Gettysburg was one battle that changed a war. This month, education reformers, parents and everyday citizens who support phonics won such a fight in Sacramento. The outcome of a vote by the California Board of Education signals a decisive change in how public school children will be taught to read -- not just in the Golden State, but nationwide.
The state board voted Dec. 12 to approve 16 reading programs by 10 publishers that will be used in California's public schools for the next seven years. But more important in the continuing controversy over reading education, the board rejected unanimously books by Rigby Education, Inc. and the Wright Group because they did not emphasize phonics enough.
The board's decision comes almost two years after California's students tied for last with Louisiana in reading skills on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A special state reading task force concluded in September 1995 that the state's decade-long approach to reading instruction, Whole Language, was the reason for students' abysmal performance and recommended that it be replaced.
Whole Language theory holds that children learn to read much as they learn to speak -- by simple immersion. WL advocates believe books with pictures and whole words are better than simple, direct instruction in phonics. Phonics, in their view, is "boring." Whole Language, on the other hand, is supposedly "child-centered, reflective, authentic, social, collaborative, democratic and challenging." So zealous were WL supporters in the state bureaucracy they began to eliminate spelling textbooks in order to prevent kids from learning to sound out words and spell the fundamental blocks of language.
The most notorious byproduct of the whole language is "invented spelling." Teachers wanted to shift "from a focus on error to a focus on creation." The reality was that teachers weren't supposed to correct spelling mistakes for fear of bruising the child's self-esteem. It's no surprise, then, that the Golden State's peers in reading are Louisiana and Mississippi.
Phonics teaches kids to read by sounding out words through drill and repetition. But phonics is anything but "boring," if the growing popularity of such products as "The Phonics Game" is any indication. And research has concluded time and again that intensive, systematic phonics is the most effective method of reading instruction.
But it wasn't simply that the Board of Education rejected the Wright and Rigby books because they were bad. They were also illegal. California law changed last year to reflect the recommendations of the California Reading Task Force. A recent state appropriations bill, AB170, requires that all new reading instruction materials contain phonics, phonemic awareness, and "decodable" text. And California's Budget Act of 1996 prohibits state money from being spent in support of "any program, network, or material that (a) promotes or uses reading instruction methodologies that emphasize contextual clues (WL) in lieu of fluent decoding (phonics), or (b) systematically uses or encourages inventive spelling techniques in the teaching of writing."
Wright and Rigby's programs did not meet the new standards. So they were rejected, despite the best efforts of the publishers to mount an intense lobbying effort that included hundreds of form letters and even a good word from former Gov. George Deukmejian, whose law firm was retained by the Wright Group.
The board's decision will have a major national impact. California accounts for 11 percent of the nation's textbook market, the largest in the country. Textbook publishers therefore tend to cater to the California market.
Not surprisingly, Rigby's president, Steve Korte, says his company is considering a legal challenge to the board's vote. "We are being denied access to a substantial amount of revenue," Korte said. In fact, Wright and Rigby stand to lose a hefty portion of the more than $600 million that California's school districts will spend on textbooks over the next seven years.
Phonics supporters are right to feel good about this victory, but the war is by no means over. Kathryn Dronenberg, the board member who led the opposition against Wright and Rigby, says that the 16 other programs adopted by the board at its meeting "more fully meet the criteria (set by lawmakers). All of the programs have, to varying degrees, spelling, phonics and phonemic awareness. But that means some of the programs rely more heavily on the Whole Language approach than others. And it is safe to assume that the same WL zealots who removed basic skills from classrooms a decade ago are still in the state education establishment, where they are unchecked and unaccountable.
California took its first step toward returning to the top in education. But there are many more votes to come.