Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

“School days were eagerly anticipated by Francie,” a central character in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (p. 143). The novel often is a powerful fictional account of poverty among white working class people at the turn of the twentieth century.

But Francie Nolan is also a girl who loves books, libraries, and an idealized view of what formal schooling will be. Yet, “[b]efore school, there had to be vaccination,” the narrator explains. “That was the law”:

When the health authorities tried to explain to the poor and illiterate that vaccination was  a giving of the harmless form of smallpox to work up immunity against the deadly form, the parents didn’t believe it. … Some foreign-born parents refused to permit their children to be vaccinated. They were not allowed to enter school. Then the law got after them for keeping the children out of school. A free country? they asked. (pp. 143-144)

Left alone by their working mother, Francie and her brother, Neeley, must go for their vaccinations, prodded only by a neighbor who rouses them from playing in the dirt and mud. Francie suffers through not only the shot itself, but also the doctor’s insensitive and classist criticism: “‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm nurse'” (p. 146).

Despite the trauma of the vaccinations and the class-shaming by the doctor, “Francie expected great things from school” (p. 151). However, “Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and ’09. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days” (p. 153).

That “brutalizing” included:

The cruelest teachers were those who had come from homes similar to those of the poor children. It seemed that in their bitterness towards those unfortunate little ones, they were somehow exorcizing their own fearful backgrounds. (p. 153)

A decade past a century since this novel, and I must acknowledge there is a disturbing series of patterns that remain, including the anti-vaccination movement as well as a significant portion of parents who find public schools unresponsive to the needs of specific populations of students.

Since I am currently reading Smith’s novel, I was drawn to some comparisons when I encountered, once again, the media’s misguided fascination with the “science of reading”: What parents of dyslexic children are teaching schools about literacy from PBS News Hour.

I cannot help asking if mainstream media would ever run this story: What anti-vaccination parents are teaching doctors about disease.

And then, while the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading has been spreading for a few years now, Education Week once again piles onto the bandwagon driven by parents advocating for their children with dyslexia: Stephen Sawchuk’s Battle Over Reading: Parents of Children With Dyslexia Wage Curriculum War and College of Education Now Prepares Teachers in the Science of Reading.

Sawchuk’s piece recycles both misinformation about dyslexia (1 in 10 children are diagnosed, according to Dyslexia International, but many sources suggest the exact percentage ranges from 5% to 17%) and resorts once again to citing the National Reading Panel as a credible report on reading (it has been thoroughly debunked). In fact, intensive, systematic phonics for all students has also been discredited.

Yet as Andrew Davis acknowledges: “The zeal with which synthetic phonics is championed by its advocates has been remarkably effective in pushing it to the top of the educational agenda; but we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

As I examined and unpacked concerning school choice, we must resist idealizing parental choice, even in regard to those parents’ children. The anti-vaccination movement occurring now is grounded in both those parents wanting what is best (in their view) for their children’s health and a garbled misunderstanding of vaccinations driven by one deeply flawed study that makes those parents believe they have science on their side:

Lacking the scientific background, in an attempt to protect their children, parents contemplating the risk of vaccine are vulnerable to omission biases by which they are more likely to take the risk of inaction than the risk of action….

The anti-vaccine movement appears to be part of a larger trend of discontent and distrust in the established preeminence of scientific evidence over impressions and opinions. A corollary to the discontent is the democratization of health-related decision making, by which stakeholders have an increasingly stronger voice over experts, as well as the dethroning of the Expert. While democratization of health care decision making is cheered by liberals and conservatives alike, its benefits are still to be proven. Decisions in the area of disease prevention require knowledge of the medical field involved and an understanding of statistics, in the absence of which no amount of communication skills and efforts would do any good.

This, I think, is a powerful harbinger of how the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading is being perpetuated by rhetoric (“the science of reading”) and zeal among parents who seek to democratize the teaching of reading, and as a result, the expertise of literacy educators is erased and replaced by parent will and political caveat.

Here are some essential facts being ignored by the avalanche of zeal among mostly parents of children with dyslexia:

  • No student, regardless of special needs such as dyslexia, should be mis-served by our public education system. Parents of children advocating for best practices in the service of their children must be heard, and public schools must respond, attended to, however, by special needs educators and scholars, not the policy demands of the parents or political leaders. “My child must be served” is different than “This is how you will serve my child.”
  • Reading needs of the general population of students must not be held hostage to the needs of unique subsets of students—especially when the zeal of a few is allowed to overwhelm the expertise of educators and literacy scholars.
  • Historically, reading instruction has been a victim of false crisis rhetoric, and current calls for “the science of reading” is yet another round of phonic-only propaganda that cannot serve students well.
  • The research base on reading instruction (the actual science of reading) has never rejected phonics instruction (including whole language and balanced literacy), but each student needs varying degrees of direct phonics instruction, only enough so that the student begins reading and develops as a reader through holistic experiences such as reading by choice and being read to.
  • There has never been a time in the history of formal education in the U.S. that some have not claimed we have a reading crisis. Never. That crisis rhetoric has always been misguided and driven by those with some ulterior agenda or no expertise in literacy.
  • Most of the ways that formal schooling now fails students in terms of reading instruction can be connected to the accountability movement—focusing on ever-changing standards and high-stakes testing as well as imposing prescriptive reading programs onto teachers and students.

Parental zeal in the anti-vaccination movement has spurred measles outbreaks, proving that parental zeal must not be allowed to trump medical expertise.

Parental zeal for public schools properly serving students with dyslexia must not be allowed to drive reading policy for all children; this is just as unwarranted even as the consequences may not be so easily exposed.


 

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