Redefining Literacy in America
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Public education in America began due to a need to provide reading, writing, and arithmetic. There was a feeling that an educated population was necessary to be able to participate in a democratic capitalistic country. As American society has evolved, education changed to meet the needs of our country. Recently the comprehensive concept of the American high school changed to be exclusively academically elitist. In this new elitist iteration, our country’s high schools have lost their way. American high schools drop out as many students as they send on to graduate from college. The system has defined itself as college preparation in the face of the reality where most students are not capable of a college education. We can no longer fool ourselves with what should be viewed as an inappropriate education for the supermajority. It is time to redefine high school education in America. There are experts in various subject matters who are better qualified than I am to define skills necessary for life and work in America. However, I can give you a view of what redefining of literacy in America should look like.
Reading literacy is primary. If a person cannot read, the other skills are of limited use. But what does reading literacy mean? It is not a twelfth grade reading level that is necessary to obtain a college degree. After all, the college preparatory group is a minority of the high school population. The supermajority of students has no need to learn Shakespeare or the nuances of understanding complex literature. Most people don’t read the newspaper, which is written at the eighth grade reading level or lower. Thus, reading literacy for high school graduation should be defined as an eighth grade reading level.
Is writing significant anymore? Should cursive even be taught anymore? Perhaps, but only in primary school. Keying on a keyboard, pad, or telephone is now a far more significant skill set.
In mathematics, the new book, Math Myth, challenges our past thinking about math literacy. Clearly no one except the thirty percent going on to graduate from college needs algebra. It is time to stop forcing algebra on the entire high school population. Many students do not understand the symbolism of algebra and the supermajority of students don’t need this college prep course or higher math. Math literacy must be established in addition and subtraction and multiplication and division.
It is time for high schools to require all students to be computer literate. We no longer need to focus on learning facts, we can Google them. Today, there are various computer literacy skills that are required to live and work in America. Specifically, all young people require keying, texting, Word, Excel, googling, searching, tablet, and smart telephone use to live and work in America. These skills must be taught and tested in high school.
I cannot deny that a certain level of science literacy is necessary. However, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics are completely beyond any need of the American population. They are exclusively for college preparation. For the general population, a course in physical science should suffice. In addition, this is where health and sex education should reside.
We now need financial literacy more than ever. Clearly, learning about interest rates on credit cards, car loans, and home loans are essential for living in America. Car sellers and banks are predators waiting to pounce on the unaware and uneducated in financial literacy. Basic bookkeeping skills are necessary to keep track of finances whether it is a bank account or at work. We need to demand financial literacy as an integral part of a high school education.
This defining of literacy leads us to nutrition literacy. We are an overweight country and we eat burgers and fries and our children are imprinted with fat, sugar, and salt. Eventually, food doesn’t taste right unless it matches these early imprinted tastes. It is literally child abuse. Nutrition can be taught and must be taught in high schools in America.
Another new concept of literacy should be close to educators heart – parenting. It is ironic that public education doesn't require parenting education. How do we expect teenage mothers to be able to work? We have literally caused female poverty in America. It is essential for high schools to foster the concept of responsible parenting while they have a captive audience. This is a teachable subject that must be part of everyone’s high school education.
And equally important is how about teaching real physical education? No, I don't mean playing games. Why don’t we require a series of classes to teach how to get in good physical condition? Why aren’t there elliptical machines and exercise bikes in the high schools? We must teach lifelong exercise. We neglect teaching basic physical education on taking care of your self. And we pay for our society wide ignorance with high healthcare expenses.
Perhaps the most important new concept of literacy is employment literacy. This includes the obvious technical skills to be able to perform a job. However, it also means mastering soft employment skills necessary to maintain employment. The high school must return to its roots and accept career technical education as the premier part of its mission. Career academies are the best solution for this new literacy as well as the others. The high school must be transfigured where going to work is honored by the school’s administration, counselors, teachers, and students. Today’s high schools cannot ever accept that premise.
I understand redefining high school literacy is a difficult issue. However, in the vain attempt at raising the American population test scores in math and English, we have neglected the new basics. This chasing of ever-higher math and language test scores is truly the wrong goal for public education in America. A few percentage points on standardized tests do not mean anything. That’s why we need to redefine what is important for survival in America. In this neglect of real survivor skills, we have created a huge population without modern life skills or employment skills. The educational establishment blames parents of poverty level children for their failure to raise this population’s test scores. This focus on test scores and college preparation were always fundamentally the wrong goals. It has been the high school’s failure to set the right goals for appropriate literacy and then set about teaching and evaluating those skills.
This chasing of the wrong goals has had terrible unforeseen costs. The failure to provide an appropriate education in America's high schools has sent good kids into gangs, crime, and incarceration at great cost to America. It is time to match up the genuine needs of the population with the high schools of the twenty-first century.