat children in this country. Really. I cracked the book open numerous times before finally sitting down and pouring through it. With another year of policy and legislative activity behind me, I used the Christmas break to brush up on my education reading, with Crash Course at the top of the list. Here I am, the head of an organization that combs through mounds of data daily to expose the public to the outrages in education – and present solutions for them – but even I was shocked, over and over, by Whittle’s cogent presentation of the hard, cold reality of public education in this country.

Tragedy is a word that doesn’t even begin to sum it all up. And what Chris Whittle does that puts it all into context is he uses our progress in American business to drive home the fact that there are advances being made all around us, but right where we need it the most, little has changed in decades.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Chris Whittle since around the time he started Edison in 1993. His organization boasts many of my oldest and dearest colleagues and friends. Edison also belongs to an association which I helped found, and with which I still consult. So like most bloggers, I may appear slightly ‘tainted’ by my relationships. But notwithstanding the fact that I like Chris, believe in what he stands for, and agree with many of his proposals to fix the problem, I also know that my 16 year-old could read his book and immediately, without any coaching, find himself where I am – astonished and angry that our problems over twenty years have not been dramatically reduced.

Chris offers three major reasons for why not only Johnny, but Mommy and Daddy also, can’t read: we don’t believe; we don’t own the problem; and we don’t see the solution.

He digs deeper, of course, much deeper, and delves into his own education about public education and what has occurred to land us in an incredible inertia and acceptance of failure that if we were GM, or the Defense Department or any number of industries, would make us shut it all down tomorrow.

But alas, that’s the problem. Despite a per pupil expenditure, on average, of $8,742, we spend next to nothing on R&D, a fact that Whittle hits hard regularly throughout the book, and from which he develops his own solutions for a national Marshall plan that would, before he’s all done, create real development of innovative solutions. When eight thousand dollars are spent per child, regardless of performance and in the absence of ongoing changes being made to students, with curriculum, to leaders and by leaders, it’s no wonder that we consistently have barely 30 percent of our children proficient in most subjects, and far worse in many cities and towns.

There is the problem of leadership, and the high turnover rate of superintendents in particular, who must face “round-the-clock firing squads” from school boards, parent groups, other politicians and the media, regardless of their effort. There are the laws and regulations that come into existence only to be ignored down the road by new leaders, or worse, on arrival by the teachers who are so used to new ideas coming and going like the wind. This results in what Chris calls “a litany of often good but ultimately partial ideas that address only aspects of the whole and lack the comprehensiveness required to change our schools in a substantial way. ”

Woven into the possible reasons for failure is the role of philanthropy, which historically has been known to provide the sort of “mom and apple pie” support that results in good press but no catalyst for change. On top of that, Whittle is bold enough to call out philanthropists who, despite having made their money in the free market, “have been pushed to take sides in the debate over whether for-profits should be involved in public education.” He means companies like his, Edison, which has invested more than $400 million into the development and design of a system of schools that if a school district, would be the 47th largest, and whose test scores revealed by the Rand Corporation actually demonstrate increased progress in most areas where they operate. The Philadelphia story itself is one worth knowing, where the work of Edison and several other “multiple providers” (a term that applies to Chris’ eventual model for schooling in the US across the board) generated an increase of 7.5 points per year in achievement, an advance which had never before been seen in that city and, in fact, in one year was the highest gain made by any urban district in the U.S.

There is no denying that there are many reasons why some areas are still educational wastelands, and why even in our educated communities a degree does not necessarily equate with a proven education. But perhaps most clarifying is the supposition in Crash Course that the primary cause is an educational version of the Stockholm syndrome, the phrase that refers to the 1973 hostage situation in a bank in that city where several of the hostages actually became sympathetic to their captors, so much so that they refused to later testify against them. Whittle offers,” The phenomenon of sympathizing with your ‘captors’ exists in public education with the gravitational pull of a collapsing supernova. All of us are captives of our own childhood experience – and one of those experiences was ‘school as we know it’…it was such a comprehensive and consuming experience that we find it nearly impossible to imagine it any other way. Even if we could… the existing educational gestalt is seemingly impenetrable. It has an uncanny ability to consume, distort, morph or deflect any effort to change it.”

Crash Course is full of keen insights like this one, which I can attest to after some twenty years engulfed in education policy and reform efforts. In city after city, those wanting to bring about change run smack into people who simply cannot conceive that things could be better, that there is a different way, or worse, that the person initiating the change might actually be right. One reformer, who simply wanted to create a new public school – a charter – in her district in a state that permits them by law told me she was ignored at a cocktail party with a “how dare you” mentality from friends who were part of her school inner circle when they were raising their children. We’ve seen the same Stockholm syndrome happen time and time again, transforming otherwise important debates into shouting matches where those vested in business as usual – the status quo – suddenly check all civility at the door.

And yet, like Chris Whittle, I remain optimistic. It is possible to make change, especially when you consider that in 15 short years we’ve already reached a two percent market share of students attending charter schools, which is only one of several reforms that have begun to beat the status quo mentality back into the cage in which it belongs. Paying teachers much more while making them account based on performance is one of the ideas Crash Course pushes as part of a holistic approach to reforming school systems. That same performance-based approach would boost bonuses for principals and other school leaders, and it would allow new entities to develop, with a profit-share, ideas that pay them only if they work. In other words, Crash Course envisions a world in which multiple providers of education span not just states but nations, where companies help school districts manage and implement innovations on a level that reduces local overhead but unifies schools on a national scale to perform well. The notion – which compels you to read this book to understand more – is that we must use all of those involved in schooling -from students to teachers to administrators – in fundamentally different ways to finally rid ourselves of the sad, unacceptable failure rate we have today.

More and better choices, better management, more efficiency, higher achievement -what more could we want? The essential question is, “Are we ready?” Crash Course advances big-picture ideas for this nation in a way that few education books do. You may find yourself not buying into it all, but the marvelous thing is that to create multiple new models of education that are available to and offer incentives for any school district in America is not a new idea. Anyone who shopped this holiday season knows how a national system can work: somehow, taking that new IPOD home from Best Buy didn’t make your music tastes or interests any less personal, did it?

We all enjoy such options, but do not take time to focus on why we have them. The kind of incentives, drive and R&D that created our new IPODs are models for what, if we could just envision it, our education system could be to our children now and to those who will be our future.

In a nation that can produce an IPOD, it’s a crime that Mommy and Daddy can’t read. That very statement should set you on fire. If Crash Course had its way, such a statement would already be laughable, at best.