Imagine a physics program that won’t teach the theory of relativity. Or an English department that shuns Shakespeare. That would be equivalent to how U.S. schools of education treat the most effective method for teaching beginning reading.
That method is called decoding, the shorthand word for the scientifically tested techniques for teaching children the relationships between symbols and sounds, often just called phonics. Reformers have fought for generations to have decoding skills taught systematically and directly, but schools of education will have none of it.
Instead, the education establishment prefers to teach beginning readers to guess at the identification of a written word using its context — the so-called whole-language approach. The people who run education schools hate the “code” because they say it requires a repetition of boring exercises — “drill and kill” — turning children off and discouraging them from “reading with meaning.” There has never been evidence for this view, however.
The whole-language advocates pitch their approach as being on the side of “meaning,” not the “code.” Similarly, math educators have long used the goal of “deep conceptual understanding” to justify requiring children to invent their own methods for performing basic arithmetical operations instead of teaching them to understand and use the standard algorithms, which mathematicians note are more efficient, effective and general.
The educators’ biases have held sway for decades. But a new coalition is trying to find a way to make sure prospective teachers have some instruction in what decoding strategies are and why they are effective.
The latest action has been in Wisconsin. The state Legislature passed a bill that will help ensure that teachers no longer receive inadequate training in their preparation and professional development. The Wisconsin Reading Coalition, the Wisconsin branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and a group of parents, educators, psychologists and other professionals supported the measure. I was among the many experts submitting testimony for it.
The group had begun looking carefully at beginning instruction after noting Wisconsin children’s stagnant reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, and comparing those results with the scores in Massachusetts.
Why Massachusetts? Because children there are doing better than pupils in most other states on reading tests.
As noted by Kathleen Porter-Magee in a 2012 Fordham Institute analysis of the impact of high standards on student achievement, the 2009 NAEP reading tests showed that “students scoring in Massachusetts’s bottom 25 percent score higher than students in the bottom 25 percent of any other state in the nation. And students scoring in the top 25 percent perform better than students in the top 25 percent of any other state.”
She attributed this performance to the effective implementation of its highly rated English-language-arts standards, first adopted in 1997 and then re-adopted in a slightly revised form in 2001.
But the Wisconsinites zeroed in on a more specific explanation for the Massachusetts results: the state’s licensing test, in place since 2002, for all aspiring teachers of elementary-age children. The content of the test includes knowledge of code-based beginning-reading instruction.
Education schools whose coursework was once limited to whole-language approaches now have to explain the research support for a code-emphasis method and what systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics means in practice. The schools have done this grudgingly, limiting their effort to test preparation workshops or including it as a small part of a “balanced literacy” approach that allows teachers to teach phonics but only in context, thereby ensuring that it can’t be taught systematically.
Supported by their state Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin’s legislators followed the path taken first by Massachusetts, then by Connecticut in 2008, and most recently by Minnesota in 2011, to require the tests. Several other states are considering the requirement, as well.
Their efforts have broad implications. Many states are looking for objective ways to evaluate teachers at all levels. But the efforts by federal education officials to prod states into working out sound teacher-evaluation plans seem to be missing an important connection.
The policy makers in Washington want states to develop an appropriate professional way to determine which teachers are ineffective - a reasonable goal. But they have not made it clear that such evaluations need to judge whether a lack of adequate progress in children’s beginning-reading skills is the result of teacher incompetence or of deficient training.
The licensure test that the Wisconsin bill will mandate is not only based on reading science; it is also aligned with the foundational skills in the national Common Core reading standards for the elementary school.
Once the bill is signed into law and begins to affect training, Wisconsin will be able to evaluate teachers of beginning reading on their skills without worrying if they lack professional knowledge that could easily have been taught in their coursework. Let’s hope the work of the reformers in Wisconsin spreads to most other states.
Sandra Stotsky is a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and was senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1999-2003. She is the author of “The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do,” to be published in June.