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Phonics Rises From the Ashes | The Nation

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Phonics Rises From the Ashes

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Phonics Rises From the Ashes

Morris, Minn.

Thanks to Stephen Metcalf for his informed article "Reading Between the Lines" [Jan. 28]. There is another winner from Bush's education act: Ignite! Learning, which promotes an "innovative approach to standards-based middle school subject matter." In other words, Ignite!'s multimedia, online, interactive program is designed just for those students most affected by the new bill and its emphasis on standardized testing. The chairman and CEO of Ignite! Learning? Neil Bush, the pResident's brother.

ATHENA KILDEGAARD


Cape Coral, Fla.

Kudos on your article about the Bush family's love affair with standardized testing. Here in Florida, where I teach, Governor Jeb Bush has pushed a test called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Based on their scores, schools receive a grade that can affect their funding, so ignoring the test is not an option. Good teachers are forced into teaching to a test that does not necessarily represent what a child knows. At the same time, Governor Bush has encouraged the state legislature to cut school funding, so teachers are in a no-win situation--they must get the students ready for a standardized test without the resources to prepare the kids. Thanks for reporting that the real concern is not for children but for the profits to be made by testing companies.

SCOTT B. KILHEFNER


Ooltewah, Tenn.

George Bush made a great show of voluntarily taking a drug test. Let's see him volunteer to take the mandatory eighth grade test and promise to reveal his score.

DAVID PATTERSON


Champaign, Ill.

Although Stephen Metcalf correctly alerts us to the way large textbook and testing companies influence education policy, his simplistic view of reading instruction insults many progressive educators who applaud the instructional strategies advocated by the National Reading Panel (NRP). In a simple-minded dichotomy, Metcalf places educators politically into two camps based on their views on phonics. One camp aims to cultivate critical and reflective citizens. The other, which supports systematic phonics, aims to produce minimally competent and uncritical workers for big business.

But understanding that comprehending texts requires critical thinking and reflection has little connection with one's politics or position on phonics. The NRP report and its most recent summary, Put Reading First (www.nifl.gov), devote more pages to vocabulary, comprehension and fluency instruction than to phonics.

Agreement with NRP about systematic phonics is no clue to one's politics. In fact, many progressives hope that approach will close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, at least in the early grades. Most children of well-educated, affluent parents enter school with thousands of hours of literacy preparation, and for them a more casual approach to phonics suffices. Systematic instruction, however, insures that children lacking such backgrounds are introduced to every sound and letter element--the basic tools for true reading comprehension, which goes far beyond simple phonics.

Calling supporters of systematic phonics reactionary lackeys is a harmful simplification that insults many socially committed educators seeking effective ways to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

ELIZABETH GOLDSMITH-CONLEY
Principal Education Consultant
Illinois Board of Education

Note: Ms. Goldsmith-Conley's views are her own, not those of the Illinois Board of Education.


Cambridge, Mass.

Just when we might have hoped for an end to the politicization of the debate over reading instruction, along comes Stephen Metcalf to keep the battle going. The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written language can be acquired naturally. But whole language contradicted what linguistics and cognitive psychology teach us: that written language is a subtle code for spoken language; learning to read is unlike learning to speak; and explicit instruction--phonics--is essential for many. Although whole language should have been a nonstarter, it had a significant impact because of its political marketing. Whole language wrapped itself in liberation rhetoric, promising such things as "the empowerment of learners and teachers." The right wing was jubilant. Here was a left-wing conspiracy that could imperil children's literacy! A flurry of newsletters and websites appeared attacking the left-wing menace of whole language and vigorously promoting phonics. In the end, as Metcalf makes clear, the phonics counterrevolution found a home in the Bush White House.

Metcalf suggests that we look to the Bush family's links to McGraw-Hill for an explanation of the current situation. I disagree. Metcalf's anecdotes of corruption on the reading front, if true, are a sideshow--a symptom, not a cause. If effective phonics instruction is now inextricably linked to educational trends promoted by "conservatives and business leaders," as Metcalf claims, the progressive community has no one but itself to blame. The war against phonics was a Lysenkoist aberration. It is time to put it to rest. There is no connection between politics and how we should teach children to read, and there never was.

DAVID PESETSKY


New York City

I would like to clarify several of the misconceptions in Stephen Metcalf's "Reading Between the Lines." McGraw-Hill Education is proud of the role we play in improving student achievement. We have products that meet the standards and pedagogical approaches our customers require. And our materials have demonstrated positive results, especially in the critically important arena of reading.

Results matter. Accountability must be part of the educational system. However, education leaders in all fifty states will determine the appropriate pedagogical approach for their constituents. McGraw-Hill must be prepared to address the needs state and local governments identify. The phonics-based reading programs Metcalf references are but two of a range of programs published by McGraw-Hill. Collectively, these instructional programs represent an approach to reading instruction that is as diverse as the broad-based support this year's education bill received in Congress. Regrettably, Metcalf's one-sided view only examined one successful approach to reading instruction.

We are proud of the collaborative relationships we have with our customers. The products and programs we produce are not created in a vacuum. They are produced using the best research available to us, the input of our customers and our decades of experience.

Metcalf's article also attempted to diminish the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, which in its fourteen-year history has become one of the most prestigious awards in education. Honorees are selected by a highly respected panel of judges, and winners have come from all parts of the academic, pedagogical and political spectrum.

As the nation's largest K-12 textbook publisher, we are committed to improving teaching and learning and will continue to work with our customers and public officials across the nation in pursuit of this goal.

ROBERT E. EVANSON
President, McGraw-Hill Education


METCALF REPLIES

New York City

I urge readers to please go back and read my article. I nowhere placed educators into camps, accused phonics of being a waste of time or advertised whole language as a cure for illiteracy, and certainly never reached for so silly a phrase as "reactionary lackeys." Furthermore, I imagine that Elizabeth Goldsmith-Conley and I agree that gifted teachers should use any means necessary to teach children the ABCs, politics be damned. But it is simply a fact: A vocal subset of the phonics constituency is politically motivated. Even a glance at the public record reveals that the "reading wars" is a red-meat issue for social conservatives, many of whom demonize whole language by way of camouflaging the root causes of illiteracy--poverty and the chronic underfunding of schools.

I did argue that the standardized testing industry, controlled by three major publishing companies, now has exactly the education policy it wants--centered on radically expanding standardized testing. It has done this by lobbying heavily and by having a friend in the White House; and an assist should be credited to the enormous prestige business leaders and social conservatives wield in educational circles, at the local, state and now federal level. Educators of any political stripe must be happy with increased attention and funding, but phonics and testing are often promoted by conservatives as virtually cost-free solutions to a broken system. I know no serious educator, progressive or otherwise, who can swallow this without gagging.

The reading wars, sadly, do continue--not because a handful of flat-earthers refuse to acknowledge good science but because the supposedly ironclad scientific neutrality (not to mention validity) of the NRP's work has come under serious fire. Even a cursory examination of the NRP report--as opposed to its widely circulated summary--reveals that science has not determined a straightforward, uniform prescription for reading failure; that the panel's findings were often quite narrow and based on dubious interpretations of the research; and that the summary overstated (to put it mildly) the panel's conclusions. Nonetheless, the report was presented to policy-makers, educators and the public as the end of the reading wars by a publicist whose prominent clients include McGraw-Hill, which in turn stands to profit mightily from a Bush reading plan based in its specifics on--guess what?--the NRP report. I leave it to readers--Lysenkoist, Taoist, Maoist and otherwise--to conclude whether they prefer their educational policies to travel this route into public consciousness and federal legislation.

It's hard to imagine a better example of the new market paradigm for public education than Robert Evanson's letter, where we hear (three times) about "customers," as well as politicians and their "constituents," but nothing about teachers or students. As to his suggestion that my article was "one-sided," I never felt any burden to address McGraw-Hill's entire product line when pointing out the controversy over two of its programs--and still don't. I did not diminish the McGraw Prize, though a glance at the roster of past winners reveals a curious number of superintendents--Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Los Angeles super Roy Romer and recent winners Nancy Grasmick and Carl Cohn--who have adopted or promoted Open Court, one of McGraw-Hill's primary phonics programs. Maybe we should retain a qualified researcher to tell us if this is statistically random.

STEPHEN METCALF

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