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Phonics, Whole Language, and H.R.2614:

The Big-Business Agenda for Reading and Education

By Steven L. Strauss

 

For more than a year now, the Baltimore Sun has been running a daily column on the teaching of reading. The series has inundated its readers with "scientific evidence" highlighting the virtues of phonics and the failings of "Whole Language." Its message has been that the rejection of phonics, in the name of Whole Language, has resulted in a crisis in literacy in Maryland and the nation. This crisis, we are told, lies at the very heart of such social problems as unemployment and crime. The magnitude of the crisis is such that nothing short of an invigorated state control over teacher-training and classroom curriculum can hope to carry us into the 21st century adequately armed to deal with the social challenges that lie ahead.

As The Sun sees it, some ordinary citizens are rising to the present challenge posed by this crisis. In one of its front-page articles in the series, The Sun featured a "Howard (County) father" with "concerns about his daughter's reading," and about how reading was being taught in her kindergarten classroom. What Hans Meeder, the concerned father, saw in that classroom was, he thought, so "crazy," that he literally couldn't sleep one night."

According to The Sun, Hans Meeder's concerns prompted him to seek out Reid Lyon, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) of the National Institutes of Health. Meeder then approached the Howard County PTA to help arrange a public talk for Lyon on reading and reading instruction. Now Meeder wants to become a Republican state legislator from Columbia, Maryland on a platform that includes reading reform.

What was it that so passionately shocked Meeder's educational sensibilities that The Sun's editors felt his torment to be particularly newsworthy? According to The Sun, it was that his daughter's teacher was using a principle of "Whole Language" in the classroom, according to which the children were encouraged to "guess at words based on context." The teacher did not use the seemingly more rational and scientific principles of phonics, "which teaches students to decode sounds and groups of letters to figure out words."

Nowhere in the article is the teacher given an opportunity to explain and defend her own professional choice of teaching strategies for Meeder's daughter. We are left with the impression, already promoted throughout The Sun series, that many of our children's teachers are poorly trained, and that these poorly trained teachers are promoting illiteracy by encouraging kids to "guess" at words, even incorrectly, rather than rationally decoding" words to arrive at their correct identification.

But it seems that our concerned father Meeder is no neophyte to the reading scene. Not found in The Sun piece is relevant background information on Meeder, including that he was, until recently, chief of staff to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. This committee is responsible for drafting House Bill H.R. 2614, the so-called "Reading Excellence Act." H.R. 2614, if passed by the full Congress, would severely restrict federal funding earmarked for reading and professional development programs to a narrow, government-defined phonics approach. This bill would take control over decisions about reading instruction away from parents, teachers, and local communities, and put it into the hands of politicians and federal bureaucrats.

H.R. 2614 was introduced by Congressperson William Goodling of Pennsylvania, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. At the time it was introduced, Meeder was working for Goodling. It was Meeder's article in Education Week that formed the programmatic basis for H.R.2614.

Following protests from professional educators of the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Reading Conference, and the National Research Council on Language and Literacy, the bill was tabled, only to be resubmitted at the last minute for a voice vote, at which time it was passed.

Meeder subsequently left his position with the government to head up Horizon Consulting Services, a policy research firm based in Columbia, Maryland. The Sun article did refer to Meeder as "a consultant specializing in education issues and an aspiring politician." But Meeder, a University of Maryland graduate, has never taken even a single course on education.

After Meeder's departure from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, his responsibilities there were taken over by Robert Sweet, president of the National Right to Read Foundation. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, Sweet has been associated with the Christian Coalition and with Hooked on Phonics.

 

 

The Sun did not tell its readers about Meeder's Education Week article, nor that it was co-written with Douglas Carnine, one of the authors of DISTAR, a well-known commercial phonics product that stands to profit immensely from the way reading is defined in H.R.2614. Carnine was also a student of Siegfried Engelmann, whose writings on the educational failure of inner city Black children (supposedly due to their illogical language) helped lay the basis for Arthur Jensen's infamous claims back in the 1960s about the genetic inferiority of African Americans.

According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Carnine and Meeder's article proposes that Congress establish an expert reading panel to synthesize research-based knowledge about reading, using "scientific research principles." The panel's findings would then be disseminated in such federal education programs as Title 1 and in the regional laboratories of the U.S. Education Department. The labs would be expected to issue 'a product recall' of previously disseminated information not scientifically validated." (emphasis added).. In other words, any research or classroom method that does not fit some panel's definition of "scientific" could be legally censored by the federal government if H.R. 2614 is passed, under the guise of product recall."

H.R.2614's stated goal of permitting only "valid and reliable" (code words for experimentally-based") research findings to guide its education policy on reading dovetails more than coincidentally with the current funding policies of the National Institutes of Health, as advocated by Reid Lyon, who is in charge of funding reading research at the NIH The funding policy excludes all ethnographic or other non-experimental research paradigms from funding consideration, and funds only Valid and reliable" research. Thus, phonics (experimental) is in, and Whole Language (ethnographic) is out.

In a strong sense, H.R. 2614 amounts to a state definition of reading and of legal scientific research in the field of reading. This congressional, political definition is being propped up by a scientific blessing from the National Institutes of Health. The end effect of the NlH's narrow funding policies will be to tunnel-vision the public's perception of just who constitutes our pool of reading experts to those doing purely experimental work.

These "valid and reliable" reading experts, of course, will present themselves as neutral and unbiased; after all, they are just doing neutral, scientific research. In time, the official definition of reading will be mere "common sense," public knowledge. As usual, the official state definition of science and reading will continue to be marketed and sold to the public as part of the government's campaign to save our society from the ills of illiteracy. No doubt, opponents will be caricatured as "radicalism" screaming from the wings.

Not found in The Sun series is NCTE's response to the position of Carnine and Meeder. As publicly announced prior to The Sun article on Meeder, The National Council of Teachers of English "believes neither Congress nor any other federal agency should establish a single, acceptable definition of reading, especially if those restrictive definitions are being used to establish funding criteria for teacher education and professional development programs." This position respects both the professionalism of teachers and the individual needs of students and parents.

 

The Sun can certainly not claim ignorance of the NCTE position, or positions similar to it. For example, for their series on reading they interviewed Professor Richard Allington of the National Research Council on Language and Literacy at the State University of New York at Albany. Allington had published a thorough critique of the claims of Reid Lyon and others regarding just what constitutes "scientific research" on reading, and on the limited conclusions that can be drawn from the purely experimental research design advocated by Lyon, and promoted by H.R. 2614. Individual case studies, ethnographic analyses, and other non-experimental research designs have made their own contributions to the scientific understanding of reading, but would be subject to "recall" under H.R. 2614. The Sun did not print any part of its interview with Allington.

Indeed, The Sun interviewed Professor Kenneth S. Goodman of the University of Arizona, past president of the International Reading Association and the internationally acknowledged scholar and reading researcher whose discoveries about how readers construct meaning led to the development of the philosophy of Whole Language. None of The Sun's interview with Professor Goodman appeared in its series.

In The Sun article, Meeder is quoted as stating that he "Want(s) to promote an ongoing discussion on how to deal with reading and how to bring all schools to the most current available research." Based on his publicly known ideas, Meeder's solution to this delivery problem would appear to be to impose by federal mandate a particular view of "scientific research on reading and reading instruction in the classroom."

But with a state definition of science, and a state right to "recall" unscientific methods, those teachers whose viewpoint is distinct from the "official party line," yet still, in their opinion, entirely defensible on scientific principles, will be silenced. This will include not only Whole Language teachers, but any others whose "science" is opposed by the state.

Therefore, what has been portrayed in the media as a debate about method is, in fact, a battle over censorship versus freedom of thought, over academic freedom, and over the freedom of teachers to exercise their professional judgment in the selection of methods of instruction they feel are best-suited to the individual needs of their students.

If The Sun had given Meeder's daughter's teacher an opportunity to explain her professional opinion about how reading should be taught to kindergartners, she might have pointed to The Sun's misleading reference to the term "guessing." From the point of view of a phonics advocate, guessing at words would appear to be a license for an anything-goes tolerance of inaccurate and sloppy word-identification. From the point of view of a Whole Language teacher, however, guessing at words is a strategy that promotes meaning-based thinking. As understood by advocates of Whole Language, this is an eminently justifiable method, based on 30 years of scientific research on reading.

Advocates of Whole Language believe that phonics, a method based on teaching letter-sound correspondences, is just one very small part of the whole picture of reading. Whole Language teachers believe, again based on 30 years of research (as well as on their own experiences), that children become fluent in written language in essentially the same way they learn oral language, by employing it in real, meaningful ways, by discovering its communicative functions, and by acquiring a love for the power of literature. Children do not learn how to speak and listen by being taught the individual sounds of the language. Nor do they learn how to read by intensive drills on letter-sound relationships.

Whole Language research has helped create a model of reading that views reading as a complex mental activity that itself is a special type of meaningful thinking, rather than a meaningless manipulation of some visual linguistic symbols, such as the letters of the alphabet. Reading is meaningful thought brought to the printed page; it is not the visual ink marks on the page somehow alchemized and transmogrified into ideas and concepts.

There are no tricks, drills, or gimmicks that can impart this kind of meaningful, language-based thinking to a young child. It must be nurtured and encouraged. Whole Language researchers have learned that the best way to foster reading development in a child is to stimulate thinking that is directed towards both understanding and critiquing an author's intended message. Intensive instruction on sounding out letters produces noisemakers, not readers.

More generally, Whole Language is a philosophy of language education that has grown out of a large body of research on reading that has helped us understand reading as a derivative of thinking. Its goal is to promote critical, flexible thinking, and thereby the sustained and lifelong development of thinking. Unlike phonics, Whole Language has no "materials" of its own. It promotes language-based thinking by using materials that inherently contain meaning, that is, that inherently contain an author's message. In other words, it uses real, everyday literature, from books to street signs to personal diaries.

Whole Language, not phonics, is responsible for classroom practices that include journal-writing, student book publication, and other linguistically holistic activities that promote literacy, not mere "reading."

The fact that Whole Language believes in critical thinking, and that it has no materials of its own, suggests what really lies behind the recent media barrage aimed against it. Whole Language is a threat to those forces in society that fear critical, self-confident, independent-minded thinking. It is a threat to those forces that do not want our young people to explore their own beliefs and ideas. It is a threat to corporations that literally divert billions of dollars of public funds to their profit ledgers in the sale of phonics materials.

It is no accident that phonics instruction is vigorously supported by the same right-wing political forces that approach schools as factories for indoctrination, rather than as theaters for the promotion of independent thinking. The right-wing Heritage Foundation, Blumenfeld Education Letter, and Christian Coalition are actively involved in the campaign to slander Whole Language and to impose intensive phonics on U.S. children.

What, then, is The Baltimore Sun's interest in contributing to the construction and transport of this Trojan horse? The answer lies partly in another of The Sun's articles on reading and education, in which The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education is acknowledged as "[t]he behind-the-scenes force that is wielding the influence in school reform" in the state of Maryland.

The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education was formed in 1992 by 53 companies who came together to support "high academic standards, assessment measures, and systems of accountability." It was initially organized and founded by Norman R. Augustine, chairman of the board at Lockheed Martin Corporation. At the time, Augustine was carrying out a project of the National Business Roundtable to launch local, statewide roundtables.

The Roundtable's Board of Directors includes CEOs and other executives from Legg Mason, Potomac Electric Power Company, Lockheed Martin, Travelers Group, Baltimore Gas and Electric, Bell Atlantic-MD, Bethlehem Steel, Colliers Pinkard, Commercial Credit Corporation, Crown Petroleum, KPMG Peat Marwick, Manor Care Inc., Maryland Chamber of Commerce, and Signet Bank. Other members include Apple Computer Inc., Group W Television Inc., GTE Government Systems Corporation, IBM Corporation, Johns Hopkins University Inc., Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, Marriott Corporation, Merrill Lynch and Company, NationsBank, Northrup Grumman Corporation, Perdue Farms, Proctor and Gamble, Sylvan Leaming Systems, T. Rowe Price Associates, United Parcel Service, University of Maryland System, USF8G Corporation, W.R.Grace and Company, Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, and Xerox Corporation. Buzz Bartlett of Lockheed Martin was appointed by Democratic governor Parris Glendening to serve on the Maryland State Board of Education.

The MBRT for Education has been the major force behind the design and implementation of new state tests to ensure "higher standards," mandated teacher-training requirements at the college level, and the restructuring of school curricula via their participation in School Improvement Teams (SlTs). A public outcry that involved hundreds of angry parents was provoked last year when the Wilde Lake High School School Improvement Team proposed eliminating a unique feature of the Wilde Lake class scheduling policy that allowed its students greater access to "non-academic" courses in drama, music, art, and forensics. Three teachers at the school were "involuntarily transferred" after they protested the scheduling changes.

The MBRT for Education is also behind the annual Teacher of the Year award. Last year the award celebration event was co-sponsored by Northrup-Grumman, First National Bank, The Baltimore Sun, and WJZ-TV. It was broadcast on Maryland Public Television which sits on the Public Policy Committee of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education.

As a justification for MBRT's overwhelming involvement in retooling public education, Augustine pointed out that "[t]he business community is the principle customer of the products of the educational system." Current MBRT Board of Directors chair Raymond A. Mason (from Legg Mason) puts the big business perspective this way: "We know that for business--indeed, society--to prosper, we must ensure that each generation of children is well prepared to meet the workforce challenges of the future. Now, more than ever, the challenges are daunting, the competition fierce, and the stakes are high. More and more we see that competition in the international marketplace is, in reality, a 'battle of the classrooms.'"

The MBRT for Education surveyed Maryland businesses "to identify skills employees will need in the future." They found that:

"73 percent of companies hiring high school graduates reported employees lack adequate communications skills; 69 percent report inadequate writing and reading skills."

"93 percent of responding firms considered improved or expanded technical training in high school to be important."

"80 percent of firms that hire manufacturing or skilled trades workers report difficulty in finding qualified workers."

Their worry, however, is not over students' abilities to think critically about the etiology of society's ills. Rather, they "intend that this research will help schools update programs and curricula to provide students with skills that are relevant to the workforce they will join." As MBRT for Education executive director June E. Streckfus succinctly put it: "The [high school] diploma will have value to businesses statewide. If a business is hiring a young person who has a Maryland diploma, [the employer will know] they will have a high level of basic skill."

In other words, the current level of "skills" of the U.S. workforce is too low to allow big business to feel confident participating in the modern, fiercely competitive international marketplace. Its plan is to raise these skills to a thigh level," but to remain basic," i.e. rote and disciplined. And in order to accomplish this, UMBRT believes that required results for students must be defined in measurable terms. Rigorous, reliable and valid assessments are necessary."

Given The Sun's pattern of blatant omissions from its series, it should come as no surprise that its article on the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education makes no mention of the fact that The Baltimore Sun is one of its members. So, in its own words, it belongs to the "behind-the scenes force that is wielding influence in school reform."

The media headlines about a supposed crisis in literacy reflects what big business senses as its own crisis, namely, the existence of a labor force that may not possess the "high level of basic skills" required to handle the rote demands of communication in the age of software, hardware, e-mail, and the internet. Class-conscious big business knows that without this technology, it will lose when faced with competitors who do possess it.

There is no evidence of a crisis of literacy when it comes to actual reading--children are reading more than ever before, children's author's publish million-copy books that appear on the New York Times bestseller list, and library circulation of young people's literature as well as the sale of children's books are at record high numbers.

To big business, the rote learning of letter-sound correspondences that constitutes phonics methodology contains the germ of their idea of elevating the "level of basic skills." Whole Language has an entirely different agenda, namely to nurture the capacity for critical thinking. But teachers who are won over to Whole Language see phonics as an incidental technique, to be used in context, and subordinate to the larger goal of constructing meaning and thinking critically. In order to impose phonics on the classroom and, as they see it, properly train their workforce, big business is compelled to squash Whole Language.

This is the goal of The Baltimore Sun, and the class it represents. The Sun's more specific contribution to this attack on freedom of thought is to feed ideas to its readers that will help lay the groundwork for an easy public acceptance of H.R. 2614, once it passes in the Senate. For the time being, though, H.R. 2614 remains a media unmentionable.