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Associated Press/Photo by Mike Hutmacher (The Wichita Eagle)

Reading at risk

Back to School | Many in Congress want to kill a highly successful phonics program

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

Never say that Congress cannot cut spending: This summer House and Senate committees zeroed out the Reading First portion of No Child Left Behind. Reading First has been, in the words of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, "the most effective and successful reading initiative in the nation's history"-but it is also phonics-based, and that has made it unpopular among many education professionals. To understand what's at stake when the full House and Senate vote this fall on whether to kill the program, walk through a history of battles over the teaching of reading-the equivalent in American education of the Hundred Years' War.

The war began early in the 20th century, when progressive educators such as John Dewey attacked the traditional approach-embodied in Noah Webster's dictionaries and spellers and William McGuffey's readers-of explicitly teaching English sounds (phonemes) and their relationship to the alphabet. Dewey and company criticized "the 3 R's" from a base in Enlightenment philosophy, which deified natural processes and claimed that reading was instinctive. The naturalistic doctrine of reading came to dominate teacher training in the new schools of education.

The phonics counterattack began in the 1960s with the pioneering work of Jeanne Chall at Harvard. Surveying the field, Chall persuasively demonstrated that reading involves both code-breaking (phonics) and meaning-making (comprehension). Her research identified five essentials to literacy: phonemic awareness (recognizing the sound system), phonics (sound-letter correspondences), fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Chall's empirical foundation for literacy instruction became the basis of a phonics renaissance that contradicted a half century of "progressive" teacher training in reading-is-natural schools of education; homeschoolers particularly came to embrace phonics.

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In 1983 an alarming report from the Department of Education, A Nation at Risk, showed that American students scored below those of other developed nations in math, science, and reading. The report prompted a national campaign for standards and accountability-and renewed interest in Chall's work. During the 1990s, the National Assessment of Educational Progress ("the Nation's Report Card") identified below grade-level reading for 40 percent of all public-school fourth-graders and 65 percent of their inner-city counterparts, and the Clinton Administration responded by spending $270 million to improve reading instruction through the Reading Excellence Act (1998).

The spirit of the law was quickly undermined, though, when progressive interpretations of the statute all but excluded phonics instruction. The National Reading Panel of 2000 published pro-phonics findings that paralleled those of Chall, and that set the stage for the Bush administration's attempt to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), with an eye on reading. The administration focused on early intervention (K-3), with special attention on the poor and the development of "scientifically based reading research" curricula, as the National Reading Panel had suggested.

Using a voluntary system (not mandated, as with other aspects of No Child Left Behind), the U.S. Department of Education began in 2002 to award dollars to local and state agencies based on need, with roughly 10 percent of school districts nationwide eligible because of their low-performing schools. The $1 billion annual incentive package to adopt research-based programs worked: More than 5,600 schools and 1,700 districts voluntarily adopted empirically proven programs, and more than 100,000 teachers nationwide received training in effective reading instruction.

So, what went wrong? The empire of publishers, public-school progressives, and schools of education struck back. Those interest groups vehemently disputed the emphasis on "scientifically based reading research" (SBRR) in Reading First. When the nationally recognized American Institutes for Research reported that only two commercial vendors passed muster as having fully integrated, SBRR-styled programs (Direct Instruction and Success for All), the multi-billion-dollar publishing industry forcefully lobbied to have SBRR guidelines altered so that untested curricula could garner Reading First dollars. Established publishers were not about to surrender their market share without a fight.

Some superintendents and teachers who often applauded national mandates emphasized this time the importance of local control of education. They protested mandating phonics-based instruction, even though phonics was both a grassroots movement and the hope of researchers such as Chall. Districts and states that had come to expect federal dollars with no strings attached fought hard. The National Council of Teachers of English quickly denounced Reading First as a narrow and rigid approach to instruction, arguing that SBRR presented only one model of science. But, alternative models from the mainstream were more of the same: phonics-lite.

Schools of education commenced a vigorous defense of "whole-language" and "balanced literacy" programs: Those expressions became code words for watered-down phonics curricula. As City Journal's contributing editor Sol Stern explained, "If a major shift occurred in teaching methodologies, tenured jobs and professional development contracts from the $500 billion-plus education industry would suddenly be up for grabs." Reading First was simply not good for business.

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