Breaking: Progressive Educators Rediscover Phonics after Failing with DEI-Infused Method

As a school principal in Oakland, Calif., Kareem Weaver was once called into an English classroom to pacify a seven-year-old African-American girl who was throwing a tantrum because she was struggling to decipher a word.

Frustrated, sitting with her arms folded, the child insisted that the word was “rock.” Her aggravation grew as the teacher repeatedly said “no,” urging her to remember the story from the previous day, which featured context clues of pictures of a “home” and a “bone,” to help her solve the mystery. Finding the situation hopeless, she darted away from the teacher, crawled under chairs, and stirred up trouble with other students.

The word that stumped her was “stone.” Weaver realized his school system’s literacy strategy needed an overhaul, he said. In 2015, Weaver and some colleagues had fought for a social-justice-infused reading curriculum that was less mechanical and rigid and more about humanistic story telling, Time magazine reported. But then he saw the error of their ways.

“She is in tears because the teacher has her in a guessing game. Why don’t we walk her through the vowels and consonants instead of making her play Inspector Gadget and Tic-Tac-Toe?,” he thought at the time, he told National Review.

The school wanted to suspend that first grader for the disruption she was causing, Weaver said, without considering that, perhaps, the school was failing her. While well-intentioned faculty believed they were being supportive and doing the right thing by using “whole language learning,” which builds on the premise that reading and writing develop naturally in children, the method was leaving many kids, especially minority students, out to dry.

In Oakland, Weaver helped lead the charge to implement old-fashioned explicit systematic reading instruction, using phonics, which he summarizes as: “we teach you the sounds of language to make sure you know what you’re hearing and then we will teach you how to hear them accurately.”

“We will treat language like a puzzle and we’re going to figure it out,'” he says.

However, Weaver said he faced some pushback from teachers who were “often on different pages” because many of them received conflicting training in their reading methods courses at their universities.

“Professors who teach these classes are islands onto themselves,” he says.

There were growing pains in persuading teachers to switch back to phonics-based reading. For those who have been using the contemporary method for a while, “this is all they know,” he says.

“Universities teach it. Books, materials, and publishers teach it. No one has challenged their thinking. But they have no explanation for why kids aren’t reading,” he adds.

Prior to their reversion to the traditional model, Oakland schools, like thousands across the country, derived their learn-to-read curricula from the mind of Lucy Calkins, a so-called literacy expert who for years championed creative teaching that strongly favors the "whole language" approach and leaves only a minor role for phonics, which she dismisses as “drill and kill.”

Her reading-teaching style aimed to unleash the child’s self-expression and inner voice by empowering them to choose books that represent and resonate with them. Critics have noted that such an identity-oriented approach resembles social-emotional learning, the progressive “mental-health” pedagogy that emerged in many school districts over the pandemic and which they claim is used to smuggle critical race theory into early childhood education.

Skeptical of “direct teaching,” in which the teacher lectures at the front of the room, Calkins promoted child-led discussion and small group work, denying many disadvantaged children intimate professional instruction that peers can’t provide.

Despite the lack of independent research supporting the efficacy of Calkins’ program, it was endorsed and accepted nationwide — until it wasn’t.

With the rise of the “science of reading,” the idea derived from neuroscience that literacy should be broken down into basic building blocks for the brain to digest, new research confirmed that phonics is the most effective known method for teaching kids to read, something hundreds of classical schools knew all along.

Calkins recently revised her conclusions and curriculum to re-emphasize the foundational skills of sounding out words and linking those sounds to written letters. More school districts, such as those in Seaford, Del., and Lane, Okla., are finally catching up to the facts and are seeing academic breakthroughs, Weaver said. But for some students, it may be too late.

When tried-and-true structured literacy is abandoned, there is often a psychological price paid by students. If the words on the page aren’t computing, some children start to internalize the idea that, maybe, they’re at fault.

In the case of the Oakland child with behavioral issues, Weaver recalls, “at seven-years-old, she was so traumatized already. She began to think she was a dumb. It made her act up. So now we have a psychological and a literacy problem.” Her case required an intervention program, Weaver says, and caused a lot of upset that could have been avoided had she been taught phonics from the get-go.

Affluent communities figured out that whole-language learning was ineffective a long time ago, and they voted with their feet, or rather, their pocketbooks. Confused by their children’s reading stagnation, wealthy families in Beverly Hills and Palo Alto have outsourced help, Weaver notes.

“Parents with money, their kids aren’t reading either but they get private tutoring. Rich parents won’t let their kids fail,” he says.

The success of these kids then becomes part of distorted statistics that suggest whole-language learning is working. In Beverly Hills Unified School District last year, 76 percent of elementary students and 75 percent of middle school students tested at or above the proficient level for reading.

“This is the silent thing no one talks about,” Weaver says. “It becomes an economic crisis. It becomes a class thing. If you have money, you have a chance.”

Richard Rivera, chief program officer at the National “I Have A Dream” Foundation, which helps under-served areas, many of them immigrant and rural, with language development, says that whole-language learning hurts poor communities. His organization partnered with Enriched Literacy Education, a private New York City–based entrepreneurial venture that provides supplementary early-literacy curricula to low-income children ages five to ten, to bridge the gap caused by whole language learning and widened by K–12 closures.

But in a public-school system, it should be the bare minimum to teach kids how to read, regardless of resources at home, Weaver says. Dr. Cary Wright, the former superintendent of schools of Mississippi who retired this year, agrees.

When Wright took the helm of Mississippi’s Department of Education in November of 2014, the state’s academics were in the gutter. Ranked 50th in the nation for K–12 achievement, according to the Quality Counts National Report at the time, with children reading one-to-two years below grade level, Mississippi was consistently in last place in the state education race. But it was also the ultimate underdog, and it managed to pull off a 180-degree transformation thanks to phonics.

There had been a lot of research circulating about the science of reading, and Wright was intrigued.

“We were the state with the highest level of poverty, but poverty couldn’t be an excuse. I was hearing from teachers and superintendents in the state that they were arriving into the profession without knowledge of how to teach reading,” she says. “We adopted the science of reading and used money from the legislature to provide professional development to K-3 teachers.”

Mississippi sent literacy coaches to train teachers in the schools where academic performance was the worst. “It was so popular,” she says. “Teachers felt it was the best professional development they’ve ever had. Higher grade level teachers were also interested.”

Over the next few years, Mississippi’s school system reverted to the traditional five pillars of reading. They included phonemic awareness — the identification and manipulation of sound, phonics — the identification of letters with sounds, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. By the 2019 release of the National Assessment of Education Progress, administered in all states, Mississippi was ranked first in the nation for gains in fourth grade reading. It was called the “Mississippi Miracle.”

“Whatever your philosophy and ideology, you have to see that it has to work for kids. Phonics just works. It’s happening now in different places, but it’s not enough. People have to let go of the grief of what they thought was true,” Weaver says.

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Progressive Educators Rediscover Phonics after Failing with DEI-Infused Method

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