Education

It's the Phonics, Stupid

Studying why kids can't read, some teachers have rediscovered a tried-and-true method.

Arnold Ahlert · Jan. 7, 2019

Nothing imperils our nation’s future more than our education system. A reasonably educated populace would have little use for orchestrated polarization, gutter-mouth politics, the cultural sewage that passes for popular entertainment, and the complete abandonment of decency, decorum, and common sense that is now the norm.

Nothing reinforces that norm more effectively than raising a nation of American students who cannot read.

The numbers are stark: 32% of fourth-graders and 24% of eighth-graders aren’t reading at a basic level, while 37% are proficient or advanced, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) 2017 assessment. Remarkably — or is that pathetically — 37% represents the high-water mark for proficiency. When the NAEP began assessing literacy stats in 1992, only 29% of students had proficient or advanced reading skills.

A recent article written by Emily Hanford is a real eye-opener because it inadvertently reveals an astounding level of denial on the part of the Educational Establishment. An Establishment so enamored with “cutting edge” educational theories they have been willing to sacrifice the futures of millions of students to validate them.

It tells the story of Jack Silva, chief academic officer for public schools in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 2015, Silva was deeply concerned that only 56% of third-graders were proficient in reading, according to state tests. In beginning his journey toward improving that outcome, he hit his first ideological roadblock. “One excuse that educators have long offered to explain poor reading performance is poverty,” Hanford writes. “In Bethlehem, a small city in Eastern Pennsylvania that was once a booming steel town, there are plenty of poor families. But there are fancy homes in Bethlehem, too, and when Silva examined the reading scores he saw that many students at the wealthier schools weren’t reading very well either.”

It seems neither Silva nor Hanford are familiar with Thomas Sowell. In an article published several years ago, Sowell not only debunks the poverty myth, he reveals that the now-infamous minority achievement gap in reading and other academics didn’t exist until the 1950s. And he explains exactly what happened. “The quest for esoteric methods of trying to educate these children proceeds as if such children had never been successfully educated before,” he writes, “when in fact there are concrete examples, both from history and from our own times, of schools that have been successful in educating children from low-income families and from minority families.”

Silva was apparently unfamiliar with those concrete examples, so he tasked his new director of literacy, Kim Harper, with discovering the roots of the ongoing failure.

What she discovered should surprise no one. Attending a professional-development day at one of the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools, Harper learned that actual reading was largely irrelevant. For example, if a child was reading a picture-book story about a “horse” and said “house,” the child was corrected. However, if the child said “pony” that was considered correct — because horse and pony mean the same thing.

Except that they don’t. Moreover, Harper wondered what a child would do if there were no pictures to aid their reading efforts. “The contextual guessing approach is what a lot of teachers in Bethlehem had learned in their teacher preparation programs,” writes Hanford in an updated article for NPR. “What they hadn’t learned is the science that shows how kids actually learn to read.”

That article ultimately gets to the “radical” scientific method that proved successful. At Bethlehem’s Calypso Elementary School in March 2018, veteran teacher Lyn Venable promised six children she was going to teach them something “brand spanking new.” Using a story about pets and what they do, she taught a student how to associate sounds with the various letters that made up the word “bark.”

In other words, this “brand spanking new” approach to reading was phonics. And in a testament to the current state of education, many of the teachers referenced in the article has never heard of phonics, which was presented to them as a “new, science-based” approach to reading.

New? “In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published a book titled Why Johnny Can’t Read, and What You Can Do About It,” wrote Laurie Endicott Thomas in a 2012 column. “Flesch explained that the only sensible way to teach anyone to read English, or any alphabetic language, is to teach them the relationships between letters and sounds, then teach them how to combine those sounds into words. He called it intensive phonics.”

Both Thomas and Flesch insist ideology had nothing to do with the Education Establishment abandoning what worked. “I am not one of those people who call them un-American or left-wingers or Communist fellow travelers,” Flesch stated. Thomas agreed. “The people who led the anti-phonics crusade were the ones getting the big royalty checks from the publishing companies and who were depending on wealthy philanthropists for their jobs and for the funding for the colleges where they worked,” she insisted, further stating that people who serve the upper middle class at the expense of the working class “are being bourgeois, not left-wing.”

Nonsense. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) respectively contribute 100% and 98.6% of their campaign donations to Democrats. That would be the same NEA that stated the following policy standard — in 1936: “We stand for socializing the individual.”

At the college level, a study by the National Association of Scholars reveals 39% of surveyed schools did not have a single Republican faculty member, and among the 8,688 full-time professors with Ph.D.s taken from a sample of 51 of the 60 top-ranked liberal arts colleges, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 10 to one.

That’s as left-wing as it gets.

Their ultimate goal? Fundamental transformation. “Every child in America entering school at the age of five is mentally ill because he comes to school with certain allegiances to our founding fathers, toward our elected officials, toward his parents, toward a belief in a supernatural being, and toward the sovereignty of this nation as a separate entity,” stated the late Harvard University Professor and psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce at the International Education Seminar — held in 1973. “It’s up to you as teachers to make all these sick children well by creating the international child of the future.”

Educational Establishment icon — and avowed socialist — Thomas Dewey was even clearer. “You can’t make socialists out of individualists,” he declared. “Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society, which is coming, where everyone is interdependent.”

International, interdependent, children of the future who can’t think for themselves, lest they spoil societal harmony? Children who must eschew American exceptionalism and faith in a higher power, lest they be deemed mentally ill? Most Americans are still inclined to see the failure of our Education Establishment, or more accurately, our Democrat Education Complex, as some combination of incompetence and ineptitude.

When six in 10 school kids remain well on their way toward functional illiteracy — and the dumbing-down of curriculums that accommodate it — nothing could be further from the truth.

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