The Reading Wars in California

The Reading Wars in California

For two decades from the mid 1980’s until the turn of the century, an ideological war policies regarding approaches and methods of reading instruction waged in California. The “combatants”  in this war among policymakers and educators were two approaches to reading instruction: Whole Language vs. phonics. In fact, the advocates of Whole Language (WL) did not reject the teaching of phonics in initial literacy instruction. However, the best approach for teaching reading became a political lightning rod with a strong ideological “camp” of advocates for more phonics instruction in the schools as the answer to low reading achievement. Here Dr. Mora argues that this struggle over dichotomies and who had the power and influence to impose their views on those who saw things from a different perspective totally missed the point by overlooking the causes and factors that contributed to California’s disappointment with the level of achievement in reading in its public schools.

The Merrow Report Takes a Side

The Public Broadcasting System Merrow Report titled First to Worst aired in February 2004. The program is an analysis of how California’s public schools have declined in quality over the past four decades. The premise of the report is that there are two major causes of the decline in California’s public schools and the “current education crisis” in the state. The first is Proposition 13, which changed the basis for funding public education in California. The second “cause” of the alleged loss of quality in California schools, according to Robert Merrow and several of those interviewed on the program, is “whole language reform,” which occurred between 1988-1994. The Merrow Report blames this reform of reading/language arts instruction for the drop in California’s ranking among states in reading achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to the fifth lowest in the nation. The report concludes that a return to “traditional” curriculum and instructional approaches will return California to its Golden Age in Public Education.

It is certainly laudable for the Public Broadcasting System and the producers of the Merrow Report to explore cause and effect relationships between public policy and the quality of American public education. It is also important for educators to respond to these analyses, since lamentably, we are frequently excluded from the discussions. Consequently, the voice of the education community, including teachers, school administrators, and teacher educators, is rarely heard. This is a peculiar approach to addressing the many problems and challenges of the public education system–to exclude those who are most directly involved in solving the problem.

The purpose of this web page is to respond to the attack on “progressive” education in the Merrow Report First to Worst. I also wish to challenge the proposed “solution” to the problems of educating California’s linguistically and culturally diverse student population. In particular, it is my intent to provide a forum for the voice of those who were excluded from the conversation in this report–those of us who conduct research in literacy education and work “where the rubber meets the road” in preparing teachers for the challenges of today’s public schools.

The Resources Issue

It is certainly legitimate to explore the relationship between levels of public school funding and the quality of educational programs. There is most certainly a relationship between the human and financial resources a society is willing to commit to educating its children and youth and the quality of their educational achievements. Examining the impact of such economic conditions of education such as run-down school buildings and lack of instructional materials as a factor in determining the quality of a state’s education system is worthwhile. Some of the so-called “experts” in education reformed interviewed for the program glibly dismiss a connection between poor physical environments for learning in our schools and low academic achievement. If nothing else, the lack of physical resources and an attractive, comfortable school buildings send a clear message to children and their families that our society does not value their learning environment. Why should children and youth value school if school does not value them? Why wouldn’t our young people prefer to drop-out and “hang out” in shopping malls to escape unpleasant school environments? The fact that a few schools produce academic supper stars despite their run down conditions (anecdotal evidence) does not mean that we can ignore the problem of poor school facilities and a lack of financial and economic resources as a factor in public schooling.

Simplistic “Solutions”

“First to Worst” offers us only simplistic and politically-popular “solutions” to the complex problems of public education in California. The conclusion made in the program appears to be that control over the public school curriculum is the solution to our educational challenges. This appears to be based on the theory that California’s public schools are plagued by educational “fads” and dramatic changes in the focus of the curriculum that have deteriorated the quality of education throughout the state. The reality is that California’s schools are called upon is educate an increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse student population under a political system that looks to “traditional” methods and approaches to educational challenges. Apparently, the goal of this Merrow Report is to convince the public that “progressive” educators are the bad guys who have caused the decline in the quality of California’s education system. Along with supposedly pinpointing “the culprit,” politicians also wish to convince us not to worry, because traditionalists are taking care of “the problem” by reversing “fads” and will eventually return us to the glory days of public education in California. Of course, this requires the entire education system to march to their tune. So what we have is “back lash” education policy, with great amounts of scapegoating and name-calling, but with very little reasoned and insightful thought about what the real challenges are for education in California, leading to effective and achievable solutions.

A Response to Changing Demographics

With our dramatically changing demographics the past two decades, California’s education system has been forced to struggle with a basic question: Do we change the system to match the characteristics of a different student population, or do we try to get the student population to change the student population to match the system? If we decide to change the system to address the characteristics, needs and values of the students we have, a certain set of policies will be implemented to take us in that direction. This is what happened in the late 1960’s through the mid 1990’s. We implemented programs designed to address the needs of California’s growing number of new and second-generation immigrant students. Reforms to address the changing student population included the implementation of the Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development (CLAD) teaching credential and transitional bilingual education programs.

The movement toward changing the school system to fit the characteristics of the student population caused a political backlash. Many Californians believe in the adage, “The old ways are the best ways.” As a result of the threat to traditional ways of schooling posed by the changing school population, politicians seized the opportunity to demonize and marginalize those educators who believe in change (i.e., progress, or progressives). They call for a return to “traditional” ways of schooling, ignoring the demographic realities of California’s multilingual and multicultural population and the exigencies of our international and transnational social, economic and civic life and the impact of globalization.

Fads vs. Foundations

These changes were based on models of education and effective instructional practices that have been shown to be effective for linguistically and culturally diverse populations, as well as more homogeneous “traditional” students as well. They are not “fads” like hoola hoops, miniskirts and rap music. They are ways of structuring programs of instruction to match the characteristics of different learners, based on a sound research-based theoretical foundation and approaches to program design and classroom instruction. Much of the misunderstanding of what are called education fads stem from an inaccurate and misleading definition of terms. For example, CA State Board of Education member Nancy Ichinaga says this about whole language:

“Whole language should not be a reading program. The methodology is wrong. They thought kids could learn to read like they could learn to speak–but reading is a skill that has to be taught.”

The Merrow Report then makes this misleading declaration:

“In 1987, California adopted a new English Language Arts framework. The framework embraced a method of teaching reading called “whole language” – a system in which children are “immersed” in literature, but are not taught how to sound out words.”

These are erroneous definitions of the approach to language arts instruction called whole language and a misrepresentation of the philosophy of reading instruction espoused by whole language educators. First, it is important to understand the difference between an instructional approach and a method or methodology of reading instruction. An approach to instruction is a body of theories and beliefs, based on research findings as well as the concrete experiences of teachers, about how children learn to read and write. Instructional methods are a set of step by step , highly structured procedures for teaching. Whole language is an approach, not a method. Ms. Ichinaga can rest assured that there is no “methodology” contained in the 1987 Language Arts Framework. The second misrepresentation in these statements is that whole language does not advocate “teaching” reading and that it does not include teaching children to “sound out words.” It is simply silly to think that a state curriculum framework for reading instruction would tell teachers not to “teach” reading. As for “sounding out words,” the 1987 Framework speaks directly to the need for phonics instruction in early reading instruction, but advocates that phonics not be the focus of instruction beyond second grade.

Is teaching children to read great literature a fad? Is teaching students to comprehend what they read a fad? Is teaching children to understand the words they encounter within a text in the context of the sentence and paragraph they are reading a fad?

Reforms occurred in reading instruction because traditional methods focused on decoding and phonics were not successful with populations of students whose first language is not English or who came to schools from homes that are not rich in print and family literacy. We recognized the need for an approach to reading instruction that focused on teaching students to comprehend what they read, not just to mechanically decode text without making meaning from what they read. We also saw a need to integrate the language arts: listening, speaking, reading and writing, rather than neglecting as the components and processes of language. This was the whole language movement, which was a response to what wasn’t working in reading and writing instruction for a large number of students. This was an especially significant reform for students with limited English proficiency, whose language skills and literacy development required a more holistic approach to instruction.

Where Are the Experts?

An example of politicians’ short-sightedness and misunderstandings of our educational and demographic realities can be seen in your interview with Ron Unz. First of all, on your web page, you refer to Mr. Unz as an “expert” in education. In what area of education is Mr. Unz an expert? He does not hold a degree in education or any field related to education. He has never been a classroom teacher or a school administrator. I doubt that he has ever taught a child to read, much less a limited English proficient child. To the best of my knowledge, he has never conducted research into language learning or reading instruction. Nor is he recognized for his scholarship in the field of education. Mr. Unz is a computer industry millionaire who dabbles in education politics to further his own ambitions. In no way is he an “expert” in education. Yet, the Merrow Report accepts  Mr. Unz’s uninformed and ideologically driven opinions on matters of what reading and mathematics instructional approaches and models of education program for limited English proficient students “work” and “don’t work.”  He calls for a return to “traditional academic subjects” as the solution to the vast challenges of educating our multilingual, multicultural student population. Apparently, ignorance of the subject is no obstacle to being considered an “expert” by the Merrow Report. This is lamentable, since there are so many true experts available who will do much more than make ideological assertions and call them “fact.”

In the interview posted on the Merrow Report website, we can see that Ron Unz’s knowledge of the characteristics of our 21st century immigrants and the impact of immigration on our public schools is particularly unenlightened. Mr. Unz claims that our current Latino immigrants are “very similar” to turn-of-the-century European immigrants such as the Greeks and Italians. He ignores the fact that we have never shared a 2,000 mile border with Greece or Italy. This obvious geo-political reality creates an entirely different dynamic in terms of migration, economic interdependence, cultural and linguistic interaction and patterns of assimilation and acculturation between the United States and our Latin American neighbors, most particularly, Mexico. Mr. Unz’s turn-back-the-clock thinking offers no insight into the growing levels of bilingualism among California’s residents.

The reality is that California is already a bilingual state, and destined to become more so over the next few decades. 38% of all Californians speak a language other than English in the home. One out of every three (34%) of California’s public school students is a Spanish/English bilingual learner. California’s monolingual population is becoming increasingly aware of the advantages of being bilingual. Given the advantages of bilingualism, monolinguals can choose one of two alternatives: Either they can band together in an attempt to make all the bilinguals monolingual and thereby neutralize the bilingual advantage (the Unz Proposition 227 approach), or they can become bilingual themselves. These are the choices faced by California’s schools in this day and age. It is going to be very fascinating to watch which way our leaders takes us. A reliance on “traditional academics,” phonics and English-only to bring California’s schools into the 21st century is doomed to failure.

Scapegoating Whole Language

“First to Worst” is clearly guilty of scapegoating literacy educators and the whole language approach. Such attacks on whole language have been the main thrust of so-called reform in education for the past decade. First, the attacks on whole language are based on what is, at best. a misunderstanding and, at worst, a deliberate distortion, of what the whole language approach is and is not is and what it is intended to achieve. The basic premise of whole language is that students learn to read by making meaning from text, not by merely learning to “sound out words.” Whole language has never ignored decoding, but rather has advocated for seeing decoding as one of several means of constructing meaning from written text. Rather than the current approach that says that students shouldn’t be given access to real books until they learn to read (decode), whole language advocates students’ learning to read by making meaning and enjoying real books from the beginning of instruction.

There is no evidence, “scientific” or otherwise, that the adoption of the 1987 English Language Arts framework was the “cause” of a decline in reading scores. It is even questionable whether there was even a decline in reading scores. A number of definitive critiques have been published of this “theory.” In order to be balanced reporting, the Merrow report should give equal time to these critiques, including Jeff McQuillan, Gerry Coles, and Ken Goodman. You should also examine current NAEP data to see if the shift to phonics has made a difference.

Misdiagnosing the Patient

The California State Board of Education and now the Merrow Report are like the doctors who have misdiagnosed the patient’s illness. A careful and unbiased examination of reading scores on standardized tests in California clearly shows where the challenges in reading education lie. The students who are underachieving in reading are predominantly second-language learners of English who are being taught to read only in English. The prescription of phonics and more phonics is not the “cure” for the challenges these students face in their reading achievement.

Phonics Instruction is Not the Answer

Dr. Mora posed this challenge publicly to Marion Joseph and the current members of the California Board of Education who believe that phonics is the answer to California’s reading achievement concerns: Give me an hour of your time, and I will teach you to decode Spanish. It is a highly phonetically and orthographically regular language. After an hour or so, you will be proficient in Spanish phonics. Then, I will give you a page from an essay by Octavio Paz and ask you to “read” it to me. I guarantee that you will be able to decode the text, but will you be able to comprehend what you have “read”? Have you made meaning from text through the application of phonics? Fully 41% of California’s students are second-language learners of English. This is why we need an approach with second-language learners that recognizes the relationship between language and reading. This is also why we are making a grave mistake to scapegoat the whole language approach for the state of reading education in California.