Inside Education Column: Madison’s Literacy Task Force: Reading Renaissance or Recycling?

Armand A. Fusco, Ed.D.
(Retired school superintendent, college administrator, columnist, author and consultant)

Before looking at the Madison disastrous reading problem, some reading background will be helpful to put it into an historical perspective to fully understand the problems and issues involved that are also national in scope. What’s important to note is that it’s not true of all students; the reading pandemic is a boy problem and particularly boys of color. Furthermore, reading is a long standing problem that has not been solved despite more research, dollars, and staffing.

Madison started to seriously look at its reading problem in the late 1990’s. What was known at that time about reading? A good place to start is with the testing data in 1998:

The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) is considered the nation’s report card because it is a standardized and used nationally by school districts. Reading scores revealed that nationally 38% of 4th graders (41% male, 35% female), 26% of 8th graders (32% male, 19% female), and 23% of 12th graders (30% male, 17% female) scored “below basic” skills. “At all grades and for all levels, the reading performance of female students exceeded that of their male peers.” Obviously, gender is an absolutely critical factor in examining test data and resolving the reading pandemic; boys, like it or not, learn differently than girls. In fact, the average score for male 12th graders was lower than that in 1992; so boys are regressing rather than progressing. The alarm bells are ringing, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is listening!

One interesting outcome was a Chicago Tribune article, Schools Pay New Attention to Boys, “… many educators are reaching the same conclusion: boys are in crisis in America’s classrooms. Educators know that boys account for the overwhelming majority of behavior problems, dominate special education (primarily because of reading problems), and increasing numbers are on medication.”

When ethnic groups are compared, it reveals a far more alarming picture of reading performance across Education America. For example, in 8th grade, 18% of Whites, 18% of Asians, 39% of American Indians, 46% of Hispanics, and 47% of Blacks scored “below basic.” If “basic level” is included, just under 90% of minorities did not achieve at “proficient level” skills. Isn’t it logical to conclude that minorities are programmed for academic failure? True, but not quite right. 47% of blacks include boys and girls, but girls outscore boys. Braking this score down will reveal far more failures among boys than girls. How much longer can society afford to tolerate such disparity in reading achievement?

So any reading debate without regard to gender or ethnicity is really insane and mindless to put it in the bluntest possible terms. It simply does not address reality; but, more importantly, it is masking—not solving—the real problems.

Make no mistake about it, this is discrimination at its worst! How can the quest for equality be achieved when the results are dramatically unequal? Isn’t being trapped in the “bondage of illiteracy” the most intolerable and vicious form of discrimination?

The muckraker’s biography:

My name is Armand A. Fusco, Ed.D. a retired school superintendent, and I will be contributing a weekly column entitled The Muckraker (Unravelling the Educational Mystique) that will be dealing with all aspects of educational issues and problems based on 40 years of experience pre-K to college with an earned doctorate degree in educational administration.

I have held positions as a teacher, department head, school psychologist, counselor, Director of Guidance, Principal (elementary and secondary), and 3 years of a post-doctoral internship studying Total Quality Management.

After retiring in 1992 from public education, I was employed as Director of Teacher Interns and Professor of Education, at an inner city university until 2000. During this time, I started an educational column, Inside Education, that covered just about all aspects of education, followed by publishing two books, School Corruption: Betrayal of Children and the Public Trust 2005, and School Pushouts (Dropouts): A Plague of Hopelessness Perpetrated by Zombie Schools 2012. During the COVID months, I finished another book, Boys’ Academic Pandemic: Can’t Read, Can’t Learn to be published in 2021.

Among my efforts has been to help communities establish Volunteer Citizen Audit Committees to monitor local school practices and spending to determine if they are economical, efficient, and effective, and to shed light on the School to Prison Pipeline that impacts every community.

My education philosophy:

After serving over 40 years in all of the trenches of education what is evident is that there are a number of cancerous tumors in the system that make the issues and problems confusing and complex to alleviate or cure. The most serious is the use of generalized statistics that distort the reality of educational outcomes unless they are disaggregated by gender, race, age and location. For example, there is a constant drumbeat to reduce class size; yet, it has been reduced from 28 to 15. However, walking through any elementary school building will not find this average in the typical classroom with city school. classrooms being larger than suburban schools. At the high school level, class size ranges anywhere from six to thirty and beyond. All it indicates is that more staff has been added, but not just teacher staff. In other words, it provides a vastly distorted picture of the typical classroom size because there is no such thing; nevertheless, the class size drumbeat continues to beat.

Another cancer is the use of symptoms too often used as causes that hide the real truths. For example, the epicenter of the sad condition of education is located in about 800 districts (mostly inner city) out of 15,000, and, as a result, socio-economic conditions (poverty, housing, dysfunctional families, discrimination, etc.) are given as causes of educational failings when they are only contributing conditions to consider. So why should the rest of the parents, educators, taxpayers and policymakers in the remaining districts be concerned? Because the results and consequences from the 800 impact all communities spreading like a virus everywhere because it’s in these districts with failing schools that cultivate the school to prison pipeline that results in dropouts. These dropouts then make up to 80% of prison inmates, but the crimes they commit occur in every district not just the 800.. Worse yet is that five years after being released from their sentence, they return back to their prison cells after committing more crimes—misdemeanors to felonies. Who are these inmates? Primarily minority boys and that is why there is so little discussion about it because it would cause cries and claims of discrimination.