The Misunderstanding that Sparked the Reading Wars

Breaking the Code:

I just finished reading Anthony Pedriana’s Leaving Johnny Behind, an enormously important and under-appreciated book that I discovered by chance, thanks to a post on Facebook. (Social media certainly does serve a purpose other than being a black hole of procrastination from time to time!) The author is a retired teacher and principal who, quite by chance, found himself at the center of the reading wars: in an attempt to boost the reading performance of a class that was falling behind, Pedriana went against everything he had been taught and permitted one of the teachers in his school to implement a scripted reading program for a single short lesson each day. Stunned by its success, he began to reconsider his prejudices and attempted to introduce it into other classrooms, only to face a level of rebellion that seemed entirely disproportionate to his request. 

The book that Pedriana produced in response to that experience traces the history of the reading wars, beginning with the education reformer Horace Mann’s fateful trip to Germany in the 1840s—a time when “teachers brandished their instructional authority with the subtlety of a meat cleaver by literally brow-beating number facts and alphabetic knowledge into their quavering charges.”

A Pedriana recounts:  

While Mann was on a trip to Europe, the director of Leipzig’s schools, Dr. Charles Vogel, took him on a classroom tour. What struck Mann most was the dichotomous (compared to U.S. practice) manner in which children were taught to read: 

Not only did he…notice the exceptional quality of the teachers, but he paid great attention to the specific methods they employed. Instead of the children being expected to learn individual letters by rote memory, then syllables, and finally words, they were given books with pictures of common objects. Underneath each picture was its simple name. 

Mann found such tactics tailor-made to his progressive agenda that sought to foster literacy through kindness, respect, and various other expressions of what came to be known as a child-centered curriculum. 

I was familiar with the basics of the story beforehand, but when I encountered it in Pedriana’s book, something made me stop and really think about Mann’s observations and assumptions. 

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that Mann had fundamentally misread (pun intended!) the situation, mistaking correlation for causation and setting off a slow-motion disaster whose consequences continue to reverberate to this day. 

Let me explain: 

2017: West High Reading Interventionist Teacher’s Remarks to the School Board on Madison’s Disastrous Reading Results

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

My Question to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers on Teacher Mulligans and our Disastrous Reading Results

“An emphasis on adult employment”

Wisconsin Public Policy Forum Madison School District Report[PDF]

Booked, but can’t read (Madison): functional literacy, National citizenship and the new face of Dred Scott in the age of mass incarceration