Itís a fact of human nature: people donít value what is offered to them free.
In societies that forbade literacy to the lower classes, people risked death to learn to read or to teach others to read.
In the 21st century United States, taxpayers spend more than $600 billion dollars annually to provide free public education to all the children of the land, yet according to columnist Chris Hedges,
"There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nationís population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into [an] image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book."†
The solution to U.S. educational woes seems clear to me: stop providing 12-13 years of free education to every child who crosses the public school threshold at the age of five or six.
A large percentage of the 50 million or so children who attend U.S. public schools every year donít want to be there. Many drop out as soon as they reach the required birthday. Others continue to attend, but not to learn.
Think of the savings in money and misery that would result if only children who master the prescribed material and skills were permitted to advance without charge until graduation.
I hear that in some school districts, educational authorities actually pay children to stay in school. What utter nonsense!
Children who are habitually absent, who behave uncivilly, who refuse to learn the assigned work are the ones who should be paying.
Entering five- and six year olds should be screened at the outset and not left to sink or swim in undifferentiated class groupings that include children who can already read and count to 100 as well as those who canít identify three colors or shapes.
Schools should be restructured away from the stultifying organization by grade. Instead, school should be organized into learning stages.
My idea is to structure school not according to grade, but according to age. Iíd have two main tiers, one free to all and one limited to genuine students.
Attendance in the First Tier of public education would be free to all children. It would consist of three phases: Primary (5-8), Intermediary (9-11), and Basic (12-14).
The Second Tier would be free only to those students who could demonstrate mastery of the subjects and skills taught in the First Tier. I would not use grade averages or standardized tests to determine mastery. Students would be interviewed. They would present portfolios of their work and demonstrate mastery of standard English by oral and written responses.
Students unable to demonstrate mastery could stay in the Basic phase until they mastered the material or reached school-leaving age.
As a third possibility, students with deficiencies could proceed to the Second Tier, but would have to pay tuition and provide their own books and supplies.
Cruel? Heartless? I donít think so.
I think a major reason that so many children pass through 12 years of formal schooling without acquiring even a basic education is that in the present system, there are so few consequences for failure to learn.
NOTE: In this vision of reform, I would insist on having well-educated teachers who know the difference between sentiment and sense.