Asian little girl is learning English letters.
Asian little girl is learning English letters.

The Bottom Line Phonics Groundhog Day

Originally published at RealClearPolitics

“Can you imagine if someone told you that everything you’ve been taught in school and everything you’ve been doing for the past 20 years is flawed?” Monica Covington-Cradle of the AIM Institute for Learning and Research asked.

Her quote appeared in a story that ran this week in “The City” about New York public schools’ ill-fated adoption of “whole language” and the push by Mayor Eric Adams and the city’s education chancellor David Banks to return phonics to the classroom.

American Public Media education reporter Emily Hanford describes “whole language” as “a movement of people who believed that children and teachers needed to be freed from the tedium of phonics instruction.”

Her excellent six-episode podcast, “Sold a Story,” tells the tale of how well-meaning educators pushed “whole language,” when they didn’t know better, and many stayed with the program even after it was discredited.

Adherents wanted to be innovative, so they launched a massive experiment on America’s schoolchildren.

It’s a story I know well. I am a veteran of The Reading Wars of the 1990s that pitted trendy “whole language” aficionados against advocates for phonics, which the whole language community dismissed as “drill and kill.”

Scientific research has established that phonics helps more students to read — and that’s a good thing. Only about a third of fourth- and eighth-graders were reading at grade level before COVID.

Nonetheless, the education establishment went for “balanced literacy” over phonics.

“Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again,” Hanford wrote in APM in 2018.

Five years later, educators still don’t get it.

Money or ideology? Hanford reports on how certain individuals got rich peddling a pedagogy that shortchanged children. So there’s definitely a money angle.

But I think that the romance of championing “whole language” led educators down the garden path. “Whole language” suggested teaching was more art than science, more intuition than inculcation. The very phrase “drill and kill” suggested that teaching phonics was too boring.

(Not for kids, but teachers.)

Then there were the politics. One Seattle teacher offered that, to her regret, she opposed phonics because George W. Bush supported phonics. Bush was a Republican, the GOP party platform endorsed phonics, so phonics had to be bad.

As I listened to “Sold a Story,” I couldn’t help but thinking about the other fads pushed by the governing class. Most notable of all: COVID school closures.

When will the education establishment learn? When parents hold them accountable.

Debra J. Saunders

Fellow, Chapman Center for Citizenship Leadership
A fellow with Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership, Debra J. Saunders worked for more than thirty years covering politics on the ground and in Washington, as well as American culture, the news media, the criminal justice system, and dubious trends in public schools and prestigious universities. Her column is nationally syndicated with Creators Syndicate.
Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?