Dr. Andrew Bernstein is not only a friend of mine and a contributing editor of this journal, he’s a college professor with decades of experience and the author of numerous essays and books, most recently Why Johnny Still Can’t Read or Write or Understand Math: And What We Can Do About It. He joined me recently on the Philosophy for Flourishing podcast to discuss the problems with American schools today, along with some inspiring solutions. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Jon Hersey: What’s the story behind the title of your new book?
Andrew Bernstein: In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote a famous book called Why Johnny Can’t Read. He was an Austrian immigrant who knew that in most of Western Europe, children hardly ever struggled to learn to read. And that was true in the United States, too, prior to WWI. After WWI, you see this big uptick in children struggling to read. Flesch showed that the school system had largely done away with phonics, the tried-and-true method of teaching reading: You teach children the letters of the alphabet, the sounds that the letters make, the sounds that the combinations of letters make, and so on. The overwhelming majority of children, by the time they’re four or five years old, understand and can speak thousands of words. And when you teach them phonics, they can match the verbal sounds they already know to the literary symbols on the page. It’s an extremely effective method of teaching reading, and it was used for a long time. Yet, the American school system was set against it, instead pushing what they called the “whole word method,” which doesn’t work. And that’s why Flesch wrote his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read.
Hersey: And what you’re saying in your book is that we haven’t solved this problem in the nearly seventy years since Flesch published his book.
Bernstein: The trend line, unfortunately, has been downward. The biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—also called the Nation’s Report Card—has been abysmal. It tests fourth and eighth graders. The scores of American students have long been low, and the 2019 scores largely went down compared to 2017. The only subject in which the scores went up was in math; I think fourth graders’ average scores went up from 240 out of 500 to 241. Now, I was never the world’s best math student. But even I know 240 out of 500 is 48 percent. And the reading scores are terrible, too. Whether we look at the national NAEP test, or the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, the American students score poorly. By the way, I don’t want to depress people, but Project Baltimore recently reported that many high-school students are reading at a first-grade level. That’s heartbreaking. Yet, this is not uncommon in America today.
Hersey: What effects of this have you seen firsthand? . . .
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1. See Jon Hersey, “Public School Pandemonium Teaches a Valuable Lesson,” The Objective Standard, November 3, 2021, https://theobjectivestandard.com/2021/11/public-school-pandemonium-teaches-a-valuable-lesson/.
2. For more on Marva Collins, see Carrie-Ann Biondi, “Marva Collins, Her Method, and Her ‘Philosophy for Living,’” The Objective Standard, August 30, 2018, https://theobjectivestandard.com/2018/08/marva-collins-her-method-and-her-philosophy-for-living/.