Friday, December 16, 2005

Can You Read This?

If so you may be in a minority!

A new study published by the Department of Education reports (and reported in the New York Times and other newspapers) that literacy has fallen significantly for recent college graduates, as well as alarmingly amongst Latinos. Working at an open admissions university, I have seen this trend first hand. It is one of the challenges of working here to balance a classroom with a wide array of student preparedness.

What the study highlights is not this problem, one educators know well, but the overall impact of the failure of education in this country. The study reports that only 13% of the population achieves the level designated "Proficient." This is the top level of measurement, mere proficiency, which they define as:

• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences

• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents

• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex

Only 13% of the population? What percentage of the population graduates from some college? Surely more than 13%! Yet so many are apparently incapable of the skills required to pass my Freshman Composition course. Clearly, we are falling down on the job. It's easy to see why: education has no value, but it has prestige. As John Gardner wrote,

We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

Here's to honoring excellence!


Bobby Kuechenmeister said...

Good find, Kate! Look for it over on Discourse Chronicle soon with attributes back to this site. My initial thought is that 13% is a frightening statistic. My committee chair tells her students that 10% of our reading population was responsible for purchasing 90% of all book sales last year. Yikes!

dj sciz said...

I teach community college in Denver, and my impression is that the Latino/a students are rarely asked to study subjects that really matter to them, for example, their own history. They are so tired of dealing with racism and the pressure to conform to a white middle class norm. Comics can really be a gift in this situation.

K. A. Laity said...

Absolutely! It is one of UHD's strengths that we have a firm commitment to Latino culture and heritage, but the culture of Houston at large is somewhat farther behind that. I remember one of my creative writing students asking whether it would be "all right" if she wrote some of her works in Spanish. I told her of course it would be all right, but I also wonder now how many just assumed it wouldn't be possible. I do get that a lot -- whether it's using "I" in essays or offering personal details. Students have been coahced to believe they must conceal who they are. But how much more lively their essays on, say, Shakespeare and colonialism are when they can talk about their lives in former colonies! How much time do we spend unlearning behaviors the schools have taught them?

Bobby Kuechenmeister said...

I am doing my graduate studies at Texas A&M University in College Station and I believe my English department also supports Latino studies and culture. In the spring, for example, we are proud to have Sandra Cisneros (Caramelo, House on Mango Street) coming to our campus as a guest-speaker. As for unlearning what we have learned, I also believe that is a key difference between secondary education and college, which needs to be fostered and encouraged. I know that I would not be a Comic Scholar had my undergraduate mentors not taught me how to think outside of the box.

K. A. Laity said...

How lucky you are to get Cisneros to come to your campus. We looked into getting her as a speaker for Women's Month, but we couldn't afford it. It's unfortunate that most of our students haven't had the kind of mentoring that prepares them to make the most of their education. I know how they feel--I used to carry a quote from Richard Brautigan in my Day Planner (pre-PDA days) that said "My teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me." How ironic that I became a teacher!

Bobby Kuechenmeister said...

My English department would not be having Cisneros without grant assistance from our Glasscock Center and a variety of other related funding sources. I still live in pre-PDA times because I think there should be some things done low-tech.