"Politics and phonics"
September 18, 2002
The veritable alphabet soup of state and federal mandates that greeted teachers and students this fall was staggering. NRP, NCLB, NREA, NELIP and more. Novice and veteran teachers alike are being required to attend and implement training aimed at leaving no child behind.
Didn’t we hear that phonics was the best way to teach reading?
Probably. The media widely reported the work of the National Reading Panel (NRP), the group charged with reviewing some 100,000 reading studies. However, the NRP actually looked at fewer than 50 by weeding out any that didn’t fit a “medical model” of research, a model not used by many valid and reliable reading studies.
Teaching is not a clean, controlled sort of thing. You never know what learning might be sneaking in somewhere besides the classroom. (Gosh darn those kids, anyway.)
Furthermore, the few studies the NRP did look at dealt mainly with struggling readers. Not enough information on normally developing readers was included to determine what works best for them. The NRP also didn’t find enough information for students with limited English. So you see this new “bible” of reading research applies to only a few children. And yet, President Bush has made it the basis for his No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative.
But wasn’t this study supposed to based on science?
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Political science maybe — some of the same kind of “sound science” that might bring nuclear waste to a dump near you. The science of influence and spin-doctoring.
What could be political about teaching little kids to read?
What indeed. For one thing, education publisher McGraw-Hill is run by Harold McGraw III, an old family friend and one of the first overnight guests in the Bush White House. His company not only sells Open Court, a major phonics program, but also the standardized tests your children take more of every year. One of Open Court’s authors, Marilyn Jager Adams, served on the NRP. In addition, she and four other McGraw-Hill authors guided Bush’s Texas reading initiative. When Harold McGraw declared Bush’s inauguration “a great day for education,” I think he meant education publishing and profits. This panel could hardly be called independent.
That might be different from what the president or the media told you. But don’t take my word for it. You can order your own free copy of the report at nationalreadingpanel.org. Be sure to read the report though and not the summary, because they don’t match. For example, the report states, “There were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above 1st grade,” while the summary says, “Esystematic phonics produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th gradeE”
The summary was written by Widmeyer Communications, a powerful Washington, D.C. public relations firm who also promotes, guess what? Yup, Open Court. They prepared the NRP video and wrote the press releases too. Hmmm.
Closer to home, Nevada State Assemblywoman Sharron Angle is taking credit for the $26 million Reading Excellence Act (REA) grant awarded to Nevada last year. Frankly, her “phonics only” bill would have killed our chances had it not been completely rewritten by anxious Nevada State Education Association and Nevada Department of Education consultants before its passage. REA sensibly requires balanced literacy, NOT phonics only.
Did the NRP deliberately lie to us?
I can’t say. But there are least enough of conflicts of interest to question the findings.
So what are schools supposed to do?
The NRP could find no “one best way,” according to panel members Linnea Ehri and S.J. Samuels, but recommended a variety of methods to accommodate children with differences in intelligence, backgrounds and experiences. To meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population, teachers need ongoing, high quality professional development. Furthermore, they need enough autonomy to reach and teach every child. By forcing teachers to teach just one way, by taking away their professional tools, we belittle the profession and drive even more good people away from already hard-to-fill positions.
What can the public do?
Be very suspicious of anyone — especially politicians and publishers — proclaiming they know the one best way to teach reading. Trust me, there are no quick fixes in education.
What children need most are safe homes and full bellies. And of course someone to read to them. Then it’s a matter of expert teachers, plenty of good books and plenty of time. Time to read and write and think and listen and grow and, above all, time to learn to love reading.
Lorie Schaefer is a reading specialist at Seeliger. She invites you to use your search engine and look for Stephen Krashen, Joanne Yatvin and Elaine Garan in connection with NRP for additional information.