We Know How to Teach Black Kids
So why do we keep reading stories about black boys falling further behind in school? It's time to stop talking and just teach.
A half-day preschool program in Illinois that Engelmann and his associates founded showed that DI can teach even 4-year-olds to understand sounds, syllables and rhyming. The students entered kindergarten reading at a second-grade level, with their mean IQ jumping 25 points. No fewer than nine other sites nationwide yielded results of that caliber. In other words, Project Follow Through nailed it -- period. And yet most of us are more likely to know the name of Sammy Davis Jr.'s second wife than to have heard of this miraculous instantiation of sheer common sense.
Decade after decade, DI has continued to kick serious butt all across this great land. Houston, Baltimore, Milwaukee -- you name it; I am unaware of anywhere it hasn't worked, and it's hard to even choose one example as a demonstration. In 2001, students in the mostly black Richmond district in Virginia were scoring abysmally in reading. With a DI-style program, just four years later, three-quarters of black students passed the third-grade reading test. Meanwhile, over in wealthy Fairfax County, where DI was scorned, the minority of black students taking that test -- despite ample funding -- were passing it at the rate of merely 59 percent.
Even sadder is that conventional teacher-training programs at education schools keep alive the canard that teaching poor kids to read is an elusive, complex affair requiring a peculiarly intense form of superhuman dedication and an ineffable brand of personal connection with young people. The poor child, the popular wisdom tells us, needs freedom to move about the classroom, or Ebonics, or less soda, or more leafy green vegetables, or any number of things other than being taught how to sound out words and read. Distracted by the hardships in their home lives, surely they cannot be reached by just having the facts laid out for them the way lawyers' kids can be reached.
But what seems plausible to ed schools is not, as DI's endless successes have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt. What this means is that if we want to make a difference for black boys, such that NAEP surveys will look different in 10 years, we must take the reins ourselves. In a better America, schools that do not use DI to teach kids from poor households should be seen as vaguely criminal. People should point them out as they drive by them, like crack houses.
So Sharpton suggests that "pre-K programs should be expanded." Indeed -- and they should be required to start kids out with DI methods. "Teachers should be truly held accountable," Sharpton continues. Yes -- and teaching with DI should become the measure of effective teaching. Note also: DI wouldn't require us to wait until that great day when all teachers are stellar. DI is designed, with its set scripting, to be teacher-proof.
"We dare not fail," Sharpton announces.
Right -- but fail we will, if we do not start demanding that our local school boards use methods of teaching reading that actually work.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.