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


  1. tl;dr
    ...hey, dear Bob, speaking of Baltimore, have you seen this headline:

    In 23 Baltimore City Schools, zero students tested proficient in math in 2022, according to a report by Project Baltimore.?

  2. Regardless of politics, the successful method for learning to read is phonics. It

  3. The political battle over phonics goes back much farther than George Bush. The battle was already raging in 1955 when Rudolph Flesch wrote "Why Johnny Can't Read—And What You Can Do About It".

  4. Why would disagreement over teaching methodology become political? Why would pro- or anti-phonics be associated with liberalism or conservativism. Here's a hypothesis:

    In general, liberals support teachers and the school system. Conservatives support the student. That's why school vouchers are supported by conservatives and higher school funding is supported by liberals. Phonics is simple and straightforward. It's just like the books my kids had. A is for apple. B is for banana, etc. Alternative methods are more complicated. The alternative methods are good for the educators, because they require higher level of expertise. That adds prestige to the educators, even if the alternative methods don't work as well as the simple phonics.

    1. Coincidentally, I just came across this

      ...Consider the shocking fact that 65 percent of American fourth-grade kids can barely read.

      American Public Media’s Emily Hanford uncovers this sad truth with her podcast, Sold a Story. She investigates the influential education authors who have promoted a bunk idea and a flawed method for teaching reading to American kids. She exposes how educators across the country came to believe in a system that didn’t work, and are now reckoning with the consequences: Children harmed. Tons of money wasted. An education system upended.

    2. Liberals are supporting teachers and school systems BECAUSE they support students. Schools were created for students.

      Vouchers are supported by conservatives in order to undermine public schools because they don't like paying taxes to support schools. Lately they also consider schools as a place where their kids are indoctrinated into liberal ways. This is part of the long-standing anti-intellectualism of conservatives who distrust anyone educated, labeled liberals as eggheads who "can't park their bikes straight" and are elitists who look down on everyday folks.

      Phonics is not a better approach than the combined methods now recommended by reading experts. It appeals to the conservative love of nostalgia and belief that "back to basics" is better because they learned that way themselves and understand it. Charter schools supported by conservatives tended to stick to basics, avoid new-fangled subjects like social science and science, eliminate music and art, and stress discipline and religion. Now they must meet state curriculum requirements that will enable kids to get into state colleges, so they have broadened a bit.

      The so-called alternative methods work better than phonics. There has been enough time and study to determine what works. Conservatives have made this a political issue and have their own "experts" saying what they want to hear, but as Somerby notes, the NAEP scores are a better picture of what has been happening with reading methods over several decades. Those who wish to treat expertise as a boondoggle, as David does when he dismisses teacher expertise, are welcome to home school their kids or send them to charter schools who will teach what they want, but they don't get to make up their own facts about what works or how kids learn.

    3. Emily Hanford does not advocate phonics-only.

    4. I don't see how defense vouchers (with parents, not the Pentagon, deciding how to best defend their families) are in any way, a stupider idea than school vouchers.

    5. @11:19 - citing to a Bari Weiss rag. What's next, VDARE?

    6. DinC says, "Why would disagreement over teaching methodology become political?"

      And then he proceeds to make it political. (As treasonous magat bastards make everything under the sun political.)

      In general, liberals support teachers and the school system. Conservatives support the student.

      That kind of bullshit from DinC is parr for the course. He is notorious for pulling this shit.

      Let me rephrase for dishonest hack, DinC.

      Conservatives hate public schools and hate public school teachers and most of all hate public school teacher unions, who tend to support democratic polls because they understand democrats don't hate public schools and don't hate public school teachers, and they work continuously to undermine them.

      We don't care about the students, David? Go crawl back under your rock and go fuck yourself.

    7. That 65% figure in the Bari Weiss article is directly contradicted by NAEP scores, as Somerby notes.

    8. "Conservatives...most of all hate public school teacher unions,"

      True. Not only because these unions are big Democratic donors, but because these unions are all about benefiting their members -- the teachers -- rather than the students. Yes, these unions claim to be all about the students, but their actions are a more accurate picture.

      Here's an event from many years ago. My cousin E, a good Democrat, was a city Councilman in Englewood, NJ. (E is the father of Lizzie Skurnick, who Bob wrote about some time ago.) One local school had a small playground. E was surprised when the Teachers managed to get this playground for students converted into a parking lot for teachers. This event showed E what the teachers' union really stood for. (Sadly, it didn't persuade E to change his party.)

    9. Most teachers I know consider themselves advocates for their children, not adversaries. Many of the issues espoused by their unions are measures to improve education for children, including efforts to elect Democratic politicians whose policies will benefit schools not undermine them.

      Anecdotes like this one are the meat and potatoes of Fox News. Many are made up, but even when true do not tell the whole story. For example, was this an unused playground, was a better playground built elsewhere, was there nowhere for teachers to park at all? David will never tell you, assuming this ever happened at all. And why were administrators pitting teacher needs against those of the children? I suspect there was more info that may have been why "E" (a suspicious initial if ever I heard one) to stick with the Democrats. And certainly one event in NJ should cause everyone to change their political registration, since one school is just like another and all teachers are scurrilous if any teachers hold conservatives views in NJ and want to rob their kids of recess fun in order to park their own cars.

      David, this is majorly silly, even for you.

    10. Another personal anecdote. My family moved to Berkeley, CA in the early 1970's. The public schools had a great reputation, but they were not working well at the younger grades. My older daughter was having especial difficulties. We finally moved her to a small private school for 3 years, even though my wife and I were big supporters of public schools. The change did wonders for our daughter. Having an alternative to a school that we failing her was enormously valuable.

      I (and many conservatives) would like to see poor children have the same opportunity to switch to a different school when their current school doesn't work for them. That is supporting the child vs. supporting the school.

      Teachers' unions fight against providing alternatives the their public schools. That's reprehensible. It certainly isn't working for the benefit of the students.

    11. Um, if you go to the NAEP, you see that overall average reading scores have essentially stayed the same since 1992. Test scores track with poverty rates, and also the influx of ESL students, not teaching methods.

      “Conservatives”, Republicans, etc are right wingers; right wingers are definitionally people with no ideology, just an undying need for dominance. Their concern for students only goes as far as they can weaponize students in their never ending quest for dominance.

      Kristof is a hack. As a rich NYC elitist, he thought he could run for governor in Oregon, where he owns a vineyard, but the people of Oregon said no to that carpetbagger (he compared his residency issue with that of migrant farm workers!). Now he’s mad and writing spiteful opinion pieces; funnily enough, he kept the $3 million his campaign raised. What a guy!

    12. In many, if not most school districts, parents can send their kids to their choice of schools in the district, which often includes public charter schools now. David’s problem has been addressed since his daughters were young. He might consider how such changes are possible given the opposition of the mighty teachers unions. In fact, he might reconsider his negative attitude toward teachers in general. Using public funding to pay for conservative religious schools isn’t what most parents are seeking as choice. Teachers know that better than David, who found the Berkeley schools not good enough for his kids.

    13. With "Vouchers for Defense" you get the added bonus of Raytheon marketing anti-missile systems to families.

    14. I see my last comment response to DinC has been removed for some reason. This place is getting worse and worse.

  5. Kristof says that 80% of children struggle with reading, but the American Federation of Teachers says:

    "Researchers now estimate that 95 percent of all children can be taught to read by the end of first grade, with future achievement constrained* only by students' reasoning and listening comprehension abilities.",reasoning%20and%20listening%20comprehension%20abilities.

    Who to believe? First, I would trust education experts and reading specialists ahead of an opinion columnist in the NY Times. Second, Kristof's contention that reading was politicized and thus phonics was deemphasized isn't consistent with my memory of those decades either. Third, I think that Kristof may be defining phonics as phonics-only, whereas the consensus today is that reading programs that combine multiple approaches to reading are more consistent with the research on how kids best learn to read. Creating a dichotomy between whole word and phonics systems and assigning each to a political pole is unhelpful to a discussion of how to improve reading in schools.

    My recollection is that people opposed Bush's meddling in education because of the excessive testing of No Child Left Behind, which was linked to both teacher evaluation and school funding, not because of phonics. Beyond that, there has been a lot of research about what cognitive processes are used in reading and how children acquire them since Bush's time, which was 20 years ago. Continuing to characterize reading in terms of that battle is counter-productive.


  6. The New York Times ran a guest editorial a few years ago by Emily Hanford, a reading specialist who had written a book about modern approaches to reading and why phonics-only and whole-word-only approaches are obsolete, explaining the need for kids to see and use words in context and explaining how reading and writing are skills that should be learned in combination. Beyond that John McWhorter has written about reading for the NY Times (as a linguist) and there have been articles about the need to catch up after the pandemic by helping children read. The latest editorials and sections about reading in the NY Times are from mid-2022.

    Somerby's contention that the NY Times will not discuss such things also ignores the battle over dyslexia and reading programs that was waged last year in the NY Times because of its connection to local district administration. As a result, the NYC schools began testing for dyslexia last May and implemented a dyslexia pilot program based on that used by the Forman School. All of this was covered extensively by the NY Times, so Somerby's contention that the NY Times cares only about Stuyvesant and kids going to Yale (or wherever) is ridiculous and directly contradicted by that lengthy ongoing controversy. McAdams has recently announced a plan for dyslexic students and was elected partially on promises to do so, as demanded by parents of dyslexic kids. Will phonics cure dyslexia? No.

    Somerby has a convenient memory today. It surprises me that he seems to rely on his memory instead of using the index provided by the NY Times, to test his frequently mistaken ideas of what the Times does and does not talk about.

    The bottom line is that teaching reading is a specialized skill that teachers need to learn best practices in and have some training to implement. Many kids learn despite poor methods, but some need help and there are approaches to providing that help. Under such circumstances it makes no sense to politicize reading and even less sense to ignore experts in favor of politics-based parental demands, as both Kristof and Somerby seem to be suggesting has occurred in the past. Kristof, in particular, seems to be exaggerating the difficulties and ignoring progress (as Somerby points out), but the needs of those who struggle shouldn't be ignored because of the high connection between illiteracy and crime (how else are those who cannot read going to earn a living if they cannot do most jobs).

    Somerby's usual attack on the media is absurd, as anyone who knows how to use Google can confirm for themselves.

    1. Somerby wrote posts about the dyslexia program in NYC and also Hanford’s op-Ed, so he himself has seen the coverage that he claims doesn’t exist.

    2. Copy all that, but full disclosure, general linguistics aside, John McWhorter is a right winger with some toxic notions.

    3. I agree about McWhorter, but Somerby was saying that no one discusses this stuff because the media doesn’t care.

    4. Yes your comment was spot on and appreciated.

  7. From a discussion entitled Is Emily Hanford Right?

    "I frequently think of the oft-used and entirely accurate phrase with regard to reading development/instruction: "Necessary but not sufficient." I believe that research makes absolutely clear that there are several “necessary” knowledge-skill-strategy domains involved in proficient reading AND that none of them are “sufficient” in and of themselves. That said, I do feel that effective phonics instruction leading to competent word reading is, perhaps, the “first among equals.” Why? Because if students don't become proficient word readers early on in schooling, research makes clear that this often becomes an insurmountable obstacle to their long-term reading achievement (see Connie Juel’s long-term studies in the ‘80s and Zuowei Wang’s team’s recent decoding threshold studies). For me, proficient word reading stands as the first great test of the quality of our reading instruction and the critical initial fork in the road for reading development. If we provide it, we give students a fighting chance moving forward. Of course, in keeping with “necessary but not sufficient,” we also need to provide effective instruction in other key domains all along the way. However, If we don’t provide highly effective word reading instruction in the early grades, there is little hope that many of our students will become proficient readers regardless of what else we teach (Juel, C.1988. Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437–447. "

  8. “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.”

    A good reason to doubt his recollection would be to … check to see if it’s true. A media critic shouldn’t simply take the unverified word of an opinion columnist, especially Kristof.

    To echo some of the other commenters, the debate when Bush was president seems to have focused on the recommendations (or mandates) in the No Child Left Behind Act. These recommendations came from “experts” (there’s that word again), almost none of whom were teachers. I don’t think liberals rejected phonics, even if that was one of the supposed “scientific” recommendations.

    As far as the time frame, the so-called “reading wars” seem to have heated up in California in the 1990’s, particularly after relatively poor statewide results on the naep test. This clearly pre-dates the Bush presidency.

    But it was Horace Mann, back in the 1850’s, who first began vehemently objecting to phonics, so the debate has been going on for over 150 years.

    My impression is that many, including many conservatives, wanted phonics ONLY as a kind of back-to-basics approach. This started in the 1950’s. Whereas others, including presumably some liberals, thought a “whole language” approach made more sense.

    Ultimately, it’s probably the case that a combination (or “balanced”) approach works best, and teachers are the ones on the front lines who are best able to judge what works for individual students.

    I do wish Somerby would try to participate in the discussion himself, by doing some basic research and providing some factual background material, rather than complaining that others should do the work for him. He certainly should do better than accepting Kristof’s clueless BS, the purpose of which is to malign liberals in the most mindless way possible.

    1. "on the recommendations (or mandates) in the No Child Left Behind Act. These recommendations came from “experts” (there’s that word again), almost none of whom were teachers."

      This is 100% false.

    2. From BallotPedia:

      "The No Child Left Behind Act was a piece of federal education legislation that was passed into public law in 2001. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) supported standards-based education reform, built on the philosophy that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals for schools would improve individual outcomes for public school students. The legislation required states to develop standardized tests and to give these assessments to all students at certain designated grade levels in order to receive federal funding. Each individual state was responsible for developing its own standards. The bill passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002. NCLB was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015."

      Teachers may have been involved in creating each state's standards and assessments (tests) but that most likely varied. It seems more likely that the curriculum guidelines and standards were NOT written teachers, since they don't generally do that, but by education experts in each state. Teachers are not trained in creating standardized tests -- there are companies with experts who do that. So, on what basis do you claim that what mh said is 100% false?

      The legislation was not written by teachers but by legislators in Congress, which means their staffs wrote the law.

    3. I'll settle it with mh. Don't stick your nose in other people's business.

      What he wrote is 100% false.

    4. This is just more annoying trolling. It isn't cute and it disrupts discussion.

    5. I'm not the one distributing false information or showing up uninvited to try to cause trouble.

    6. 8:48:

      I don’t like replying to trolls, but in the interest of general knowledge:

      Check this out, about the National Reading Panel and its report:

      “In 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the report would be the basis of federal literacy policy and was used prominently to craft Reading First, a $5 billion federal reading initiative that was part of the No Child Left Behind legislation.”

      And read this:

      “The final report was endorsed by all of the panel members except one. Joanne Yatvin wrote a minority report criticizing the work of the NRP because it (a) did not include teachers of early reading on the panel or as reviewers of the report and (b) only focused on a subset of important reading skills.”

      Why do you make yourself look so foolish, 8:48? Do you enjoy it?

    7. The information furnished here has been proven to be completely false. Why do you paddle in this disinformation and these lies?

    8. A tiny minority was concerned that teachers did not include teachers of early reading is all of a sudden no teachers at all. You have to laugh.

    9. At this point, mh's lies are legion.


  9. "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?"

    Ha-ha. "Phonics" is nothing, dear Bob. Your Cult of The Brain-Dead politicizes fucking medications!

    ...and you know as well as we do; it wasn't too long ago. Remember Ivermectin, the "horse dewormer"?..

  10. Conservatives try hard to be wrong about everything, but in this one special case they fail to be wrong.

    Phonics is the way to learn to read.

    1. I’m not doubting you, but can you cite any evidence for your view?

    2. I know a little bit about this because my mother taught elementary school. Most students can learn to read regardless of the method used. Phonics involves teaching children to associate phonemes with letters or letter combinations. It assumes that the children can recognize the phonemes in the first place, which most children can. But suppose you have a child who had chronic ear infections at age two, and therefore never learned to recognize certain phonemes. At age six, it's too late to correct this.

      The child can still learn to read. Even if you teach phonics, if your pupils become fluent readers they won't actually use phonics to read common words. They will rely on visual memory to look at a word and immediately know what the word is. The point is that if you teach phonics, you need a plan B to deal with students who have trouble with it. If you dogmatically declare that phonics is the way to learn to read, and refuse to make allowances for students for whom that is not true, you are writing off students who are perfectly capable of learning to read.

    3. Suppose we’re dealing with a kid who isn’t disabled. He’s reading text with no pictures. He comes to a word which he hasn’t seen before, and he can’t guess from context.

      If he knows phonics, he sounds the word out.

    4. If he knows google, he puts in the word and a definition pops up instantly, just like the old-style dictionary.

      Sounding a word out doesn't help if you don't know the word or what it means from previous experience, such as hearing it said around you.

  11. “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.”

    If you look at the debate between “phonics” and “whole language” that arose in California in the early 1990’s, it was precipitated by poor naep scores. This led ultimately, and for better or worse, to the passage of federal education bills, such as No Child Left Behind.

    One can ask whether this is a positive or negative outcome of score-based education, which inevitably leads to debates about “failing” schools and draconian state mandated “solutions.” It can often fuel Republican desires to undermine public schools through the use of vouchers, all in the name of improving those naep scores.

    I also always wonder if it’s really true that kids are better readers now than 20 years ago. I’m not saying it isn’t true…maybe more kids do better now than in the past. And I certainly don’t know if this is supposed to imply anything about our overall level of intelligence, given that millions of us voted for Trump, including millions who attended school during the naep era.

  12. Kristof loaned his column out to show biz pal to present
    suspect evidence that sprang from a bitter custody
    dispute, he has been at the forefront is a scuzzy smear
    against Woody Allen for a generation. The real scandal
    is that the (terrible) NYT's editorial page let him do it.
    The Times Op Ed page is awful.
    Kristof is a relentless self promoter and not
    someone to take seriously. That no evidence is presented
    that liberals were pressuring him to dismiss W
    in this way is not surprising.

  13. jesus, how 'bout some editing?
    "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?..."

    "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?...."

    "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?...."

    1. email him and offer your services to edit every day for free.

    2. touche, mr. somerby. touche.