Sandra Stotsky calls for reading-teacher reform

Living in the past, opponents say.

by Doug Smith

Elementary-school teachers are poorly trained, there are too many of them, and state colleges of education are uninterested in solving the problems. So says Sandra Stotsky, a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She is, she admits, not in the majority.

Stotsky wants all colleges of education, including Arkansas’s, to teach phonics — she says they don’t now, or not much anyway — and she wants all aspiring teachers of elementary-age children to be tested on their mastery of phonics, which Stotsky says is the best way to teach young children to read and that studies have so proved. Arkansas has a good way to go before reaching these objectives, she says. “I’m still a lone voice in the wilderness here.”

Stotsky is more like a voice from the past, according to Deborah Owens, an associate professor of reading in the Department of Teacher Education at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. After reading a recent article by Stotsky, headlined “Reading teachers should pass a phonics test,” Owens told the Arkansas Times, “I thought I’d somehow been transported back to 1955, when Rudolf Flesch published his book ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It’ … For those who earn their living in the arena of reading and literacy education, Flesch’s book signaled the politicization of reading instruction that would endure for decades.”

But today, Owens said, “the ‘Whole Language/Phonics wars’ are dead. Teachers across Arkansas and the United States have devoted their professional lives to children, not to fighting some non-existent ideological war over methodology. Let me also say that, while I think there is far too much emphasis on testing, a phonics test for pre-service teachers does not bother me at all. ASU graduates are prepared.”

Stotsky, who has been soldiering in the Whole Language/Phonics wars for years, believes the wars continue, and her side is gaining strength. She cites a new Wisconsin law, supported by that state’s now-famous governor, Scott Walker, and signed by him in April, “which will help ensure that teachers no longer receive inadequate training in their preparation and professional development.” Stotsky testified for the bill in legislative hearings at Madison. It’s modeled after a Massachusetts law that she helped write in 2002, when she was an associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education. Like Massachusetts, Wisconsin will now require would-be teachers of elementary-age children to pass a licensing test that includes “knowledge of code-based beginning-reading instruction [phonics].”

Such legislation is needed, Stotsky says, because Johnny still can’t read very well, and often is not even asked to. In another essay published earlier this year, “What Should Kids Be Reading,” she wrote that American high school students don’t read challenging books, whether assigned by their teachers or chosen themselves for leisure reading. She said surveys showed that the high school literature curriculum was “incoherent and undemanding,” in Arkansas and across the nation. The average reading level of the 40 most frequently read books by students in grades 9 through 12 is 5.3, she said. That’s slightly above a fifth-grade level. She said a comparable survey, made four years earlier, showed a reading level of 6.1, suggesting a sharp decline in just a few years.

The reading levels of books, including textbooks, assigned in schools have been regularly declining for decades, she says, and a recent study of the books most often recommended by school librarians for high school students showed an average reading level of between fourth and fifth grade. “Why the librarians were choosing books with such low reading levels for high school students I don’t know,” Stotsky wrote. “They do not appear to have high academic expectations for these students.”

Parents and the community at large should seek a more challenging curriculum, Stotsky said. “Students have to do more reading on their own. More and more students have been increasingly unwilling to do homework — which involves reading on one’s own at home — and teachers have had vastly diminished authority to assign and expect homework to be done. They also do not get the support they need from parents themselves.”

This sort of stirring things up (or “advocating reform,” depending on one’s viewpoint) is what Stotsky does for a living, as a member of the faculty in the UA Education Reform Department.

As Owens says, phonics hostilities erupted with the publication of Flesch’s book in 1955, were fought heatedly for years and then appeared to cool off somewhat, partly because the education establishment eventually conceded some of Flesch’s points. Flesch argued that the use of phonics, the sounding-out of words, was a better way to teach reading than requiring children to learn words by sight, sometimes referred to as “look-say” or “whole language.” Most educators today seem to agree that phonics has its place, and they say they’ve made room for phonics in their schools and in the colleges of education. Stotsky is skeptical, although she admits that she hasn’t probed deeply on her own campus, not wanting to ruffle feathers in her own nest. The Education Reform Department, which was established in 2005 with private contributions, is officially part of the UA College of Education and Health Professions.

Tom Smith, dean of the College, said “We’re definitely not anti-phonics,” an accusation that Stotsky has lodged against education colleges generally. He agreed with Stotsky that research has shown the effectiveness of phonics. “Most colleges do include phonics in their instruction today,” Smith said, in accordance with a recommendation of the National Reading Panel. Dr. Greg Meeks, interim dean of education at ASU, said that ASU too followed the international reading association guidelines. “Everybody that teaches how to teach reading does that.”

(Of the Education Reform Department generally, Smith says “They do some great work, they think outside of the box. Some of the things they do I agree with. Some I don’t.”)

Owens, in her written commentary on Stotsky’s article, said:

“I’m not sure where Stotsky has been for the past twenty years, but I would suggest that she actually visit some early childhood classrooms in her home state of Arkansas and observe reading instruction today (with few exceptions, she will see phonics instruction). Stotsky claims, ‘… the education establishment prefers to teach beginning readers to guess at the identification of a written word using its context — the so-called whole-language approach. The people who run education schools hate the “code” because they say it requires a repetition of boring exercises — “drill and kill” … ‘ [The reference is to drills on the sound of individual letters of the alphabet.]

“While I don’t run an education school,” Owens wrote, “I do work as a professor in one, and, therefore, can say with confidence that I don’t know any professor or administrator in an education school who ‘hates the code.’ And, while I can’t speak for all Colleges of Education, Dr. Stotsky can be assured that those of us who teach reading methods for early childhood pre-service teachers at Arkansas State University focus our instruction on preparing all of our students to enter their profession able to implement scientifically-based reading research methods and teach the alphabetic code, phonemic awareness, and phonics systematically and explicitly. Dr. Stotsky may also be interested to know that there is absolutely nothing boring or ‘drill and kill’ about the methods we promote for teaching the alphabetic code.”

(“Phonemic awareness” has to do with the basic sounds in the language, and “phonics” with combining these sounds to make words, but the whole process is often called “phonics.”)

Stotsky said she’d concluded, after talking with people in the state Education Department, that the colleges of education in Arkansas aren’t interested in teaching phonics, just as colleges of education elsewhere aren’t. Colleges don’t like to change their professional programs, she said.

Phonics has come to be associated with conservative politics and conservative politicians, like Governor Walker in Wisconsin. But Stotsky says her belief in phonics is based on research, not politics. She says that at Harvard she studied under Jeanne Chall, a famous phonics champion who always considered herself a liberal Democrat.

Still, much of Stotsky’s work appears in conservative journals, and concerns issues beloved by conservative commentators. One of the books she’s written is “Losing Our Language: How multiculturalism undermines our children’s ability to read, write & reason.” Conservatives loathe “multiculturalism.” An excerpt from the book:

“When multiculturalism was first promoted as an educational philosophy, its stress seemed to be on the positive contributions of minority groups in this country and on a balanced portrayal of a variety of cultures around the world. But over the years, multiculturalism acquired an additional meaning. Instead of emphasizing the positive contributions of America’s minority groups and a balanced range of social groups from around the world, the version of multiculturalism now promoted in our universities and schools of education seeks to ‘close young people off into identities already ascribed to them,’ as Anthony Appiah, a professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, has described this second, ‘illiberal’ version of multiculturalism in a 1997 essay in the New York Review of Books.” It’s a pretty good bet that there are more conservatives who dislike multiculturalism than there are who understand what it is.

A favorable review of “Losing Our Language,” for the Textbook League, a source sometimes popular with conservatives, said:

“Stotsky demonstrates that instruction in reading has been degraded into a vehicle for the preaching of sociopolitical ideology — especially the array of racial and sexual dogmas which travel under the name ‘multiculturalism’ — and that intellectual development is relentlessly subordinated to the goal of inculcating students with multi-culti views and attitudes. Indeed, intellectual development is deliberately scorned.”

Stotsky received a bachelor’s degree with distinction from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in reading research and reading education with distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While she was serving as senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Education Department (pre-Mitt Romney), she directed revisions of the state’s standards for every major subject taught by the public schools in pre-K through 12. She also directed revisions of the Massachusetts licensing regulations for teachers, administrators, and teacher-training schools, and the state’s tests for teacher licensure. Before she came to Fayetteville, she was a research scholar in the School of Education at Northeastern University. She maintains a home in Massachusetts and goes there for the summer. She’ll return to Fayetteville in mid-August. Her salary at the UA is $140,000.

In an article originally published by Bloomberg News, and reprinted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette May 6, Stotsky wrote that the most effective method of teaching beginning reading “is called decoding, the shorthand word for the scientifically tested techniques for teaching children the relationships between symbols and sounds, often just called phonics. Reformers have fought for generations to have decoding skills taught systematically and directly but schools of education will have none of it.

“Instead, the education establishment prefers to teach beginning readers to guess at the identification of a written word using its context — the so-called whole language approach. The people who run education schools hate the ‘code’ because they say it requires a repetition of boring exercises — ‘drill and kill’ — turning children off and discouraging them from ‘reading with meaning.’ There has never been evidence for this view, however.”

The brighter kids can do well with the whole-language method of learning, Stotsky says, but most kids need the sounding-out method. “Language has an alphabet. Kids have to learn the alphabetical principle.”

As for that excess of elementary school teachers, “We produce twice as many as we need. Half of them never go into teaching. Daddy pays for their college, and they want a diploma to show him he got something for it. Other countries look at how many new teachers they need every year, and they train just a few more than that, to allow for retirement. If we raised the bar, there wouldn’t be as many students in elementary education, but the ones who were there would be the better ones.” But, once again, the colleges of education are no help, Stotsky says. The colleges don’t want tough testing of elementary-education students precisely because it would result in fewer students, she says. “The elementary-education students are cash cows to them.”

Dean Smith quoted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as saying that the U.S. needs a million more teachers in the next few years. “Right now, we have teachers holding onto jobs longer than usual,” Smith said. “Because of the economy, people don’t want to give up their job and go on fixed-income retirement. Most people think that when the economy turns around, jobs will open up. But there are many parts of Arkansas, like the Delta, that have a shortage of elementary-education teachers right now. In Fayetteville, it’s hard to get an elementary-teacher job, but not in other parts of the state.”

Regarding Stotsky’s statement that half the elementary-education students will never teach, Smith said, “I suspect it’s like getting a law degree or an engineering degree. Some people get degrees and don’t work in the field, but they still derive a benefit.”

Karen James is director of elementary literacy and early childhood education for the Little Rock School District. Little Rock schools do teach phonics, she said. “Mostly it’s taught K through 2, maybe 10 to 15 minutes a day, every day.”

One of the books used by Little Rock elementary schools tells pupils “Listen to the sounds and then blend them to make a word. k o [with a horizontal line over the letter] l d.” And, “Tell me a word that rhymes with bat, rug, got.”

James, a University of Missouri graduate, said it’s probably true that some colleges of education give short shrift to phonics. After 60 years, the phonics wars still aren’t over, she said, and the attitude of a particular college is likely to depend on its faculty — what they were taught as students, what they’ve found in their own research. Most colleges fall between the pro-phonics and anti-phonics extremes, she said.

The higher expectations for students under the new “Common Core” standards adopted by Arkansas and other states probably will require higher standards for some teachers too, Jones said. In the end, she’s hopeful. She said that reading skills have improved since she started teaching some 15 years ago, particularly over the last six years. “The gap between racial groups and the gap between socioeconomic groups is starting to narrow.” There are two ways for a gap to narrow, of course.

Even if they continue to disagree over “methodology” (a word often used, dismissively, by the phonics-indifferent), all those involved in the teaching of reading probably would agree with Stotsky that teachers could use more support from parents. To go a step further, most of the experts probably would agree that if Johnny lives with a set of parents who read and who want their kids to read too, Johnny is much more likely to be a good reader. But how do we get more families like that, when the arc of history seems headed in the other direction? Maybe methodology is the most we can do for Johnny, small help though it may be.

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Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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