Doc Rioux At Large

Ebonics, math scores, and the way children learn

Richard "Doc" Rioux · January 12, 1997

I am the product of private and public schools. I was taught by nuns, priests and brothers through high school before going on to California State University, Northridge and then to the University of Southern California.

It's been well over ten years since I taught school part-time and over twenty years since I taught full-time. When I taught high school, I taught mostly history but did teach an occasional math section or two. I also taught in a junior college and a university.

These experiences, in addition to raising four children of my own while married to a woman who is a marriage and family counselor and who talks about education a lot, have allowed me to reflect on how children really learn.

The current debate over Ebonics in Oakland and the continuing discussion over why U.S. math scores among high school students compare so poorly to those of students in other industrialized nations of the world have raised some core issues that we should all be reviewing.

It is clear by now that children are able to learn different subjects at different times in large measure as a result of their genetic propensities, biological age and social environment.

As their bodies and minds develop from birth through their teen-age years, kids go through stages of growth that make them more or less receptive to certain subjects and ways of learning. Three- and four-year-olds find it far easier to learn new languages than 15- and 16-year-olds. Fifteen- and 16-year-olds in high school are far more likely to understand word problems in math than most of their younger counterparts in elementary schools.

Older kids reason better than younger kids, and younger kids have better memories for detail than older kids. Younger children tend to be more physical and visual, while older children tend to be less physical and given to more reasoned argument.

As a rule of thumb, therefore, the more rote memorization there is in the earlier grades, the better children will learn. The so-called "reformists" in modern education who forced the introduction of reason too early in the teaching of math and other subjects in American schools have met with disaster. The results of the so-called "New Math" and "Fantasy Lunch" have been deplorable. Parents don't know what's going on, can't help their kids, and find most teachers frustrated by the stupidity of the textbooks they're forced to use.

Young children learn best by being required to memorize poems and work out math problems with a pencil, paper and eraser. Take the calculators out of junior and senior high school. We must allow kids to use their brains to reason out problems, and give them problems to work out every night. It really bothers me when my children come home with math problems and don't have to show their work nor how they arrived at the answers. You learn math by doing problems again, again, and yet again.

You can't learn Standard American English well unless you diagram sentences, know the parts of speech, read great authors, write a lot and commit poems to memory. You can't learn American history unless you know the names of the presidents, analyze the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and memorize the dates of major events. You can't paint a Rembrandt if you haven't mastered the skill of drawing faces. You can't get to the moon unless you can calculate the area of a triangle.

This brings me to the matter of Ebonics -- a word derived from the marriage of "ebony" with "phonics" -- which members of the Oakland School Board recently used to describe the speech dialect of some Americans of African descent.

No matter how I've tried to understand the logic of declaring Ebonics a language, I can't escape the view that the effort is demeaning to American children of African descent.

It is one thing to "get down to it" with friends and with family members in the privacy of your own group and speak in the familial and folksy matter that permits you to identify with the cultural roots of a treasured historical past. It is quite another thing to try to elevate the folksy dialect to the level of a language because you think you are better able to reach and educate the children who use it or to justify getting federal money for doing it.

I think the move for Ebonics underscores the gross misunderstanding that many politically correct professional educators have acquired regarding how children learn.

The success of a child must be modeled after the best and the brightest this nation has produced, not the dumbest and dullest. American education must get back to basics and stop experimenting with every educational fad that appears on the scene.

Phonics is far better than the "whole language" approach in teaching children how to read. Memorizing times tables is far more productive for an eight-year-old to do than having him try to reason why people conceived of triangles.

American education is in trouble today because it has sought to substitute concern for building self-esteem in children for the basic educational skills that must be acquired in order to achieve true success in the workplace and beyond. Education remains the most important key to equal opportunity and to ultimate freedom in this country.

Reaching for the highest standards of literacy must be the goal of every school-aged child. And this goal cannot be reached unless our children leave elementary and secondary school with their MEMORIES filled with math formulas, the order of the planets in the solar system, the names of all 50 states, and poems by Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou.

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