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The Four "Sacred Cows" In American Education
[revised and updated February, 2000]
With 90 million American adults now reading and writing at the two lowest of five
levels of proficiency -- functional illiteracy by many estimates -- according
to the 1994 National Education Goals Report, and 30% to 40% of enrolled students
in remedial classes, it is now past time to determine a fix for our greatest
national tragedy -- our inability to teach our own language to our own children!
How can this deplorable situation have occurred? Can we stop producing these kinds
This article is addressed to those who hold "the purse strings to change" -- board
members, legislators, corporate CEO's, and foundation trustees. Since they empower
and fund school systems which, together with publishers, have actually caused
the illiteracy problem, we submit that they need to take a very close look at the
reasons for our indictment.
Locally elected board members are responsible to their constituencies (the taxpayers)
for what happens in the public schools yet they have no power to control the main
factors involved in the failure. Those who authorize public monies (legislators
and state boards of education) have taken local control away from elected local
boards. Considering the dismal results of our educational system, we think those
who fund the sytem now have a compelling need to learn the root causes of
the present dilemma before continuing to empower those whose reform plans have failed
in the past.
Local boards of education are ultimately responsible.
Let me begin by saying that I am not a casual observer on the educational scene.
This is written from insights drawn through observations and personal experience
gained from approximately 108,000 volunteer hours, since 1972, spent in an attempt
to influence improvements in reading and language arts instruction at local, state,
and national levels.
My concern and interest began several years before my formal work with The Riggs
Institute when our eldest child, a third grader in our local public school in Bellevue,
Nebraska, began to have academic problems related to spelling. She would write spelling
words which rhymed with those spoken by her teacher and fail her tests though she
tested seventh grade level in vocabulary and comprehension. The district tried to
insist that she be put into a special education program as "semi- retarded" while
other private specialists found that her problem was an intermittent hearing loss
caused by environmental allergies.
We announced our findings to the district and on the advice of our physician, asked
that our daughter be placed in a front row seat, that the teacher make certain she
heard instructions and always used the word in a correct sentence. The district
refused. They wanted our daughter to be put on what is now known as an IEP (Individualized
Education Program) in a special education class. Instead, we enrolled her in a private
school where she experienced no difficulties and also outgrew her allergy problems.
I have never forgotten that my husband and I were fortunate to have had that option
for her. Far too many parents do not, which is a primary reason I founded The Riggs
Institute -- a non-profit literacy agency.
Subsequent to this disheartening experience, I served on a reading textbook selection
committee for the Bellevue district. Our task was to make a choice among six or
seven basal reading programs. One day, a well-fingered and soiled double-spaced
copy of a scholarly-looking report was handed to me by the district's curriculum
director. Written by a reading professor at the University of Michigan, it made
a rather strong case for the various educational practices used in the Houghton-Mifflin
basal reading program -- sufficient to nearly cause me to say, "Yes, I guess I do
like this one the best." Then I noticed something familiar about the name of the
professor who authored it -- a Dr. William K. Durr. Where had I seen this name before?
Two days later, it came to me! Sure enough, Dr. Durr, full reading professor in
Michigan's state supported system, turns out to be the senior author of the Houghton-Mifflin
program. Later, he became president of the International Reading Association. I
announced my findings at our next meeting, and I leave it to you to guess how unpopular
I became with our district administrators. Apparently they did not want the committee
members to know that reading professors could be, and frequently are, financially
tied to textbook publishing interests. It seems obvious to me that these administrators
must have been involved in this duplicity because they influenced us with Dr. Durr's
words, but didn't tell us who he was. If they simply had forgotten to tell us, why
were they so angry because we found out?
Many years later, I discovered another and different conflict of interest among
reading professors. In Oregon, the local press carried a story about one college
of education dean who had been instrumental in the selection of 79 school superintendents
over a 20-year period of time. Naive me! At first, I thought this was part of his
job description. No, I found he had a personal business going on the side at $5000
per superintendent selected. School districts hired him as a consultant to find
superintendents for them. Can you guess who textbook people went to when they wanted
to influence these 79 superintendents? The dean didn't even have to author anything
-- just become a power broker in the sales game. Later I discovered that nearly
all of the 79 superintendents had purchased a well-known "invented" spelling program
to add to their curriculum. Could I prove this? Or that one story had anything to
do with the other? Of course not! But, a book I read before it went out of print,
The Great American Reading Machine, by a former reading professor, Dr.
David Yarington, influenced my sleuthing instincts for these types of promotional/sales
activities and possible conflicts of interest. No, it's not a conspiracy to dumb
down America's children; such moonlighting simply facilitates opportunities
for "graft, greed, and corruption" as Dr. Richard Anderson, Director of the
Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois, so aptly put it when he
testified to the California state board in 1988.
From Yarington's book, with permission, here is his very revealing graphic:
But, back to my story . . . After the incident with my child, I continued to advocate
for better ways to teach reading and spelling, and, in 1976, at the request of a
private school administrator, began to research "why these perfectly bright children
are not learning to read." My search took me to libraries, including university
libraries, where I learned the history of reading methods, how they had evolved,
what could be determined through research about successes and failures of various
types of programs, and what educators thought about them. I read the scholarly International
Reading Association's journals as well as the now infamous Why Johnny Can't Read
(1955) and Why Johnny Still Can't Read (1975) by the late Dr. Rudolph Flesch,
and, I think, every reading-related article in between. All of which left me in
a state of, "Well, maybe I partly know what's wrong now, but how can it possibly
The phonics debate seemed to be a central issue - whether or not we should teach
it; if we do teach it, how and when it should be done, etc. I did not find any research,
articles, or data relating to WHAT phoneme/grapheme representations needed to be
taught. Twenty-three years later, I still see no discussion to define, adequately,
the subject of the "great debate." Apparently, it has never been defined in research
or otherwise. At least, if it had, one would think that Marilyn Jager-Adams in her
otherwise quite remarkable 1990 Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print,
and Dr. Marcy Stein's recent treatise on "decodable texts" would have been able
to quote something beyond the 1978 Beck/McCaslin (University of Pittsburgh) simple
report on what basal programs were teaching for phonics in 1978.
The Beck/McCaslin report was not research as to what phoneme/graphemes were appropriate,
which produced better results, etc., but rather just a report on what was being
used. I found, and still find this deplorable lack of intellectual curiosity on
the part of researchers quite remarkable considering that the phonics issue (should
we or shouldn't we?) has been hotly debated since 1955.
After lengthy examination of the research, I was unable to report anything definitive
about phonics or other reading reform measures which could possibly improve the
situation in this small, inner-city school which I had been asked to help.. I delivered
my final report to them in that vein. For more background information here, you
may want to read, Phonics Is Phonics Is Phonics or Is It?"
The following week, by some quirk of fate perhaps, I met Oma Riggs - my "mentor"
for the next 12 years. In a one-hour lecture, she very quickly filled in the gaps
in my knowledge bank. She demonstrated the phonetic structure of correct English
spelling which, she reported, hadn't been taught at the teacher training level in
America since the early 1930's, (shortly after the look-say Dick and Jane
readers were launched on an unsuspecting public). We ultimately decided to implement
the system Miss Riggs had used with great success in Spanish-Harlem classrooms in
our own inner city school (see other articles and line graph
at: www.riggsinst.org). We also solved teacher training and time-management
problems in our school -- the same ones which remain troublesome in nearly every
school system even today.
In a complete academic turnaround, our first graders ended their first year of this
method able to diagram simple sentences, read from the World Book, and complete
a book report each week -- some up to seven pages long -- all with correct punctuation,
spelling, capitalization, grammar, syntax, legible handwriting, spacing, margins,
etc. We became ineligible for Title I funding in exactly 2.5 months (using newly
trained teachers) after beginning with nearly one-half of the student body in the
Title program. It became clear to me that virtually all children could
learn if they were properly instructed in ways that addressed their "learning style"
and if they were quickly taught the phonetic system and rules necessary to write
and spell the words in their spoken, comprehensible vocabularies.
In our second year's experience, we deliberately added eighteen "learning disabled"
children to our student body, and, with one exception, we brought them all to grade
level in self-contained classrooms in that second year. I founded The Riggs Institute
at that point in an attempt to share this information with other teachers and parents.
I saw that virtually all children could learn if they were properly instructed.
Over the past 20 years, through my involvement in publishing, teacher/parent training
in effective teaching methods, and my advocacy for high expectations and efficient
teacher/student time management, I have reaffirmed over and over that the problems
we solved in that small school in Omaha are still the major problems which need
to be solved in every school in America. I now call these deterrents to educational
reform "the four sacred cows" -- those things we never change, nor even discuss
-- especially in the press! I believe that the four major factors which influence
what happens between teachers and their students in classrooms throughout the world
- The textbooks used
- The manner in which teachers are trained -- in attitudes, in methodologies, and
- The standards by which they are certified
- Individual course time requirements at each grade level in accredited schools.
These are, in fact, the constraints which prevent any type of true "choice" -- be
it vouchers, elective alternative schools, and now even charters -- from making
any appreciable difference in student learning. It does little good to move the
child and the money from one school to another if the four "cows" are still very
much in place. Significantly better teaching and learning do not happen. Newly formed
boards are induced to adopt the same types of curriculum, they hire teachers with
the same training and certification, and they follow the time management constraints
imposed by the states in which they are located.
Recently, (1999) an unwise curriculum decision by a founding charter school board
member in Texas put in place an ineffective reading program which (the board member
said) was chosen "because it was going to be on the state adopted list." She didn't
seem to be aware that the Texas legislature approved charters to get these potentially
innovative public schools out from under the legal and traditional constraints of
the state board and the state department of education where policies have not changed.
I predict that soon we will say of the charter idea, "Well, disappointingly, that
model school plan sure didn't work," and ready ourselves for the next restructuring
Our four sacred cow allegations are not considered pertinent in the restructuring
debate. If the U.S. Department of Education is aware of them, it is not apparent.
They are ignored at the federal level by poorly advised senate and house education
committee members who have enacted legislation to bless the continuing efforts of
"scientific researchers" who haven't ever bothered to examine the efficacy of one
set of phoneme/graphemes representations (phonics) over another. The federal government's
involvement consists of handing even more money to state departments, which allows
them to establish greater and greater control over the authority of local boards
of education. We need to find out who established the sacred cows, and why,
before we can think of finding a way to stop this "unwise intrusion into the marketplace."
Who established the four sacred cows and why?
Contrary to popular belief, the sacred cows were not created by the federal government
either directly or through their interference with federally-mandated programs.
Nor was it done by local boards of education. These four "sacred cow" policy areas
are determined by selected groups of state-level bureaucrats -- state Superintendents
of Public Instruction (advised by their staff made up, primarily, of members of
the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Council of Teachers of
English (NCTE), and the National Association for the Education of Young Children
(NAEYC); state Boards of Education (many of whom are appointed rather than elected
and who traditionally listen to the recommendations of their hired staff); Teachers'
Standards and Practices Commissions; reading professors in Colleges of Education;
and, in twenty-one states, state Textbook Commissions -- all, without exception,
empowered and funded in their primary jobs, through their respective state legislatures.
This is where the teachers' unions are involved; they spend the dues extracted from
teachers to influence elections to advance their political view, but, surprisingly,
they do not directly affect the selection of curriculum and teacher training like
the IRA, NCTE, and NAEYC do.
The results are all about us. In the entire state of Oregon, during the past three
language arts textbook adoption processes, The Riggs Institute has been the lone
protestor of the textbook adoption process itself. As we've mentioned, Dr. Richard
Anderson testified in 1988 to the California Board of Education that
["the process of statewide adoption discourages innovation, limits diversity and
reduces local choice. It is subject to abuses, including fraud and bribery. It is
vulnerable to ideological fashion. It is expensive and time consuming. Scholars
who have studied the statewide adoption process concur that it is an unwise intrusion
in the marketplace..."].
Dr. Anderson asked California's State Board of Education to abandon statewide textbook
adoptions. We believe that the process itself constitutes an open and clear opportunity
to violate federal antitrust statutes which were enacted to protect the consumer
from unfair monopolies. Textbook adoption forces the taxpayer, parent, teachers,
district administrators, and locally-elected board members to have in place materials
and methods which are not proven to be safe, much less effective, i.e. the just
deposed whole language programs that do not teach "explicit" phonics which is supported
by federally-compiled research over "implicit" phonics. I'm not inferring here that
there is nothing desirable about whole language programs, (they do have the
right goals) but that, interestingly, several of these same publishers are now selling:
- Consumable workbooks which are a "visual" means of teaching phonics (by definition,
phonics is first sound, then symbol) to 30% of students who are not visually-oriented
learners rather than the teacher/student articulated explicit phonics instruction
supported by federally-compiled research (Becoming a Nation of Readers, 1985)
- Phonemic awareness without graphemic awareness exercises which just produce more
invented spellings which, in turn, do not map to standard bookprint for reading
- The dumbed-down "decodable" texts which bring us back, full circle, to worse than
Dick and Jane. The larger cause for alarm is that now the federal and state
legislatures, the public, local board members and teachers all believe that
our students are getting real phonics. This is nonsense!
The big push for #2 above, "phonemic awareness," (one perfectly valid requirement
of reading instruction and even correct spelling) comes to us via Dr. Hallie Yopp,
reading professor at California State at Fullerton who is also (surprise, surprise!)
senior author of Harcourt Brace. But, while Dr. Yopp is out and about the country
"articulating" the 42 sounds of English speech to teachers in her $3000/day moonlighting
workshops, her publisher (now the largest US publisher and owner of the popular
standardized testing instrument, the Stanford Nine) is busy printing up consumable
"visual" worksheets for the students of these teachers. This constitutes a complete
contradiction in pedagogy, an "in-your-face" nose thumbing at the California legislature
which has forbidden invented spelling, a clear conflict of interest, and
therefore, a violation of the public trust, not to mention double-dipping into the
And, folks, Dr. Hallie Yopp is surely in the running to become president of the
International Reading Association because that's how the system works according
to my observations over the past 25 years. In the year 2000, locally-elected board
members and schools have virtually no control over textbook selection in twenty-one
states which happen to include California and Texas. Though it is true here and
there that some larger districts are allowed to "opt out" of the adoption process,
in reality, they rarely do; it's simply too much trouble. It makes them unpopular.
It means they aren't a team player.
A case in point: Iowa is trying to ignore the orchestrated push for state "standards"
and is being called nearly "un-American" for this independent decision to put their
time, energy, and money into their state-of-the-art ICN classroom network (610 classrooms
completely interactive and connected through fiber optics) which can facilitate
a hi-tech and different source of teacher training. Unlike the rest of the nation,
busily trying to outdo each other with pie-in-the-sky, immeasurable "standards,"
I believe that Iowa has put in place the means of solving at least one of the "cow"
problems they undoubtedly recognize -- serious deficiencies in teacher preparation.
Iowa thinks they already know WHAT children need to learn (or they trust the local
districts to decide), and are trying to produce teachers who are truly qualified
Two or three years ago, I was on a New York City radio talk show. I asked the host
and his listeners if they were aware that California and Texas really decide how
children in the rest of the country will be taught to read. I explained that because
a major reading program costs between $15 -- $25 million to produce, what complies
with state department-produced "criteria" (and standards) in California and Texas
(a huge portion of the national market) is what other states also get. One might
conclude that all 50 states have no real local control because the "in" thing prevails,
and it is the only thing which is readily available and well known on any
broad scale. It is also what teachers have been trained to do and think, what is
talked about and discussed at educational conferences, what is written about in
all of the major reading teaching and research journals which are read by the people
making the decisions and what is "sold" to and through the media to the public.
Most of the journals are owned or endowed by publishing companies or their fostered
and/or supported professional organizations, i.e. the International Reading Association,
the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Association for the
Education of Young Children. Dare I suggest that they could have a slight conflict
To illustrate my "only-thing-which-is-well-known" point: In 1994, California's 4th
graders tested lowest in the country in reading - below Mississippi, Louisiana,
and Guam; in 1998, they came up one step from the bottom, yet California "standards"
prevail nearly nationwide. We who teach auditory, visual, verbal and motor cognition
at K-1 levels, and both phonemic and graphemic awareness (the latter not included
in the California standards) cannot get our materials adopted because these skills
are considered "extraneous" to their standards. Their standards look just like their
adoption critieria; if one is wrong or missing a few critical things, then the other
is also. Check out a few state department websites. See how all of these "standards"
and "textbook criteria" framers began (independently?) to think and write almost
in tandem practically overnight. Does this have anything to do with the phonics
legislation you've heard about across the country? You bet it does! For those of
us who have always taught real explicit phonics, phonemic and graphemic awareness,
and fully integrated language arts skills, the kiss of death came when legislators
started micro-managing the classrooms with so-called phonics legislation.
In California, a well-meaning grandmother, Mrs. Marion Josephs, was appointed to
the state board and has since been annointed as the country's latest phonics guru.
She openly endorses Open Court (now owned by McGraw Hill which, in turn,
is said to be 1/4 owned by the L.A. Times) This dumbed-down program now teaches
one sound for each of the letters of the alphabet in an entire first year of instruction,
and then offers 100% "decodable" text. Mrs. Josephs personally micro-managed their
recent emergency phonics adoption intimidating teacher-reviewers who dared to question
her. LA Unified has just mandated its use.
Am I surprised? Hardly! With purist whole language programs, the nation has already
experienced wholesale adoption of a system of teaching reading which has crippled
at least 80% of America's children if one considers what they were capable
of learning versus what they have learned. Former Department of Justice research
fellow Michael Brunner, tells the story so very well in his book, Retarding America:
The Imprisonment of Potential, Halcyon House, Portland, Oregon. I predict
that when the phony phonics doesn't work, the IRA, NCTE, and NAEYC in the state
departments and colleges of education will start a new batch of reform rhetoric
beginning with, "Well, we were afraid that phonics wouldn't work!" In the meantime,
publishers have taken the public to the cleaners one more time.
So, how does this impact the other 29 states (the ones without statewide adoptions)?
About three years ago I discovered a very interesting web site; some forty professors
of linguistics, psycholinguistics, and brain research at MIT, Harvard, and other
Massachusetts universities had published correspondence to and from their state's
Commissioner of Education. These professors expressed their alarm concerning the
state's "reading standards" which, incidentally, are nearly a carbon copy of California's
textbook selection "criteria." This criteria also seems to duplicate most of the
wordage in Oregon's adoption criteria, and, in spots, it is frighteningly similar
to wordage in the California Reading Task Force report whose members thought
they had put into place the teaching of "explicit" phonics and correct spelling
"to complement" the quality whole language literature the schools already owned.
Ten days after I asked readers on some reading newsgroups and listservs to take
a look at this site, it disappeared! Luckily I had printed a hard copy of it for
In spite of Task Force demands -- and newly-enacted California legislation mandates
for explicit phonics, correct spelling instruction, phonemic awareness, etc. in
both curriculum and training, the State Board now offers workbooks and
decodable text from the large publishers. Why? The State Department's "criteria"
was not changed to reflect the Task Force findings as they went directly into their
"adoption" year. As of this update, January, 2000, an additional emergency phonics
adoption has come and gone. State Superintendent Delaine Eastin held a news conference
a few days ago where it was reported that all the big publishers were smiling. No
kidding! Why wouldn't they smile? They just locked in their profits for another
seven years. It will be interesting to see when, if ever, the state board members
will learn the technical differences between explicit and implicit phonics.
A scenario of what happened in California might play out something like this: The
Task Force probably allowed the state department staff to finish the report, complete
with the ambiguous wording of the final document, which matched the textbook criteria
closely enough; big publishers were allowed sufficient time to throw together a
couple of sight-oriented phonics and spelling workbooks -- enough to get them through
the adoption process -- they hoped. The Reading Task Force report asked for the
teaching of "explicit skills," but teaching "explicit" skills (as the report called
it) is not the same thing as teaching "explicit" phonics. Did the members of this
task force know this? Do state board members know this? Do they need to know it?
Yes, if they truly want changes. Several Task Force members told our representative
that they simply didn't really have the time to read the technical information we
and others shared with them. We included our concerns regarding probable violations
of federal anti-trust statutes along with the compiled phonics research. Why isn't
"explicit" phonics defined in these legislative attempts to micro-manage the school
systems as the compiled federal reading research defines it? Becoming a Nation of
Readers' compilation of research was done by the leading reading professors
in the U.S, not the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
Why are some professors of reading always lobbying out the correct definitions and
lobbying in the scientific research exclusionary language? "Explicit" phonics says
when (ahead of) the phonics must be taught and how (in isolation). We think that
most everyone agrees that real "phonemic awareness" must be taught by teachers through
articulation of the 42 sounds in relationships to the letters and letter combinations
which represent them on paper. This must be done by both teachers (to teach) and
by students (to learn); as soon as you put "phonics" drill on a worksheet, someone
is trying to make it into a "visual" process only. Always keep in mind that selling
printed paper is how the publishing world works. If we allow publishers and their
"helpers" in the state departments, through huge conflicts of interest, to dictate
what will happen in the classroom we are destined to continue to fail our children.
Let us all hope that legislators are keeping track of these oversights, mis-directions,
and some might even say, cover-ups.
The consumer needs protection from monopolies in vendor goods be it arbitrarily
high-priced milk, hi-tech software, or reading programs which do not work, but which
are nevertheless foisted on a public which now believes they are getting some good,
solid phonics instruction. They don't understand that if the texts are 100% decodable,
they must ask "by what phonics base are they decodable?" If only one sound for each
of the letters of the alphabet is taught in the entire first year of instruction
[a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z]
What, of interest to the child, can be written with "decodable" text? Does the public
realize that a child could not even decode "See Dick run" with that amount of too-little,
too-late phonics instruction? Where, indeed, is Mr. Ralph Nader when we really need
If I sound like a naysayer (and of course I do), please recall that we are speaking
of dire consequences -- 90 million U.S. adults reading and writing at the two lowest
levels of proficiency translates to 48+% of all adults in this country) which, by
some estimates equates to "functional illiteracy."! The California State School
Boards Association's central staff seems to understand this problem, but
local California school board members have no real information. The association's
staff does not print controversial information like this paper in their journal
for the enlightenment of board members, state or local. The state association could
have filed an injunction to either stop or delay statewide adoption until the criteria
by which reading programs were chosen matched what the research supports, what the
Task Force recommended, and the mandates of California's new legislation. The legislature,
for instance, voted out invented spelling, but the criteria and the state standards
still permit and even encourage it as if the legislature had never spoken on the
subject. If the Food and Drug Administration were to take a similarly irresponsible
path, almost certainly there would be a congressional investigation. Isn't it odd
that when the federal Department of Education came into being during the Carter
administration, they were specifically denied any control over curriculum? Isn't
that tantamount to telling the Food and Drug Administration they could have nothing
to do with foods and drugs? Federal monies, instead, are funneled through state
departments where the power can, apparently, be easily manipulated for the benefit
of special interests.
One very bright note: Though actual practice is still in denial, to their great
credit, the California Reading Task Force recommended that one half of the instructional
day, first through third grade, be devoted to teaching nothing but reading and language
arts skills. How this miracle could possibly come about, we'll come to understand
when we discuss sacred cow number four.
California's Reading Task Force:
"One-half of the instructional day -- first through third grade --should be spent
on teaching the language arts."
Several states have enacted legislation which demands the teaching of phonics. The
move began about 10 years ago in Ohio when their legislature asked for "intensive"
phonics. No one seems to know what "intensive" (in this context) means! Though "intensive"
is synonymous with "explicit" phonics, in reality, schools could teach a couple
of phonemes ahead of reading and writing, without words or pictures, and be following
the exact "letter (if not the intent) of the law. This writer cautioned the public-spirited
citizen who was responsible for even this much, "If you want an Orton-based program
like Spalding's Writing Road to Reading (and he did), for starters, you
should write the legislation to read: teach multi-sensory, 'explicit' phonics and
then name the 'Orton' correct graphemic spelling patterns as a minimum phonetic
requirement." Defining the words "explicit phonics" should also serve to stop the
inevitable, "Gee, but we thought they meant...." Of course, we all know that something
that specific could never garner the necessary votes. It would be determined as
Numerous other states have followed suit, including Washington and Oregon where
legislative committees specifically wanted a solid phonics program, but, until possibly
1999, none of which I am aware had enacted legislation which resulted in their schools
actually teaching research-validated "explicit" phonics -- much less a complete,
linguistically-based phonetic system which could address correct English spelling.
Still, any well-meaning legislator might say, "Well, I did all I knew how to do,
and if it still doesn't happen, how is that my fault?" A good point! Just maybe,
though, legislators should spend a little more time on their homework, to enable
themselves to "knowingly" question the parade of career educators who, with studied
regularity, can be counted on to appear before them. These professors and professional
bureaucrats lobby in the wording they want to make the impact open ended and
lobby out those things which would restrict the results to what the legislation
intended. The legislators are not up on the intricate technicalities of how this
exact wording works when restated in adoption criteria or standards for instance.
Legislators should try to keep in mind that these lobbyists are the same ones who
are in charge of the current failure. When will they invite someone else (not in
charge of the failure) to tell them what to do and what to think? Better, yet, they
could always just defund and disempower these state departments where most of it
happens. They could opt for the principle of subsidiarity (government at its lowest
possible level is the best government) and actually give control back to the local
Sacred Cows Number 2 and 3
Teaching Training - Teacher Certification
Now to sacred cows number two and three -- how are teachers trained to teach reading
and the language arts, with what attitudes and expectations, and by what standards
are they judged to be competent to do so? These two issues cannot be separated because
one group of higher educators puts the information and attitudes in, and the other
regulatory group attests to the fact that what has been put in is correct and desirable.
Teachers Standards and Practices Commissions then issue the teaching credential.
Local board members, and school administrators (the employers, right?), again, have
no control over, or even a right to question, the qualifications of applicants who
have these state-granted credentials. A few years after employment, a union will
protect these teachers to prevent their dismissal for incompetence. By moving from
one school to another during their first years of teaching, tenure can be easily
conferred on teachers who may never have had any of their students submitted to
any standardized testing at all. Standardized testing is one real test of teacher
competence, and often a state mandated practice. But, most states wait until grade
four to test -- five years of schooling before parents can find out how their children
test in comparison to classmates and others in their school, state, and nation.
In other words, teachers need not prove their competence by student outcome. You
might want to review the graphic taken from The Great American Reading Machine.
If you are interested in getting a copy of this rather remarkable book, you
might write to the professor at Eastern Connecticut State College, Columbia, Connecticut.
I want to assure everyone that I consider classroom teachers to be as much victims
of the sacred cow system as the children, parents, taxpayers, and anyone else involved.
In no way, is all of this the fault of teachers though they seem to be "in the front
row" to be blamed when things go awry. They are often castigated by parents, their
principal, and each other for what is completely beyond their control. They can
only teach the way they've been trained and use the curriculum they are given. Some
of the braver ones I've known talk back a little or close the classroom door and
teach as they please much the same as Oma Riggs did beginning in 1959 when one had
to search the used book stores to find any phonics materials at all. Somewhere along
the line -- through a fellow teacher, a mentor, an informative web page, or an unusual
training opportunity, they happen to find methods which work with children. I talk
with teachers almost daily, and they share these stories and sentiments. When they
take Riggs training, their most common comment is, "Why didn't someone teach this
to me years ago? I had no idea what has been missing."
Teacher training in this country has been, in general, a subject which has caused
a range of emotional response from anger and bitterness to considerable mirth even
among the teacher trainees themselves. There's lots of sniggering behind hands from
the rest of the world, and some outright derision for the past several decades.
Lengthy books have been written on the subject. Foreigners think it very odd that
we can't produce teachers who can teach our own language to our own children. But,
there is little recognition that the United States' dismal standing in the international
brain race in science and mathematics just might be tied to our lack of language
skills. I've yet to find even a hint of that sentiment in the multitude of U.S.
government and foundation educational reform reports. One reads almost incessantly
about the increasing rate of teenage suicide, lack of values, bad parenting, inadequate
nutrition, poverty, too much TV, lack of sleep, broken homes, rampant drug and alcohol
abuse, prisons overflowing with illiterate inmates, and more recently alarming reports
of horrendous school violence, etc., with not one reference tying it to the way
we do, or do not, teach children to read, write and spell English. Our Institute's
experience includes having one of our trainers in the next building at the exact
hour a teacher and student died at the hands of three disgruntled students in Bethel,
Alaska. The students had made a pact to kill everyone "who made fun of them because
they couldn't read." And certainly, no one thinks to tie any of this to the way
our teachers are trained by professors who themselves have little or no inkling
of the phonetic structure, origin, or spelling patterns of the English lexicon.
In 1982, Dr. A. J. Mazurkiewicz found, in probably the only research ever gathered
on the subject, that reading professor members of the prestigious College of Reading
Association, on balance, "have little knowledge of the phonetic structure of English
words." Dr. Patrick Groff reports on Mazurkiewicz's findings in his federal research
synthesis, Preventing Reading Failure: An Examination of the Myths of Reading Instruction,
Halcyon House, Portland, OR. (see our
catalog) In the 1983 call-to-arms, A Nation at Risk, the word "reading"
was mentioned but once in this prestigious panel's assessment of the overall educational
failure, but not at all in their recommendation for action. I would like to visit
with some of these members to find out whether the subject of "reading" was very
much in their deliberations, but, somehow, just didn't end up in the printed report.
The 1983 Nation at Risk mentioned the word "reading" but once in that call
to action! Almost 20 years later, nothing has happened to improve the situation!
Talk about monopolized "turf" protection! The Oregon Teacher's Standards and Practices
Commission demands that many teachers, even those holding an MS from Johns Hopkins
University, for instance, take the Oregon prescribed "reading" courses before being
granted an Oregon teaching credential. This is one way to keep pertinent knowledge
and better-trained teachers out of Oregon, and to ensure that our state department's
"developmentally appropriate" practice "guess-as-you-go" discovery learning, and
Goodman-style whole language courses will not be challenged. On the advice of the
95,000-member National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC),
Oregon now inservices teachers not to answer primary-level questions, and
not to present instruction directly. K-3 students teach each other in Oregon's glorified
"discovery learning" atmosphere, so most of us could have predicted which way test
scores are heading. It does not seem to matter that these NAEYC practices are not
validated by compiled research studies.
In my seventeen years of residency in this state, I cannot recall ever reading any
article in any mainstream newspaper or magazine, educational or secular, published
or distributed in this state which has ever questioned any of these practices. Several
years ago, I was asked to serve on a citizen's committee to keep a newly-elected
state representative informed on educational issues. One education reform discussion,
among the forty mostly senior-citizen committee members, found me asking, "Why don't
we discuss the principle of "subsidiarity?" Not one person in the room, including
the elected representative, even knew that the word, taught to me in an eighth grade
civics class, differentiates between levels of government. Naturally, I wanted to
to turn the discussion to consideration of more local control over important issues
like textbook adoption -- such as the wisdom of local boards controlling curriculum.
I was amazed that this concept was not known, but then, through some further investigation,
I discovered that its meaning is no longer defined in many current dictionaries.
I am currently having an e-mail discussion with a reading professor in England who
sincerely believes that we should change the English spelling system. His reasoning:
"because, throughout the world, we don't all pronounce words alike." When
I answered that "English spelling is relatively uniform throughout the world, and
that perhaps we would be wise to retain one reliable means of communicating with
each other," his response was that he loved "invented spelling" because it allowed
children to be more creative. Yes sir, and it also mis-programs the brain with the
wrong information, and disallows the reading of history written in conventional
English book print. Just this year (1999) in response to the phonetic information
available on our web site, the Minister of Education in Bermuda had his trusted
friend call me to determine what could be done about their nation's high rate of
illiteracy. He told me that eleven years ago he'd been solely responsible for recommending
IBM's Writing to Read program, a popular "invented spelling" program, and
that they were now faced with a nation full of illiterate young people. IBM had
no longitudinal studies to prove the efficacy of their program just as Reading Recovery
does not -- in spite of boards buying it at a breakneck pace. We do not advocate
never trying an innovative new program, but such programs should only be
used with small numbers of children until they have been proven. They should always
be carefully monitored by objective third parties (not the publisher), and they
should be abandoned immediately when found not to produce the advertised results.
Sacred Cow Number 4: Time to teach what is necessary?
This brings us to cow number four - and this one will be more meaningful for those
of you who are 60 + years of age. You may recall that most of you did not study
science, history, geography, health, or much of anything other than language arts
and math (perhaps a little music and art), in your K - 3 school years. In fact,
many of you might not have even attended kindergarten in an age when mothers were
considered bright enough to "do kindergarten" at home. Why didn't schools teach
science, etc. in the first three grades? How did it change to what we have today?
And why? I don't really know but I think it is time to ask these questions. Perhaps
it was when Sputnik put legislators, publishers, and educators into a tailspin to
catch up to our adversaries who had gone into space without us. Well, we've come
a long way. Modern educators now think it more important to teach five-year-olds
about the hole in the ozone layer and the problems of the rain forest (a slight
exaggeration here to illustrate my point) almost before they've learned to pen their
own name decently. It's something like the current frenzy to make our primary children
"computer literate" ahead of just plain literate as in the reading, writing, and
spelling of English. Before children are developmentally ready to learn correct
keyboarding (about third or fourth grade), to their great disadvantage, we waste
precious teaching hours in the primary classroom, to play with computers
-- often to practice "invented" spellings and to program our little fingers and
brains with the wrong stimulus-response. And, we do these things with corporate
urgings, state empowerment, funding, and, sometimes, with state department of education
regulation and mandate -- not necessarily federal or local board interference. Could
anyone imagine that it could be the computer companies that put these ideas into
our heads? What exactly do they know about the sequencing of correct cognitive development
and the many other fascinating things that contemporary brain researchers are discovering
about how the human brain functions in learning?
Before the recent California Reading Task Force recommendation -- "to spend one
half of the instructional day, grades one through three, on language arts instruction,"
-- was there any realization or discussion at all that not providing sufficient
time, by itself, almost assures illiteracy for many children? Shouldn't we ask how
we came to change, so drastically, what was standard operating procedure in the
1940's and before? I have not investigated how or why these legislative
changes occurred, but I think I could safely predict that an examination of the
records would reveal that textbook publishing interests urging legislators to add
social studies, science, and health to the K-3 curriculum caused the status quo
in instructional time apportionment.
In the face of all this, we previously had Secretary of Education William Bennett
and the former Republican leadership suggesting that they turn all federal educational
monies over to the states. [And, yes, this is the same William Bennett who refused
to carry out the mandates of PL 99-425, 9-30-86, the "Zorinsky" legislation which
ordered him to examine all published reading programs to see what they contained,
how much they cost and, specifically, how they taught phonics. There were to be
public hearings to receive testimony and the entire report was to be published within
one year in a form understandable to the average lay person. It had passed the Congress
with not one dissenting vote. To date, it has not been accomplished though there
are those who would say that Marcy Stein's 1993 Beginning Reading Instruction Study
constituted an answer. We disagree. The money and influence funneled through the
state departments of education are the major problem now, my friends, not
problems at the federal level nor at the local board level. The four sacred cows
are legislated, funded, regulated, and enforced by individual state governments.
Perhaps when enough locally-elected board members are successfully taken to court
by their constituencies for failing to teach their district's children to read,
they will shake off their lethargy, pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and do
some homework to determine what constraints caused them to abdicate their authority
and responsibility in the first place. Until then, these very-much-in-place sacred
cows will quite safely insure the continuation of our inability to teach
our own language -- and, thus anything and everything else of significance -- to
our own children. How very sad! Teachers and parents everywhere should rise in strong
protest. They should write to the U.S. Department of Justice' Anti-Trust Division
to demand a Reading-gate congressional investigation complete with grand jury, etc.
Teaching should be the highest profession in any land for teachers must
pass along the language and the culture if we are to survive as a nation.
The Riggs Institute, 21106 479th Ave., White, South Dakota, 57276
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