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credit: danebank.tameside.sch.uk

I’ve often written this: D/S/Cs virtually never admit error. This is not because they don’t make mistakes, but because they believe their philosophy and policies to be infallible, non-falsifiable. They are perfect, and cannot possibly be wrong or fail. Even when their policies—such as “whole language”—fail spectacularly, they first deny the obvious, and usually destructive, failure. Then they blame others. They’ve allowed Normal Americans to continue to exist and the ingrates sabotage their brilliant policies! Not enough money has been spent, and not enough time has passed for the brilliance of their policies to become obvious. The policies haven’t been applied good and hard enough. And of course, Trump.

We are seeing a bit of wavering, however, a very little bit. Some of their policies, such as turning murderers loose, and letting insane people urinate and defecate everywhere are starting to be such obvious failures they can’t entirely ignore them anymore. A few of them are now at the blaming Republicans phase, which allows them to say they must reverse what the evil Republicans did, because D/S/Cs can’t possibly be wrong, so they have no need to admit failure.

Last week I wrote about phonics, and how the failure to teach phonics is affecting Baltimore, Chicago and other places—not that they much care. This week we visit Alpha News, where we learn that particularly brilliant policy—refusing to teach phonics–is damaging an entire state: Minnesota. Coincidentally–surprise!–it is a D/S/C ruled state. The last Republican governor left office in 2010 and D/S/Cs have been able to do a great deal of damage in a relatively short time.

Half of Minnesota’s students can’t read at grade level.

At a recent press conference, legislative Republicans said this is because the education establishment bought into the ‘whole language’ and ‘balanced literacy’ approaches to reading.

Notice the language: “Republicans said.” Actually, anyone who can read fluently can attest to that sadly avoidable reality.

They want to see increased funding for schools, teacher training programs, and tutors to invest in the science of reading, which is ‘explicit, systematic, cumulative instruction’ based on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension, said Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin.

‘This means there is a letter by letter processing of a word rather than ‘whole language.’ Students do not learn to read innately. We do not learn simply by being surrounded by literature,’ said Mueller, who has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in literacy and recently completed a doctorate in education.

She said phonics, the ‘bedrock’ of the science of reading, is most often the element that is excluded from teacher prep programs.

‘So even if a school is teaching four out of five [elements], leaving out that fifth one is devastating,’ she explained. ‘Not knowing how to read, being illiterate, is a health crisis. It is a public safety crisis.’

Quite so. Without knowing the alphabet, without knowing how to write the letters and reproduce their sounds, all else is guesswork, but without any base knowledge upon which to draw. Once the basics of phonics is mastered, kids can begin to learn how those letters go together to produce vowels and consonants, how they make words, what those words mean, and how, when combined with other words, they produce meaning and ideas beyond their definitions.

Even in high school, I had my kids learn not only common Latin phrases—that helped with correct vowel sounds–and their meanings, we did weekly vocabulary, words taken from their readings for that week. I had to put that together; it wasn’t a part of the purchased materials. That way, when we read new materials, they already knew difficult words, and were ridiculously pleased they did. I was sneaky that way.

Think about how you learned the alphabet. That’s right: you learned a song, a song with pitch, rhythm, and most of all, vowels and consonants, the sounds that produce meaning in the right combinations. You’re singing it right now, aren’t you? You could sing the same pitches and rhythms, but without the sounds, the phonics if you will, the song is empty, devoid of any meaning other than what each individual chooses to give it. You’re probably trying to hum it, but you know the symbols, and the sounds, the pitches represent.

The GOP’s proposal would establish a special revenue fund, similar to a disaster relief fund, from which schools can apply to cover costs related to aligning their curriculum and instructional practices to the science of reading, they explained in a press release.

How about D/S/Cs? Do they recognize the problem? Sort of:

Democrats have a bill that aims to achieve similar goals. During a recent committee hearing, Republicans said the bill provides schools with too much latitude to “continue doing what they’re already doing.”

The bill, for instance, would require districts to provide teachers with training ‘that is evidence-based or based on the science of reading.’

‘I can only assume this is just a lot of outside pressure, but in your bill you have an ‘or.’ Science of reading or evidence-based,’ said Mueller. ‘I see by adding that ‘or’ … that’s opening up some doors that I think should be closed.’

She said the language of the bill leaves room for the ‘three-cueing’ system, which teaches students to look at context and sentence structure to identify a word, according to Education Week. She said Mississippi forbade teachers from using this system and saw great success.

Exactly. As I explained last week in Phonics: Extinguishing What Works, education is rife with fads, which are passed off as brilliant new methods that will revolutionize education. Administrators and teachers push such fads for reasons of prestige and career advancement, and are very, very reluctant to admit the methods they’ve been praising and teaching for years are not only wrong, but are damaging the kids they’re hired to teach. To be completely fair, some teachers are simply accepting of whatever their superiors claim to be brilliant and effective. Very often these are people with masters degrees, even doctorates in education, so they’re supposed to know such things. Who is a lowly teacher to doubt such adepts? For well-meaning teachers, admitting they’re harming kids is almost unimaginable, thus do Minnesota D/S/Cs want a bill that will give schools an “evidence-based” option.

Why would that be bad? It’s easy, with the right methods of “assessment” to prove any given fad is the most amazing educational innovation in history, and every charlatan selling a new fad has all manner of evidence and data to prove their fad is glowing with that sort of brilliance, including teacher and administrator recommendations. Remember what I said about teachers and administrators being loath to admit they’ve been duped? In my medium-sized Texas High School, my superintendent, on several occasions, told me of her absolute confidence an “evidence-based” fad she’d imposed on us was working wonderfully. No amount of actual evidence I showed her of how much the kids hated it, of how they refused to do it, of how it did nothing to help kids learn, and of how it wasted enormous amounts of time, could dissuade her. “I’ve seen it work!” she proudly proclaimed. So I, as did my colleagues, quietly went about our business, producing the required documentation, going through the motions, and doing what worked instead.

Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, echoed Mueller’s comments, saying ‘people [will] look for loopholes’ in the bill.

Indeed, which is the D/S/C’s point.

‘Literacy is learning; it’s that simple,’ Bennett, a former teacher, said in a press release. ‘A large number of schools and teachers have been greatly misled by curriculum companies selling a whole language or ‘balanced literacy’ program that schools were told was ‘research-based.’ Catastrophic reading scores for Minnesota’s students have been the result.’

Unlike the “assessments”—that’s current eduspeak for tests—that “prove” fads like whole language are brilliant successes, it’s easy to determine if kids can read—speak the words on the page with the correct sounds—but also understand what they’ve read. That, gentle readers, is what is meant by half of the kids in the state being unable to read at grade level. They’ve taken not only well designed and validated reading tests, their teachers know exactly how well their students can read, or not, if they’re being honest and are willing to admit a given fad isn’t working. It’s not hard. If kids can’t even sound out grade-appropriate words on the page or screen, and if they can’t accurately explain what those words, combined into sentences, mean, there’s no way to fake it, unless of course, one is developing “evidence-based” data.

I developed a college-level vocabulary by middle school, because I was taught phonics, and I read Marvel comics, which then had college-level vocabulary. Villains chortled: “I shall bring my evil plot to fruition!” I was usually able to figure out what the higher-level words meant by context, but because I was also able to accurately spell and pronounce them, I could look them up in the dictionary—only paper in those days—when I needed to, and yes, I actually did that. Those comics allowed me to read adult literature, fiction and non-fiction, which further developed my vocabulary and reading speed and comprehension.

Republicans eventually agreed to advance the bill to its next committee stop after bill author, Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, said she plans to fine-tune the language of the bill. Both sides expressed optimism that the bill in its final form could be passed with bipartisan support.

Care to bet, gentle readers, whether D/S/Cs will fully support phonics and nothing but phonics? One would think they’d have no choice—half the kids can’t read at grade level—but that would require fully admitting the failure of one of their infallible policies, and being willing to turn 180° to accept a Republican, Normal American, solution, and one they specifically abandoned long ago. I wonder how many kids in Minnesota can read exceptionally well? I also wonder if the teacher’s unions, which are always powerful in blue states, will allow phonics? That’s the “outside pressure” about which Mueller was speaking. It’s going to take a great deal of effort on the part of teachers to learn new tricks, and many are unwilling to do that. What’s almost certainly going to be necessary is to mandate one or two specific phonics curriculums with every text and other material necessary, and D/S/Cs are absolutely going to oppose that, claiming local control, which will not be their real reason. As J.P. Morgan said:

Policies, particularly the infallible ones, have consequences.