MONDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2023
Separation and snub: Let it be said that we see several basic problems with Nicholas Kristof's new column.
The column appeared in the Sunday Review section of yesterday's New York Times. On the bright side, it represents the rare attempt to discuss our public schools outside the standard context which prevails at the New York Times:
Who gets to go to Stuyvesant High? Who joins the top one percent?
To his credit, Kristof wrote about widespread educational shortfall within our public schools. He didn't write about the only educational topic known to the powers that be at the Times:
Who might end up going to Yale?
To his credit, Kristof is casting a wider view than his newspaper typically does. On the downside, the headline on his column says this:
Two-Thirds of Kids Struggle to Read, and We Know How to Fix It
The headline on his column says that. In the main, that headline reflects what Kristof says in his column.
We see an array of problems in the column. For today, we'll leave it at this:
The notion that "we know how to fix" our public school shortfalls comes from a type of fantasyland—a fantasyland inhabited by those who, in the end, don't even seem to know how to pretend that they care about the children who attend our public schools.
We saw several problems with Kristof's columns—problems which will go undiscussed within the upper-end press corps and on blue tribe "cable news." That said, one part of Kristof's column was truly remarkable.
In Kristof's view, we can "fix" our educational problems by a wider use of phonics instruction. That claim strikes us as utterly daft, but midway through his column, he offered this recollection:
KRISTOF (2/12/23): I spent much of the 1980s and 1990s as a New York Times correspondent in East Asia, and children there (including mine) learned to read through phonics and phonetic alphabets: hiragana in Japan, bopomofo in Taiwan, pinyin in China and hangul in South Korea. Then I returned with my family to the United States in 1999, and I found that even reading was political: Republicans endorsed phonics, so I was expected as a good liberal to roll my eyes.
The early critique of phonics in part was rooted in social justice, trying to address inadequate education in inner cities by offering more engaging reading materials. The issue became more political when the 2000 Republican Party platform called for “an early start in phonics,” and when President George W. Bush embraced phonics with a major initiative called Reading First.
For liberals, Bush’s support for phonics made it suspect. That had some basis: The Reading First program was not well implemented, and careful evaluations showed it had little impact. It died.
Aside from a single link to "a riveting six-part podcast," Kristof offers no evidence in support of the story he tells. That said, the story he tells is this:
According to Kristof, when President George W. Bush endorsed phonics instruction, phonics instruction became "suspect" in the eyes of liberals.
Returning to the United States after years of living abroad, Kristof found that he was expected, "as a good liberal," to roll his eye at phonics instruction! Phonics instruction began to die on the vine, undermining sound reading instruction.
Can that remarkable story possibly be true? Can it possibly be true that some significant part of the liberal world turned against phonics instruction because phonics instruction had gained favor in the eyes of conservatives—even worse, had been endorsed by President Bush?
Can it possibly be true that some such thing actually happened? We can't answer that question, but as a bit of an empirical background, let the word go forth:
Based upon the easily accessible results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), American kids were much better readers in 2009 than their counterparts had been in 1998.
Especially after "disaggregating" test results, the nation's fourth graders scored much higher on the NAEP reading test in 2009 than their counterparts had done in 1998.
Based upon a very rough rule of thumb (though one which is widely employed), the average performance in reading of black fourth graders and Hispanic fourth graders improved by more than one grade level during that eleven-year span. During that same period, the average performance of white fourth graders improved by more than half a year.
Kristof links to this NAEP report at the start of his column. The NAEP is our one reliable source of educational data, and Kristof seems to be aware of that highly significant fact.
That said, the NAEP data we have cited undermine the larger story Kristof is telling in this column—a story in which the public schools turned away from phonics instruction during that era, creating a world of lousy readers.
We doubt that Kristof reviewed those data from the NAEP, or considered the story the data seem to tell. That said, we ask a different question today, and our question goes like this:
Can it possibly be true? Can it really be true that liberals decided to downplay phonics instruction because George W. Bush supported phonics instruction? Is it really possible that the tribalism of our failing nation's embarrassing politics had already gone that far?
For ourselves, we spent seven years teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools. We can't imagine teaching reading without making use of phonics instruction, in whatever way and to whatever extent.
That said, no serious person can really believe that an increase in phonics instruction can somehow "fix" the educational shortfalls which are evident in the voluminous data emerging from the NAEP. That said, we do know this:
The mainstream press corps will never conduct a real discussion of any such matters. Aside from that one point of concern—Who will get into Stuyvesant High?—the mainstream press corps doesn't care about the kids in our public schools, and doesn't even seem to know how to pretend to care.
That said, is it possible? Is it possible that some significant part of the liberal world turned against phonics instruction because George W. Bush endorsed it? Kristof says he was urged in that direction, and we know of absolutely no reason to doubt his recollection.
"How did it get this far?" Don Corleone once asked. That famous question came to mind when we read a second column in yesterday's New York Times.
That column appeared on the very same page as Kristof's remarkable piece. Tomorrow, we'll start with that second column, and we'll try to explore a certain question all this week:
Even where it's justified, anger tends to lead to the creation of the Other. Such anger may be understandable, but is it likely to be helpful?
Tomorrow: Those very bad Others today!
Coming this afternoon: The relevant NAEP data