"Kids' Brains Must Be Different..."
"Kids' brains must be different these days," I remarked half jokingly as I graded student essays in the faculty room late one afternoon.
"If I didn't think it was impossible, I would agree with you," chimed in a colleague who had experienced a particularly frustrating day with his English classes. "These kids are so sharp, but sometimes I think their minds are different from the ones I used to teach. I've had to change my teaching a lot recently, and I still wonder how much they're learning. But a human brain is a human brain. They don't change much from generation to generation -- do they?"
"Changing brains?" mumbled a math teacher, putting on her coat. "Maybe that accounts for it."
Changing brains. The idea kept returning as I taught and watched students at different grade levels. I began to observe more carefully; these youngsters did seem different from those we used to teach -- even though the average IQ score in our school had remained solidly comparable. Today's students looked and acted differently, of course, and they talked about different things, but I became increasingly convinced that the changes went deeper than that -- to the very ways in which they were absorbing and processing information. Likable, fun to be with, intuitive, and often amazingly self-aware, they seemed, nonetheless, harder to teach, less attuned to verbal material, both spoken and written. Many admitted they didn't read very much -- sometimes even the required homework. They struggled with (or avoided) writing assignments, while teachers anguished over the results. When the teacher gave directions, many forgot them almost immediately; even several repetitions often didn't stick. They looked around, doodled, fidgeted.
Were kids always like this? I started to listen to the veteran teachers -- not the bitter, burned-out ones who complain all the time about everything, but the ones who are still in the business because they love teaching and really enjoy being around young people. I visited schools, In every one, from exclusive suburbs to the inner city, I heard similar comments:
Yes, every year I seem to "water down" the material even more. I request books for reluctant readers rather than the classics we used to use in these high school courses. I use library-research worksheets instead of term-paper assignments. I have to start from the beginning on conjugating verbs and diagramming sentences -- and most of them still don't get it. Lectures can't exceed fifteen minutes. I use more audiovisuals.
I used to be able to teach Scarlet Letter to my juniors; now that amount of reading is a real chore for them and they have more trouble following the plot.
I feel like kids have one foot out the door on whatever they're doing -- they're incredibly easily distracted. I think there may have been a shift in the last five years.
Ten years ago I gave students materials and they were able to figure out the experiment. Now I have to walk them through the activities step by step. I don't do as much science because of their frustration level.
Yes, I've modified my teaching methods because of their lack of attention span and their impatience. I don't do much of the lecture-notetaking method. I'm using student workbooks, prepared worksheets and tests because they are readily available.
I teach biology and I have them spend more time on paperwork just to get them to look at the material. They refuse to read the book, so I must keep trying techniques to get them to read it.
I've been hoping someone would notice! I've been worried about this for some time. Kids' abilities are certainly different -- I use with gifted sixth graders a lot of what I did with average fifth graders in '65-'66. They complain of the workload.
It's scary! When I started teaching here [a "fast-track" private school] in 1965, I used Evangeline with the seventh grade. Imagine, Evangeline! And the kids loved it and understood it. Now there'd be no way...but I'm supposedly teaching the same kind of kids in the same grade!
Scary indeed! I became increasingly convinced that I was tapping into a major phenomenon with profound implications, not only for teaching and learning, but also for the future of our society. Scariest of all was the growing discrepancy between what children were apparently equipped to do and what teachers thought they should be capable of doing. Teachers of the youngest children, claiming they see more pronounced changes every year, warned that we haven't seen anything yet!
Changing brains? Could it be possible? As I went from school classrooms to professional meetings where neuroscientists were excitedly starting to discuss new research on the subtle power of environments to shape growing brains, I began to realize that it is indeed possible.
"Of course, experience -- even different kinds of learning -- changes children's brains," I was told again and again. If children's experiences change significantly, so will their brains. Part of the brain's physical structure comes from the way it is used.
"But," everyone always added, "there's no way to measure subtle neurological differences between past generations and this one. You can't prove such changes because the technology has not been available to measure them."
No "proof," but plenty of circumstantial evidence. I developed a questionnaire requesting anecdotal information on cognitive changes observed in students. I handed it out at national meetings and conferences to experienced teachers in schools where population demographics had remained relatively stable. Approximately three hundred teachers responded, and I was amazed by the unanimity of response. Yes, attention spans are noticeably shorter. Yes, reading, writing, and oral language skills seem to be declining -- even in the "best" neighborhoods. Yes, no matter how "bright," students are less able to bend their minds around difficult problems in math, science, and other subjects. Yes, teachers feel frustrated and would like to do a better job. This was a long way from "proof," but I found it provocative -- and troubling.
Meanwhile, newspaper headlines screamed daily about declining test scores. International assessments comparing math and science performance of thirteen-year-old students from twelve countries found U.S. students at "rock bottom," particularly in understanding of concepts and more complex interpretation of data. Analysts from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development suggested that test scores do not even reveal the total extent of the problem, as they are poor measures of the type of thinking abilities today's youth will need on the job. "Will our nation's young adolescents be able to function as the foundation for America's ability to compete in the global economy?" they wondered.
News programs featured a report concluding that most American seventeen-year-olds were poorly prepared to handle jobs requiring technical skills and that only 7% could handle college-level science courses. A numbing national march toward mediocrity was predicted. A cover story in Fortune magazine compared the "crisis" in education to the attack on Pearl Harbor. "In a high-tech age where nations increasingly compete on brainpower, American schools are producing an army of illiterates," it proclaimed. A survey found 68% of major business firms "encumbered" by the educational shortcomings of their employees; 36% were already offering remedial courses in reading, writing, and math, with another 28% acknowledging they were considering the possibility.
In a special issue focusing on problems in education, the Wall Street Journal documented the growing incompetency of high school graduates by surveying managers who have trouble finding even minimally competent workers to hire. "I'm almost taking anyone who breathes," said one bank manager whose new tellers can't add and subtract well enough to balance their own checkbooks. An advertising firm in Chicago admitted that only one applicant in ten meets the minimum literacy standard for mail-clerk jobs, and Motorola, Inc., provided statistics showing that 80% of all applicants screened nationally fail a test of seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math. Clearly, opined the observers, schools are not doing their job.
Inadequate schools may well be a problem in a land where neither teachers nor the educational enterprise itself get a great deal of respect. Moreover, inferior graduates may well become inferior teachers. But is this the whole problem? Our knowledge about how to teach has actually improved during the last twenty years. I have been hanging around university education departments since the fifties; during that time professional training has been considerably upgraded. Thoughtful research on how children learn has paved the way for dissemination of better classroom methods and instructional materials as well as a much clearer understanding of students who have trouble learning in traditional ways. It hardly seems reasonable to believe that the majority of teachers have suddenly become so much worse. In any school I visit I find many good, dedicated professionals. They claim tried-and-true methods aren't working anymore. Why? Are children becoming less intelligent? Could changes in mental abilities reflect underlying changes in brain development as much as bad pedagogy?
What's Happening to the Test Scores?
In a highbrow private school in Manhattan, a college counselor laments, "Look at these verbal SAT scores! How am I ever going to get these kids into the colleges their parents want?" While this counselor has good reason for concern, he may be somewhat comforted by the fact that his students are certainly not unique.
Very few tests in the United States have stayed the same long enough to provide a long-range view of young people's abilities across the past few decades. Three organizations producing the most consistently standardized measurements have been the College Board, which publishes the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) taken by students who intend to apply to college, the similar American College Testing program (ACT), and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests academic achievement of school children at representative grade levels. As anyone who even scans the headlines knows, they have shown drastically declining scores, particularly in the areas of higher-level verbal and reasoning skills.
Although the SAT has been criticized for a number of failings, including various types of bias, it provides a consistent source of data over a period of years. Purportedly a test of ability rather than of what has been learned, the test is, in fact, highly dependent on background experiences such as vocabulary exposure, reading facility, and math courses taken. By the time students are in high school, it is difficult to separate out the various effects of school learning and native ability. Thus its scores reflect both basic intelligence and experience.
Starting in 1964, average SAT verbal and math scores declined steadily until the mid-1980s, when they leveled off and then experienced a very slight rise. Subsequently, math scores have remained stable and verbal have begun another gradual decline. Overall, verbal declines have been considerably greater, 47 points by 1988 (from 475 to 428) as opposed to 22 for math (498 to 476).
Losses of this magnitude have caused justifiable concern, and many reasons have been proposed for this apparent erosion of national brainpower. The fact that a less rarefied group of students, including more from less "privileged" educational backgrounds, now take the test has been shown to account for some, but not all, of the decline in average scores. Recently, in fact, scores of minorities are the only ones showing consistent improvement, with black students particularly making impressive gains. Moreover, the past few years have seen the growing popularity of courses that claim great success in coaching students in test-related subject matter and test-taking "tricks." These should have raised scores at least a little, particularly for the more privileged group who can afford the courses. Is it possible that without their influence, overall declines would be even greater?
For all students, steady increases in television viewing and less time spent reading are accepted as negative influences on verbal scores. The culpability of those factors, as we shall see in later chapters, goes far beyond what most people are willing to admit. Schools have also been blamed for giving less homework, lowering academic standards, and using less challenging materials. Of course, teachers complain they have been forced to these expedients because of skill deficits in the students they are attempting to teach. In short, no one really agrees on the reasons. Everyone agrees, however, that the situation is serious. Most alarming is the suggestion that the "top" layer of students, our potential pool of future leaders, is being seriously affected.
The "Best and the Brightest"
To investigate this possibility I contacted The Educational Testing Service, which publishes results of Graduate Record Examinations which are taken by a self-selected group of students who intend to pursue graduate study. I learned right away that it is hard to extract any firm evidence about scoring trends on these tests for several reasons, which I will explain shortly. Nevertheless, in digging through the data from the last fifteen years, I did find some interesting clues indicating that both interest and ability in primarily verbal fields of study appear to have declined rather startlingly.
The GREs include general measures of verbal, quantitative, and analytical ability as well as subject area tests in a number of disciplines such as history, English literature, psychology, math, etc. The subject tests are optional, as they are required for admission only to certain departments in certain schools. GRE scores must be cautiously interpreted in terms of general trends, since rising scores may indicate simply that brighter students, on the whole, are choosing to apply to graduate school, and vice versa. Moreover, the growing use of "prep" courses may also mask declining ability of GRE applicants.
Increasing numbers of students whose primary language is not English have unquestionably affected verbal scores on the general intelligence tests which all applicants are required to take. The percentage of total GRE test-takers who are not U.S. citizens has more than doubled since 1975 to about 16%. Since a large proportion of these students are math and science majors, math and analytic scores would be expected to rise, which they have. Between 1972 and 1987, average quantitative scores rose from 512 to 550; analytic scores have also increased. In the same period, however, verbal scores fell from 497 to 477.
This overall decline in verbal abilities may not be totally attributable to foreign-born applicants, since the same trend shows up on subject tests which are chosen only by students intending to study a particular field -- in which they presumably consider themselves competent. Between 1972 and 1987, average scores of students choosing to take the English Literature test (who are overwhelmingly of English-speaking origin and have usually been English majors) declined from 545 to 526, while those on foreign language tests in French, German, and Spanish also tended downwards. The number of students taking tests in language or literary fields also declined precipitously; only one-half of the 1972 number took the English Literature test in 1985; the pool of French language test-takers declined to approximately one-fifth of its previous size. The same trends were evident in other fields heavily weighted toward verbal skills: History, Political Science, and Sociology scores fell off dramatically, as did the number of test-takers. In 1972, 1,354 students took the philosophy test; in 1984, only 252 signed up, and the test was subsequently discontinued.
These apparent declines in verbally oriented fields -- even by native English-speaking literature majors -- has troubled many observers who feel that a society needs good philosophers, statesmen, and writers as well as outstanding technological minds. In direct contrast, the same years have seen relatively large scoring gains in the fields of engineering, mathematics, psychology, and economies. For example, more students took the engineering test in 1987 than in 1972, and the average score rose from 593 to 623. The number of non-U.S. citizens in these technological fields who will decide to leave the United States after they obtain their advanced training is, of course, unknown.
Let me speculate for just a moment about what these changes might suggest. For reasons which I hope will become clear later in this book, sequential, verbal-analytic reasoning (such as that needed for fluent, accurate reading, writing, and oral language expression) depends on quite different uses of the brain than do skills depending more heavily on nonverbal, "simultaneous" mental processes (e.g., engineering, some aspects of higher mathematics). No clear statement, much less any conclusions, can be drawn from this spotty scenario, but one might be tempted to ponder whether, whatever the reason, we are seeing some sort of shift in abilities -- or at least interest -- among our future academic leaders.
...and Back in the Trenches
Of course, few of our students make it to graduate school. For the vast majority of American youngsters, declines in math and science achievement as well as in verbal skills are a source of national alarm. Recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have shown particular deficiencies in higher-order reasoning skills, including those necessary for advanced reading comprehension, math, and science. Although younger students, in the wake of a clamor for educational reform, seem to have improved test scores slightly, "most of the progress has occurred in the domain of lower-order skills." Math scores, according to the NAEP findings, are particularly dismal when students are required to sustain attention for problems requiring more than one step. For example, only 44% of high school graduates could compute the change that would be received from $3.00 for two items ordered from a lunch menu.
The same deficiencies in sustained reasoning are found in other subjects. Thus, according to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, only 20% of seventeen-year-olds could write an organized job-application letter, only 4% could make sense out of a sample bus schedule, and only 12% could arrange six common fractions in order of size. Dr. Shanker goes on to comment that only 20 to 25% of students currently in school can learn effectively from traditional methods of teaching.
Particularly troublesome is the fact that, with the exception already noted of foreign-born math students, older and better students are falling behind similar students of previous decades. Eroding abilities in the "best" students first started to show up in the NAEP results in the seventies. A similar trend showed up when a well-recognized test of basic skills for grade school students was revised in 1977. Scores of a nationally representative sample of 40,000 fourth and eighth graders were compared with those of their 1970 counterparts. "Average" fourth graders in 1977 were slightly worse in all areas than fourth graders of 1970, and "language usage" among the better students had dropped significantly. "Average" eighth graders of 1977 had fallen half a year behind those of 1970 both in language usage and mathematics concepts; the "fast" eighth graders had declined most of all. They scored significantly lower in all subjects, with a full-year drop in language usage ability. As will be shown later, the effects of these universally noted trends have begun to show up even in highly selective colleges, as professors find they must water clown both reading and writing assignments as well as expectations for analytic reasoning. Despite a serious effort on the part of elementary and high schools to beef up the curriculum, students of all ability levels show virtually no gains in higher-order skills.
Exhibit A in the current academic crisis is the state of reading abilities. Although declines in reading ability have already raised a loud outcry among educators and employers; most people are not aware either of the breadth of the problem or how the manipulation of test procedures are masking its real dimensions.
Exhibit A: The Crisis in Reading
Some of my seniors will graduate from high school reading on a lower level than the students who graduated from junior high school in 1970.
English teacher, suburban school, Virginia
My students? Well, they don't read. The culture doesn't read. They don't use language above the colloquial expressions because the mainstream culture is dangerously indifferent to the importance of precise language. I don't have much hope of producing readers in the classroom until we can produce readers in the larger social context. I used to be able to use Tale of Two Cities in a good eighth-grade class; now, even with ninth graders I approach it warily. If they read it on their own, they miss the connections and so much of the meaning -- particularly the subtle ideas. The syntax is just like a foreign language to them.
English teacher, independent school, Ohio
Toward an Inarticulate and Aliterate Society?
The state of literacy in the United States today is declining so precipitously, while video and computer technologies are becoming so powerful, that the act of reading itself may well be on the way to obsolescence. The alarming incidence of illiteracy in the United States has been widely publicized, alerting the public to the fact that up to 23 million Americans in the work force lack the reading and writing skills necessary to compete in the job market. No so readily recognized, or admitted, is a growing decline in skill and interest in reading among the functionally literate. Those who can read (or at least pronounce the words) -- do not.
Approximately 90% of young people can read simple material. Yet the majority have difficulty understanding text above elementary school level, drawing inferences beyond simple facts, following an author's point or the sequence of an argument, or using facts to support an argument of their own. As in other subjects, college-bound students have declined in both reading ability and interest, despite national and local initiatives toward improved instruction for them. The NAEP's most recent report found that only 5% of high school graduates could satisfactorily master material traditionally used at the college level.
The situation may get considerably worse. Many of the upcoming generation of teachers dislike reading and avoid it whenever possible. One study conducted by two Kent State University education professors in a children's literature course found surprising changes in prospective teachers' attitudes. "Many students enter our courses with negative attitudes toward reading in general and, more specifically, toward the types of literature that make up the main content of our courses" (i.e., "good" books for children and adolescents). More than one-fourth of these potential teachers confessed to a "lifelong discomfort with print," and many acknowledged that they made it through English courses by relying on "Cliff Notes, book jackets, or cursory reading to supply them with just enough information to pass tests or to prepare book reports." Others of us who are teaching teachers can unfortunately confirm that this observation is not an isolated one.
These young people, who will convey to the next generation not only the higher-level reading and reasoning skills they have so handily circumvented but also their own attitudes toward reading, are reflections of the society in which they live. Americans, on the whole, are not particularly entranced with the written word. Although sales of children's books to affluent parents, who want to give (perhaps literally) their child every educational advantage, are growing, no one is really sure who -- if anyone -- is actually reading the books. Despite incontrovertible evidence that children who read well come from homes where reading is a prominent part of life, most parents do not read themselves. Eighty percent of the books in this country are read by about 10% of the people.
The proportion of readers in the United States is continuing to become smaller with a steady and significant decline in the number of book readers under twenty-one, according to Dr. Bernice Cullinan of New York University. She reports on one large group of "typical" fifth graders queried about the average-amount of time they spent reading outside of school:
50% read four minutes a day or less
30% read two minutes a day or less
10% read nothing
This same group of children watched an average of 130 minutes of TV per day. Yet, as Dr. Cullinan reminds us, children become good, insightful, analytic readers only by lots of practice with reading.
Our society is becoming increasingly aliterate, says Cullinan. "An aliterate is a person who knows how to read but who doesn't choose to read. These are people who glance at the headlines of a newspaper and grab the TV schedule. They do not read books for pleasure, nor do they read extensively for information. An aliterate is not much better off than an illiterate, a person who cannot read at all. Aliterates miss the great novels of the past and present. They also miss probing analyses written about political issues. Most aliterates watch television for their news, but the entire transcript of a television newscast would fill only two columns of the New York Times. Aliterates get only the surface level of the news."
The serious audience for books in this country is getting steadily older and shows no signs of growing, confirms Jack Shoemaker, the editor in chief of North Point Press. "I think that a quick survey of some of the big independent booksellers will confirm my sense that there is no meaningful audience in their teenage years or people in their twenties. These [book] stores are largely supported by people in their late thirties to mid-fifties," he remarked recently.
Similar although less dramatic trends are appearing in other countries as well. The Japanese publishing industry reports a steady decline in hardcover sales despite the fact that, comparatively speaking, the Japanese are voracious readers. Literary critics in that country complain that young people are not as interested in literature as previous generations.
Despite similar murmurs from other countries, publishers in the United States have particular reason to be concerned that readers are an endangered species. Book sales in this country are twenty-fourth worldwide, and figures on newspaper sales show significant loss of readership; fifty-four daily papers have died since 1979, and papers sold per thousand residents are only half the number sold in Japan. A proliferation of pictorial and technically oriented magazines (e.g., fitness, home design, motorcycles, computers) fill the newsstands.
The problem results not only from disinterest in reading but also from increasing numbers of students with poor reading skills. Curiously enough, many of these poor readers do not recognize they have a problem. A survey of 443 students entering a community college showed that although a horrifying 50% were reading below ninth grade level, only 80 acknowledged that they needed any help with reading! Even among the 221 who scored anywhere from third- to eighth-grade level, 178 believed they were doing just fine. This all-too-typical statistic certainly hints at major inadequacies in the expectations of their previous schools. Even more, however, it may reflect on the value the students place on reading or their ability to take responsibility for and look inward at their own mental processes.
The Two-Minute Mind
Why don't -- or can't -- most young people read? One of the most common complaints among this generation is that books are "too hard" or "boring." Many have trouble with the mental organization and sustained effort demanded by reading. Coming to grips with verbal logic, wrestling one's mind into submission to an author's unfamiliar point of view, and struggling to make connections appear to be particularly taxing to today's young intellects.
Informal reports help explain the reality behind the statistics. Even some English majors now find sustained prose a drag. Kristin Eddy, a news aide at the Washington Post and a literature major at George Washington University, reported recently on a hands-up poll revealing that only half of her upper-level classmates had bothered to finish the assigned All the King's Men, a best-selling favorite of a previous student generation. Why? "Boring!" "Too hard to follow." Another classmate commented that Sarah Orne Jewett's beautifully written The Country of the Pointed Firs "went so slowly that it seemed like it was written by a retarded person."
To read well, minds must be trained to use language, to reflect, and to persist in solving problems. Students may learn to sound out the words, but unless they possess the internal sense of responsibility for extracting the meaning, they are engaging in a hollow and unsatisfying exercise. With major efforts, we have succeeded in teaching students in early grades to "read the words." Test scores jump off a cliff, however, when students must begin to plug the words into language meaning and grapple with the more advanced grammar, vocabulary, and the sustained intellectual demands of a real text.
Reading Abilities: Worse Than We Realize
Starting in the 1970s, reading test scores in American schools took such a dive that major initiatives were launched to improve instruction. Educators developed new materials based on research about how children learn to read, better training of teachers became a focus in many schools, and instruction in "phonics" (systematic sounding out of words) was stressed. A slight rise in reading test scores in the early grades resulted.
However, as Fred M. Hechinger points out, young students may be sounding out the words better, but they are actually understanding less. Children cannot comprehend, remember, and apply what is read. The 1986 NAEP report found, as have other recent assessments, that students' related problems in reading and expressing ideas in writing stem mainly from difficulty with verbal reasoning.
"Reading instruction at all levels must be restructured to ensure that students learn to reason more effectively about what they have read," states the report, which showed such a drastic and "baffling" decline in reading performance of nine- and seventeen-year-olds that the report was delayed for five months while researchers refigured the statistics and reexamined the test items. They still could not explain the decline. NAEP officials had planned to publish a study showing trends in students' reading performance since 1971, but these plans were canceled because no one wanted to believe the results.
Why We Shouldn't Trust the Tests
This fiasco only illustrates what educational psychologists already realize; strange goings-on sometimes occur in the name of "testing." Test results, in fact, can be quite misleading estimates of just how well, or how poorly, children can read. Perhaps the NAEP results really were accurate. They probably appeared so surprising because other current reading tests -- believe it or not -- actually make students' abilities look considerably better than they really are! Here are several reasons why most test scores should be taken with a large grain of salt:
1. What Is Reading?
How do you define "reading"? I have described in my first book an unusual group of children called hyperlexics, who teach themselves to read as early as age two and continue to read obsessively from any written material they can get their hands on. One five-year-old hyperlexic boy whom I tested brought the New York Times to my office and proceeded to read it aloud with flawless élan. Not surprisingly, he also scored at the level of an average high school senior on a commonly used reading test that measured how well he could sound out and pronounce words he had never even seen before! With scores like this, the child must be a gifted reader, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, he could not understand the meaning of even a first-grade story. Like others afflicted by this strange syndrome, he could "word-call," but he comprehended little.
The ability to "bark at print" is not reading, but many people, including well-meaning parents, think it is, Tests which show that young children's scores are rising may simply be focusing on the "lower level" skills of word reading while neglecting the real heart of the matter: How well do they understand what they have read? Can they reason -- and talk, and write -- about it?
2. How Do We Test It?
When testing children on reading skills, it is relatively easy to cheek out "phonics" and other word-reading abilities. It takes much longer to find out how well students have understood a passage. Because it is time-consuming to sit down with each child and do a thorough job, most standardized tests used today are given to large groups of children and scored by machines. They are poor vehicles for assessing comprehension because the student is not required to formulate (say or write) anything, merely to fill in "bubbles," to check off one of a given set of answers. Such multiple-choice tests receive a lot of well-justified criticism because they tend to concentrate on "lower-order" literal questions. Sometimes you don't even have to read the passage to get the right answer:
What color was John's wagon?
"It's testing for the TV generation -- superficial and passive," commented Linda Darling-Hammond, director of education for the RAND Corporation. "We don't ask if students can synthesize information, solve problems, or think independently. We measure what they can recognize. But this is very different from what actually goes on in our information society. No one goes to work and finds a checklist on their desk."
Even poor readers may manage to answer "little red wagon" questions, but they start to flounder when the language, the texts, and the questions grow up. One effective way to probe a reader's understanding is to ask him to "tell what happened," give a summary or a paraphrase. Many students today have particular difficulty with such questioning, perhaps because they have never been required to synthesize or talk about texts in this way; they've been too busy filling in the bubbles.
3. "Dumbed-Down" Tests
Most people are unaware that there has been a major "dumbing-down" of reading tests since the 1960s. It is a shocking fact, considering their poor scores, that our children are taking tests drastically more simple than those of only two decades ago. The evidence suggests that test-makers are making children look better than they really are by manipulating the level of difficulty of both the reading and the types of questions asked.
When discussing tests, I often think back to the mid-seventies, when I was principal of a primary school and we switched to the brand-new, updated form of a nationally normed achievement test. Every child's scores magically rose because the new test was so much easier than the previous one. By simply using the new form, we could raise scores significantly without even teaching anything! Educators went around at professional conferences that year telling each other, "If you want your school to look really good, switch to the new form of Brand X achievement test."
What a wonderful discovery! If scores continue to decline -- why, just keep changing the tests.
Reading abilities of contemporary children cannot easily be compared with those from past decades because most of the tests have been changed every eight or ten years. In 1978, one college professor in Minnesota gave students in his classes the same reading test that had been used in 1928. Their scores were more like those of the high school students of fifty years earlier. Such comparisons are not terribly valid for a number of reasons, including differences in standard-vocabulary and usage from one generation to another, yet there is every indication that reading abilities have undergone even more accelerated declines since he did this research in 1978. At the same time, we have seen increasingly frequent revisions of the major tests. Do these more frequent changes reflect a greater need for a fix-up?
In 1987, Dr. James Cannell blew the whistle on test-changers. In an incendiary report he charged that the degree of difficulty in the reading comprehension section of the widely used California Achievement Test for second and third graders was a full grade level below that of the 1977 version of the same test. The equally popular Stanford Achievement Test, said this report, "showed a profound drop in expository reading difficulty between 1972 and 1982." Despite noisy protests from the testing establishment, the essential truth of Cannell's findings was subsequently confirmed by a federally sponsored analysis.
Are the test-makers really at fault? "Norms," by definition, vary according to the abilities of the group of children used to develop the scoring system for any given test; if overall abilities decline, so do the standards of the test. If sixth graders in the 1980s are poorer readers than sixth graders were in the 1960s, the 1980s test has to be easier in order to get a "normal distribution" of scores, with many children receiving average scores and only a few out on the extreme high or low ends.
Moreover, because administrators tend to shun tests that make their children look stupid (and themselves incompetent), publishers are naturally pressured to produce tests to make kids look good. They appear to have done exactly what Cannell claimed. When I compared the 1964, 1972, and 1982 forms of a typical, widely used reading test, I was shocked to observe the differences. Each successive edition was so much easier than the previous one that it was hard to believe they were actually given to children of the same grade level! As just one example, Figure 1 shows comparable items (the last page) from the 1964 and 1982 forms of the test for fourth graders. You don't need a master's degree in reading to notice the increasing simplification of content, vocabulary level, sentence length, etc. This test, incidentally, is advertised as "the standard by which all other achievement tests will be measured."
The most scary of all is a new "Advanced" form, designed for ninth graders and published in 1988 (Figure 2), which calls on such complex skills as reading a menu in a fast-food restaurant. This entire test is demonstrably easier than what fourth graders were expected to read in 1964.
Is the publisher's advertisement of this last instrument as "Testing Today's Curriculum" an unconscious irony? Personally, I find it incredible that this is called a "reading" test, yet it is one of the major instruments by which "competency" is evaluated.
4. Teachers and Administrators Can Cheat, Too
When the pressure is on for better test scores, administrators may report falsely inflated results to make their schools or districts look better. Cannell's study found, in fact, that all fifty states were above the national average, although no one knows quite how this apparent miracle occurred. Teachers, too, are susceptible to pressure. When one's evaluation -- and maybe one's job -- is on the line, even a responsible teacher may slide into a seductive practice called "teaching the test." When the same test is used for more than one year and teachers become familiar with the questions, they tend, perhaps even unconsciously, to focus instruction on the items ("Remember this word -- you just might see it again...") that will make their students shine statistically.
There are other clever little ways to manipulate test scores. One group of elementary teachers from Michigan told me they always give the pretest (in September) late in the afternoon and tell the children they can go out on the playground as soon as they finish. For the "posttest" (by which the "gains" from their teaching are judged at the end of the year), they give the students orange juice and a healthful snack first thing in the morning; then when blood (and brain) sugar are at peak level, they hand out the test and encourage the class to take their time and stay in their seats to check answers if they finish early.
Why We Shouldn't Trust the Textbooks
"Johnny is only in third grade, but he's already in a fourth-grade reader!" carols a delighted mother. Unfortunately, she should not assume this accomplishment proves Johnny to be other than a mediocre reader, since many textbooks have also undergone "dumbing down." For some time, textbook publishers have been under pressure to make texts more "readable," unfortunately defined as having shorter sentences, less complex vocabulary, and more pictures. Elementary school textbooks ("basal readers") have increasingly contained short, unnatural sentences and awkward prose that can hardly be expected to endear to students the cadences of good language and literature.
Quality has also been jeopardized by superficial standards of reading "competency." According to a 1988 report of The Council for Basic Education, "Editors are increasingly organizing elementary reading series around the content and timing of standardized tests." The result? "A thin stream of staccato prose winding through an excessive number of pictures, boxes, and charts."
High school textbooks (in science, history, etc.) have been pruned in response to complaints by teachers that students cannot understand books with traditional levels of complexity. Given the caliber of prose "infecting" current history texts, laments history buff Jack Valenti, they "would all fail the essential test: Was it read, enjoyed and remembered?"
In a scathing critique published in Education Week, Arthur Woodward of the University of Rochester took textbook publishers to task for the new stress on visuals that drastically weakens texts. In many cases, he wrote, "instructional exposition takes second place to the design characteristics, which generally resemble those of a coffee-table picture book." He blames the high proportion of pages devoted to illustrations, often quite unrelated to the material at hand, for "the difficulty publishers face in handling given topics with sufficient substance."
Even college-level texts have suffered by becoming more "homogenized," less academic, longer, easier, and more superficially glossy, claims Dr. Diana Paul of the University of Massachusetts and Harvard. These changes came about, at least in part, because "increasing numbers of college students were reading at a level that made it difficult for them to cope with traditional college textbooks," she explains.
Overall, the state of reading points up fundamental changes, not only in skill levels, but also in the way today's students approach thinking and learning. Is it possible that reading is, indeed, an unnecessary relic of a passing culture? Could new habits possibly be more adaptive for today's kids or for society? While these are notions we will consider in the final chapter of this book, most educators see trends away from literacy as overridingly negative. Not only do they put students into direct conflict with the stated goals and methods of education, but they also render them less able to compete in the practical world of work in an information-processing society where verbal and problem-solving skills are in high demand.
Moreover, the expanded mental and human perspectives gained from reading may be a particular imperative for a generation destined to live -- and provide leadership -- in a technological culture. Do we want policymakers who are untroubled by the weighty realities of history because they have never read -- or reflected -- about them? Or business leaders who never heard of the likes of Babbitt? Or voters who have never peeked around the corner of their own thinking?
But Kids Should Seem Smarter!
Logically, one might expect that major changes in a generation of brains would show up on IQ tests. Do today's kids also get lower scores on them? No! Students today -- at least the young ones -- actually appear to score better than the children of previous generations.
To try and make some sense out of this apparent contradiction, I looked up the handful of studies that have surveyed trends in IQ scores over generations. I also compared scores on verbal sections of the tests (which require, for example, vocabulary knowledge, listening, verbal expression and reasoning skills) with the nonverbal sections (which contain items such as visual puzzles, mazes, imitating block constructions, etc.). Predictably, no easy answers were forth-coming, but studies over the last few decades did suggest that verbal abilities have recently begun to decline relative to nonverbal ones. This pattern, which has surprised researchers, is beginning to be seen in several European countries, but the United States is definitely leading the way. Whether these changes are attributable to some inherent weakness in the tests themselves or whether they represent an important trend has not yet been agreed upon.
In fact, most researchers themselves have decided that looking only at people's "IQs" is not a very good way to compare mental abilities of successive generations. First of all, no one is really sure exactly what different types of tests actually measure -- which may not be "intelligence" at all. Moreover, the "experts" have yet to agree about what "intelligence" really is.
According to total scores (verbal plus nonverbal) on the Wechsler Scales, probably the most commonly used IQ tests in the United States and several other countries, children appear to get smarter all the time. In fact, unlike reading tests, each new version of the test has been made slightly harder because scores have tended to rise across generations. People in this part of the testing business have come to expect that each generation will do better, on average, on the same types of items than did their parents. Yet, not surprisingly, this may only reflect the fact that more people have spent more years in school. No matter how hard test-makers try, it is almost impossible to test "intelligence" without including factors that are improved by attendance at school -- not the least of which is test sophistication. Moreover, as more parents attend school longer, more children are brought up by people who think and talk "in the culture of the tests"; so they may test "smarter" even if they are intrinsically no brighter. Moreover, as more people go to school longer, their scores continue to rise even into their twenties, so that recent revisions of the test have actually seen adults getting proportionately "smarter" faster than adolescents.
In addition, improvements in the average levels of nutrition and prenatal care naturally tend to raise the average scores of any population. Since the 1930s, when tests for mental ability became widely used, average scores-in the United States have increased substantially, with slight declines only for children born in the Depression and the postwar baby boom. The latter drop is doubtless linked to another statistical fact: increasing family size produces lower average IQ test scores. Conversely, when people have had smaller families, IQ scores have normally risen, presumably because parents of fewer children have traditionally spent more time with each child.
As standards of living have increased in countries around the world, so have IQ scores, and scores in the United States are now leveling off compared to those in other countries. Dr. James R. Flynn of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, recently collated all available information on IQ trends over time. His study, the largest to date, took data from fourteen developed nations; overall, they showed "massive IQ gains."
Viewing these results in light of reality, however, Dr. Flynn became skeptical. Are people today that much smarter than the average man on the street in previous eras? "A generation with a massive IQ gain should radically outperform its predecessors....[If these changes are real] the Netherlands alone has over 300,000 people who qualify as potential geniuses? The result should be a cultural renaissance too great to be overlooked," he wryly observed.
Yet, Flynn pointed out, a major survey in Europe "contained not a single reference to a dramatic increase in genius or mathematical and scientific discovery during the present generation; no one has remarked on the superiority of contemporary schoolchildren....As for inventions, the number of patents granted has actually diminished."
Moreover, comparisons between IQ scores and results on other tests are puzzling, to say the least. As American IQs have continued a moderate rise, scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), have taken their major nosedive. Dr. Flynn comments, "Thanks to gains on [IQ] tests, it seemed that those entering American high schools were getting more and more intelligent, and yet they were leaving high school with worse and worse academic skills. Unless nonintellectual traits, such as motivation, study habits, and self-discipline were deteriorating at an incredible rate, how could more intelligent students be getting so much less education?"
Flynn himself concludes that IQ tests really do not measure intelligence at all, but rather a specialized type of problem-solving that may not transfer very well outside of the test situation. Environmental factors only tangentially related to real intelligence may actually be responsible for the scoring gains, he suggests. Whatever the tests measure, however, the United States is leveling off faster on both verbal and nonverbal scales than other nations. "Evidence is pouring in from all over the technologically developed world that the U.S. gains are below average, and the new evidence sets aside any doubts about measurement error," he states.
Let us return for a moment to Dr. Flynn's offhand speculation about the deterioration of "nonintellectual traits," which may deserve more emphasis than he gave it. In later chapters we will explore their underestimated importance as well as their endangered state. It should also become apparent that the parts of the brain storing information and producing high IQ test scores are essentially separate systems from those enabling people to organize, plan, follow through, express themselves accurately, and use the facts they have absorbed. These latter areas, probably an even more important source of "intelligence," are the ones the tests don't tap -- and the ones most in jeopardy for children growing up in today's culture.
As we shall see in the next chapter, the power of children's brains can indeed be increased by good nutrition, adult companionship, and the stimulation of active play, toys, books, and games. Television provides many bits of knowledge that enable youngsters to look good on IQ tests, especially during early years. Computer use may also spuriously make young children look "smarter," although some ways of using computers may actually be detrimental to overall reasoning ability. These foundations are only the beginning, however. If no one shows youngsters how to use their brains for thinking, the apparent advantages will soon be lost.
Changing Lifestyles and Academics
While society blames educators for academic declines, educators on every level complain that society is sending them children who are ill-prepared to learn. Almost everyone accepts the fact that "disadvantaged" youngsters need special educational attention; few realize that changes in contemporary lifestyles are, affecting even "advantaged" children.
Voices From the Trenches
Dr. Shirley O'Rourke, a thoughtful analyst of the current scene and an energetic public school kindergarten teacher in a "typical" small Midwestern town, has-children in her class from all socioeconomic groups. I asked her if she had observed any significant recent trends in the learning abilities of her students.
"You bet," she responded instantly. "They're neat kids. At this age they can make fantastic progress, but we have to work harder at it these days. And it's not always my children from the higher socio-economic sections of town that do the best," she added quickly. "This is my sixteenth year, and I have found, over about the past seven or eight or so, the children from every neighborhood come with fewer social skills, less language ability, less ability to listen, less motor ability. I have my theories, of course -- the TV, parents being so busy.
"Their social skills, the ability to interact appropriately, they're very rough, too. When I started teaching, children's first reactions would be through conversation; now, before they even find out if anyone accidentally bumped them, it's bam, slug it out -- girls and boys both.
"Their listening is really worse. I always say 'excuse me' when I want them to listen to me; now I find myself having to explain what 'excuse me' means, that it's my turn to talk and their turn to listen. Kids used to know that conversation means taking turns; I don't think they know that now. Everyone wants to talk at the same time.
"Years ago, the children had experiences, their parents took them places, they talked to them instead of at them, they read to them. In sports, the parents would be outside, having fun casually. But today, the experiences are changed, what some adults seem to be calling 'experiences' is to go buy a workbook.
"I can't blame it on the fact that parents are working, because I've seen parents who are both working and doing an excellent job with their children in terms of experiences; I don't know if it is because others are too busy and don't realize how important experiences are. Without experiences, there are no concepts; without concepts, there's no attention span because they don't know what people are talking about."
Dr. O'Rourke remains hopeful, however, about possibilities for filling many of the gaps.
"I have some children from the saddest backgrounds and I will not believe anyone who tells me that a child needs to have all this special help when all they really need is to be actively involved, allowed to talk, allowed to relate to each other, and to use literature to develop that missing language."
In a later chapter we will take a look at some teaching approaches that confirm Dr. O'Rourke's optimism. Clearly, new ideas and energy are needed at every level. In one well-known independent school, another master teacher, veteran of fifteen years in the same third-grade classroom, commented:
"Their attention span has gone way down. It's very short and they tune out all the time. Sometimes they tune out right at the beginning of a lesson or a discussion. One surprising thing -- many of them tune out their peers as well as me! I associate it with TV, but that can't be entirely it because some who are watching the more worthwhile programs are very sophisticated in their knowledge.
"I really hate to generalize because some of them are so good, but many kids have trouble integrating what they learn. It seems that their personal experiences are so skimpy that they have trouble separating from the bang-bang stuff they see on TV. But you know, there are exceptions. I had one kid last year whose IQ was much lower than the rest of my class, but he really did well. His parents were so good -- they read with him a lot, good worthwhile stuff, and they talked and discussed with him. We did one unit on Eskimos, and that father went with him to the library and they picked out two books and came home and they read them to him, and then they discussed them. Now this kid was so literal that if you said something about a 'bird's-eye view' he would go around looking for the bird, but when we talked about Eskimos in class, he really contributed some great insights.
"Then there are many others with much higher IQs whose performance is so poor -- of course you never know how much of that might be a learning disability, but sometimes I think the environments they come out of can make those problems worse through a virtual neglect of enrichment. You might say they're making the worst of what they have rather than the best."
Dr. Arthur Costa, president of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, told me in an interview that he, too, believes there have been widespread changes in students that necessitate some serious educational rethinking.
"Not all kids, of course, but one thing so many are worse at is that they think episodically, they don't draw on past knowledge. Another is the lack of perseverance -- they give up ('I don't want to do this, I don't want to do thinking; thinking is hard work'); another is their impulsivity: they take the first thing that comes to mind, they make immediate judgments, snap, snap. They seem unable to listen to ideas and carry them forth and interact with each other; they're so busy with their own point of view that they can't get into anyone else's thinking. They've also got a sort of lack of awesomeness, curiosity ('Who cares? It's boring, this is dumb!'). I don't want to say all kids; what I am saying is that many kids come to school and they lack motivation, restraint of impulsivity, they're disorganized, they're out of tune with phenomena. Yet these thought processes will be so essential in the future."
Ohio Teacher of the Year Rosemary Gulick, interviewed in her first-grade classroom in a middle-class suburb, thinks poor learning habits become increasingly resistant to change. "Children today are definitely harder to teach. They expect learning to be 'fun,' and they can't wait for anything. Everything is instant. My biggest concern is that they can't think through problems. By the time I get them at age six it's almost too late!"
A visit to Ms. Gulick's classroom soon demonstrated that she hasn't used this as an excuse to give up. "I have to train them to talk, listen, pay attention -- even show them how to work their way through problems; it takes time, but it's worth it!"
Who's Minding the Children's Brains?
In the following chapters we will take a closer look at many interlocking factors of the scenario these educators are describing. New developments in the lives of today's children have the potential to put their brains at risk. The most obvious is increased physical danger from toxic environments, but intellectual hazards are also inherent in some of our society's favorite leisure-time activities, inappropriate educational methods applied to shape up lagging skills, and changing attitudes of adults toward the needs of children. All may be jeopardizing young minds in more subtle but equally significant ways.
Everyone wants our children to be smarter, but is anyone willing to take the responsibility? By 1995 more than three-quarters of all school-age children and two-thirds of preschoolers will have mothers in the labor force. Yet the quality of surrogate care is too often inadequate. It is estimated that 15% of primary-age and 45% of upper-elementary-age children come home to a house without a parent or other adult. As women return to work, community agencies that have traditionally depended on volunteer support are no longer available to extend social networks, sports programs, scouting, and other activities to children who lack enrichment at home. For preschoolers, fewer women are available to take care of other people's children, and makeshift caregiving abounds. Not many fathers have working conditions flexible enough to fill these gaps, and good day care is expensive and hard to come by.
"Because society does not yet wholeheartedly support working mothers, we have done little as a nation to provide optimal substitute care for small children. It is frightening to leave a small child in less than optimal care, and yet 50% of parents do not have adequate daycare available to them," emphasizes Dr. T. Barry Brazelton.
Dr. Susan Luddington-Hoe, an authority on infant development in California, is particularly concerned about the effects of inadequate environments on early brain development. She says that erosion of the quality of interpersonal interactions for youngsters may have long-range effects.
"It's really ironic, just as we're becoming so enlightened as to the importance of the brain's interactions during the first year of its development, we're having fewer interactions! Mothers are looking for other resources to baby-sit their babies, and as mothers pull away from babies, babies are not getting the challenge they need. You visit some infant care centers, and it is so sad; I went to visit one two doors down from me and they have eight to twenty babies there, all under the age of one. I walked in and there was absolutely nothing -- I mean it, no pictures, no toys, nothing. The babies were just sitting there on blankets on this carpeted floor -- this is a licensed, recommended infancy center in California. There were three care-givers: two were Spanish-speaking and one was Iranian; none of them spoke English, but all the babies were English-speaking. Children in settings like this are not getting the optimal brain growth, they're not getting the activity that establishes the cognitive pathways or keeps them moving."
Professionals' concerns do not end with the early years. Continuing changes in language development, personal habits, and problem-solving abilities can be a function of alteration in adult-child interactions even into adolescence.
Dr. Dee Coulter, a Colorado teacher and lecturer on brain development and learning, is concerned about a seeming epidemic of attention and learning problems in older children. She comments, "TV is an easy scapegoat for everything bad that's happening. But I don't know if it's the TV per se, or if it's an indicator that the family has a fairly sparse repertoire of options -- and I'm not just talking about kids in the ghetto. Maybe TV is the only way lots of kids can settle themselves down because no one is there to show them how to work with paint supplies, modeling clay, musical instruments; they have no other nurturance, no one to read them stories, no nature to walk out in, no pets to take care of. We are looking at the absence of all these things in so many children's lives. TV becomes a side effect."
The purpose of this book is not to criticize either parents or teachers. Both groups feel helpless in the face of contemporary pressures, and most do their best. They are fighting an uphill battle, however. Many parents realize only too well that old formulas for family structure and child rearing don't always apply. And while most educators -- many of whom are parents themselves -- would like to help, too many do not understand what is needed. Only when both groups become aware of what is really happening to children today can we all stop blaming each other and start working on solutions.
It makes no sense to blame the kids, although this is an expedient too often seized upon by frustrated adults. Of course, adults of every era lament the fecklessness of the upcoming generation. Cultural change is inevitable, and as the young rise to meet new sets of challenges, generational rifts in priorities naturally occur. In the long run of course, things usually work themselves out (although a cynic might remark that many oft-quoted comments about the unworthiness of youth have been followed by the decline of the civilization in question). It is important to note, however, that within the vehicle of gradual change, parents and teachers have customarily remained at the wheel even while they complained about the noise in the back-seat. From this position of control they continued to guide the mental habits of the young in the directions they deemed appropriate.
Currently, technological and social change have seized the accelerator, propelling us into an uncertain world -- of video, computers, the "global village." In this vigorously bubbling "information age," many adults feel they have little control and perhaps even less knowledge than their children. Unlike their own parents, they may be reluctant to assert themselves against their offspring. The young, who appear to command the new machines -- as well as the mores of the bedroom and the shopping mall -- are sometimes viewed as having more wisdom than they really do. Parents, themselves overwhelmed, abdicate to the peer and popular culture much of the shaping of their children's mental habits.
We have failed to recognize, however, that if a society expects its young to master academic skills and intellectual content, adults must help prepare children's minds accordingly. The purpose of this book is to call attention to the brain's needs, the neural imperatives of childhood and adolescence. Many are currently being violated. What we do with, for, and to our children's growing minds will shape not only their brains but also the intellectual "standards" that represent our cultural future.
The primary thesis of this hook is that we are rearing a generation of "different brains" and that many students' faltering academic skills -- at every socioeconomic level -- reflect subtle but significant changes in their physical foundations for learning. These fundamental shifts put children in direct conflict with traditional academic standards and the methods by which they are usually conveyed. Particularly at risk are abilities for language-related learning (e.g., reading, writing, analytic reasoning, oral expression), sustained attention, and problem solving. The following chapters will attempt to demonstrate how and why these changes are occurring, what should be done about them, and finally, what they may mean in terms of the future. How, specifically, can parents and teachers help children acquire the skills that will be needed in a new technological age?
Copyright © 1990 by Jane M. Healy