The pandemic and the politics of phonics

It’s generally accepted that the pandemic shift to remote learning was a failure for a lot of kids, especially those who were already struggling before the pandemic. The declines in student performance have put teachers and administrators in a frame of mind where they are looking for some effective way to make up for those losses. This happens to coincide with a shift in the approach to teaching reading which emphasizes phonics. But even that effort is being bogged down with politics. This is a cycle that has come and gone before as a recent article in Forbes explained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Dick-and-Jane method was replaced by the whole-language approach, which was vaguely associated with the left. The theory was, essentially, that if you surround children with high-quality, engaging children’s literature, they will acquire the ability to read. The approach proved wildly popular with teachers, but the movement encountered a serious obstacle in the 1990s when reading scores in California—which had adopted whole language statewide—took a serious plunge.

The debate over phonics erupted again, this time with heavier political overtones. Leaders of the whole language movement charged that those who advocated phonics were allies of the “far right.” As Diane Ravitch recounts in her book Left Back, one of them, Kenneth Goodman, argued that opponents of whole language were afraid it would work too well. They wanted to use phonics, he said, to keep people from becoming empowered through literacy…

Advocates of whole language—and its wildly popular successor, balanced literacy—are generally opposed to direct, explicit instruction. They say students need the freedom to learn in various ways and teachers need the freedom to teach as they believe best. That orientation has led many to see phonics as a regimented, one-size-fits-all prescription that prevents children from developing a love of reading.

So you have two basic approaches to teaching reading. Phonics is generally associated with the right and whole language (or balanced literacy) is generally associated with the left. Last week Time magazine published a story outlining how that ongoing argument among educators played out in progressive California.

As a teacher in Oakland, Calif., Kareem Weaver helped struggling fourth- and fifth-grade kids learn to read by using a very structured, phonics-based reading curriculum called Open Court. It worked for the students, but not so much for the teachers. “For seven years in a row, Oakland was the fastest-gaining urban district in California for reading,” recalls Weaver. “And we hated it.”

The teachers felt like curriculum robots—and pushed back. “This seems dehumanizing, this is colonizing, this is the man telling us what to do,” says Weaver, describing their response to the approach. “So we fought tooth and nail as a teacher group to throw that out.” It was replaced in 2015 by a curriculum that emphasized rich literary experiences. “Those who wanted to fight for social justice, they figured that this new progressive way of teaching reading was the way,” he says.

Now Weaver is heading up a campaign to get his old school district to reinstate many of the methods that teachers resisted so strongly: specifically, systematic and consistent instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. “In Oakland, when you have 19% of Black kids reading—that can’t be maintained in the society,” says Weaver, who received an early and vivid lesson in the value of literacy in 1984 after his cousin got out of prison and told him the other inmates stopped harassing him when they realized he could read their mail to them. “It has been an unmitigated disaster.”

If you’re getting the impression that we’ve been through this before, that’s basically true. Proponents of phonics keep pointing out that their approach works best and has the best support but teachers keep convincing themselves that some new approach will work better. In fact, the reason “whole language” was replaced with “balanced literacy” is because a government report issued in 2000 concluded phonics was the better approach to reading.

This debate was supposedly settled in 2000, when the National Reading Panel, a big group of literacy experts that examined hundreds of studies on what instruction kids need to read, released a report. It recommended explicit instruction in the things Weaver’s petition asks for: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This was a victory for the phonics camps. But it is one thing to declare a war is over and another to parcel out territory.

Thus was born the notion of balanced literacy, which was an attempt to correct the ship’s course, rather than turn it around completely. Schools would introduce more instruction in the link between sounds and letters, but that could be sprinkled in with other methods teachers thought worked, like prompting kids to use context clues (including, say, pictures) when they came to a word they didn’t know.

State legislatures began getting involved in mandating the teaching of phonics and in one case the results were dramatic.

From 2013 to Aug. 1, 30 states have passed laws or enacted new policies related to “evidence-based” reading instruction. Mississippi was one of the first, and in 2019 it became the only state in the nation to meaningfully improve its fourth-grade reading scores. The results were touted as the “Mississippi Miracle.”

The Mississippi results have inspired a lot of others to try to emulate their methods. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida issued an executive order in 2019 which mandated the teaching of phonics. Even in NY City, Mayor Adams is trying to overhaul how reading is taught in favor of phonics. In his case, the reason is somewhat personal. Mayor Adams is dyslexic but didn’t know it until he was in college. And as it happens, the parents of dyslexic students have been some of the loudest voices advocating for more phonics. So now NYC is following their lead.

Mr. Adams recently announced a sweeping plan to screen nearly all public school students for dyslexia and to pivot the nation’s largest school district to more phonics-based literacy instruction. It could be his most significant policy achievement in his first term beyond his focus on crime…

By embracing phonics instruction, Mr. Adams is staking a clear position in the long-simmering “reading wars” between those who favor explicit instruction in the connection between letters and sounds, and those who support “balanced literacy,” a method that devotes less time to phonics and places more emphasis on allowing children to gravitate to books of their choice. That approach took hold in New York City under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

For years, education advocates have pushed for major changes to address New York City’s dismal reading scores. Less than half of students in third through eighth grade were proficient in reading in 2019, according to state test scores.

Experts fear that the pandemic has exacerbated those problems.

But it’s not as if the political debate surrounding phonics has ended. Just last month the NY Times reported on another place it has cropped up. Lucy Calkins is the director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Her reading curriculum is used in school districts throughout the country and for many years has downplayed phonics. But Calkins’ most recent curriculum was set to be a shift in the direction of teaching phonics and was set to be published this year. But the new curriculum hit a snag involving new state laws aimed at limiting woke teaching in schools.

Her eagerly anticipated new curriculum was meant to address her critics with a more research-backed, phonics-based approach to literacy.

But the curriculum has run into a new problem, this one mired in the debate over state laws that restrict how race, gender and other identities are taught.

Her publisher, Heinemann, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has decided to halt publication of the kindergarten through second-grade curriculum, known as “Units of Study,” after an internal debate over a fundamental question: Should curriculums accommodate these conservative laws?

The decision to stop publication could affect as many as a quarter of the country’s elementary schools. And it illustrates the countervailing pressures facing educational publishers: on one hand, right-wing legislation limiting the curriculum; on the other, pressure from progressive educators to produce materials that deal more explicitly with race, gender and other forms of identity…

Examples of the content that caused concern included a suggestion to teachers not to create boys’ and girls’ groups during class activities, and a reference, also in teacher materials, for educators to remain mindful of children’s racial backgrounds and identities, according to several sources who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. The phrase BIPOC was also flagged, which is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

So a curriculum that would impact millions of kids’ ability to read is being held up just before the beginning of the new school year because the material also includes a few references to woke phrases like BIPOC. Calkins had planned to remove the material to the new curriculum could be widely adopted but now progressives are objecting to that. So instead of a big shift in the direction of phonics this year, it’s not clear when the new curriculum will be published.

Reading through all of this I can’t help but think of the old saw about progressives who argue real communism has never been tried. It’s a kind of invincible ignorance that looks at repeated evidence of failure and yet is willing to argue that next time someone will get it right. The progressive fixation on alternatives to phonics seems like a very similar phenomenon. There’s all sorts of evidence showing that phonics works best and yet, every few years, progressives manage to convince themselves that some completely novel approach will be an improvement. And when test scores show that effort to be a failure we move back to phonics and then start the whole cycle over again.

Hopefully, the dire situation imposed by the pandemic is leading to a bit more serious focus on phonics. With so many students falling off the radar, now is not the time to stray from what works.

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