Our Nation's Report Card: Failures on Four Fronts

Paul de Vries portrait
Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist. |

Our national scores are embarrassingly low in both math and reading, and for both fourth and eighth grade students. The new 2015 scores for reading reveal a lot about America and America's families, churches, communities and schools. The point: All four sets of essential institutions are failing our children and youth.

America's mathematics scores are also very low, and declining. Mathematics is essential for personal development, gainful employment and the national economy. However, let us focus on reading for the moment. After all, if you cannot read the math book, you are in real trouble. Learning math is always harder for non-readers.

Our National Report Card is otherwise known as the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress — an annual report of student achievement all over the America.

The just released 2015 scores are very bad in some locations, and even worse in others. In the education capital of America, New York City, my town, fourth and eighth grade students struggle and remain way behind. Nationally, only one third (35%) of our students are proficient in reading, but in New York City it is barely one fourth (28%).

These low proficiencies for grade levels are deeply troubling. Two-thirds of American students have reading scores below their assigned grades. Generally, on average, private school student performance is not much different from the public schools nationally, or even in our major cities. Some private schools and some public schools are even worse than others.

Perhaps even more scary is the fact that nationally one quarter (25%) of our students get promoted even to the eighth grade without achieving basic reading skills, let alone proficiency! Nationally, this large proportion of eighth graders who cannot read has not changed much for more than a decade. What a national shame! In New York City, an astonishing 33% of eighth graders are non-readers!

student classroom
Students at Westside Middle School in Winder, Georgia, including Gabriela Unguryan (standing), answer questions via internet from a class at Charleswood Junior High School located in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada during a cooperative education project with Canada on January 24, 2008. The campus of Westside Middle School is the host site where school officials, government leaders and partnerships from as far away as Canada gathered to view a new era in learning by bringing virtual experiences right into the classroom. |

Without basic reading skills, what is the future for these students in careers, college, church leadership, or elemental citizenship? We can do better. For a democracy to work and for people to succeed and thrive, reading is too important to be so terribly neglected for the next generation, the future church leaders, citizens, voters.

However, the very most awful and disturbing revelations from this year's National Report Card are not (1) weak proficiency, or even (2) the large number of eighth graders who cannot read. The most shocking and disappointing information is that (3) our hugely unfair racial education-gap is not being effectually addressed at all. In particular, while only half of our White and Asian fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading — at 48% and 55% — far more tragically only one fifth of Hispanic students (21%) and even fewer black students (18%) are proficient. Media coverage of our National Report Card rarely mention this heartbreaking gap.

Are 80% of black and Hispanic children failing reading? Or are families, churches, communities, and schools failing 80% of black and Hispanic children? Who is introducing reading fun and the joy of book engagement? 

These are our students and our grades. While everyone of the millions of students in the 80% of black and Hispanic students failing in reading is a personal tragedy, their lack of essential proficiency also severely injures their families, churches, communities, states, and the nation.

To summarize, the factual reading issues reported in the 2015 National Report Card expose our national (1) incompetence, (2) failures, and (3) biases. We should all be deeply apologetic and profoundly embarrassed.

Time to wake-up!

Who needs to do better? What needs to change? Our families, our churches, our communities, and our schools can and must rise to the challenge — since we all have some influence on and responsibility for the children and their learning opportunities.

The obvious underlying education issues are also personal and spiritual. For good reason, the PC-religion has been blamed for the failures of much of our education. "Political correctness" robs most schools and teachers of the capacity, spiritually, to inspire students, and "political correctness" foolishly and illegally excludes the best book, the Bible, from the standard curriculum and from in-school extra-curricular opportunities.

These and other errors and idiocies of PC in the schools cannot be fixed quickly, although some changes could be made so that students' school learning and inspiration are not so badly handcuffed. Thankfully, our families, churches, and communities are not under that PC oppression. And families, churches, and communities have far more influence on our students for good than most people realize — especially when it comes to sharing the joy and skill of reading.

Because the Word of God is central, words matter, and creative families and churches will find fun ways of enhancing word-power, especially using the best book.

No need to leave education in the hands of the schools only. Students can still increase word-power in Word-engagement — and families, churches and communities can effectually feed the fun and love of reading, in spite of failing schools.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. He is a specialist in Biblical hermeneutics and ethics and a life-long advocate of Biblical activism.

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