Politics and teaching children to read: Mother Jones Edition

Kiera Butlers

Ten years ago, Marilyn Muller began to suspect that her kindergarten daughter, Lauryn, was struggling with reading. Lauryn, a bright child, seemed mystified by the process of sounding out simple words. Still, the teachers at the top-rated Massachusetts public school reassured Muller that nothing was wrong, and Lauryn would pick up the skill—eventually. Surely they knew what they were talking about. Their reading curriculum was well-regarded, and one that encouraged children to use context clues when they couldn’t decode a word. The class was organized into leveled reading groups—bronze, silver, gold, and platinum—with everyone starting out the year in the bronze group. By year’s end, everyone had moved up to a new level—except Lauryn. Muller’s daughter was the only kindergartner stuck in bronze all year.

First grade was no better. The teachers continued to brush off Muller’s concerns—but she couldn’t help but worry for all sorts of reasons, especially because not being able to read was starting to affect her daughter emotionally. Tears started each day, as Lauryn began to refuse to go to school in the mornings. Finally, Muller brought Lauryn in for a private neuropsychological evaluation, and the psychologist who tested her found that her daughter was dyslexic. After a long battle with the school, Muller eventually convinced them to provide appropriate services—something to which all students are entitled by law.

In Lauryn’s case, this meant that her current reading curriculum should have been replaced by a method of known as the structured literacy approach. Instead of guessing and looking for context clues, structured literacy—also known as phonics—teaches students how to map sounds onto letters to decode words. There was only one problem: Muller discovered that the teacher the school assigned to Lauren wasn’t trained in structured literacy. Lauryn continued to struggle.

Muller didn’t know it at the time, but she had stumbled into an educational controversy that in recent months has turned into something of a scandal. A spate of recent reporting—in podcasts, national magazines, and major newspapers—has highlighted new research finding that the balanced literacy approach wasn’t as effective as a phonics-based approach for most students—learning disabled or typical. And the national embrace of balanced literacy was particularly bad for low-income students of color. Today, a staggering third of all children—and half of all Black children—read below grade level. In May, leaders in the country’s largest school system of New York City officially announced plans to transition away from a balanced literacy curriculum and apologized for the harm they had caused. Addressing students and parents in a recent New York Times interview, Chancellor David C. Banks said, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your child’s fault. It was our fault. This is the beginning of a massive turnaround.” Understandably, parents are outraged.

“Well, it’s kind of too bad that we’ve got the smartest people at our universities, and yet we have to create a law to tell them how to teach.”

The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”

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

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.

“An emphasis on adult employment”

Wisconsin Public Policy Forum Madison School District Report[PDF]

WEAC: $1.57 million for Four Wisconsin Senators

Friday Afternoon Veto: Governor Evers Rejects AB446/SB454; an effort to address our long term, disastrous reading results

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

When A Stands for Average: Students at the UW-Madison School of Education Receive Sky-High Grades. How Smart is That?