Home > Essays > John McWorter’s Focus on Phonics Overlooks Biggest Problems Facing Reading Instruction: Failed Funding

John McWorter’s Focus on Phonics Overlooks Biggest Problems Facing Reading Instruction: Failed Funding

September 4, 2021

I recently subscribed to education columns written by NYTimes columnist John McWorter and received his first op ed piece yesterday. Here’s what I wrote in response to his column, which exhumed the zombie arguments of phonics-versus-whole-language:

Your recent article on reading instruction was a sad reminder of past experiences I had as a graduate student and school administrator.

As a graduate student at Penn in the early 1970s I encountered an example of how the left ignored evidence for irrational reasons. I had done research on the effectiveness of Head Start as part of a course on public policy and gave a presentation that presented evidence that the Bereiter-Englemann preschool DISTAR program was effective, particularly when combined with explicit instruction on how to meet the expectations of classroom conduct. Some members of my class were appalled at my willingness to support an educational approach based on behaviorism (e.g. one woman cited the “fact” that B.F. Skinnner used Skinner boxes to educate his own children as evidence that ANY methods he advocated were untrustworthy). Others in the class were upset because I was advocating an approach that supported the educational status quo as opposed to many of the new progressive approaches that were emerging at the time. Others saw DISTAR’s emphasis on behavioral expectations as reinforcing the current White culture as opposed to the African-American culture…. and no one was pleased that my findings included a reference to the Moynihan Report in describing the various factors that contributed to poverty, a report I mistakenly thought was universally accepted.

As a school superintendent in the 1990s our district became embroiled in the “Reading Wars” which pitted phonics against whole language. We had some board members who believed phonics was the “one true way” to teach reading while others saw that approach as stifling. My attitude (and that of the 24 elementary Principals and the reading specialist in our district) was that one-size-does-not-fit-all: different children needed different approaches to reading instruction. We expected teachers to adjust their approach based on those unique needs.

Dogma in reading approaches, like dogma in any area, leads to “war” and the time and energy spent fighting those wars too often becomes a means for political leaders to avoid facing to the real underlying problems facing public education: a lack of resources. Until all schools have the same resources as the most affluent school districts any debates on instructional approaches are immaterial. As of two years ago, 12 states had active suits against the funding formulas and several others (including NH where I live) have legislatures who LOST suits but failed to provide the funds needed to fully implement the agreed upon settlemnets. In my state, mandating phonics would provide no help to districts who could not afford the reading materials needed to implement the program… and it is no surpris that those districts are the ones with the lowest reading scores. THAT is scandalous and needs to be fixed first.

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