How to end the reading wars?

This month's Atlantic includes a thoughtful article by Jonathan Rauch about how to end the culture wars: "slug them out state by state." He points to the cautionary tale of Roe v. Wade, which nationalized an intensely controversial issue:

Abortion started in the state legislatures, where it was sometimes contentious but hardly the stuff of a nationwide culture war... In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some liberal-minded states began easing restrictive abortion laws. When the Supreme Court nationalized the issue, in 1973, it short-circuited a debate that was only just getting started. By doing that, it moved abortion out of the realm of normal politics, which cuts deals and develops consensus, and into the realm of protest politics, which rejects compromise and fosters radicalism.

The experience on gay marriage has been markedly different, Rauch argues, because the federal government has (so far) stayed out of the fray, allowing states to craft laws in line with their own differing political, cultural, and historical values. "The result," writes Rauch, "is a diversity of practice that mirrors the diversity of opinion. And gay marriage, not incidentally, is moving out of the realm of protest politics and into the realm of normal politics; in the 2006 elections, the issue was distinctly less inflammatory than two years earlier."

Are there lessons here for the reading wars? They too seemed intractable at one point, but by the late 1990s, following the trail first blazed by Jeanne Chall thirty years earlier, a consensus coalesced around the National Reading Panel and its "scientifically based reading research," at least among reading scientists. The research-based approach was comprehensive (not merely phonics) but clear about what does and doesn't work (just immersing kids in literature doesn't, especially for those youngsters in greatest need of help in learning to read). Groups on the left (such as the AFT) and right (such as Fordham) promulgated these ideas and gave them political cover. And several states began to incorporate the research into their policies.

The "consensus", of course, was limited to people who actually understood reading science and took it seriously--and those policy makers, publishers and practitioners who took them seriously. Nonstop guerilla fighting also continued.

Then came Reading First. Surveying a national landscape that was trending toward research-based reading practices but not fast enough, the federal government sought to end the state-by-state, ed-school-by-ed-school, association-by-association reading wars with a focused, well-funded, heavy-handed, but effective approach. Based on what we know today, one could fairly argue that the program has been both a clear success in terms of student reading gains and a massive failure in terms of sustaining, much less widening, the reading-education consensus. Reading First became a big fat target for "whole language" fundamentalists and guerillas--publishers whose products could show no evidence of effectiveness and ed school ideologues happy to rail against science. Now these folks are coming into possession of heavier artillery, pressuring the Department of Education's Inspector General and Congressional committees to fire away on their behalf, seeding anti-scientific articles in the New York Times, and otherwise escalating the reading wars-cum-culture-wars. Once again, the reading debate has entered, in Rauch's words, the "realm of protest politics, which rejects compromise and fosters radicalism."

Is there any way of returning reading to the "realm of normal politics, which cuts deals and develops consensus"? Should we "slug it out state by state"? That approach holds some appeal. A federal focus on "whatever works"--being demanding about the results to be achieved in terms of student learning but agnostic as to particular teaching strategies--is more in line with Washington's limited capacity to influence schools that are two or three steps removed from its power. Reading First's "what works" approach requires much more federal prescription than our education system is accustomed to; political pushback was inevitable. (For more on the "whatever works" versus "what works" debate, see here.) Individuals like former Reading First director Chris Doherty are caught in the cross-fire. Doherty was impugned for conscientiously doing what Congress and the President asked him to do: make sure that federal dollars flow only to scientifically-based programs. His only true blunder was being candid in a series of e-mails about how he was going about it.

If we had decent national standards and tests (which would indeed mean short-circuiting state-by-state debates about what students should learn and thus likely cause wars of its own), maybe the feds could then allow local flexibility in how students learn. If we added national standards and tests that measured results, Washington could use a lighter hand with regard to means. And if some states (or their districts and schools) foreswear scientifically-based reading strategies, the results will be clear in their reading test scores.

That strategy would make more sense if scientifically-based research had a fair chance in a state-by-state fight. It may not. The reading wars have raged for more than half a century; by all accounts, ed school professors and their soul mates and trainees in state education departments and local school districts are still in the thrall of whole language. Maybe the National Reading Panel was merely a high-point for the scientifically-based reading crowd, not a sign of things to come.

Furthermore, while this debate is primarily a fight between fundamentalism (whole language) and science, there's also big money at stake. Purveyors of whole language programs have a strong incentive to fight to the end. Say what you will about partisans in the abortion or gay marriage debates, they certainly aren't motivated by money. Maybe the reading wars aren't fundamentally a culture war, after all.

What do you think? Did nationalizing the reading wars make them worse? Would scientifically-based reading fare better in a post-Reading First world? Or do advocates of reading science need to win the battle to keep Reading First alive? Send a note to letters@edexcellence.net; we'll share some of the most thoughtful responses in next week's Gadfly.

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