Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Garrison Keillor on education, ideology and learning to read

As of today I've written about 45 posts reading and cognitive disabilities. Since my wife and I are basically bleeding-heart liberals (for want of a better term), it's particularly sad that the liberal establishment has often been opposed to evidence-based education in reading. Even today, there's a strong remnant of 1960s era approaches to teaching reading in Minnesota's educational establishment.

Today, a local celebrity and certified liberal, Garrison Keillor, writes on the topic as only he can:

We're failing our kids |

... And then there is the grief that old righteous people inflict on the young, such as our public schools. I'm looking at U.S. Department of Education statistics on reading achievement and see that here in Minnesota -- proud, progressive Minnesota -- on a 500-point test (average score: 225), 27 percent of fourth-graders score below basic proficiency, and black and Hispanic kids score 30-some points lower than white on average, and the 30 percent of public schoolkids who come from households in poverty (who qualify for reduced-price school lunches) score 27 points lower than those who don't come from poverty.

Reading is the key to everything. Teaching children to read is a fundamental moral obligation of the society. That 27 percent are at serious risk of crippling illiteracy is an outrageous scandal.

This is a bleak picture for an old Democrat. Face it, the schools are not run by Republican oligarchs in top hats and spats but by perfectly nice, caring, sharing people, with a smattering of yoga/raga/tofu/mojo/mantra folks like my old confreres. Nice people are failing these kids, but when they are called on it, they get very huffy. When the grand poobah Ph.D.s of education stand up and blow, they speak with great confidence about theories of teaching, and considering the test results, the bums ought to be thrown out.

There is much evidence that teaching phonics really works, especially with kids with learning disabilities, a growing constituency. But because phonics is associated with behaviorism and with conservatives, and because the Current Occupant has spoken on the subject, my fellow liberals are opposed.

Liberal dogma says that each child is inherently gifted and will read if only he is read to. This was true of my grandson; it is demonstrably not true of many kids, including my sandy-haired, gap-toothed daughter. The No Child Left Behind initiative has plenty of flaws, but the Democrats who are trashing it should take another look at the Reading First program. It is morally disgusting if Democrats throw out Republican programs that are good for children. Life is not a scrimmage. Grown-ups who stick with dogma even though it condemns children to second-class lives should be put on buses and sent to North Dakota to hoe wheat for a year.

St. Michael, I beg you to send angels to watch over fourth-graders who are struggling to read, because the righteous among us are not doing the job.

For more on this topic see:


Anonymous said...

Dear Garrison: For many years I have enjoyed your radio shows and now I have especially enjoyed your column here regarding Reading First and phonics. It is refreshing to see someone cross political boundaries, from whichever side to the other, to stand up for what is obviously the truth.

I am one of many parents in Illinois who fought the phonics/math battles when our kids were in public school during the 1990s. My wife and I surrendered early for the sake of our kids, pulled them out, home-schooled them, and then sent them to a high-standards prep school (Catholic, incidentally). In parallel with this I spent years participating in the "reading wars" and communicating with other parents about the travesties going on in the public schools. Eventually a friend and I put our assembled data on a site designed to inform parents about all this stuff, at

Like you I became incensed after reading the NAEP "report card" (of 1994) describing the inconceivable depth of our national reading disaster. Consequently I spent five years of my life producing a phonics-based after-school reading program that I had hoped would eventually become my career. It succeeded brilliantly in teaching about 500 kids to read, but fell victim to the 2001 recession and subsequent job shortage in the Chicago area. But I left the web site up at Maybe you will find some gems there; this site doesn't just complain about problems - it offers solid solutions.

On behalf of the parents struggling against this arrogant and utterly unreformable system I thank you. I hope you find some solace in knowing that there are many others who share your view, and that you will perhaps find some items that interest you on (try the menu item Subjects->Reading for starters).

Keep up the battle. Maybe enough of us all together can topple this monster.

Anonymous said...

The National Reading Panel report and Reading First are important advances in reading instruction, but they're incomplete. As Dr. Dan Willingham states, "RF has become crystallized as the final word on reading in state and federal legislation..." Published in 2000, the NRP report said nothing about background knowledge or spelling and important evidence continues to accumulate supporting synthetic phonics as the most effective way to teach decoding skills (The Rose Report).

Unfortunately, Reading First doesn't discern between the most effective phonics programs (synthetic phonics) and less effective methods. Reading research has moved on...It's time for RF to catch up. We need to teach our kids to read by using an evidence-based synthetic phonics approach.
Sadly, Reading First isn't the last word in schools of Ed or school districts (including Salt Lake City). Many school districts continue to use whole language approaches such as "balanced literacy." They teach phonics, but it's some whole language guru's (Pat Cunningham, Fountas & Pinnell) ineffectual approach.

Whole-Language High Jinks
by Louisa Cook Moats

If you thought whole-language reading instruction had been relegated to the scrap heap of history, think again. Many such programs (proven to be ineffective) are still around, but they're hiding behind phrases like "balanced literacy" in order to win contracts from school districts and avoid public scrutiny.
Again, Reading First is important, but outdated. Some of the most important recent reading research has taken place in the U.K.

"The teaching of reading is controversial. We've had the language wars in this country over how to best teach kids to read. There have been the proponents of the look-say method in which children are supposed to pick up on the shape of an entire word. That was the idea behind those dreadfully boring Dick and Jane readers that I grew up with. There's the whole language method in which children are immersed in a text rich environment and are spontaneously supposed to pick up on the ability to read the way they spontaneously learn to speak. There's the method of phonics, in which children are drilled on correspondences between sounds and letters of the alphabet. I think that any successful reading technique has to begin with an understanding of the logic of our alphabet, and also has to recognize that learning to read is not like learning to speak." -Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University

"We need to push harder for an education system that teaches evidence-based decision making while we hold our public leaders to a higher standard and less partisan behavior as we attempt to tackle some of the historically most difficult challenges facing the future of humanity." - J. Craig Venter, Human Genome Decoder; Director, The J. Craig Venter Institute
The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment: A seven year longitudinal study
Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report, Jim Rose, March 2006

How phonics became easy as a-b-c: A report on how young children in England should be taught to read is expected to endorse a phonics-based approach.

Reading system goes into schools

Study spells success for phonics

The 'Simple View of Reading'

The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies

How Knowledge Helps