jasonbwatson

August 6, 2012

The Right to Read

In an attempt to force a unique application of an obscure law in Michigan, the ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Michigan and a school district in Detroit, claiming that the state and the district have not educated the students in the district schools at an adequate level, and have therefore violated the students’ “right to learn to read.” According to the lawsuit, there are hundreds of students in the Highland Park School District that are “functionally illiterate.”

Quoted in an article in the Washington Post, Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said, “None of those adults charged with the care of these children . . . have done their jobs.” Moss alleged that the Highland Park district–a district consisting of only three schools–is one of the lowest performing districts in the nation.

The lawsuit is attempting to apply a 1993 Michigan law requiring that students receive special assistance if they are not proficient in reading according to standardized tests given in grades 4 and 7. The “special assistance” in question is supposed to bring the less-than-proficient students up to grade level reading proficiency within one year.

While there are samples of the writing efforts of several students provided in the story in The Washington Post, one getting the bulk of the attention in that article is a young man named Quentin. Quentin just finished seventh grade, but according to ACLU experts reads at only a first grade level. Students were asked to write a letter to Michigan governor Rick Snyder with suggestions for improving their schools. Quentin’s effort reads: ““My name is Quemtin [last name blacked out] and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.” (There is a link in the article on washingtonpost.com where other examples of student letetrs can be viewed).

Quentin’s writing sample is both disheartening and frustrating. According to the WP article, 65 percent of fourth-graders and 75 percent of seventh-graders in Highland Park are not proficient in reading according to scores on their most recent tests.

The Highland Park district also faces a crushing debt and a severely-decreased enrollment over the past several years as a result of Chrysler no longer employing people in the area.

All of the above, at least according to the ACLU suit and the WP article, are the facts. And while I will be curious to see how this suit proceeds in the courts, several questions come to my mind.

One, what is the home situation of the students in Highland Park? While schools and teachers are responsible for educating their students, they do not bear this responsibility alone; rather, they share the responsibility with the parents of their students. Well, according to Highland Park’s own web site, the number of single-parent families outnumber the number of two-parent families nearly three to one. Obviously not all students from two-parent families succeed and not all children from single-parent families struggle or fail, but there is significant research that indicates that students from two-parent families tend to do significantly better in school.

Second (and I realize this relates, in many ways, to the first question) what accountability is there outside of the school for the students to do their part in learning? When I first started teaching I took students’ failing grades personally. I felt that if a student received an F on a test or quiz, I certainly must not have taught effectively. And while less-than-adequate student performance may be an indicator that the teacher is incapable or not fulfilling his or her responsibility, is does not necessarily mean this. Even the best teachers will from time to time have students who fail, either because they do not care, because they do not apply themselves, and/or because the student has not been appropriately placed (i.e., he or she is in a grade requiring skills he or she does not yet possess). Based on the information in the WP article–specifically the high number of students testing below proficiency in reading–it seems that the teachers/schools may bear a significant portion of the blame, but this is a legitimate question nonetheless.

Third, how is that even with laws like the one at the heart of this case in Michigan and the No Child Left Behind act mandating highly qualified teachers and adequate yearly progress, there are still students–and entire school districts–failing to meet the established standards?

One answer has to be the teacher’s unions, and the manner in which they fight tooth and nail against any kind of meaningful evaluation and accountability within the public school system. One need look no further than the way in which Michelle Rhee was treated when she attempted to transform the public schools in Washington, D.C.

Another part of the answer has to be the way in which the public school system works, if not perhaps the very continued existence of a public school system. The federal government has demonstrated an inability to effectively manage most of the things it tries to do (see the Post Office as Exhibit A), and yet the federal bureaucracy involved in education at the state and local level spends millions and billions of dollars, yet continues to produce (among successes, granted) school districts like Highland Park. The truth is that the public school system in the U.S. is nothing more than government subsidy of education. If true competition existed within the educational sphere in America I am convinced that we would see a drastic improvement in the scores of American students within a very short period of time. School choice and school vouchers programs have proven incredibly effective wherever they have been given the opportunity to be tried fairly. As I have argued here before, true competition will produce better results than any alternative every time.

What it comes down to at the end of the day, though, is that Quentin and his fellow students are the ones are suffering, and will continue to suffer. They are the victims of one or more of the following: adults who parent children and fail to fulfill their responsibilities as parents; teachers who fail to teach students and ensure that they are really learning; administrators who fail (or are unable) to remove ineffective teachers; teachers’ unions that look out more for the good of their members than for the good of the students; bureaucrats that are more concerned about the implementation of various laws than about the success of students; and politicians who continue to think that the government is more capable of making decisions than the people are.

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