Prose Synthesis Essay

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In 2013 a study by the US Department of Education showed that only 32 percent of American fourth-graders are reading at or above the proficiency of their grade level. One out of every 3 students in America have scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test. the United States was once the leading country in every aspect, including education, but now it has fallen behind to 17th place in reading scores when compared internationally. What has caused this dramatic drop in proficiency among American students? In the essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”, writer Francine Prose exposes and examines the fallen standards and serious flaws in current US education.

In her essay Prose calls out the methods in which children are being taught in American schools. She believes that America has fallen so far behind because teachers are forcing children to read classic literature in a way that leaves the student with no appreciation of the book nor the author, and instead students are “informed that literature is principally a vehicle for the soporific moral blather they suffer daily from their parents” (Paragraph 15, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”, Francine Prose). Students are, instead of closely reading and analyzing a text to understand the true meaning, forced to examine superficial topics within a novel and apply them in a way that has no benefit towards education or the grasping of the text, and leaves the student resenting not only the teacher and assignment, but the author and the novel itself. Teachers are no longer teaching the book, but teaching for some outlook that the author may or may not have had. A book is no longer read for the story it provides but is read for who the author is and what they represent. Prose mentions a motion passed in 1999 by the San Francisco Board of Education mandating that “works of literature read in class in grades nine to eleven by each high school student must include works by writers of color which reflect the diversity of culture, race, and class…” (Paragraph 16, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”, Francine Prose). Has America really become so sensitive towards the topic of race that schools are forced to rearrange their reading lists to make sure than an author “of color” is represented in every class at least once every year? And not only the author, but the book must represent a race “of color” and the culture they represent.

Has America wandered so far from the appreciation of literature that it is more concerned with keeping a couple racially-proud parents happy than with teaching children quality works of classical literature? Education has become so concerned with keeping the adults happy that the children are being left behind.

Despite the strict guidelines put on reading lists students are still being exposed to what is still considered by Prose to be “masterpieces”. The books are being read nationwide by students of all races and abilities, yet student have no knowledge of how to read an interpret classical and complex literature. What is the explanation for the failure of these students? Prose proposes that “The explanation, it turns out, lies in how these books, even then best of them, are being presented in the classroom. (…) Only rarely do teachers propose that writing might be worth reading closely”. She goes on to say “The present vogue for teaching ‘values’ through literature uses the novel as a springboard for the sort of discussion formerly conducted in civics or ethics classes – areas of study that, in theory, have been phased out of the curriculum but that, in fact, have been retained and cleverly substituted for what we used to call English”.

Teachers, instead of actually teaching skills that benefit the student in reading and comprehension, and instead of allowing the students to closely read a text and analyze the lasting effect and purpose, are given superficial topics to discuss and assignments to complete. Students are given assignments that contribute to America’s glorified purpose of being a diverse country, and are forced to take approaches to a novel that are poised towards surface-level basic points of view that help aid the image that the US is trying to uphold. Instead of pointing out the astonishing way Mark Twain convincingly captured the inner workings of Huck’s mind and narrates the voice of a child who is confused of his surroundings and life itself, students are made to answer why, oh why would Mark Twain ever use “the n-word” so many times? He was a known racist, do you think that this showed in the book? Prose uses the classic Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, a celebrated and successful literary genius, as an example of the wrongdoings in the classroom. She states that “(…) teachers pretend to spark discussion but actually prevent it” (Paragraphs 34-35, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”, Francine Prose). Students are no longer able to read a novel and fall in love with the story, characters, and morals, but are being oppressed by their assignments and the way it is being taught. The story is being twisted so that instead of the reader being captured by it, they are viewing it as yet another ethical and humanistic lesson in race and how good American children should think.

Prose believes that the American Education system is flawed. She believes that no matter how many books a students reads, no matter how many assignments they are given, no matter how many life lessons are forced down their throat, the way they are being taught will not benefit them. Students are coming out of high school completely unprepared for college and the intensely rigorous way in which they are supposed to read. Not only are students unable to read closely, but they are levels behind where they should be in the areas of reading ability and comprehension.

The problem concerning this appreciation for reading however, cannot be entirely blamed on the system. The home lives of children and the support they receive outside of school is vital to their success. The essay “Superman and Me” by Sherman Alexie details the life of a young boy who learned how to read at the age of 3 by a Superman comic book. Alexie claims that he had inspiration from his father, “My father loved books, and since I loved my father with aching devotion, I decided to love books as well.” This statement by Alexie proved that not only are the people that a child surrounds themselves with (or are just surrounded by) are incontrovertibly important to a child’s growth in school and reading. It also supports the idea that someone makes the decision to love literature. The ability to love or hate something is always a choice, and a person must make a decision. The decision that Alexie made to love reading proves that a love and appreciation for literature is a choice that one can make, and is dependent on the people and methods brought forth to them, usually at a very young age.

Alexie goes on to describe the experiences he had while learning knew things. Although he didn’t have the vocabulary that extended to the word “paragraph”, he understood what it was and could apply it literally or figuratively. “I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph of the United States. My family’s house was a paragraph, distinct from the other paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south, and the Tribal School to the west.”

Alexie was able to understand a basic term, a structural device used in every literary component, and apply it to humans, to places, to the words themselves. He hadn’t spent a day in school yet he understood it and appreciated it. Alexie goes on to talk about how he was able to look at pictures in the comic book and apply them to the words above, and in that was he learned to read. He grew to appreciate literature and the things he saw around him, becoming an author, poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker. He lived a hard life on an American Indian reservation with an alcoholic father, yet he was able to take from his father the love and appreciation for literature and reading. Alexie’s personal anecdote proves that the people surrounding a child can truly affect their experience in school and their choice to enjoy or despise reading. No matter where a child comes from, when given the right tools and taking the right approach, they can come to comprehend and appreciate literature and reading.

A popular documentary that not only is in agreeance with Prose’s claims and challenges towards the American educational system, but further proves her point, is “Waiting for ‘Superman'”. This documentary hit theaters in 2010 and exposed the American educational system, casting it under a very negative light. “Waiting for ‘Superman'” exposed the ineffective and nonchalant way teachers are educating students in the classroom and how the Board of Education is doing nothing about it.

“You wake up every morning and you know kids are getting a really crappy education right now” (Michelle Rhee, “Waiting for ‘Superman'”). Michelle Rhee, during the film, was the superintendent of the DC school district, and a strong fisted reformist who believed that to stop this failing country to dig its educational trench any deeper, dramatic changes had to be made. During her term she dismissed 241 teachers and shut down 23 schools. The low performance of both the teachers and the schools angered Rhee to the point that she gave absolutely no chance for turn around, she merely got rid of them. The prompt end to schools and jobs caused outrage and immediate attention nationwide, and Rhee became either the most admired or most hates woman in America, depending on who you were talking to. She stated “I think if there is one thing I have learned over the last 15 months, it’s that cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated” (Michelle Rhee, September 2008 Aspen Institute’s education summit at the Mayflower Hotel).

Rhee’s was not the only one outraged by what was and is going on in schools in the US. Geoffrey Canada, an education reformer and the main voice behind the documentary, has his mind set on exposing the system and righting the wrongs made by the people before him. He believes that “Either kids are getting stupider each year, or something is wrong in the education system” (Geoffrey Canada, “Waiting for ‘Superman'”). Canada started a chain of public schools across America offering children of low-income homes the opportunity to have a quality education, an opportunity that comes far and in between for many in America.

Waiting for “Superman” mentions something known as the “lemon dance” that brings to light just how badly children have been wronged by the leaders controlling their education. The Lemon Dance refers to something that happens every year among schools: low performing teachers are passed from their current school on to the next one to rid the current of their uselessness, and then other low performing teachers are welcomed to that same school in the hopes that they will improve. The Lemon Dance allows low performing teachers to keep their jobs (that most teachers have guaranteed to them because of tenure), and also guarantees that schools can’t be pegged or blamed for their teachers because if a teacher performs badly they “let them go” at the end of the school year. The Lemon Dance is only one thing that the education system does to keep the adults happy and is neglectful towards the students who should be the focus.

The documentary is nearly 2 hours long and caused such a reaction among the people that a documentary was made in response to it called “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman” which backed up all the claims made against the system in “Waiting for ‘Superman'”. The truth behind the matter is simple, the Board of Education has become more concerned with keeping the adults happy than with providing quality education to students that they deserve. If public schools graduation rates haven’t even exceeded 3/4 of students, how is America to succeed? Students become the people, and people become the leaders, leaders become the people who run the Board of Education. If more and more students are graduating high school with a fourth-grade reading level, how will our leaders react to the people coming into jobs? Are people only going to learn through specific experience? Public education is failing, more and more people are traveling through the streets illiterate and uneducated. The public is becoming a confused, and scared place.

“The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society” by Jonathan Kozol is an essay with the purpose of bringing to light the toll illiteracy takes on people in their day-to-day lives, and what a danger it is to American society. Kozol blames public schooling for the exponential growth in illiteracy in America, and gives example after example of how illiteracy is adding to the colossal heap of ruin that the streets of America are becoming. In his introduction Kozol describes a dream. In this dream, he finds himself in a strange city. He does not know where he is, and he cannot read the signs around him. He reaches for his dictionary but he has misplaced it, he tries to ask for help but only receives strange looks, he struggles to find his ID card but it was confiscated. “This panic is not so different from the misery that millions of adult illiterates experience each day within the course of their routine existence in the U.S.A”. People everywhere on the streets of America are struggling to merely make their way to the store, to buy necessities, to pay bills, everyday things that others take for granted. They have no way of reading a warning, a notice on their front door, an announcement that blinks across the bottom of their TV, a bill, all of this proving that: “Illiterates live, in more than literal ways, in uninsured existence”. 32 million people in America are illiterate. 14% of America’s population can’t even read the headline of a newspaper, they can’t read anything.

Many illiterates seen in America today have been to school, they have been exposed to America’s education system. It has, most obviously, failed them. Some people have been through school to the age of 16, yet they still can’t even read. They feel that they are not worthy of an education, Kozol quoted a girl he met, “I came out of school. I was sixteen. They had their meetings. The directors met. They said I was wasting their school paper. I was wasting pencils…”. The broken sentences spoken by this person are proof of the damage that public school has done to not only one woman, but to thousands of people living in America. A 16 year old girl feeing unworthy of an education that is free in America… whose fault is this? The teacher? The Teacher’s union? The Board of Education? The nation? Or perhaps it is the peoples’ fault. There is no real exact component in the journey of one’s education to blame for the failure. Each component is working alongside another. They flow into one another, they are each existent only because of the other.

“Not knowing (…) Not knowing the right word for the right thing at the right times one form of subjugation. Not knowing the world that lied concealed behind those words is a more terrifying feeling. The latitude and longitude of one’s existence are beyond all easy apprehension. Even the hard, cold stars with the firmament above one’s head begin to mock the possibilities for self-location. Where am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go?”. Illiterates are lost. They can’t comprehend even the easiest of things. They are, in nearly all things, lost. Illiteracy is a curse and a burden in America’s society. Schools have failed the people, and the country is exploiting the people, blaming them for giving the US a bad image, rather than trying to find the root of the problem. Illiterates can try to help themselves, but can only do so much. It’s not like they can pick up a book and read up on how to overcome illiteracy.

America has fallen behind in not only reading, but in everything. An article published by the New York Times by the Editorial Board in October, 2013 showed statistics that proved all the claims. In “The United States, Falling Behind” the numbers proved that America’s promise to provide a free and just education to all its people has been a feeble attempt at best. Despite the warning given that the US will lose its ground unless it provided more citizens with high-level science, math, and literacy, the public schools have continued pushing children through school without the students showing any sign of advancement or comprehension. A report done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, focusing on people from the ages of 16 to 26 in 24 different countries, showed that America was “weak-to-poor” in all three areas of literacy, science, and math. In literacy the US adults scored a grim 12 percent in high-level abilities.

One in six Americans scored near the bottom, while one in twenty Japanese scored near the bottom. “Some countries are making progress from generation to generation. But in the United States (…) the literacy and numeracy skills of young people coming into the labor market are not better than those who are about to retire” (Paragraph 6, “The United States, Falling Behind”). Other countries expanded access to education, improved teacher training, and took other steps that ensured they would move ahead in education. America has done none of this, and it shows in the numbers. As the New York Times said: “If that (new policies and improvements) does not happen soon, the country will pay a long-term price.”

America is failing academically. If there is one thing that can be taken from all this, it is the fact that there is something going wrong somewhere in the education system. Why are students failing out? Americans are walking around illiterate or well near illiteracy either having given up or searching for some solution, but don’t even know what the problem is. The answer is simple. The problem is not the teachers, the Teacher’s Union, the Board of Education, or the president. The problem is not the news exploiting everyone and everything. The problem is not a lack in technology or support internationally. The problem is not America’s preoccupation with other affairs. The problem is the people, the people as a whole, Americans. Everyone in the US can recite the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all”, but where is the justice for the children being cheated out of an education? Kids have to stand up every day, place their hand over their heart, and swear allegiance to the American flag and the country and system that it represents, a system that is failing them. Why aren’t the people coming together to find a solution? Perhaps they believe that is the leaders’ jobs.

The superintendents and Board leaders should be the ones that dictate and decide on what goes on in American public schools, but people are unhappy with how they are doing their jobs. Have there been rallies to overthrow them, or get new people in? Strikes have indeed occurred, but only when rulings or events take place that specifically strike a chord in the people. Why has this chord not been stricken? Where is the student strike? There will never be one, because students are sitting putting their faith in their teachers, hoping they will be ready for college and will succeed. For the children of America to succeed there must be a change in the American education system, and without the people nothing, nothing, will ever happen. Prose believes that schools are creating robots, that the way orders are being passed down from authority to authority, from teacher to student, is dysfunctional. The students are not getting what they need, they can only recite information and facts, spitting them out into little bubbles labeled “A, B, C, D”. The line starts at the top and comes down, it is a chain of events that can be stopped by nothing but an intervention. Without the people there will be no intervention. Nothing will change. People are the change, they must come together and make the change. That is the only solution.

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