The documentary "Waiting for Superman" has provided a valuable service by focusing the nation on the dire state of our schools. For decades now, statistics in literacy, math and science achievement have shown our children to be near the bottom in the industrialized world.
At the same time, the film has attracted considerable criticism. In the main, it makes teachers and in particular teachers unions, the crux of the problems. While it may be good for the dramatic tension of a film to focus on a villain, as is usually the case, real life is not so simple. The numerous weaknesses in the film have been exposed by key educational leaders such as Diane Ravitch.
Yet, in all the debate, one key issue has been consistently overlooked. An educational system comprises two major components: one is the content of the instruction (i.e., the curriculum); the other is the "transmitter" of the content (i.e., the teacher). Amazingly, the film never touches on the content teachers are given to transmit. The assumption seems to be that an effective curriculum is out there and that all that's needed is "great" teachers to put it in place. In reality, were a utopia of 100 percent "great" teachers to magically appear, the curriculum they are given would continue to produce high rates of failure.
Achievement scores indicate that inadequate content pervades all aspects of the curriculum (literacy, math, science, social studies, etc.). I'm particularly aware of the problems in literacy, the area I have focused on for the past 40 years. The figures are deeply disturbing: Year after year, across the 50 states, starting in first grade and continuing through 12th grade, schools produce a reading failure rate that hovers between 35 and 40 percent. It seems unbelievable that we have this much trouble teaching the most basic skill -- indeed the gateway skill -- of education. But sadly, it's true. (You can view the government reports here) Reading is the key to academic success. When it proves difficult and laborious, as it does for so many children, the chances of them mastering the later academic challenges of math and science fall precipitously.
When we examine the reading curriculum, the reasons for the failure become clear. Since the formal teaching of reading began, it has been dominated by what is termed "phonics," or sounding out. But the simple fact is that the vast majority of words in English cannot be sounded out.
This is true even in a classic phonics book such as Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. It begins:
"The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day."
In this quintessential phonics-based text, only eight of 23 words (the bolded words) can be sounded out. The other 15 (or 65 percent) cannot. To get around this problem, phonics has almost 600 rules that are impossible to memorize and riddled with exceptions. Put simply, if phonics worked, the word would be spelled "foniks." These limitations do not even touch on the fact that phonics has no systematic means for teaching spelling, writing or comprehension. The system is set up for children to fail.
Faced with the dismaying statistics, observers often seek a ray of hope by asking if the children are "just behind" and will eventually "catch up." Usually this doesn't happen. When we look at the results of high school graduates (which means that we have already excluded the 30 percent who have dropped out prior to graduation), we find that the average reading level is sixth grade and the average writing level is fifth grade. The problem is so dire that our military has found that 20 percent of high school graduates are not academically qualified to enlist.
This inadequate system of reading instruction is used by both good and bad teachers. It's the system they have been both trained and required to use. If they try put alternatives in place (even when they are willing to use their own money), they are often forbidden to do so, not by teachers' unions but by state and federal regulations. Phonics has been mandated as the system and alternative solutions are not permitted.
Can we do better? Yes, if the government, parents, teachers and relevant foundations support for a long term the range of efforts needed to understand and impart the skills that children need to master for success in any area.
In the 1960s, Seymour Papert, the innovative mathematician at MIT, laid out a framework that we would do well to consider. He proposed that the leaders in a field -- the truly "great" teachers -- formulate ideal curricula which would be transmitted by computers. In other words, every child could have a great teacher by taking the ideas of great teachers and delivering them via compelling technology that children are eager to use.
The power of this idea is evident in products such as the iPod and the Playstation that have captivated our children. Most of the effort to leverage digital technology for children has thus far been focused on games. When we choose to direct our amazing base of knowledge and our technological prowess to teaching reading, math, science and other key subjects, the goal of an effective education for all will be transformed from a dream to a reality. In no way, would this diminish the role of teachers -- although it would transform their roles. The availability of well-packaged, effective and appealing curricula would free up large blocks of time -- time that could then be devoted to individual instruction that is so important but, until now, has been all but unattainable given the demands of large group classes.
There is no need to wait for Superman. We can and must apply the skills, talents and technology we as a nation already possess to the educational problems we face. If we do that, we can and will find a solution.