Phonics, Failure, and the Public Schools

David Boaz:

But increasingly parents and teachers are pushing back against “whole language” and “balanced literacy” theories. They cite decades of research on how children actually learn to read and write. In 1997 Congress instructed the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development to work with the Department of Education to establish a National Reading Panel that would evaluate existing research and evidence to find the best ways of teaching children to read. The panel reviewed more than 100,000 reading studies. In 2000 it reported its conclusion: That the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates:

  • Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
  • Systematic phonics instruction
  • Methods to improve fluency
  • Ways to enhance comprehension

And yet more than a quarter of American school districts use this one particular curriculum that doesn’t reflect those conclusions. Other districts use other curricula built on similar principles. A 2019 investigation by American Public Media revealed “American education’s own little secret about reading: Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers — and educators may not even know it.”

It’s not like people were unaware of the problems with such approaches to reading before the 2000 report. In 1995, after state test results showed that the vast majority of California public school students could not read, write, or compute at levels considered proficient, Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin appointed two task forces to investigate reading and math instruction. The reports were clear — and depressing. There had been a wholesale abandonment of the basics — such as phonics and arithmetic drills — in California classrooms. Eastin said there was no one place to lay the blame for the decade‐long disaster. “What we made was an honest mistake,” she said. Or as the Sacramento Bee headline put it, “We Goofed.” Eastin promised to put more emphasis on phonics, spelling, and computation in the classroom. What an excellent idea. But cold comfort for about 4.5 million students who suffered from the system’s decade‐long “honest mistake” of not teaching them to read, write, or compute. The mistake didn’t come cheap for taxpayers, either. California spent about $201.7 billion on public schools during the “mistake” decade.