K–12: Warren Buffett Missed a Big Opportunity

Warren Buffett, reputed to be one of the smartest men in the world, jumped into the newspaper business eight years ago.  Last week, he jumped back out.  What happened?  He was losing money, that's what.

Eight years ago, I wrote a rude article on AT about the print media committing suicide.  They need readers, millions and millions of readers.  Did they ever put pressure on the public schools  to do a better job with reading instruction?  No.  Apparently, the who-cares-about-literacy-approach was fine with them.  Newspaper people did not seem to grasp that they were committing suicide.  Here we are, eight years later.  Only one third of public school students are proficient in reading.  There are probably fewer people in the country who can actually read and understand a newspaper, so fewer newspapers will be read — an obvious story, but try to find it in the archives of your local newspaper.

Reading is the central problem.  Here is the larger failure.  Students are not learning geography and history — i.e., people and places.  So how can they understand a newspaper, even if, strictly speaking, they can read?  As adults, why would they even try to read a paper?  It will always be unfamiliar territory.

Apparently, the Media Establishment doesn't dare tell the Education Establishment: Hey, you incompetent people are doing a terrible job.  Don't you know that you could do a much better job on the basics, especially reading?  You could help the children, help the community, and help the country.  You could demand that the schools do what is easily done and thereby help us sell more papers.

Did Warren Buffett, when he became the owner of 31 daily papers, do any better?  Or try different approaches?  Did he tell his editors to demand more from local schools?  Apparently not.  Apparently, people in the newspaper business accept illiteracy as a part of daily life, even though this attitude will slowly kill the newspapers themselves.

In the stories about the sale of Buffett's newspapers, there is mention of efficiency and scaled management.  But there seems to be no notion of efficiency in the educational system.  Kids can spend six or even twelve years in American K–12 and graduate illiterate.  This is the least efficient and most expensive approach to education imaginable.  You pay each year to teach the same subject over and over again, in a way known not to work very well.

Here's what they should've done.  Warren Buffett's editors should've had meetings with the education officials and said: Kids must learn to read in first grade.  Make this happen, or we will start screaming.  We'll put your picture in the paper with captions such as: Why doesn't this lady care about reading?

At that point, the ed professors would start yammering sophistries and alibis.  Their excuses would have this much substance: yada, yada, yada.  The reality is, you have to teach English phonics if you want children to read English.  Our Education Establishment, never the brightest, has opposed phonics since 1931.  But somebody like Warren Buffett and the combined weight of all those newspapers could certainly make a 

The obvious need is to promote reading and the enjoyment of books in every way you can think of.  That's the great opportunity Warren Buffett missed.  He could've put more pressure on the schools to teach reading, and then reap the benefits when millions of people who never became fluent readers would've been reading his newspapers all these years.

In the future, a company named Lee Enterprises will run all of Buffett's papers and many more.  Will they now be managed with the same scant concern for literacy that we have seen in the past?  Apparently, the plan is to sell off everything and leave the country with far fewer newspapers.  Please, somebody tell Lee there are exciting options here.

Perhaps the real question is, do the people running this society want everyone to read?  Or do they actually set out to keep half the country ignorant and illiterate?  Bill Gates put up a few billion dollars to push the egregious Common Core on the American people, even though they hated it.  What is it about billionaires that makes them oblivious to the obvious?  Did Warren Buffett and Bill Gates talk about reading at the bridge table?  They should have.

New Republic article says Buffett was a "terrible owner" of newspapers.  Well, then, we would like to know if the New Republic has done anything better.  There seems to be a silent consensus among upscale media types to ignore millions of illiterate children — a strange indifference.

Sad to say, Mr. and Mrs. America, you can't depend on your billionaires, education professors, and media mavens.  Learn more about the science of reading, and then get more involved.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K–12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?  Price deconstructs educational methods on Improve-Education.org.

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