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History of the Reading Wars

The Reading Wars

By Nicholas Lemann
The Atlantic Monthly
November 1997, v280 n5 p128(6).

Abstract: The debate over whole-language versus phonics in teaching children to read has become a heated political issue in California. A public backlash against whole language has prompted the state legislature to pass seven bills appropriating funds for phonics instruction.

During the 1980s the idea of raising standards in public education emerged as a national cause and as an establishing issue for a certain kind of centrist politician. It provided a chance to demonstrate that the liberal impulse to offer opportunity to all and the conservative impulse to demand high performance could be joined. Among the people who used education reform to get onto the national stage were Bill and Hillary Clinton, in Arkansas, and Ross Perot, who was the head of a state commission on the subject, in Texas.

None of these people, however, could claim to be the most prominent neoliberal education reformer in the country. That position belonged to the superintendent of public instruction in California, Bill Honig, who was in charge of by far the biggest state school system in America, with a student population of more than five million. Honig was operating at a higher level of ambition—for the schools, if not for himself—than the other state superintendents, because he wanted not merely to make teachers and students submit to tests of competence but to change what was taught. A privileged idealist from San Francisco, tall, skinny, and enthusiastic to the point of obsession, Honig worked tirelessly to convert the California curriculum into an immersion in great books and ideas. The rumor was that he was thinking about running for governor in 1990.

Honig had made a lot of enemies, though, and he had a spectacular fall: he was indicted, tried, and convicted of having given state funds to an education foundation on whose board his wife sat. That wasn't the end of him. As energetic in exile as he had been in power, Honig threw himself into the study of elementary-grade instruction. He concluded that under his direction many of the policies of the state education department had been terribly mistaken; he publicly disowned them, and started an organization to undo what he had done only a few years earlier. One Sacramento lobbyist I spoke with on a recent trip to California sardonically called him "the Robert McNamara of reading."

The policy that caused Honig's recantation was whole-language reading instruction, which was practically unknown in the lay population five years ago but now, amazingly, has become a big political issue in California. In each of the past three years California legislators have passed bills designed to force the state's public schools to move the needle in reading instruction away from whole-language and toward its archenemy—the phonics method. The view in the education world is that politicians have never before tried to dictate specific teaching methods to this extent. Phonics forces are agitating for similar laws in other states, and in California a related movement is pushing to establish political control over mathematics instruction as well.

Quite often in public disputes one finds that the controversy is on the surface and secretly the parties mostly agree (Medicare reform is a good example). The dispute over reading instruction is just the opposite: in California everybody now claims allegiance to a "balanced approach" incorporating whole-language and phonics, but the truth is that the two sides have one of the purest and angriest disagreements I've ever encountered. "We're in the midst of a huge war," one California state legislator told me. "This is worse than abortion," another of the combatants somewhat gleefully reported.

The dispute operates at three levels, which is one reason why it is so pervasive. It concerns how people learn, what schools should be for, and the essential nature of a good society.

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Photo Credit for Bearden Elementary: Maude Schuyler Clay
Photo Credit for Walton Elementary: Chris Hamilton

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