The Phonics Wars

THE PHONICS WARS….Social conservatives believe a lot of things: school prayer is good, abortion is bad, homosexuality is a sin, evolution never happened, and phonics is the only proper way to teach children to read.

Do you notice one thing in that list that seems like a bit of an odd fit? And yet, conservatives have long fought for phonics with the same revolutionary zeal that they bring to the rest of their agenda. And they don’t merely argue that phonics should be a substantial part of any good reading program ? which it should ? but that phonics should be the exclusive method of teaching reading to kids. “Whole language” meets with about the same reaction as a cry to arms against “secular humanism.” I’ve never quite understood how phonics came to occupy the same pedestal as the Lord’s Prayer, but there you have it.

What’s more, in the same way that evolution has become “intelligent design” among the cleverer of the anti-Darwinists, the code phrase for phonics these days is “scientifically based reading research.” For example, this is the requirement of the popular Reading First program, part of the the No Child Left Behind Act. But make no mistake. If your textbook company is considered an insufficiently fervent ally in the phonics wars, the zealots in charge of Reading First will strike you down where you stand. From an Inspector General’s report released on Friday, here is the reaction of Reading First’s director, Chris Doherty, to the news that some states had received funding approval for their reading programs despite their adoption of textbooks from the Wright Group, a publisher that’s been a social conservative b?te noire for a long time:

Beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [whole language] apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR, never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.

In later emails, Doherty more-or-less admits that he doesn’t have any particular evidence that Wright Group books fail the SBRR requirement, and follows this up with an admonition: “This is for your FYI, as I think this program-bashing is best done off or under the major radar screens.”

Indeed. When you’re rather clearly violating the law by allowing funding only for specific textbooks that you have a personal fondness for, it’s probably best not to let anyone know.

Via Eduwonk, which notes that Doherty chose to announce his resignation from the Department of Education the day before the IG report was made public. Seems like a wise move.