...From 1965 to 1980 — American 15-year olds dropped from 3rd to 14th place in reading comprehension on international comparisons. Our twelfth-graders’ scores on the verbal SAT dropped a dizzying 50 points.
Other nations, whose students experience the same distractions of TV, internet, video games, and sometimes show the same diversity of population, have improved while we have declined.
(I'm not totally sure that Hirsch is right here. We see that student effort in college has declined from 24 hours per week to 14 hours per week in the last couple decades. I'm not sure in other nations that student effort has declined at an equivalent level. But anyway).
Hmm. How about change in student population - is that why America has declined?
The standard explanation is that our test scores have declined chiefly because of a demographic broadening of the test-taking base. This claim ignores compelling contrary evidence. During the period of the big drop, from 1965 to 1980, verbal scores in the state of Iowa – 98 percent white and middle class – dropped with similar sharpness.
So what was it?
What changed was less the demographics of the test-takers than the anti-intellectual ideas that fully took over first teacher-training schools and then the teachers and administrators they trained. The result was a retreat from a knowledge-based elementary curriculum — as researchers have shown by analyzing the severe watering down of American school books in the period 1950-to the present.
The decline of the elementary curriculum coincided with our sharp decline in verbal ability and test scores. To cause them to rise again, we will need to adopt contrary ideas -– never an easy prospect — and we will have to strengthen the coherence and substance of the K-8 curriculum — exactly as the new standards recommend.
Why do I focus on verbal scores as an index of our educational decline? Math is critically important of course, but language ability correlates highly with nearly all our goals for American education. Verbal scores correlate with general knowledge, with the ability to learn, communicate, and complete jobs effectively — even with an ability to work in teams. They are a good predictor of productivity and income. If we were permitted just one wish for K-12 education, a steep rise in verbal scores would be our safest bet.
And the surest way to insure a rise in verbal scores is to induce a big rise in vocabulary size. Reading tests and the SAT verbal test are well correlated with vocabulary size.
So how would we increase kids' vocabularies?
You don’t effectively build a big vocabulary by studying words, but rather by studying things starting in earliest grades. You cannot do it quickly nor by intensive remediation at the high school level. A large vocabulary is the product of having gained broad general knowledge from earliest years.
Unfortunately, recent reading instruction has devalued the systematic build up of knowledge, assuming wrongly that reading ability is a general skill, rather than an ad hoc skill essentially dependent on knowledge.
Useful idea for our proposed new K-12 school, if it's approved.
What about for teachers in the upper grades?
You have to play the hand you're dealt. In our English Teaching Methods class, we argue that a key leverage point is for a teacher to actually get kids who've previously never really done their assigned reading (but passed based on teacher notes, classroom discussion, etc) to do it.
That is, typically teachers assign readings. Middle and high school kids, when surveyed, frequently say they don't actually do the assigned reading. So then what?
The teachers who get reluctant readers to do the assigned work:
1. Are good at accountability (i.e., avoid lesson plans which rehash the plot in order to involve the kids who didn't do the reading; give bread-and-butter quizzes to test if kids did the assignment)
2. Frequently do read-alouds in class (i.e., if we read Scene 1 together, more likely to get a kid to read Scene 2 tonight as homework).
3. Pour tons of hours into motivation (relationships with parent, kid), and in creating basic comprehension for real strugglers (books on tape; after-school read-alouds, etc).
Alas, very labor intensive. That's one reason (of many) that I believe English teachers have the toughest job of all teachers. Paul, don't kill me.