President Obama rarely misses a chance to pitch the need to improve our schools. Yet his administration is now trying to gut the No Child Left Behind Act, the one measure that has made a difference in improving test scores.
Many politicians on both sides of the aisle fail to realize that a key reason for passage of the No Child Left Behind Act was to reintroduce phonics —“a” is pronounced “ah,” “b” is pronounced “bah”— to reading instruction.
In the 1970s, liberal educators began to scrap this traditional teaching method in favor of what is called the whole language or whole word approach. Nutty as it sounds, under the whole language method, kids are taught to read by simply giving them books with pictures and expecting that they will become so enthralled that they will figure out the words all by themselves. Essentially, that means kids are not being taught to read at all.
The non-teaching method of whole language is particularly hard on minorities. Without being able to read even driving directions, they potentially face a lifetime of failure.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, local school systems receive federal money for reading programs if they adopt teaching methods that have been scientifically proven to work. Based on research supported by the National Institutes of Health on more than 44,000 students, that method is phonics. The idea is that if they are held accountable, they will adopt the reading instruction method that works.
In addition, because of regular testing required by the law, schools can be penalized if they don’t do a good job of teaching.
I have personal experience with phonics. Having been taught by the whole language method in the New York City schools, I could not read when I entered fourth grade in Cambridge, Mass. When called upon to read, I just guessed at the words. I still remember that my face turned red with embarrassment. Fortunately, I was placed in a one-year remedial reading class using phonics. To date, I have written 18 books.
President Bush, who developed the No Child Left Behind Act with strong support from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Republican Leader John Boehner, never explained this underlying purpose of the No Child Left Behind Act. He thought that reintroduction of phonics would be seen as a conservative plot. But when it is explained, people of all political stripes immediately get why it is necessary to understand what the letters of the alphabet signify.
Since the introduction of the law, reading scores have been improving, especially among minorities. Despite the law, because of foot-dragging by teachers and their unions, many public school systems continue to teach whole language.
Meanwhile, the toniest private schools in New York — the Collegiate, Brearley, St. David’s, and Dalton schools — all use phonics to teach reading.
“Of course we teach phonics,” Beth Tashlik, head of the Collegiate School’s lower school, told me. “You can't teach reading without it.”
Now Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, is claiming that 82 percent of schools could miss testing targets, compared with 37 percent last year. The idea that such a drastic change could occur within a year defies common sense. Margaret Spellings, Bush’s education secretary, believes Duncan is “overstating” the numbers because Obama wants to undercut the current standards.
If students miss testing targets, the school is placed on probation. Schools that miss targets two years in a row face escalating sanctions that can include staff changes or shutdowns. That is the way the private sector works: If a company fails to satisfy consumers, it goes bankrupt.
“If we’re going to try, in the name of closing the achievement gap, to whitewash the underperformance of schools, that’s really regrettable,” Spellings told the Washington Post.
Indeed, Obama’s plan to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act shows that his claimed desire to improve education in this country is merely hot air.
Having been one of those kids who could not read, I know that means a large segment of the country will never get a shot at the American dream.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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