Open Letter: Why Johnny Can’t Read?
illustration by randall nelson

Open Letter: Why Johnny Can’t Read?

We can do much more to improve Minnesota students' math and reading scores.

To: Dr. Heather Mueller

Minnesota Commissioner of Education
Minnesota Department of Education
400 NE Stinson Blvd.
Minneapolis, MN 55413

Dear Commissioner Mueller:

We have just finished an election cycle, and the usual political keen was heard about the decline in our public schools. This is not the first time headlines have underscored educational underperformance. In 1955, Dr. Rudolf Flesch wrote a national bestseller, Why Johnny Can’t Read. It was a bestseller for 37 weeks. Dr. Flesch blamed reading underperformance on the “whole word” (instead of phonics) teaching methodology. Parenthetically, you can always tell a person who learned to read by identifying “whole words” instead of phonics; they can’t spell. At the same time, a movie was released that highlighted the status of education in urban high schools: Blackboard Jungle. The movie had a profound impact on the way people viewed urban high schools as dangerous and threatened by (quaint phrase) juvenile delinquents.

These may sound like ancient headlines, but today there is a more complicated and terrifying reality. The reality is that ACT test scores dropped to the lowest in 30 years nationwide. Minnesota just released its Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA), which indicated that only 45% of students were proficient in math and only 51% were on track in reading in the spring of 2022. The National Center for Education Statistics concluded that the country saw its largest decrease in reading scores in three decades. It gets worse.

According to Minneapolis interim superintendent Rochelle Cox, the district learns weekly of another high school sporting event across the country that ends in gunshots. At least one local school district is quietly lining its classrooms with ballistic paneling to protect students in the event of an armed attack. In the 1950s, the threat to a school might have been a switchblade knife. Not so today. All other things being equal, and viruses aside, it is difficult to concentrate on your math or reading when you are dodging bullets. It gives a whole new meaning to the “duck and cover” classroom drill.

School shootings are becoming normalized. Prior to the recent election, three people were cut down by a drive-by shooting in front of Minneapolis South High School at 3 p.m. One of them was a 15-year-old student. All three were hospitalized with potentially life-threatening injuries. That news, which in the past would have been on the front page, was covered in four short paragraphs on page B6 inside the local newspaper. No arrests have been made.

But arrests should be made, criminals should be apprehended, and violent criminals should be locked up. Funding adequate police resources and backing that up with judges and county prosecutors who will not allow dangerous criminals back in our communities would have a positive educational benefit. So would laws that make it more difficult to access gun ownership. And it would help if people were more supportive of public education.

If the Minnesota Department of Education revealed that May Day would be a new education day devoted to the study of satanic fertility rights, complete with requiring all students to develop a fertility plan in consultation with their teacher, my fear is that a number of citizens would believe it. In fact, a similar situation just occurred, with the ridiculous rumor that schools now provide litter boxes for children (called “furries”) identifying as cats. During this election cycle, the Republican gubernatorial candidate warned about such school litter boxes at a political rally. Minnesota briefly became the butt of national humor when comedian John Oliver pointed out that the use of kitty litter boxes in schools would not be a piece of news broken by an obscure state representative from Minnesota, but rather by a national news outlet or, more likely, some student or teacher using an iPhone. The fact that such a claim would be passed on by a major candidate running for governor was left to the voters of this state. But the lack of trust shown by a willingness to embrace even the most outlandish stories about our public education system is not a hoax, it is a serious concern.

In Minnesota, the average per-pupil expenditure in public school is approximately $13,000 a year; compare that to the average prison costs of $40,000 per inmate. Teacher salaries vary a great deal in Minnesota, but the average teacher salary, according to ZipRecruiter, is approximately $38,000 a year. We can do better. More funds, spent wisely, would pay dividends. Many charter schools in Minnesota—for example, the schools run by Friends of Education—outperform similarly situated public schools. It may be time for the Department of Education, over the probable objections of the teachers unions, to examine why this is the case. My guess is that charter schools, which are public schools, enjoy the confidence and support of families to a greater degree than other public schools.

So here we are post-pandemic, with declining school test results. Johnny still can’t read, and the blackboards are becoming ballistic grade. It is our duty and that of the next gubernatorial administration to do a lot better.

Sincerely yours,

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