In Partnership with The 74

Rotherham: Phonics. Whole language. Balanced literacy. The problem isn’t that we don’t know how to teach reading — it’s politics

Andrew Rotherham | March 2, 2020



Policymakers are focusing on the craft of teaching reading. They must also focus on the politics.

Last year’s NAEP scores continued a lackluster streak and set off a predictable bout of handwringing. This time, it was reading instruction — or, more precisely, our national pandemic of ineffective reading instruction — catching the flak. In response, the Council of Chief State School Officers held a summit on reading last month, and the media is starting to pay attention. It’s certainly better than nothing. Yet when a National Council on Teacher Quality study found that about half of the nation’s teacher preparation programs are teaching reading instruction based on science, it was received as great news. Indeed, it was progress — only about a third did in 2013. Still, some analysts, at least the cranky ones, wondered how half was in any way really good news. Half? It’s a disaster for millions of kids.

Given the long, tortuous history on this issue, we might pause to ask whether some articles and meetings are really going to get at the core problem. And we might ask whether we even have the core problem correctly defined. Our reading problem and how we approach it is broadly illustrative of a confusion that often pervades education reform efforts: We conflate problems of education politics with problems of educational craft.

Reading isn’t just the latest obsession of education advocates; literacy is a real issue in people’s lives. Reading matters, from success and belonging in school and being able to navigate everyday situations to the ability to participate fully in the civic franchise of the United States. There is a reason slave owners actively sought to keep enslaved blacks from learning to read and people were killed for teaching them: Literacy is power. Deny people access to the written word, ideas, debate and dissent, and you deny them freedom, agency, liberty — even humanity.

Unfortunately, national data show we do that systematically. Only about a third of fourth-graders are proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and substantially fewer low-income students and black and Hispanic youngsters. In 2019, only 36 percent of eighth-graders said they definitely could understand the meaning of something they read.

It’s also important to stipulate that there are many educational issues where the evidence is genuinely mixed, or where complicated questions of practice, implementation, context or ethics confront reform efforts. Wrestling with that complexity is no small part of what we do at Bellwether, where I work. What should sober us is how much the education sector struggles just as much with issues, in this case, reading, where the evidence does trend clearly in one direction.

That points to a different fundamental culprit — adult politics.

Most conversations about literacy treat the problem of poor reading instruction as one of craft. The problem is that teachers don’t know how to teach reading, so how do we make sure they do? Solve the craft problem, the argument goes, and the politics take care of themselves. But what if this is exactly backward and, instead, it’s a political problem that allows the craft problem to persist? And maybe not just on reading but also on other issues like testing, accountability and teacher evaluation, where we’re constantly told that if things were just a little better from a technical standpoint everyone would actually be on board?

On reading, fierce ideological debates persist despite a lot of research. To the casual observer, “compromises” like balanced literacy sound like reasonable common ground when they are, in fact, a fig leaf for further guerrilla warfare and camouflaging of teaching methods that have little grounding in rigorously evaluated evidence. Don’t take my word for it; here’s an actual line from The New York Times:

“The guardians of balanced literacy acknowledge that phonics has a place. But they trust their own classroom experience over brain scans or laboratory experiments, and say they have seen many children overcome reading problems without sound-it-out drills.” 

In other words, who cares about replicable and falsifiable approaches to evidence — I have this great story! Just last month, a panel of reading experts showed that one of the most popular approaches used in school is misaligned with what research demonstrates about the importance of systemic reading instruction and the role of phonics in that instruction — especially for low-income students. It’s merely the latest in a long line of such analyses about various popular approaches and conventional wisdom. No one is against making sure kids develop a love of reading, as well as the skills to be readers. The consensus falls apart around the question of how much to systemically teach the skills. In practice, what should be an “and” becomes an “or” when it comes to research-based approaches.

Institutional politics plays a role, too. Teacher prep programs resist efforts to dictate reading instruction and teach in ways frequently divorced from the research consensus, while reformers and education philanthropy tiptoe around this powerful constituency and the political iron triangle of colleges, credentialing boards and policymakers that exists around teacher preparation in most states. It’s good to celebrate progress, but, again, we herald a 50 percent success rate on properly teaching people how to teach kids to read as a victory rather than a catastrophe of policymaking and regulation.

This is, as most things in education are, politics. Somehow, phonics, despite the evidence of its importance in reading instruction, especially for low-income youngsters, has become a “conservative” or Republican approach to reading, while “whole language,” or its more acceptable stepbrother, balanced literacy, has more adherents on the left. The billion-dollar Reading First fiasco in the aughts — in which a robust federal literacy effort fell prey to partisan politics — shows how fraught policymaking here is.

At the same time, this is not a pro-reform or anti-reform conversation so much as a story of political homelessness. Some of the staunchest supporters of evidence-based reading instruction would surely not identify themselves as reformers, and reading experts certainly are not a unified voice on issues like choice or testing or any of education’s most heated questions. Ordinarily, such a landscape would be an opportunity to build odd-bedfellow coalitions and alliances. But in today’s tribal education politics, it’s a challenge. It’s not a lot of fun — or a good way to raise money — to stand astride the various factions. Campaigns to take this issue on struggle with fundraising even though, other than keeping students safe, teaching reading might be the most fundamental thing schools are charged with doing. Meanwhile, utter the phrase “social-emotional learning,” and someone stands ready to cut you a check.

In education grantmaking, advocacy or politics are often an afterthought or explicitly avoided these days because they’re disruptive and politically awkward. Instead, we hope and assume everyone just wants to do the right thing and that once they see the evidence, they will. But what if they don’t? What if people in positions of power simply bring different frames of reference to the debate, different values, and weigh those more heavily than science? And what if they train others to think the same way and to disregard the research at the most formative point in their career? The people quoted in the Times article above are not ignorant of the research; they just don’t care. That’s not craft, it’s politics. And given the fundamentally political nature of schools and education, why should this be surprising?

It should, though, concern us. That ethos, rather than a more immediately fixable problem of craft, might be at the root of our reading problem. In fact, it might fuel many of our larger problems.

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education and serves on The 74’s board of directors.

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