kitchen table math, the sequel: Reading Wars in Texas

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Reading Wars in Texas

This week, the Reading Wars continue in Texas. (They have actually been going on since 1826.)

Here are a few excerpts from the online article:

On the other side are supporters of a more traditional approach proposed by Donna Garner, a retired teacher and conservative education activist. Those board members say students need more spelling drills, phonics lessons and practice in grammar identification to learn to read and write properly. This side also favors developing suggested reading lists with a heavy emphasis on classical literature.

"They teach reading by getting them to read every third or fourth word," Garner said of current methods. "But the problem is when they start getting the harder (words) at about Grade 3, and they hit a wall."

3rd grade slump? Maybe everything is bigger in Texas.

Dozens of passionate educators are expected to attend today's public hearing. Garner won't be among them; she says her presence is too polarizing. But that doesn't mean she isn't devoted to the cause.

"I've committed years to this cause, and I cannot believe that people can be so wrong about what kids need to learn," she said. "We've lost millions of Texas children in the last 10 years. We can't afford to lose millions more."

I'll be keeping Texas in my prayers.


Liz Ditz said...

Darn, the old argument (proposed by Goodman) that teaching reading using direct instruction in the five elements of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) is a right-wing plot seems to be in action here:

online article

Some of the board members who support Garner's proposal say they also support teaching the weaknesses of the theory of evolution, which some science educators say is a tactic creationists use to circumvent laws that prohibit the teaching of religious doctrine. Some board member favor the teaching of the Discovery Institute's idea of intelligent design, which holds that the universe was created and not the result of a series of random events.

Dang. Why does teaching reading using scientifically-validated methods have any political meaning at all? But it has, for years.

How does teaching reading using scientifically-validated methods get tangled up with creationism and its tarted-up, pseudo-scientific sister, Intelligent Design?

Ken Goodman on "Pedagogy of the Absurd", in which he advances the idea that direct instruction is a conservative plot:

This holistic approach, dubbed "whole language," spread rapidly and peaked about 1994 when conservatives based in right-wing think tanks launched the reading wars. This was not a conspiracy; it was a political campaign. It framed itself as a movement to reform education and eliminate school failure, but its basic goal had little to do with reading education. Its goal was and still is the privatization of American education.

Public education has always had its opponents — those who resent being taxed to educate other people's children. The conservatives recognized that the ideal of universal free education was too well established in American society to attack it directly. Their plan was to discredit public education. And what better way to do so than to spread the belief that public schools were failing to teach basic reading and writing.

Their message was simple: Tests show children are failing to learn to read. That's because na95ve and basically incompetent teachers have been duped into using whole language rather than phonics, which has been demonstrated by research to be the one sure way to teach reading.

The conservative campaign found a group of academics and reading researchers willing to support its views. These are people who did experimental research and who were outraged that teachers had the gall to reject their research. And the well-funded campaign offered them research grants, high-profile publicity, attractive perks and titles.

Unlike previous back-to-basics movements, this one is different. It has unlimited financial resources from foundations with anti-public education political agendas and it is being coordinated by neoconservative think tanks that know how to manipulate the federal and state legislative processes. They controlled access to education funding by threatening to withdraw federal funds if schools didn't buy into their reading and math curricula and methodology. Though federal support for K-12 education is only about 8 percent of the total spent on education, threatening to withdraw it from states and districts is the big stick used to impose conformity.

Two national panels with carefully controlled membership and agendas coordinated through the National Institutes of Health were used to marginalize holistic research and eventually any methods or materials that were not phonics- and skills-based. And conservatives blamed teachers and their unions for the reading "crisis." This political campaign was so successful that it succeeded in developing remarkably similar laws in a number of states and passing two federal laws, the Reading Excellence Act and the Reading First initiative contained in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. And it did so with bipartisan support. Critics portrayed teacher education as a key source of misleading teachers. Reid Lyon, from his position at the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, publicly advocated "blowing up" colleges of education.

In the name of providing "scientifically based" literacy education, NCLB requires absurd, poorly written "decodable" text programs such as Open Court and Direct Instruction, both published by McGraw-Hill, and tests such as the silly one-minute DIBELS (an acronym that has become a verb in many schools. "I got DIBELLED today") for states to qualify for federal funding. Federal ideologues impose texts and tests that could not pass any professional review. In many cases the proposal judges are also authors of the programs and tests. A Congressional committee is now investigating this conflict of interest.

I believe that in the future the current era will be regarded as the "pedagogy of the absurd." People will wonder how such nonsense could have been treated seriously. Eventually, parents and the public will recognize that the absurdities are hurting their children. In the meantime, much damage will be done. The voices of teachers and administrators have been silenced, and too many good teachers are being driven out of education.

lefty said...

Thanks, Liz. This Goodman excerpt is priceless.

We can at least congratulate Ken Goodman on his gall.

It takes gall to fault academics for being outraged when teachers "have the gall" to reject empirical research. If one is going to reject empirical results, one must have a pretty good (and empirical!) reason.

It also takes gall to brand as "politically motivated" those who do empirical research, as opposed to those who control our schools, our curricula, our state achievement tests, and NSF education funding.

GoogleMaster said...

More stories from Texas:

A middle school principal threatened to kill a group of science teachers if their students did not improve their standardized test scores, according to a complaint filed with the New Braunfels Police Department.

A preliminary vote on a new English and reading curriculum is expected today after scores of teachers, language experts and civil rights leaders blasted it Wednesday at a public hearing before the State Board of Education....English teachers complained their expertise went ignored and told the 15-member board the proposal falls far short on reading comprehension and grammar. It also fails, they said, to provide a transition from grade to grade and ties teachers' hands by recommending what books students should read.

The Houston Chronicle gives readers the opportunity to comment, so you can see the kind of educated folks that our schools produce. Or not.

Instructivist said...

Curious way of thinking. Recommended becomes mandatory, becomes censorship.

From the article:

[Their compromise includes ideas from Garner's proposal such as a reading list, which many educators oppose because they say even "recommended" books are interpreted as mandatory by teachers and publishers, and can take states one step closer to censorship of books in schools.]

Also thanks for the link, GM.

I read many of the comments. I found wg1's comment particularly informative. wg1 says all speakers at the hearing came from some holistic, whole-language coalition. Packing the room like that seems totalitarian.

Instructivist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Instructivist said...


My fancy link doesn't work.

Here is the URL for the standards:

Catherine Johnson said...

Isn't Donna Garner the former teacher who created a terrific set of grade-by-grade standards for ELA??

Catherine Johnson said...


Substitute Amendment to English, Language Arts, and Reading Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills

to Google:

Texas Alternative Document
Donna Garner

Catherine Johnson said...

oh wait!

did instructivist already post a link?

(I'm losing it...)

Catherine Johnson said...

This holistic approach, dubbed "whole language," spread rapidly and peaked about 1994 when conservatives based in right-wing think tanks launched the reading wars.

This guy wouldn't know left-wing political philosophy if it bit him on the butt.

Ed's colleagues, who are universally left-wing, loathe this stuff.

Catherine Johnson said...

Elaine McEwan recommends using the Texas alternative standards.

Catherine Johnson said...

The conservatives recognized that the ideal of universal free education was too well established in American society to attack it directly. Their plan was to discredit public education.

So, Ken....supposing we've got a right-wing plot to privatize education....what would be a really good, foolproof way to win that war?


Catherine Johnson said...

This one's fun:

Why even teach English anymore? Kids should spend more time learning about saving the environment, sex education, multiculturalism, alternative lifestyles, conflict resolution, etc.

Hear! Hear!

Catherine Johnson said...

you know -- we should start punking these newspaper comments threads.

Catherine Johnson said...


You can vote for comments!

Catherine Johnson said...

...It takes approximately 4-6 yrs to fully engulf the English language properly and children entering the school system are barely that age themselves....


This type of program only helps our future, because whether people disagree with it or not, the population is leaning towards the Hispanic spectrum and in my opinion, the many more different people we have that can communicate in other languages further our development as a nation. This is one of the many reasons we lag far behind other nations in education and technology:
The inability to grow and accept other types of learning skills other than the ones we have in our own "safe" circle.