Why Can’t Johnny Read?

I just met with a superintendent and her associate for a school district event in Georgia. My respect for them went up as we talked.

We found ourselves drifting to the topic of student success and the ineffectiveness of schools today. As educators, I suspected they might be a bit defensive. They were not in the least. In fact, they got quite candid.

We discussed the age-old question that has sparked recent debate in America:  Why can’t Johnny read?

This question can be taken quite literally. In his book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein reveals that reading scores have dropped again in elementary, middle and high school students today. They are far lower in the U.S. than other developed nations. The question, however, can be discussed philosophically as well. It isn’t just reading that has gone south. Other subjects in school and other issues in society have failed to capture the imagination of students today. So, I asked the assistant superintendent point blank:  Why can’t Johnny read?

Her answer was simple and direct: “Because Johnny doesn’t have to, that’s why.”

In both schools and in government, we have created so many safety nets — students figure out the system. Kids will never fail. We won’t let them. We will find ways to pass them through and bail them out. We don’t want to harm their self-esteem. We don’t want our system to appear it has failed. We certainly don’t want other countries looking at our education stats and laughing. And we don’t want moms and dads unhappy that their son isn’t passing the third grade. So, we find ways to prop them up and move them forward.

Perhaps the saddest part about this story is that this reality does not bear the slightest resemblance to the real world these kids will soon enter as adults. There really are winners and losers in life. Now don’t get me wrong. There doesn’t’ have to be — but there are. Each of us can find places to win in life — in work and at home. But… we’ve dumbed down the incentive for students to achieve as soon as they figure out that adults will do the work for them.

May I get philosophical for a moment? America was built on risk, work, initiative, failure, pioneering, and determination. I wonder if these words will soon be found only in our history books. Today, I’m afraid we’ve prepared the path for the child, instead of preparing the child for the path.

It might be tempting to assume that this is just the world we live in today. Kids just don’t work or study hard any more. Really? This superintendent shared with me she’d just returned from South Korea. While she was there, she discovered that 85% of Korean students go to college. (We cannot even get 85% to graduate high school.)  Further, many high schools in Seoul have wings in their buildings that are left open at night until 11:30 p.m. so that students can come and study. There is no adult supervision. None is necessary. They have incentive to study.  They won’t make it in life unless they do.

I should be clear that I love kids. I want them to possess a healthy self-esteem. I don’t want them to experience devastating failure. I want them to be confident as they move from backpack-to-briefcase. I just think all of this happens when we let them experience life as it really is. My best learning happened when I failed. In that moment, what I needed were adults who believed in me and told me so… but didn’t do the work for me. I like myself best when I work hard and achieve. My greatest sense of personal satisfaction comes when I get back up after failing and overcome. Sadly, we may have millions of emerging adults today who never experience this satisfaction because they’re bored, lack ambition and have no incentive to achieve.

I sure hope Johnny learns to read soon. He’s going to need to when he grows up.

Your thoughts?


Why Can’t Johnny Read?