Education in America Foundering: A Rhetorical Analysis

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Throughout American history, education and public education in particular has been one of the most debated issues in the public venue.  It was decided by the country’s founders that education would not be a concern of the federal government, that individual states would be responsible for funding and administrating public school services.  Since that decision has been made, states have been competing for educational standing, but right now Nevada finds itself last in the nation.  One of the primary culprits is the surprisingly poor reading skills of Nevada children which hinder their ability to learn at all.  According to Thomas Mitchell, a Las Vegas local and journalist, the performances of teachers and students need to be evaluated and improved through improved funding and methods and higher standards of performance.  Throughout his article Mitchell demonstrates an impressive integration of pathos and logos though he does at times neglect the ethos of his points that might complicate or even disprove his points.

Mitchell’s article is an opinion piece titled “Yet Another Stab at our Decades-Long Reading Crisis” and published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, examines the failings of education today and suggests possible solutions to the crisis.  One of Mitchell’s most startling statistics is that “43 percent of Nevada fourth-graders lacked basic reading skills” (5).  This does not mean they struggle with reading comprehension; it means they lack the ability to read.  Here we see logos implemented in a simple, implied kind of way.  Nobody can argue the sense of this statistic being distressing.  The National Center for Education Statistics released a report showing that, in 2006, 53 percent of United States fourth graders were reading at an above average level according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which is an objective analysis of reading skills (NCES 9).  According to the PIRLS scale, only 4% of United States fourth graders lacked basic reading skills.  It’s evident that Nevada education is suffering severely.  There is also an underlying sense of pathos here.  It should be emotionally as well as intellectually disturbing that nearly half of Nevada’s fourth graders can not even read.

Mitchell identifies this trend as the key to Nevada’s low educational standing and he prioritizes its repair.  Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval believes the first steps to a solution must happen at home and Mitchell agrees, but Mitchell also believes a reform of Nevada’s educational system must be implemented as well.  In his article, he refers to President Reagan’s public concern for the state of education and even though the President’s concerns instigated “a flurry of education reforms,” Mitchell laments that “few have shown any success” (9).  Again, he uses a hybrid of logos and pathos, appealing to the affection anyone would feel for a government interested in improving the lives of its children, but also clearly stating the inefficacy of that ambition as proven by history.

He then goes on to address a plan of attack to the problem, satisfying an underlying ethical requirement that he present a solution of his own when he has identified the solutions of others as ineffective.  Mitchell supports a variety of reforms that emphasize the reinforcement of several points of failure in the current educational system.  He criticizes raw spending as a solution and instead points to past measures that have incorporated both increased spending and measures to ensure that money goes where it will actually do good.  Again, he applies a logical argument by citing the example of Florida in 1999 when a strategy of precision spending as well “performance-based pay for teachers, annual tests, and [curbed] social promotion” resulted in a 22 percent increase in literacy among fourth graders over ten years (11-15).  States with poor literacy have managed to improve it in the past, but not by closing their eyes, throwing a wad of cash in its general direction, and hoping it would go away.

It should be noted that Mitchell’s favored reform strategies have been implemented places other than Florida with less success.  One such example is an incident in California where Rigoberto Ruelas, after consistently failing to improve the scores of his poverty-stricken students who had no opportunity to do the extra work necessary to succeed on the standard tests, committed suicide.  The Los Angeles Times reported the tragedy, explaining that “the teacher was depressed about his score on a teacher-rating database posted by [the newspaper] on its website” (Barbosa and Zavis 7).  Here Mitchell has neglected a point of ethos, that being what are the implications of his hard line, numbers-based approaches in the real world where people have to live with a variety of complications.  The debate over whether or not performance-based pay is an effective incentive to improve teachers’ performance in and out of the classroom is a much larger issue that hardly gets to breathe in the few sentences Mitchell allows it, though in fairness his purpose was not to examine all aspects of the issue so much as to suggest general approaches to fixing it.

Mitchell’s controversial ideas don’t stop there.  He also makes a case to “stop promoting to higher grades children who can’t read” (19).  If performance-based pay is a slippery slope, holding back students is a sheer cliff.  Ever since No Child Left Behind, this has simply not been an option.  But now with an opportunity to change that policy out in the open, the debate has returned.  Mitchell simply states that if a student can not meet the requirements of their grade, they should stay there until those standards are achieved.  This is a straightforward logical point and, stripped of ethos and pathos, makes good sense.  It addresses the problem on a individual basis and ensures that entire classes are not restrained by a curriculum intended to suit the slowest among them.  He smoothly glosses over any concern for the social development of those students as they are forced to enter an entirely new social group.  At this point Mitchell reveals himself as being more concerned with policy and statistics than the needs of individual students, but he never claimed otherwise, either.

In general, Thomas Mitchell presents a rhetorically responsible, straightforward argument for his views on public education.  His greatest crime is neglect, which is really no crime at all because his article was not a comprehensive analysis.  How he would behave when confronted with a debate situation regarding the issues he addresses is unknown and irrelevant to his purpose.  He does present his points as being the most sensible and most proven methods and the best opportunity for Governor Sandoval to put Nevada on the path to a healthy education system, but again that is his prerogative as the author of the article and advocate of his perspective.  In support of his points he demonstrates clear, concise, and proper support, citing factual sources for his logos and tempering his pathos with relevance and brevity.  An article so short is inherently limited in its rhetorical opportunities, but Mitchell demonstrates mastery of the concept and a responsible application.

Works Cited

Mitchell, Thomas. “Yet Another Stab at our Decades-Long Reading Crisis.” Las Vegas Review-Journal 9 Jan. 2011. 26 Jan. 2011

NCES. "The Reading Literacy of U.S. Fourth Graders in an International Context." NCES. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2011.

Zavis, Alexandra, and Barboza, Tony. “Teacher's Suicide Shocks School.” Los Angeles Times 28 Sep. 2010. 27 Jan. 2011