When California instituted the "whole-language" approach to reading nearly a decade ago, it abandoned a tested and proven method-phonics-in favor of one that has children guessing at words and inventing their own spelling and grammar. Whole language quickly spread to virtually every public school. Attempts to restore phonics were rebuffed by the teachers' union and educational "experts," who claimed the new way was better.
The results of this new approach are now in. Standardized tests in California placed that state's public-school children in a tie for last with Louisiana as the worst readers among 39 states tested. Now, California public schools are beating a hasty retreat from the whole-language approach-word recognition taught by associating words and pictures-and reembracing phonics, which teaches children to string consonant and vowel sounds together.
Because California set the national whole-language trend and is now abandoning it, other states and cities are following suit. The Houston (Texas) Independent School District, seventh largest in the nation, issued a report by scholars and citizens (under the leadership of honorary chairman former first lady Barbara Bush) that demanded a return to systematic phonics.
Citing a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researcher Barbara Foorman, head of the Houston Independent School District Reading Committee, said, "What was found was that the more explicit the instruction in phonics, the greater the growth and outcomes in reading. Specifically, even though children started the school year at the same low levels of phonological and word reading skills, by the end of the year the children receiving direct instruction with phonics were at the 42nd percentile on a standardized test of reading, whereas children receiving an embedded (incidental) phonics approach were at the 23rd percentile (if the teachers were trained by the researchers) or at the 21st percentile (if the teachers were trained by the district)."
Jack Pikulski, president-elect of the International Reading Association and a professor of education at the University of Delaware, believes "phonics is a necessary part of a balanced reading program. There is plenty of evidence that phonics can get children off to a good start."
There's also plenty of evidence that teaching children to read earlier and better is only part of the solution to failing public schools. Columnist William Raspberry wrote, "The schools are dreadful because teachers are ill-trained or afraid to exert discipline, or because the schools are cheerless, underfunded, and unsafe."
I would take issue only with his assertion that schools are underfunded. The Opportunities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives reports there are 720 federal programs identified as "funding education" at an annual cost of $120 billion. The total cost of education in America exceeds $474 billion.
"Public schools," noted Raspberry, "are becoming the educational counterfeit of public hospitals: supported by taxpayers who will use them only as a last desperate resort."
Last week, GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole said, "Instead of instilling hope and discipline, too often our schools breed resentment, despair, and mediocrity. Our schools are teaching recycling and AIDS prevention, but our kids can't add and too often aren't allowed to pray."
Education reform is one issue Mr. Dole can make his own. President Clinton is beholden to the National Education Association, though he sends his daughter to a private school. For starters, Mr. Dole should recruit the first ladies of several states, such as Mary Lord Beasley of South Carolina, Susan Allen of Virginia, and Laura Bush of Texas, to help him endorse a return to systematic phonics in every state.
Mr. Dole should also press Mr. Clinton on school choice. If parents could direct where they want their children educated-in government or in private schools-such competition would lift all educational boats. Now, the schools function as the phone company used to: as a monopoly that benefits the education lobby and allows schools to exert political influence. They have failed America's children and their taxpaying parents.
Improving the reading skills of children will help them do better in every subject. Granting parental choice will improve their minds and spirits. The NEA is for choice on abortion. Why isn't it for choice for those fortunate enough to have been born and for their parents? It is because the NEA wishes to reproduce its own worldview-and the only way it can do this is to keep most children trapped in a system even the moderately liberal William Raspberry calls "dreadful."
© 1996, Los Angeles Times Syndicate