I am surprised that, to the best of my knowledge, Beth Fertig’s new book, Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read? (published by Farrar, Strauus and Giroux), has received so little attention It is a very good book—well written, fair and even suspenseful in its own way.
The book contains multiple story lines, mostly complementary and some overlapping, that provide a panoramic view of what public education in New York City (and its consequences) has looked like in the last few years. The book is inspired most of all by a deep-seated concern for the well-being and futures of the three young adults—Yamilka and Alejandro (sister and brother) and Antonio–whose stories are the central thread of the narrative. Each of the three had arrived at late adolescence or early adulthood without having learned to read.
Fertig accompanies the three stories with an account of the Department of Education’s accountability strategy and how that strategy played out in the schools—including some of the schools that the three young adults attended. Along the way, she also provides helpful summaries of a range of theoretical perspectives on learning to read, learning disabilities, and alternative models of reading/writing instruction—the applications of some of which have significant presences in the city’s schools (for example, the Teachers College Reading Writing Project or Wilson Reading—a method for teaching phonics). Her intent of situating the personal stories against the institutional and theoretical contexts is to pose the question if the Department’s reforms would reduce the likelihood that the city’s public schools would be so inadequate to the challenge of educating students like Yamilka, Alejandro and Antonio in the future.
Fertig met her three subjects several years ago when she was pursuing a story for WNYC—where she is a senior reporter covering education and city affairs—on low graduation rates for students in Special Education (fewer than 1% of students in District 75 at the time were earning regular high school diplomas at that time). The young people were being represented by lawyers for Advocates for Children in impartial hearings conducted to determine if they had been provided an appropriate education and, if not, to allocate funds for compensatory services. All were successful in their legal claims and were awarded substantial funds to enable them to secure tutoring provided by private companies. All told, their awards came to over three hundred thousand dollars.
The young people’s experiences in and out of school were often painful and it is evident how hurt they had been. By way of example, Yamilka refused to attend her high school “graduation” where she would have received her Certificate of Completion. She told Fertig, “It was not meaningful for me. One cannot pretend to be around other kids, to be laughing and having a good time. See, I knew in my heart that it had no meaning. That they didn’t help me. For why was I going to waste my time? For why was I going to waste twenty bucks on cap and gown?”
In all three cases, a great deal of attention would have had to have been paid if the young students were going to be successful. All three had difficulties with English and all three had been diagnosed as being in need of special education services. Often enough, it seems as if no one in their various schools was really paying all that much attention to them—although there was a good deal of documentation of their journeys through the special ed classification labyrinth. As someone who has been and remains quite skeptical about the usefulness of diagnoses of learning disabilities as an alternative to consistently good teaching for many students, I’d still acknowledge that it’s clear that some students need much more than others and these young people got far less than they needed.
In spite of the painful memories, each one takes another chance to learn through the newly funded services. The stories of what happens as Yamilka, Alejandro and Antonio attempt to start over once again are remarkably different one from the other and, at the end, tentatively hopeful.
I’d like to highlight the author’s remarkable descriptions of the many public school classrooms, GED classes, and tutoring sessions conducted by private organizations that she visited and recorded on her travels across the city. Fertig’s many years in radio have served her well since she relies on the “voices” of principals, teachers, tutors and students to convey a sense of what is and is not going on. My sense is that she must have been able to convince many dozens of educators, as well as students (including her three protagonists), that she was not interested in trashing them because they appear to speak so unguardedly. And it’s their recorded words that reveal so much of potential value for those committed to improving public education.
In one of her asides on theoretical matters, Fertig appears to agree with researchers who argue for the importance of early language learning and who also claim that children in poor families suffer from a language deficit as they enter school. I’m skeptical about the certainty of those claims (especially the latter) but I am sure that good schooling should be characterized by lots of language being used. In any case, it would appear to be a sensible follow on that those who were deprived of language use either in their homes or in previous school experiences should be given lots of opportunities to participate in it—the “it” being real language being used for more or less genuine purposes. This is doubly true when students are also trying to become fluent in a new language.
Students’ uses of language (in both the texts that they are asked to read and the conversations they are asked to engage in) that Fertig captures are very varied—from stilted and artificial at one end to spontaneous and genuine at the other. In addition, on the basis of her conversations with principals and teachers, it appears that they are frequently recycling notions that have achieved some popular currency within the everyday lives of the city’s educators (my favorite is the complaint that “texting” is what’s making student writing so bad) rather than probing the complexities of what is and is not going on with their students.
Fertig never makes explicit her views on these and other matters related to language and I don’t know if she would share much of my assessment at all. I’d like to talk to her about it. But most of all, I hope that many principals and teachers engage in conversations of their own about the book and its relation to the work they do every day and the social and educational contexts within which that work occurs.
PS. In 1978, I began working as a tutor in a Basic Education program at the Brooklyn House of Detention, a facility on Atlantic Avenue that held adults awaiting trial who could not make or were not eligible for bail. My first students really didn’t know how to read at all. In my desperate, and quite ignorant, efforts to figure out what to do, I prepared flash cards for them to look at and call out the words. I wish I could do most of it over again. In any case, I appreciate how difficult it can be to teach someone to read who didn’t learn to do so the first time.