You keep using that word -- 03/12/13

There was a news item a few days ago with the headline Officials: Most NYC High School Grads Need Remedial Help Before Entering CUNY Community Colleges and a subheading of "Basic Skills Like Reading, Writing And Math Need To Be Re-Learned"

In the article, it states that "Nearly 80 percent of New York City high school graduates need to relearn basic skills before they can enter the City University's college system." Further on, it says "They had to re-learn basic skills -- reading, writing and math -- first before they could begin college courses." The news story ends with "In sheer numbers it means that nearly 11,000 kids who got diplomas from city high schools needed remedial courses to re-learn the basics".

The word relearn implies that something had been learned and then forgotten. Thus, it had to be learned again. In June they were able to read and write and do math with sufficient skill to have earned a high school diploma and then in the space of a few summer weeks they were struck by some terrible mental plague that wiped out all of those skills so that they needed remedial training before they could meet minimum standards.

As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

A more likely explanation is that they never learned these basic skills in the first place.

They did not learn how to read and understand what they were reading only to be mysteriously struck with illiteracy. They did not learn how to express ideas in clear and coherent writing only to have this skill evaporate over a few summer nights. They did not learn how to solve mathematical problems -- perhaps even to use elementary algebra -- only to be suddenly reduced to adding with their fingers.

They did not learn, but they were passed along from grade to grade, then they received high school diplomas to testify to their supposed learning, and then they were accepted into college. I won't attempt to speculate on how much of this is the fault of incompetent teachers, although it certainly indicts the school administration of the City of New York as being criminally incompetent. Back in June they were bragging about what great strides they had made in reducing the number of students who left school without graduating. However, that is only a worthwhile accomplishment if they actually educate those students; otherwise it is simply a waste of time and money.

(By the way, the inconsistent spelling of "relearn" is copied from the original news item. I realize that a spell checker might accept it both with and without the hyphen, but surely a copy editor -- if not the "journalist" -- should have changed this to match their house style guidelines.)

After I used FTP to send this to the server, I read (SF writer) Sarah Hoyt's blog entry that was triggered by this same news item. Based on my experience as a student in public schools, as a student in "education" courses, as a former high school teacher, as someone who has also taught in college and designed, developed, and taught training courses for high-tech industry -- and as a parent -- I must say that there is a lot of truth in what she says..

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