I was a newly minted sophomore in college studying to be a teacher when my Professor wheeled in the bulky TV and flipped on a Senate subcommittee hearing that featured Dexter Manley. This is five years after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” and in the infant stages of the current reform movement — we viewed a stunning and dramatic admission from a famous well known athlete named Dexter Manley. The former Washington Redskin great who also played in the Canadian Football League, and hailed from the great state of Texas admitted painfully and tearfully to the world that he could not read. It was a stunning admission in front of congress and an indictment on the entire educational system that allowed Dexter Manley to matriculate through college.
My professor shut off the television and looked at all of us and said “this is a game changer” and sadly he was right. It did change the game and after that testimony we saw the very first push for exit exams in high school, better known in today’s vernacular as accountability measures. The exit exams were simply to prevent kids from getting a diploma without the ability to read. Those exams were not to be used to rank schools, nor was it to expand for profit charter schools, it had nothing to do with school choice, and it was certainly was never intended to test kids 11-12 hours a semester — it was simply to insure kids who attain a diploma are literate.
Nothing more and nothing less.
The goal is on the mark and no one would argue that our public educational system should first and foremost insure people are literate. The ability to read and write is foundational and we failed as a system and as educators when we let the Dexter Manley’s of the world graduate with a diploma who were functionally illiterate. Shame on all of us that let that happen.
As we fast forward to today….
We are living in the thick of that educational reform movement nearly 30 years of legislation all meant to improve education outcomes, teachers, schools, and districts. We have suffered through Goals 2000, NCLB, and Race to the Top all meant to reform and transform the educational landscape.
Our skewed thinking has been, that if we test kids we can prevent those who cannot read, write and think from getting credentials like a diploma or an undergraduate degree. Yet the stark reality is — 45 million people in this country are functionally illiterate despite decades of exit exams and testing on steroids. The impact on our economy and society is great according to the Literacy Project 3 out of 4 people on welfare cannot read and 60% of our prison population is illiterate. This impacts taxpayers to a tune of 20 billion a year — yes that is billion with a B. Not being literate is a big deal and its impact is felt in all aspects of society.
Illiteracy is the problem that no one seems to talk about. Why is it we don’t hear the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discuss illiteracy and its impact on school children? I never hear politicians or pundits speak of this basic issue…..and its impact on society. When was the last time we discussed welfare reform in the context of eradicating Illiteracy? We keep getting hung-up on choice, charter schools, vouchers, common core, and more and more testing and I, like many others fail to see the eventual goal of this reform movement? What is the Utopian outcome the reformers hope to achieve?
Dexter Manley made his personal struggle a national issue in 1989. Yet in 2015, illiteracy is still a national problem and one that is not going to be solved with more draconian accountability measures. Illiteracy cannot and will not be solved as long as we bash schools, teachers and administrators. All of this bashing and tearing down of public education has eroded the trust of the communities in which we serve. We can barely convince even our best students that education is the ticket to success so how can we expect those that struggle in school to believe in the power of education. We do need reform but the kind of reform that restores the goals we established for a truly public education in the first place. One fundamental goal of public education was and still is literacy for all children to insure everyone had an equal chance for success.