K-12: The Politics of Illiteracy

Feb 9, 2019 by

Bruce Deitrick Price

The New York Times awakes from a long sleep
K-12: The Politics of Illiteracy

A real OMG moment occurred last month when the New York Times published the truth about reading.

Yes, it’s true! The New York Times came right out and told the world that if you want children to learn to read, they need phonics. No ifs, ands, or buts. No weird digressions into context and balanced this-or-that. No claims that people can learn to read simply by picking up a good book and reading.

 The article is titled “Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?” Why, indeed? Here’s the gist of it: “First of all, while learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not. To become readers, kids need to learn how the words they know how to say connect to print on the page. They need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. There are hundreds of studies that back this up.” Hundreds!

Well, if it’s all so clear and obvious, how has our Education Establishment managed to keep tens of millions of American children less than literate?  After all, Rudolf Flesch explained everything you need to know in his famous book “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (1955). But somehow our public schools engineered a strange disappearing act. Phonics wasn’t taught. Children couldn’t read. Almost everybody had at least heard the truth. But somehow an illiteracy crisis was allowed to go on and on and on.

Note now the sly excuses and curious evasions presented in the article:

“It’s a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for decades.” Houdini would be proud of that trick.

   “[V]irtually all kids can learn to read — if they’re taught with approaches that use what scientists have discovered about how the brain does the work of reading. But many teachers don’t know this science.”

“But colleges of education — which should be at the forefront of pushing the best research — have largely ignored the scientific evidence on reading.” Think about that. Are these people on drugs or are they engaged in serious sabotage?”

  The article continues: “The National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabuses of teacher preparation programs nationwide and found that fewer than four in 10 taught the components of effective reading instruction identified by research….(Some instructors required students to write their ‘personal philosophies’ about how to teach reading.)” Now isn’t that special? Personal philosophies were valued but not the one that actually works.

 The article adds: “Kelly Butler of the Barksdale Reading Institute in Mississippi interviewed more than 100 deans and faculty members of schools of education as part of a study of teacher preparation programs in the state and found that most of them could not explain basic scientific principles about how children learn to read.”

Savor it. This has to be one of the greatest examples in world history of see-nothing, hear-nothing, say-nothing. Nearly every big shot in our Education Establishment agreed not to notice that public schools were carefully designed to ensure that children didn’t learn to read. Most schools are still designed that way. All of this anti-reading activity should properly be called aiding and abetting. Taken as one phenomenon, you have to label it a vast conspiracy.

  And who would be against reading? John Dewey and his Progressives did not, in practice, want to create independent thinkers. Too much literacy was a bad thing for these collectivist ideologues. Controlling people was a concern for Dewey. If Americans learned to read, they were likely to start thinking for themselves. They would insist on being individuals; but John Dewey, a socialist, considered individualism one of the worst features of American culture. So even though parents might demand literacy, the Progressives in charge of the public schools went through the motions but kept reading to a minimum. That’s the politics of illiteracy in a sentence.

 CODA: I’ve been writing articles for 10 to 15 years saying that if you want children to learn to read, they need phonics. I always assumed that The New York Times (and the media generally) knew this. They were only pretending not to know about Flesch’s book or that millions of students couldn’t read a daily newspaper. I kept hoping that the Times would stop playing left-wing politics. (Barring that, I wanted to find more compelling ways to explain this whole mess. Doing so remains an enjoyable challenge.) 

Finally, maybe the New York Times just got tired of being wrong all the time. Or one part of their organization did. But don’t assume too much. I’m sure the Reading Wars will continue. Non-phonetic methods are embedded at all levels. 

 So, did we at least turn a corner? Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, the public should keep demanding literacy. Here is some further ammo:

What the experts say:“Reading Is Easy” (short video)

An introduction to the saccade: “Massive K-12 Reading Failure Explained”

The central question: “Phonics vs. Whole Word—Take 2” (video 2008)

Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is “Saving K-12 —  What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?” He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.

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