The Phonics Resurgence

David Boaz

Suddenly, and rather quietly, both public and elite opinion are turning against the “new” methods of teaching reading that have dominated our schools for a generation.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this issue for a long time. In 1995 I noticed that after state test results showed that the vast majority of California public school students could not read, write, or compute at levels considered proficient, Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin appointed two task forces to investigate reading and math instruction. The reports were clear — and depressing. There had been a wholesale abandonment of the basics — such as phonics and arithmetic drills — in California classrooms. Eastin said there was no one place to lay the blame for the decade‐​long disaster. “What we made was an honest mistake,” she said. Or as the Sacramento Bee headline put it, “We Goofed.”

You’d think such a devastating report in the nation’s largest state would have had an impact. But it didn’t seem to get much attention outside California. Instead, schools kept adopting reading instruction plans based on “whole language” and “balanced literacy” theories. Despite the fact that in 1997 Congress instructed the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development to work with the Department of Education to establish a National Reading Panel that would evaluate existing research and evidence to find the best ways of teaching children to read. The panel reviewed more than 100,000 reading studies. In 2000 it reported its conclusion: That the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates:

Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
Systematic phonics instruction
Methods to improve fluency
Ways to enhance comprehension

But suddenly, in May of last year the New York Times took note of the problems with school reading instruction with a page 1 article on how a leading advocate of “balanced literacy” was backtracking. At Columbia University’s Teachers College, she and her team trained thousands of teachers, and she estimated that her “Units of Study” was used in a quarter of the country’s 67,000 elementary schools.

The Times noted that a 2019 investigation by American Public Media revealed “American education’s own little secret about reading: Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers — and educators may not even know it.”

Then in January of this year I noted that the Fairfax County and Arlington County NAACP chapters in Virginia were making demands on the local school system: they want the schools to teach black and Hispanic kids to read. And they want the school to start using the best research​tested methods. After years of promising to make minority achievement a priority, finally in the past school year, the district gave all kindergarten through second​grade teachers scripted lesson plans featuring phonics.

In March the Washington Post editorialized: “Cut the politics. Phonics is the best way to teach reading.”

In April the New York Times reported, “A revolt over how children are taught to read, steadily building for years, is now sweeping school board meetings and statehouses around the country.” They quoted Ohio Governor Mike Dewine: “The evidence is clear,” Mr. DeWine said. “The verdict is in.” And noted: “The movement has drawn support across economic, racial and political lines. Its champions include parents of children with dyslexia; civil rights activists with the N.A.A.C.P.; lawmakers from both sides of the aisle; and everyday teachers and principals.”

American Public Media has continued to follow the issue, and reported recently that at least 18 state legislatures are considering “ways to better align reading instruction with scientific research.”

NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported in June on the state of Georgia’s new push for phonics in the lower grades. NPR notes that “there’s perhaps no greater predictor of how a child will succeed in school than how well they can read by about the third grade. Research has shown that if students don’t learn by then, they’re far more likely to fall dangerously behind.”

This new approach is being called “the Science of Reading,” but it’s the science your grandmother knew: Learn the letters, learn how each letter sounds, learn how the letters combine into words. The amazing thing is that for a generation or more, professors and school administrators thought they had better ideas.

As I wrote before:

Phonics seems like a good idea to me, but I’m no expert. As noted, though, there’s a lot of research recommending phonics that a lot of school districts still aren’t following. As a libertarian, I don’t usually spend much time telling government agencies how to do their jobs, except as their actions impinge directly on individual rights. My focus is more on defining what activities ought to be undertaken by government and what ought to remain in the private sector, with individuals, businesses, churches, clubs, nonprofits, and civil society. And I think there’s a lesson here on that.

Government agencies tend to be sluggish monopolies, with little incentive to improve and subject to political influence. When the California superintendent promised to fix the mistake, the teachers union head warned, “It’s like turning an oil tanker around. You just don’t do that quickly,” and the governor’s spokesperson said it would be a hard slog because “there is such partisan politics going on.” Private organizations, especially profit​seeking businesses, are under constant pressure to serve customers better than their competitors. Businesses fail to meet that test every day and go out of business. When’s the last time you heard of a failed government agency being shut down? That includes schools. Private schools must keep families happy or they can go elsewhere, and the school could be forced to shut down. Public schools, no matter how unhappy parents are, are almost never closed. As long as the tax money keeps coming in, they stay in business.

The problem is that the schools are run by a bureaucratic government monopoly, largely isolated from competitive or community pressures. We expect good service from businesses because we know–and we know that they know — that we can go somewhere else. We instinctively know we won’t get good service from the post office or the Division of Motor Vehicles because we can’t go anywhere else.

But now, after many years of complaints from parents, the elite media are joining the chorus: Teach children to read, using time‐​tested methods, confirmed by the National Reading Panel in 2000. It’s about time.

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