Amid Illiteracy, Where Was The Urgency?
February 25, 2023

Patrick McIlheran

Director of Policy, Badger Institute

An establishment that for so long failed to apply known science has no place dismissing parents.  

Several hundred Wisconsinites gathered in Madison this month to revel in a revelation: We’ve known for years how to stop failing so often at teaching children to read.

So why, for the past 25 years, have at least 1 in 5 Wisconsin 8th-graders scored as illiterate in national tests?  

The gathering, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin’s Thompson Center on Public Leadership, drew teachers, school superintendents, librarians, and lawmakers. The star they came to hear was Emily Hanford, a public radio reporter whose recent blockbuster series, “Sold a Story,” showed that schools so often fail to teach children to read because they’re dominated by an idea that’s wrong.   

Hanford’s reporting is replete with parents, well-educated and conscientious, who realized their children were functionally illiterate. They’d been taught, according to the theory, dominant for half a century, that readers learn by using tricks like guessing at unknown words and inferring which word should fit.  

This “three-cueing” method actually is what poor readers do. By contrast, children taught to decode the sounds represented by letters soon learn the patterns of language and thrive. Some kids figure this out on their own. Many don’t, and if schools don’t teach them to sound out unfamiliar words, it leaves many semi-literate. 

This isn’t a new revelation. “We know plenty” about how people learn to read; the gathering was told by Mark Seidenberg, the UW psychology researcher who wrote the book on the topic. “We’ve known plenty for a long time.” 

For decades, “a lot of kids didn’t get phonics instruction or much of it,” said Hanford. “They weren’t taught how to sound out the written words. And it became pretty clear by the 90s that had been a big mistake.” 

Yet the mistaken notion persists that reading is learned by looking at pictures and guessing. According to the Department of Public Instruction, half of Wisconsin school districts use one of three reading curriculums based on the flawed three-cueing method, and another quarter uses homemade curriculum of unknown correspondence to the science that researchers such as Seidenberg have been publishing for three decades. The DPI in 2020 began saying schools should systematically teach children to decode letters.  

Why so slow?  

In part, it’s what teachers were taught. Hanford’s reporting features a striking number of teachers who figured out that their techniques weren’t working — and were horrified. Yet only a few Wisconsin education colleges have taken cognitive science to heart.  

“The educational establishment adheres to beliefs and practices that make it harder for teachers to teach and for children to learn,” said Seidenberg. As educators quoted by Hanford note, the “balanced literacy” ideas that have reigned for so long sound appealing and sound like they should work. Only they don’t. 

The tide, it seems, is beginning to turn. The Madison room was full of educators taking notes. The issue is getting noticed. The “reading wars” may be ending happily, if only after decades of failed instruction.  

But as the roomful of educators sort out their notes and next moves, it would behoove that educational establishment also to learn some modesty. 

A core of progressive education for a century has been its ambitious claim of expertise not only about how children should be taught but what as well. If enough power is centralized in experts and all schoolchildren funneled into their custody, the theory went, the one best way of instructing them in reading, calculus, citizenship, and gender ideology would be applied. Happiness would ensue, and ancestral superstitions defeated.     

Yet the actually known science of teaching reading somehow couldn’t make it from the psychology department over to the education school for three decades, all while authorities made excuses. So much for expertocracy. 

The other day a video went viral of an educator in some other state protesting a bill that, in the wake of a scandal over sexually charged lessons, would let parents review schoolbooks. “We all have advanced degrees,” the teacher told lawmakers. “What do the parents have?” 

What the parents have is urgent and close attention to their children. They could see, as Hanford reported, that their kids weren’t learning to read, and too many then got patronizing dismissals similar to that viral scorn.  

None of this denies professionalism its place. Researchers do know subjects deeply, and it stands to reason that teachers want to teach successfully. As Seidenberg said of the emerging findings, “The idea here is to empower teachers and other educators to be able to do the job they want to do.” 

But it also stands to reason that the triumph of good curriculum over bad would have been swifter if parents in their urgency, had more power and that educational establishment had less. Wisconsin’s school choice program gives parents some power if only to try to find something better, and it should be strengthened. So should parents’ power to see what’s being taught. Transparency and the power to leave are levers by which the natural guardians of children’s interests can bring accountability to an establishment that needlessly bungled its duties for decades.   

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited

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