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Thanks to volunteers the power of reading is still within grasp

Image: SAMORN TARAPAN/123rf.com

We have a choice to focus on nonsense or on the debilitating crisis that faces our nation’s schools.

This week a brainless report from the Institute of Race Relations resurfaced online with the heading “Educate, don’t indoctrinate,” a supposed call to resist children being indoctrinated with critical race theory in SA’s schools.

Joining their right-wing ideological friends in US schools, the IRR clearly seeks to piggyback on the reactionary lies of zealots on the other side of the Atlantic.

Why is this ideological right-wing fluff?

I have taught in schools in SA (as a job) and in the US (by invitation).

Trust me, schools in either country do not teach critical race theory.

It would be nice if they did, but they don’t.

Some schools do teach about race and racism, slavery and white supremacy and if that constitutes critical race theory, then I invite my friends in the IRR to a free workshop on what the construct actually means.

Perhaps the IRR has run out of liberal ideas, but teaching children about the systemic nature of racism and its lingering effects in society is decidedly not the same thing as the caricature they present: Indoctrinating, shaming, alienating, dividing and purging that targets white citizens.

Absolute nonsense.

Or we could focus on some of the real crises facing our schools as they reopened for full attendance this week.

No more rotational schedules.

And then a friend shared this from a classroom of one of his relatives: grade 8, 23 boys, 28 girls, five absent, total 56. Number of benches: 29.

I posted this information on social media, and then more and more stories came in —  there are many classrooms like this.

It is the start of high school.

And then I remembered those all-white pictures of the top matriculants filling the front page of a newspaper.

The 56 children in the classroom referenced above will not get there, because the inequality is built in from the very start.

This is why more and more education researchers make the point that schools tend to reproduce inequalities in the broader society rather than ameliorate them.

That became crystal clear at the meeting of the Inaugural 2030 Reading Panel that I am a member of and that is very competently chaired by a former deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The goal is for all 10-year olds to be able to read for meaning by 2030.

The hard reality is that only 22% of that group can read now and only 36% are likely to achieve that goal by 2030.

Why? Of all the analyses presented and discussed, the one that received the least attention is the lack of political will at the centre of government.

To be sure, we talk a good game.

The Sona shines with utopian projections from bullet trains to reading kids.

But that’s where it ends.

Where was President George Bush, the son, as planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York?

He was listening to a Florida teacher and her children reading The Pet Goat.

Symbolic, yes, but a powerful message that reading matters.

Apart from political leadership from the top, an effective reading programme with 2030 goals in mind would need a large-scale injection of funding to equip every classroom with the materials and skilled teachers to deliver on set reading commitments.

“Establish a universal external grade 2 assessment of reading,” the panel urged. That would help.

The frustrating thing about the 2030 reading goals is that it is within our reach with leadership, funding and a plan that works.

It truly is not rocket science.

More and more development activists in our country have given up hope of systemic change, for which you need a government.

The voluntary sector might well be the only productive space for reading that makes a difference in the lives of thousands of children, if not the millions, when government leads and funds a national intervention.

Poorer countries have lifted themselves out of illiteracy through national campaigns.

We are distracted by real criminality within the state and the kind of moral panics that the IRR peddles.

The kind of reading we have in mind is not simply about following the symbols in a book.

It is about reading for meaning. It is about reading across the curriculum.

As the erudite Prof Njabulo Ndebele, also a panel member, shared at the meeting: He started to excel at mathematics when a talented teacher opened his eyes to the language of mathematics.

That is powerful reading and it is within our grasp.



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