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The Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 2/2

11 Sep

The Importance of Literacy

A Literacy at Work study, published by the Northeast Institute in 2001, found that business losses attributed to basic skill deficiencies run into billions of dollars a year due to low productivity, errors, and accidents attributed to functional illiteracy. Source: Functional Lieracy.Wiki.org

In Conclusion:  I taught in California’s public schools (1975 – 2005) and was teaching English and reading when the educational system was changed dramatically from the top down (ignoring the protests of classroom teachers at every step—teachers were not part of the decision making process) starting in Washington D.C. in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk. The next step was the 1989 education summit that involved all fifty state governors and President George H.  W. Bush followed more than a decade later with the adoption of national education goals in the year 2000 under his son, President G. W. Bush.

Before these changes, most of the public schools identified students that were falling behind in literacy (mostly because the parents of these students were not part of the education process of learning to read and write) and were then moved into learning tracks and different classes with goals designed to deal with the challenge of parents not reading at home.

In the early 1990s, when the English/Reading department at the high school where I taught was told that tracking was going to be abolished and all students, no matter his or her reading abilities, would be placed in grade level classes working out of grade level textbooks (this meant students reading at second or third grade would be reading out of textbooks written at ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade), the English and reading teachers protested and managed to hold off these changes for about three years before the politicians (elected school boards and the adminstrators hired to work for the school board to run the district) forced the end of tracking.

About the same time, a program called The Whole Language Approach to Reading and Writing was implemented and again the teachers protested but were forced to comply or else.

The foundation of this program was reading for fun outside of the schools with parent support (you may already have guessed how this worked out).  Student and parents were told that children had to read a minimum of thirty minutes or more a day outside of school hours, seven days a week besides doing the school work and homework assigned by teachers. A decade later, it proved to be a total failure and was cancelled. California, where I taught, had ranked near the top in literacy when this program was launched. A decade later, California was almost dead last compared to all other states.


Parents make the difference – mine did, and I learned to enjoy reading at home.

The average functional illiteracy rate as reported by the UNDP of the six dominate English speaking countries that were once part of the British Empire and have Caucasian majorities with roots mostly to the United Kingdom was 19%.

Adjusted for errors and/or under reporting, the average percentage changes to 30.7%, more than 10% higher than the United States.  It doesn’t matter which average we use in this comparison of cultures that are fundametally the same.  The Untied States is one percent above the average reported by the UNDP but 10.7%  lower than the corrected average.

The US is either ranked fourth in literacy according to the UNDP or first after we adjust for errors and/or under reporting.

Does that sound as if the public education system in America is broken?

Return toThe Cultural Legacy of the British Empire on Literacy – Part 1

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga.

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