Wasted dollars, wasted lives


Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

Trenton McIntosh felt like a dummy. Though by all accounts a bright and hard-working child, the Tulsa, Okla., third-grader found himself with failing grades in spelling and English, and was becoming increasingly dispirited. School personnel suggested he might have a learning disability. The real problem was more fundamental: No one had ever taught Trenton to read in a way he could understand. "I'm dumb," a frustrated Trenton told his mother. "I hate school! Why do you make me go to school?" But help arrived in the person of Sylvia Brown, a soft-spoken, no-nonsense phonics tutor who uses her Simply Phonics, Simply Reading textbook to teach children to read in her suburban Tulsa home. "Once a child understands the concept of letters making sounds, their whole life changes," said Mrs. Brown, a former schoolteacher. "Once they get that concept, they fly." Trenton flew straight to the honor roll. By his fourth-grade year, Trenton's mother was proudly brandishing her son's report card, which showed an A in spelling and a B in writing/English. "This is the first year he has loved school," she said. Added Trenton: "I'm actually smart now!" Sadly, not every struggling reader finds a Sylvia Brown. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), two-thirds of the nation's fourth-graders lack proficiency in reading. Fully 37 percent cannot read at even the "basic" level. Many of these juvenile illiterates grow up to become adult illiterates. The U.S. Department of Education's 1993 study, "Adult Literacy in America," revealed that 22 percent of American adults are at the lowest level of literacy (Level 1)-essentially illiterate. They usually cannot locate an intersection on a street map, find two pieces of information in a sports article, or fill out a Social Security card application. Add the adults at the barely literate Level 2, and you find that "nearly half of all adult Americans cannot read, write, and calculate well enough to function fully in today's society," as Education Week reported in 1993. In a 1999 audit of spending and basic literacy published by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, Robert Holland and Don Soifer calculated how much money schools waste "educating" students who nevertheless grow into illiterate or barely literate adults. In Waste in Education: Public Schools Produce Low Literacy Return for the Dollars Spent, the authors conclude that "public schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia are wasting from 13 percent to 23 percent of the tax money they spend by massively failing at their most important job: seeing to it that all students can read and write at a basic level. Total wastage: $49.2 billion." Wasted dollars can be quantified. What cannot be measured is the damage done to the lives of human beings. Countless children are damaged, and their God-given potential wasted, simply because no one teaches them how to read. Many will end up in prison or on welfare. But Sylvia Brown said, "In my 30-some years of teaching, I have not met a child who couldn't read when we go to the basics and teach him his alphabet, then teach him his sounds." She added, "It's almost a sin what we're doing to our children. And it doesn't have to be that way. As a teacher, I just don't want that to happen to the children."

-Brandon Dutcher is an Oklahoma journalist

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