The Magazine

Read It and Weep

Why does Congress hate the one part of No Child Left Behind that works?

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Richmond, state capital and onetime capital of the Confederacy, is a classic example of a southern city nearly collapsed in on itself after decades of worsening economic fortunes and out-migration to its exurban ring. The city boasts a handful of genuinely wealthy or artfully gentrified neighborhoods, but there is also much poverty, with its attendant social problems of crime, drugs, teen pregnancy, and single-parent households. Of Richmond's 25,000 youngsters enrolled in public school, 95 percent are African American, and 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a marker of poverty. At Ginter Park Elementary, where all but a tiny handful of students belong to minority groups, the children are on average even poorer, with 83 percent qualifying for the free-lunch program.

During the year 2000, only five public schools in Richmond (and certainly not Ginter Park) were fully accredited by the state of Virginia. Accreditation means that 75 percent of students are proficient at grade level in English, mathematics, science, and history, as measured by a series of tough standardized tests that the state put into place in 1999. This year, thanks in part to a revolution in instructional methods in which the reading program at Ginter Park Elementary played a key role, and thanks in part to a controversial Bush administration grants program called Reading First, a provision of Bush's No Child Left Behind Act that funded the teaching methods on view in Johnson's classroom, 45 of Richmond's 49 public schools enjoy full state accreditation.

Despite Richmond's success story--detailed by education analyst Sol Stern in an article for the Winter 2007 issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and duplicated in school districts across the nation that have availed themselves of Reading First grants--it is safe to say that phonics and its related instructional components are no more popular in the public education establishment than they were five years ago. This despite the fact that the literacy levels of America's schoolchildren range from appallingly low to mediocre by both national and comparative international standards. For example, nearly two-thirds of America's fourth- and eighth-graders failed to attain scores of proficient (again meaning "at grade level") in reading in 2005 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a nationwide sampling survey of academic achievement. Even worse, some 40 percent of those youngsters could not even read at the "basic" level for their grade: a barebones standard of fluency and comprehension that would mean that as adults they would be able to make sense out of a bus schedule or a simple instruction manual. Poor and minority children fared even worse, with 65 percent of them unable to read even at the basic level for their grade and less than 16 percent reaching the proficiency level.

American young people are also significantly behind their counterparts in other developed and even some developing countries. On the Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS), a multinational test for fourth-graders administered in 2001, the United States placed only 9th out of 35 participating nations, trailing top-rated Sweden, the Netherlands, and England--despite spending more per student on education than any other nation in the world. On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of 15-year-olds in 2003, American students ranked just about in the middle in literacy skills, way behind their coevals in top-ranking Finland and a score of other countries including South Korea, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is an educational commonplace that children who cannot read at grade level by the fourth grade are unlikely ever to be able to read well enough to tackle the specialized textbooks they will encounter in science, history, and other subjects as they move to higher grades. More likely, they will fall further and further behind in school, eventually dropping out in many cases.

Despite all this less-than-encouraging data, efforts to teach the elements of reading in a direct and systematic fashion--the way Laverne Johnson does at Ginter Park--are derided at most U.S. education schools as "cutting learning up into itty-bitty pieces," or "one-size-fits-all," or "the factory model," to borrow the words of Yvonne Siu-Runyan, a recently retired education professor at the University of Northern Colorado in an interview for this article. Siu-Runyan is an influential proponent of a competing theory of reading instruction known as "whole language" that is favored by such influential entities as the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, nearly the entire faculty at the prestigious Columbia Teachers College, and the vast majority of American elementary-school teachers, according to a 2002 poll conducted by the Manhattan Institute.