Reading Should Be Fundamental, Not Flunkable

Starting with the 2017-2018 school year, South Carolina children who aren’t reading on grade level by the time they finish third grade could be retained, which means that they would need to repeat the third grade.  This is part of a policy enacted by South Carolina lawmakers in 2014.  As an article in The State points out, this law could result in more than 3,200 children flunking third grade during the upcoming school year.

Reading is a critical skill.  Without it, academic success is impossible, which makes subsequent financial survival very difficult.  However, to impose retention on a third grader is draconian and likely counter-productive.  Mounting research has shown that retaining a student just once–especially in the lower grades–can dramatically lessen the likelihood that that student will graduate from high school.  Retention also has negative mental health consequences, such as lower self-esteemstick-kids-reading-clipart-4Although the Director of South Carolina’s Education Oversight Committee, Melanie Barton, says that retention is not meant as a punishment, it’s hard to imagine that children will perceive it as anything other than that.  Moreover, using sticks rather than carrots flies in the face of all that we know about how to optimize human motivation.

To her credit, Barton notes that education starts at birth, long before children begin school; therefore, “that’s where we’ve really got to put our emphasis.”  But if that’s the case, then the 2014 law is approaching this issue from the wrong direction.  We should start by pouring resources into early childhood and preschool educational services, not by creating an extremely punitive policy that can potentially cause more harm than good.  Worst of all, the current policy could make some children dislike reading for the rest of their lives.  And who could blame them?  If we told children that they were going to get spanked if they didn’t get a certain number of math problems correct, we’d have a lot of children who grew up hating math.  We have no reason to think reading is any different.

When Equality was Not a Good Thing

Ninety years ago–to mark the 50th anniversary of South Carolina’s official assumption of education as a public responsibility–Henry T. Thompson published The Establishment of the Public School System of South Carolina (R. L. Bryan, 1927).  This overview was primarily a paean to his father, Hugh S. Thompson, who had been South Carolina’s third superintendent of education (1876-1882) and later governor (1882-1886) of the Palmetto State.

contentDespite his filial affection, Thompson took time to review the efforts of the superintendent who preceded his father, Justus Jillson.  Thompson described Jillson as a man of “intelligence and education,” as well as one of the few “honest carpetbaggers” (p. 12).  Regardless of his honesty, Jillson’s efforts were “in vain” because (according to Thompson), “in no department of the state government were the evils of the carpetbagger-negro domination more acute than in the administration of the state’s educational system.”  That system was one of “vast fraud” and “a disgrace to civilization” (p. 12).

While it is true that there was some malfeasance in the Reconstruction governments of the American South (at the time, no state government in America was bereft of corruption), Thompson adduced little proof that South Carolina’s Department of Education was guilty of “vast fraud.”  Indeed, Thompson (also the author of Ousting the Carpetbagger from South Carolina [R. L. Bryan, 1926]) tipped his hand when he added the following:  “Jillson made himself very obnoxious to the white people of the state by his persistent advocacy of social equality, and of mixed schools for the two races as a means to that end.  His insistence on the enforced equality of the races was conspicuous in an otherwise commendable career” (p. 14).

Thankfully, that form of conspicuousness is no longer considered a liability, even if we still don’t provide equal educational opportunities to all children.

When “Public” No Longer Means Public

It appears that Clemson University will be raising tuition and fees next year by 2.75 percent.  While that’s the lowest increase in twenty years, it nonetheless means that in-state undergraduates will be paying $14,712 in tuition and fees for the 2017-2018 academic year.   The annual median household income in South Carolina is approximately $44,000; to pay one-third of that for a child to attend a year of college is well-nigh impossible.

Clemson, however, is not where the blame lies.  clemson-universityIt is a world-class university that provides an excellent education to its students.  Like all institutions of higher learning, it has faced (and will continue to face) many challenges, but its legions of alumni will quickly attest to the benefits of having received a Clemson diploma.

Where we need to point the finger is the South Carolina legislature.  During the upcoming year, it will provide only $69.5 million toward Clemson’s projected $1.15 billion budget, which is a scant 6 percent of the total.  This is a trend that we have seen throughout the country over the past three decades: the near starvation of our public institutions of higher learning.  It seems silly to continue to call them “public,” given that they receive so little public funding–and have, as a consequence, become financially prohibitive to many members of the public.

New Buses are a No-Brainer

Providing safe buses for our schoolchildren is a no-brainer.  Unfortunately, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster doesn’t understand that–but, fortunately, the Greenville School Board does.

On June 12, McMaster vetoed $20.5 million for new buses, arguing that the funding source–lottery revenues–should be used exclusively for scholarships.  That line of reasoning assumes that we face an either/or proposition.  We don’t.  But–putting that debate aside for now–nobody can deny the precarious state of our school buses.

South Carolina is the only state that doesn’t give local school districts control over purchasing and maintaining their own buses.  Centralized oversight, however, has been nothing short of a disaster.  As recently as 2007, an investigation by The Post and Courier (Charleston) determined that South Carolina had “the oldest, most polluting, and least safe bus fleet in the nation.” (For a review of developments since then, see the Dec. 3, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.)  At the time (2007), South Carolina was replacing some of its buses with used ones from other states (for example, Kentucky), buses that had been deemed too old by the states that were selling them to South Carolina (!). school-busMoreover, since 2007 the average age of buses in South Carolina has actually increased from 14 to 15.5 years (over 1,500 buses are more than 20 years old).

Maintaining a dilapidated bus fleet is not only costly, but it can also have serious–even dire–consequences for our children.  According to a July 7, 2017 issue of the Greenville News, there were 3,500 bus breakdowns in Greenville County alone during the 2016-2017 school year (180 days)–that’s more than 19 breakdowns per day.  These breakdowns are not just an inconvenience: they lead to missed instructional time.  Furthermore, Greenville County has 68 buses (Thomas models made in 1995) that are more prone to fires.  In early May, one such bus burst into flames while transporting students to Duncan Elementary School in nearby Spartanburg County.  Approximately thirty percent of the state’s buses are Thomas models.

To their credit, Greenville School Board members have made a rare public appeal to the county’s legislative delegation to vote to overturn the governor’s veto.  Let’s hope for the sake of our children that they do so.


Happy (Belated) Birthday Harry Potter!

Last Monday (June 26) was the twentieth anniversary of J. K. Rowling’s publication of her first Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [1997]).  The seven volumes that now comprise the Harry Potter series have had a profound global impact (the books–translated into 79 languages–have sold more than 450 million copies).  No other books have so rekindled the love of reading among American children and adolescents–not to mention a significant number of adults.  In an era when reading seemed to be an all but antiquated pastime, the books prompted children to wait in line (sometimes iterminably) for the latest installment of Harry Potter’s exploits; equally remarkable, virtually none of the Hogwarts fans could postpone (much less forgo) reading until the inevitable movie version appeared (the films have had an equal, though different, influence on popular culture).  With all the Potter books now in print, today’s children have become binge readers, while–perhaps sadly–an increasing number of adults have become binge watchers (a far more passive activity, regardless of what one watches, which includes the Harry Potter films).

That a new generation is discovering the joys of reading books might also combat the consequences of reading screens.  Mounting research suggests that reliance on digital reading undermines and/or fails to promote what scholars call “deep reading” (the term was coined by Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age [1994]).   This kind of reading (versus scrolling through lines of text on a phone, tablet, or desktop computer) is deliberative and purposeful–the reader focuses on gaining a full understanding of the text for both enlightenment and enjoyment.  It sparks interior monologues that go beyond factual recapitulation (“What did Harry Potter do?) to embrace speculation (“Why did Harry Potter do that?) and even self-examination (“Would I have done what Harry Potter did?).  Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverThese skills may well provide the foundation for empathy, compassion, and other aspects of social/emotional intelligence. (See Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain [2007]; Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains [2010]; and Daniel Willingham, The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads [2017].

Related to deep reading is something that all good literature does: it poses moral dilemmas.  From Hamlet to The Brothers Karamazov, from Charlotte’s Web to Beloved, readers encounter the chiaroscuro of moral choice–which, in turn, helps develop their capacity for moral reasoning.  The eminent psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg believed that moral reasoning was the key to moral behavior, a powerful but admittedly controversial theory.  (Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order: Sequence in the Development of Moral Thought,” Vita Humana 6 [1963]).  So–just maybe–reading about Harry Potter’s decision to choose good over evil might help children learn to do the same thing.  And any book that can do that is worth celebrating.

Rangel and Pickering Fellows Update

Reversing itself, this past Thursday the U.S. State Department announced that it would indeed comply with its obligations under the provisions of the Rangel and Pickering Fellowship programs.  Both are prestigious government fellowship programs aimed at recruiting under-represented groups into the U.S. Foreign Service.  The fellowships provide funding for undergraduate and graduate education for individuals who agree to devote a certain amount of time in government service.  In early June, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that current Rangel and Pickering Fellows would not be offered positions in the Foreign Service; instead, they would be given the option of accepting lower-level clerk positions in consulates–or paying back approximately $85,000 (each) in scholarship funding.  This was apparently connected to the Trump administration’s pending proposal to cut the U.S. State Department’s budget by 31 percent.  While the outcome was ultimately favorable for the Rangel and Pickering Fellows, other scholarship programs–such as the Fulbright Scholarships–are hardly out of the woods yet.