Learning to read – a saga

We were horrified to find that, well into Grade 2, our son could not read.

We had come from Alberta, whose education system had been recognized for many decades (and still is) as the best in Canada and one of the best in the world. We had naively assumed that our son would be getting the same kind of education in Ontario.

Upon learning that our assumption was wrong, we demanded that the local school correct the problem. They did: and, bless Special Ed. teacher Fred Featherstone, our son was up-to-speed in six months. Yet the sad legacy is that he does not read for pleasure; there are no books in his home; and his bright and capable kids have no example of reading parents.

Later, in a parent-teacher interview, I was told that, “You know, Mr. XXX, your son is at best a General Level student. You mustn’t consider him University material … ” I told this teacher that our son needed three things: brains, opportunity, and motivation; and that motivation was missing. Again, the school responded very well. Our son was placed in a class of “exceptional” students. He earned Ontario Scholar throughout high school, was always on the Dean’s Honors List at McMaster U., studied on scholarships through his Engineering courses, has a high-tech MBA, and is a Director of a major industrial corporation. (At the end of Gr, 13 his comment was, “We spent most of our time at the Sherwood”. The Sherwood was a watering hole near the school.) He refused to attend a banquet for Ontario Scholars, saying, “I didn’t do anything.”

(Our daughter, also a top scholar, felt similarly about Gr. 13, commenting, “We just goofed off.”)

There are lessons here for anxious parents which fortunately can be applied immediately:

1. Do not believe publicity to the effect that Ontario’s school system is among the best in the world. It isn’t. International comparisons like TIMSS do not prove that the Ontario system results in subject mastery: they merely put the Ontario system somewhere in the pack – ahead of this country, behind that. Perhaps neither gets good results.

2. Research where your school ranks with others in your District, using EQAO results or Fraser Institute analyses (recognizing that organizations like the Fraser Institute who do calm, objective, non-political analyses of available information are always dubbed “right wing”; as you will be). Schools in any one system differ dramatically. If your kid is performing poorly in a poor school, insist on corrective action. You may encounter stiff resistance; most educators hate comparison and will not even use the word “results”. You must persist.

3. Ask hard questions of your kids’ teachers, principals, and Trustees, basing your questions on results. Expect to be helped by some (as we luckily were) and rebuffed angrily by others, some of whom will treat you as an ignorant interfering busybody. The Society for Quality Education website has much help including home-study materials for reading, etc.

4. Take “guidance” with a grain of salt. Unfortunately “guidance” given by schools is notorious for being, to put it kindly, of mixed quality.

5. Insist on special help if your kid can’t add 3+7 or write a coherent sentence. Many schools and systems can provide it.

6. Tune your ear for tell-tale words. Good ones include, “phonics”, “direct instruction”, and “results”. Bad ones include “Constructivism”, “discovery learning”, “whole language”, and “spiral curriculum”. Educate yourself about education. Tell your critics among the educators that you aren’t an expert in education, but that you are an expert in results; and that you make a big investment in education. Resources for this self-education are enormous. An example is the often-quoted standard on why Constructivism can’t work:

Kirschner, P.A.; Sweller, J.; Clark, R.E, “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching.”

Just Google it using “Kirschner”.

Summary: Be active, knowledgeable, informed, insistent, and persistent.



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