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Profile in Failure: Why Can’t Oklahoma’s Kids Read Any Better?

I once met a highly decorated retired Air Force colonel only because he wanted to learn how to teach his grandson to read. This was not because the grandson was being homeschooled. The boy was attending public school in a generally decent middle-class school district in South Carolina, but he was struggling and obviously was not reading well. In researching how to teach his grandson, the colonel embarked on a journey that literally changed his life from quiet comfort in retirement to a one-man grassroots activist.

It occurred to the colonel that he was not a particularly good speller himself as he discovered that he and his grandson had been taught reading in basically the same way. This was through the “whole word” method, a system that has gone by a variety of sometimes sophisticated-sounding names, including “Look-Say,” “See-Say,” “Sight,” “Psycholinguistic,” “Word,” “Whole-Word,” and a highly-modified version called “Whole Language.” This involves viewing the written English word much like a Chinese pictogram, where the word is viewed as a whole and not broken down into constituent sounds with individual letters and letter combinations matching those sounds.

The breaking down of words into constituent sounds and recognizing letters as representing those sounds in order to learn to read is called the “phonics” method. And once the colonel found out about it, he found a phonics-based book of lessons called Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and taught his grandson to read in two months – something the public schools had failed to do in five years. Phonics instruction is a primary ingredient in a small set of complementary scientifically-verified reading instruction practices. Whole word is not scientifically verified.

Yet, whole word “reading instruction,” often characterized as the “three-cueing system,” is still used all over the place in Oklahoma. For that matter, it and its instructional whole word cousins are still widely used in many other states. When I got to know the colonel twenty-odd years ago, it was in Texas where I was working as a legislative aide. He spent at least three legislative sessions in a travel trailer working with members of both parties to have a statute enacted that would explicitly require scientifically-verified reading instruction.

You’d think that educators would trip over each other to get their hands on a teaching methodology verified by science, including through brain imaging, but you’d be wrong. I think there are four reasons for this. First, ignorance plays a part. I can still remember a teacher in Texas who called Dick & Jane readers (Run, Spot, Run!) phonics readers and characterized phonics as boring. Dick & Jane readers were first adopted in the 1930s as part of the whole word “reading instruction” method (thus, the boring repetition to pound whole words into children’s heads). In 1967, I started on Dick & Jane readers although the teacher used phonics. Maybe a situation like that is where the teacher’s confusion arose. But, she was a teacher. She should have known better.

Second, teachers at all grade levels have to get an education degree in Oklahoma to be certified. Colleges of education are notorious for being intellectual wastelands. Many of the professors have hardly been in a K-12 classroom but expound worn and too often useless learning theories. Third, education as a discipline is often hide-bound in ideology. John Dewey is the intellectual father of modern public education in America. The colonel, who’d read nearly everything Dewey ever wrote, said he believed Dewey championed whole word as a way to render common readers of the time obsolete. Dewey was a committed atheist and the old readers often included passages from the Bible. But, for decades Dewey was American education’s god and his wisdom was not to be questioned.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, public education is almost entirely monopolized. That means it can fail spectacularly and suffer little financially. When George W. Bush was governor in Texas a “reading initiative” to re-train teachers was funded. I recently noticed, some 20 years later, that another “reading initiative” was funded. Repeated failure in monopolized government education is, in fact, repeatedly rewarded.

As it has every year since 2002 (save for one anomaly in 2015), Oklahoma’s National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores for 4th and 8th graders have come in under the national average. The 8th grade scores have been significantly higher in the past.

Maybe it’s time to mandate that the state universities’ colleges of education teach scientifically verified reading instruction methods, that they re-teach current teachers at their, the universities’, expense, and that public schools use those methods. While we’re at it, maybe we should make it easier to bypass colleges of education altogether to become a teacher.

Whatever we do, let’s not make the same mistake as others. As Texas illustrates, funding a positive mandate in an effort to correct poor practices in public education and colleges of education is happily accepted as a reward for gross failure – and not a reason for them to actually reform.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at bschlomach@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.


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