There's some rich irony in the fact that we're planning for more prisons just as reading is going down the toilet.
It isn't just poor kids in Hartford I'm talking about.
A new study by the National Endowment for the Arts details steep declines in reading among all segments of the population.
"The results are startling," endowment chair Dana Gioia concluded. "The declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural and civic implications."
Looking for clues, I went to Waterbury last week to listen to new state education Commissioner Mark McQuillan and teachers yell a polite "Fire!"
No state has a larger gap between rich and poor, or black and white, when it comes to reading scores.
Now, though, there's a whiff of desperation because after all the tens of millions of dollars we have spent over the last few years, things are getting worse. Suburban white children aren't making any progress, either.
"It's no longer acceptable to continue to let the achievement gap widen and see no progress overall on the part of all students for a decade," said McQuillan.
I don't see any sign of this, but give the new guy credit for trying to wake us up.
At McQuillan's meeting I cringed when I heard experts talk about how better-organized lesson plans, culturally sensitive instruction and "models of parent involvement" will solve this monumental crisis.
The hideous truth is that the raw material is woefully deficient. In our cities just half of students show up with the language skills necessary to begin to learn to read.
These poor, TV-nurtured kids arrive not knowing how to hold a book or pronounce basic sounds. Parents, assuming there are any to be found, are clueless.
The answer is not polite conversation about how schools need to work harder.
It's no accident that most elementary school teachers don't know how to teach reading. We can't even get our state board of education or legislature to force the University of Connecticut to make sure it adequately trains teachers how to instruct reading.
Meanwhile, the average young adult spends seven minutes a day reading and two hours or more a day in front of TV. Is it a surprise that the national endowment reports that employers rank reading and writing as the "top deficiencies" in new hires?
The governor's early childhood cabinet reports that by 2020, 50 percent of our work force will come from urban areas. Already, 50 percent of urban children don't finish high school.
That's nothing to be civilized about.
"Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual's academic and economic success," the endowment's Gioia states in his report, "reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior."
Reading is attached to all the gears that make society work. Good readers have good jobs that pay well. They volunteer. They vote. They feel good about their lives.
Please, spare me the "every child can learn." That's garbage when we don't have the commitment to make this happen.
You want every child to learn? Start by sending every kid to preschool, even if it means vouchers. Train teachers how to teach reading. Demand that parents do their job. Make literacy the No. 1 priority, in all schools.
We won't pay for that. Prison bunks, convention centers and new highways are expensive.
Still, there is some good news in all this. Almost no prisoners in our jails can read at proficient level. No need to bother with them anymore.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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