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How did California’s system of public education drop from No.1 in the nation decades ago to dead last? Simple. California embraced the whole-language method of reading instruction.

That is the practice of memorizing whole words, referred to as “sight words,” in place of learning letters, the sounds they make, rules for pronunciation, decoding and phonics.

As reported in the 1995 National Assessment of Educational Progress, California came in dead last for reading. Following that disaster, state lawmakers passed legislation to mandate phonics reading instruction.

Unfortunately for students, sight words are still included in reading instruction. Sight words are more fun because the results are immediate. Short words and phrases repeated over and over — “See the cat” — can be learned quickly. Students and their parents are excited the child is reading.

Teaching sight words early cripples the brain for reading, often for life. However, phonemes, direct units of sound, have been traced back 50,000 years to Africa. The brain is prepared to learn language at birth. The phonics foundation, letter/sound connections in the left hemisphere of the brain, are ready to go.

Instead, sight words are promoted. Words as pictures, or word shapes is a right brain hemisphere activity. With enough practice over time, when the eyes see text, the right hemisphere, picture side of the brain goes to work. This miseducation process teaches the left, reading side of the brain to sleep, crippling the child for reading proficiency.

“Reading in the Brain” by Stanislas Dehaene is an excellent source for a greater understanding of the science of reading. In addition, The National Council on Teacher Quality just published a report, “Case Closed,” which includes brain activity imaging while reading.

Effective curriculum and instruction are the simple solution to reading failure for rich, poor, all colors and genders. Teach phonics and only phonics. We have been aware of this since 1955 and Rudolph Flesch’s groundbreaking book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”

The math failure solution is simple as well. Common core math is taught in California schools, but was not created to teach higher-level math. A documentary detailing the disaster is available free at “Building the Machine.”

The math solution is to provide students effective math curriculum and instruction, old-fashioned math. Math hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. Los Angeles high school teacher Jaime Escalante proved all students were capable of learning math, immortalized in the film “Stand and Deliver.” Expectations, effective curriculum and instruction are the determining factors, not skin color or wealth.

Effective curriculum and instruction would save roughly half of the cost of education, let alone save millions of lives. Imagine trying to navigate an independent life in the information age, having been denied the opportunity to learn the basic skills of reading and math.

Mental illness, homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse and depression may all be the result of this man-made disaster paid for with our tax dollars.

According to “The Rising Curve,” edited by Neisser, children are entering school smarter than ever before. IQ is rising three points every decade — too fast to be genetic, they believe it is environmental.

These smart kids get to school and hit a mental wall. When they start reacting to the lack of challenge and all the confusion embedded in the curriculum nonsense, trouble starts. When seeking solutions for student failure, educators are taught to focus on the student. The actual remedy lies in the curriculum.

It’s time we focus on student learning and achievement. Student learning should guide all decision-making in education accompanied by valid measures of accountability for the institution.

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Deb Andrews is a Lompoc resident.

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