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Politics of Phonics

Politics of phonics: How Power, profit and politics guide reading Policies

President George W. Bush observed a moment of silence on Sept. 11, 2001, at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, for victims of the terrorist attacks. Bush had chosen the school in one of Sarasota’s poorest neighborhoods to launch a national reading campaign. Though the day forever altered Bush’s presidential priorities, it didn’t end his push for education reform. (Chris O’Meara/AP file)

On Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush sat in a second-grade classroom in Florida watching children read a story called “The Pet Goat.”

The story was part of Direct Instruction, one of two phonics-based programs that initially qualified for Bush’s Reading First program, the largest federally funded reading initiative in U.S. history.

The story was written to serve as an explicit phonics drill to teach children about words ending in ‘e’. The goat “ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes.”

The lesson  opens in a new windowchanged dramatically that morning when Bush’s chief of staff interrupted the president to whisper in his ear: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

Sept. 11, 2001, forever altered Bush’s presidential priorities, but it didn’t end his push for education reform. On the day Bush became president in January 2001, he called on Congress to help him eliminate the nation’s “ opens in a new windowreading deficit.”

Twenty years later, Gov. Bill Lee called on the Tennessee legislature to help him address the state’s “ opens in a new windowdrop in reading proficiency.”

In January 2002, Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. States were offered billions of dollars in grants to adopt federally approved reading programs that provided “explicit and systematic instruction” in phonics.

In January 2021, Lee signed the  opens in a new windowTennessee Literacy Success Act, which requires that students in grades K-3 “be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction.”

When it comes to the politics of phonics, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The “reading deficit” remains. Reading scores have been flat for more than two decades, despite massive and expensive reforms launched by Bush’s No Child Left Behind, President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, and the Gates Foundation-supported Common Core initiative, not to mention reforms pushed by every Tennessee governor from Lamar Alexander to Bill Haslam.

Only a third of  opens in a new windowfourth-graders in Tennessee and across the nation read proficiently, according to “the Nation’s Report Card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The achievement gap between the top and bottom 10 percent is widening.

Lee’s efforts to address “the drop in reading proficiency” will impact every elementary public school, student, teacher and parent in a variety of ways in the coming months and years. All public school districts and charter schools are required to submit their “Foundational Literacy Skills Plan” by June 1.

The new law is a product of the politics of phonics, a tangled web of government, business and academics, power, profit and polemics that has reshaped national and state reading policies time and again.

They reflect decades of political, social and educational disagreements, an unresolved national debate over how best to help children learn to read, especially children who are struggling to learn.

The debate features an ever-changing cast of governors and presidents, evangelists and social reformers, and generations of quarreling reading researchers, but rarely classroom teachers.

“Teaching children to read shouldn’t be a political decision,” said Dr. Victoria Risko, professor emerita at Vanderbilt University and a former president of the International Literacy Association. “Reading instruction is too complex and too important to be left to politics.”

Dick and Jane and Johnny

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, schools used phonics-based  opens in a new windowMcGuffey Readers filled with Bible verses and moralistic stories with names like “The Greedy Girl” and “The Honest Boy and the Thief.”

Children were taught to memorize the alphabet, then to sound-out words letter by letter, starting with short words in simple sentences such as “The dog ran” and “The cat is on the mat.”

The method worked for many children, but many others struggled, especially with words that had irregular phonetic patterns such as house and they and cough and two. Linguists say half the words in the English language don’t follow simple phonetic patterns.

From the 1940s through the early 1960s, reading reformers tried a new approach, introducing children to  opens in a new windowDick and Jane stories. The little primers used pictures, simple sentences, and repetition to help children learn to recognize and remember whole words: “See Dick. See Dick Run. Run Dick Run.”

In 1955, a phonics advocate’s bestselling book, “ opens in a new windowWhy Johnny Can’t Read,” panned Dick and Jane primers for their limited and limiting vocabulary, their simplistic, boring stories, and their non-phonetic “whole word” approach.

In 1955, a phonics advocate’s bestselling book, ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read,’ panned Dick and Jane primers for their limited and limiting vocabulary, their simplistic, boring stories, and their non-phonetic ‘whole word’ approach.

The book ignited “ opens in a new windowthe reading wars”— a phonics vs. whole word (later also whole language and balanced literacy) debate that still rages today.

In the 1970s and into the 1990s, the pendulum swung back and forth between whole language and phonics.

“Whole-language theory believes in an atmosphere rich in simple printed texts and in reading aloud,” Nicholas Lemann  opens in a new windowexplained in an Atlantic magazine article about the reading wars back in 1997. “If a word is unfamiliar it can be skipped, guessed at, or picked up from context.”

“Phonics theory takes exactly the opposite position,” Lemann explained. “Children should first learn the letters and letter combinations that convey the English language’s forty-four sounds; then they can read whole words by decoding.”

Since the 1970s, many scholars and educators have tried to reconcile the two sides by calling for a “balanced literacy” approach.

Teaching children to read, they argue, isn’t an either/or approach, it’s a both/and approach.

Children should be taught to read with real books and stories using a variety of “word-attack” strategies — phonics (decoding) early and in particular, but also whole-word (sight words), and picture and context clues.

“It’s not a question of phonics or meaning emphasis, it’s a question of how to deliver both in ways that meet the developing needs of all readers,” the National Institute of Education  opens in a new windowdeclared in “Becoming a Nation of Readers” in 1985.

Despite that endorsement of “balanced literacy,” the reading instruction pendulum continued to swing back and forth.

Phonics vs. socialism

In 1981, religious right activist Phyllis Schlafly had a hit with “First Reader”, a book about the phonics-based system she used to teach her children and grandchildren to read before they started school. (AP file photo)
In 1981, religious right activist Phyllis Schlafly had a hit with “First Reader”, a book about the phonics-based system she used to teach her children and grandchildren to read before they started school. (AP file photo)

While academics presented competing studies that validated one approach or the other, phonics picked up some influential new allies.

In 1981, religious right activist Phyllis Schlafly, published “ opens in a new windowFirst Reader”, a book about the phonics-based system she used to teach her children and grandchildren to read before they started school.

The book was a hit with faith-based homeschoolers, who had been using phonics-based programs for instructional, ideological and inspirational reasons.

“Christianity is a linguistic religion: it stresses doctrine, content, the importance of linguistic communication; in short, the primacy of the Word,” Rev. David Chilton, a Christian reconstructionist,  opens in a new windowwrote in The Biblical Educator, his newsletter for homeschoolers.

By using phonics, “the majority of five-year-olds are able to find Scripture references quickly and read the verses fluently,”  opens in a new windowexplained Doreen Claggett, author of the popular Christ-Centered Curriculum.

Religious conservatives branded whole language and whole word methods as theories “based on atheistic, humanistic beliefs” designed to “secularize our once God-conscious school system,”  opens in a new windowwrote Tim LaHaye, founder of the Institute for Creation Science, and later author of the best-selling “Left Behind” novels, said in 1983.

Evangelist Pat Robertson began promoting a “36-step systematic, explicit” phonics instruction program popular among Christian homeschoolers.

“We’ve been talking on this program for many years now about the state of education in America,” he told his “700 Club” viewers in 1986. “We have launched a program called Sing, Spell, Read and Write that has trained 160,000 Americans how to read and write without taking one dime of federal money.”

When Robertson  opens in a new windowannounced his intention to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, his “New Vision for America” included phonics.

“We will ensure a return to the basic broad-based phonics approach to reading,” Robertson said. “The progressive education advocated by John Dewey and his followers is a colossal failure and must be abandoned.”

Dewey, a turn-of-the-century philosopher and education reformer, is widely seen by phonics purists as an anti-phonics conspirator.

Progressive educators such as Dewey “got rid of traditional phonics … the goal was to produce inferior readers with inferior intelligence dependent on a socialist elite for guidance, wisdom, and control,”  opens in a new windowwrote Samuel L. Blumenfeld, the “apostle of phonics” and prolific author of such books as “Is Public Education Necessary?”

Fundamental politics

During President Ronald Reagan’s February 1982 State of the Union address, he said, “Our citizens feel they’ve lost control of even the most basic decisions made about the essential services of government, such as schools.” (AP Photo, File)
During President Ronald Reagan’s February 1982 State of the Union address, he said, “Our citizens feel they’ve lost control of even the most basic decisions made about the essential services of government, such as schools.” (AP Photo, File)

In his  opens in a new windowfirst State of the Union address in 1982, President Reagan said it was time to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

“Our citizens feel they’ve lost control of even the most basic decisions made about the essential services of government, such as schools,” said Reagan, whose religious conservative allies helped him to defeat incumbent and Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter.

A year later, a federal commission led by Reagan’s education secretary warned that “our nation is at risk” because of America’s “mediocre educational performance.”

“American schools don’t need vast new sums of money as much as they need fundamental reforms,” President Reagan said in 1984. “True excellence in education will require much greater emphasis on the basics — basic skills of learning and teaching with discipline, basic standards and rewards for excellence, and basic values of parental involvement and community control.”

opens in a new windowA Nation at Risk” coined the term “achievement gap.” It sparked waves of government reform by recommending more rigorous reading and math standards and curricula, and more standardized tests to measure achievement.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush and his education secretary, Lamar Alexander, hosted an  opens in a new windoweducation summit with nearly all the nation’s governors, including Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

The governors agreed to strengthen the nation’s academic standards, regularly test students to ensure the results, and encourage the expansion of public charter schools.

Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, religious right organizations such as Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Robertson’s Christian Coalition pushed legislators in Tennessee and elsewhere to  opens in a new windowenact phonics instruction in public schools.

By the early 1990s,  opens in a new windowSing, Spell, Read and Write — the phonics-based reading program, published by Pearson and promoted by Pat Robertson — was approved for use in a dozen states, including Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. Nearly a dozen Memphis City Schools tried the program.

“Results indicate that Sing, Spell, Read and Write was not particularly effective with low-achieving first graders in decoding or oral reading skills, but was somewhat effective in enhancing these students’ writing and spelling abilities,” according to a  opens in a new windowUniversity of Memphis study funded by the Plough Foundation.

Sing, Spell, Read and Write later became one of the curricula that supported Reading First, President George W. Bush’s phonics-based program from No Child Left Behind.

Balancing competing agendas

In 1997, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a critic of teacher education programs that didn’t emphasize phonics,  opens in a new windowintroduced the “Successful Reading and Instruction Act.”

The act called for Congress to establish a National Reading Panel that would evaluate existing research and evidence to find the best ways to teach children to read.

The act called for Congress to establish a National Reading Panel that would evaluate existing research and evidence to find the best ways to teach children to read.

The Reading Panel’s full 449-page report, issued in 2000, promoted a “balanced reading program” that included systematic phonics instruction. “Phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in the amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached,” the  opens in a new windowfull report stated.

But the report’s 32-page  opens in a new windowsummary, widely reported by the media and mailed to every school district in the country, focused on phonics. It used the word “phonics” 89 times, and the word “balanced” only once.

The summary differed dramatically in other ways.

For example, the full report showed that the impact of phonics instruction was greatest in kindergarten and first grade and declined steadily after that. Phonics “failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades,” the full report stated.

The summary directly contradicted that: “The meta-analysis revealed that systematic phonics instruction (decoding) produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read.”

Joanne Yatvin, an elementary school principal and the only panel member not appointed to any of the study subgroups, submitted a  opens in a new windowharsh dissent to the panel’s findings and the summary’s focus.

She noted that there were no primary school teachers on the panel, and that its 15 members included nine university research professors “who believed in the same reading process.”

“Government officials and promoters of phonics have twisted those findings in an effort to reconfigure all school reading instruction and all teacher preparation in reading to conform with their own ideas of how reading should be taught,” Yatvin wrote.

The Reading Panel’s  opens in a new windowphonics section informed the No Child Left Behind Act and Reading First, as well as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, pushed by the nation’s governors a decade later.

No Child Left Behind “repeated the phrase ‘scientifically based reading research’ more than 110 times,” the National Education Policy Center and Education Deans for Justice and Equity  opens in a new windownoted last year. “While that phrase could have easily supported a sensible, evidence-based set of approaches to teaching reading, it instead was used to promote systemic skills instruction.”

Conflicts of interest

Critics say the Reading Panel’s revisionist focus on phonics was intentional, driven by money and politics.

“Most of the summary is devoted to findings related to phonics instruction — not because that was the focus of the panel, but because it opened a new market for phonics-related educational materials and assessments,” Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut,  opens in a new windowexplained last month in The Washington Post.

“Free copies of the summary (not the full report) were mailed to every district and town,” Gabriel explained. “The effort to let the scientific research rule in 2001 was stymied by the publication of the error-laden summary.”

President Bush, center, met with members of his Cabinet in the White House in October 2007. With the president, from left were, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. (AP file photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Bush, center, met with members of his Cabinet in the White House in October 2007. With the president, from left were, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. (AP file photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

According to the  opens in a new windowNation magazine, the 32-page summary was written by Widmeyer Communications, a Washington public relations firm whose clients included McGraw-Hill, one of the Big Three publishers of textbooks and standardized tests. (The others are Houghton-Mifflin and Harcourt General).

The McGraw and Bush families have been friends since the 1930s. Harold McGraw Jr. sat on the founding board of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Harold McGraw III was a member of George W. Bush’s transition advisory team. John Negroponte, a McGraw-Hill executive, became Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and then Iraq.

When Bush was governor of Texas in the 1990s, his education department, led by Rod Paige, developed a “scientifically valid” reading curriculum. Most of the consultants for the project were McGraw-Hill authors. The company and its “scientifically valid” phonics-based reading program gained a dominant share in Texas’ lucrative textbook market.

There were other conflicts of interest.

One of the chief architect’s of Bush’s education policies as governor and president was Alexander “Sandy” Kress, a former Dallas school board member. Before he became Bush’s senior education policy adviser, he was a lobbyist for McGraw-Hill.

Five months after Kress left the White House in 2002, he  opens in a new windowregistered as a lobbyist for NCS Pearson Inc., the nation’s largest test scoring firm, which has received millions from the testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Pearson administered and scored TCAP tests from 2003 through 2014, and took over again in 2019.

In 2010, Kress was appointed director of policy development at the George W. Bush Institute.

Bush’s reading policies were a boon to other publishers as well.

In the summer of 2000, British publishing giant Pearson acquired an American testing company for $2.5 billion. A few days after Bush was elected president, Pearson’s chief education executive, Peter Jovanovich, spoke to a group of Wall Street investment analysts.

Jovanovich displayed a quote from President-elect Bush calling for state testing and school-by-school report cards. “This almost reads like our business plan,” he said, according to Education Week.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education  opens in a new windowawarded NCS Pearson an $83 million, five-year contract to score the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Over the next several years, it was awarded hundreds of millions more in programs mandated by the Bush and Obama administrations.

“We expect to get a great deal of ‘Reading First’ money,” Jovanovich  opens in a new windowtold a group of Pearson investors in 2003. “In effect, the federal government is changing the climate towards one of the core products that we sell the school districts.”

At the same meeting, Kress reassured investors: “I think that you can see that the data needs — some of them explicitly in the (No Child Left Behind) Act and some of them implicit — are going to be huge and significant and are going to play a big part of education policy in future.”

Rise and fall of Reading First

Bush’s  opens in a new windowNo Child Left Behind required states to assess third- through eighth-grade students annually in reading and math and demonstrate “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).”

It was a carrot-and-stick approach to education reform. Schools that failed to make AYP faced corrective actions. But states were offered billions of dollars in Reading First grants, if they adopted federally approved reading programs that provided “explicit and systematic instruction” in phonics.

It was a carrot-and-stick approach to education reform. Schools that failed to make AYP faced corrective actions. But states were offered billions of dollars in Reading First grants, if they adopted federally approved reading programs that provided ‘explicit and systematic instruction’ in phonics.

Tennessee was awarded more than $120 million in Reading First grants from 2002-2008. More than three dozen Memphis City Schools participated in the program, including Corning Elementary in Frayser.

Rod Paige, Bush’s education secretary, visited Corning in 2001. He read “Dandelion Warriors!” by Bill Cosby to third-graders. Then he talked to teachers and parents about Reading First. “We don’t mean by this, just willy-nilly, teaching reading,” Paige said. “We mean using the most progressive, scientific research, true and tried methods that we know work.”

The Fordham Institute described Reading First’s “ opens in a new windowcomplex and difficult” task in a report in 2008.

“Department of Education officials in Washington were being tasked with supervising 50 separate state Reading First programs, each with its own procedures for getting approved reading materials and teacher training protocols into qualifying schools,” the Institute explained. “Each of the states, in turn, was required to review the proposals of dozens of school districts and then monitor how the targeted schools were using a host of different reading programs.”

The Institute concluded: “Nothing of such complexity and with so many political minefields in its path had ever been tried before by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Nor since.

In 2006, the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general found that federal officials had steered Reading First contracts to favored textbook publishers including McGraw-Hill. Two years later, Reading First was scrapped.

During the years Reading First was in place, the percentage of Tennessee fourth-graders scoring at or above proficient on NAEP reading tests rose from 25 to 28 percent.

“There was  opens in a new windowno statistically significant impact on reading comprehension scores in grades one, two or three,” Grover Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research arm, said in 2008.

“It’s possible that, in implementing Reading First,” Whitehurst added, “there is a greater emphasis on decoding skills and not enough emphasis, or maybe not correctly structured emphasis, on reading comprehension.”

In March 2009, a few weeks after he took office, President Obama affirmed his commitment to education reform.

“America will not remain true to its highest ideals,” Obama  opens in a new windowtold the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “if we don’t do a far better job than we’ve been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world.”

Obama said economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America.

“And I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity,” the president said.

Reading policies were about to shift again.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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