Sandra Stotsky has an excellent essay that outlines how teaching phonics became identified with conservative ideology and fundamentalism, while the disaster that is whole language reading instruction became identified with progressive thought.
Phonics instruction was one of the first areas of pedagogy to be politicized, and by the author of Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game—Kenneth Goodman, with the help of his educator wife, Yetta Goodman. They were the founders of the whole language movement.
In an attempt to ascribe the low reading achievement of low-income children to language differences, not language deficits, Goodman claimed that phonics instruction imposed standard forms of speech on dialect-speaking children through the teaching of conventional sound-letter correspondences and led to a lack of motivation to learn to read and the failure of these children to connect what they decoded with their native language. Because these children could not associate the words they identified with the language they spoke, he argued, they could not read with meaning. Phonics instruction, he also implied, was the preferred strategy of Christian fundamentalists, darkly hinting that it was favored by conservative parents because it fit in with attempts at controlled literal understandings of a text. In effect, Goodman made phonics instruction a civil rights issue and smeared it as a tool of both white middle class oppressors and white fanatics.
Go read the whole thing. I wonder why black parents aren't leading the movement to reform education. Minority children are those most injured by poor instruction.
Bill Honig, the chief of public instruction during the whole-language debacle, said:
"It is the curse of all progressives, who control much of what happens in the field of education, that we are anti-research and anti-science, and we never seem to grasp how irrational that attitude is. This is probably our deepest failure."
The State of California implemented whole language standards in 1988. (Stewart's history of WL instruction here) By 1992, roughly 90% of the California fourth graders scored near the bottom of all states participating in a National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) assessment of reading.
But whole language supporters are entrenched in the schools of education --where teachers are made. So the skills needed to teach reading -- the ability to identify speech sounds, spelling patterns, and word structures -- are ignored in teachers' colleges.
Few of today's popular textbooks for teacher preparation in reading contain information about the known relationships between linguistic awareness, word recognition ability, and reading comprehension.
Few discuss in any useful detail how the English writing system represents speech. Basic concepts such as the differences between speech sounds and spellings, the fact that every syllable in English is organized around a vowel sound, and the existence of meaningful units (morphemes) in the Latin layer of English (about 60 percent of running text) are rarely explained. Few texts contain accurate information about the role of phonology in reading development, and few explain with depth, accuracy, or clarity why many children have trouble learning to read or what to do about it.
Here is the abstract of Strotsky's essay.
Abstract: Reading instruction is one of the very few areas where it is not the case that “more research is needed.” Educational policy makers already have the theory and the evidence supporting it to guide the implementation of effective reading programs from K-12. In fact, they have had the theory and the evidence for decades. The central problem they face in providing effective reading instruction and a sound reading curriculum stems not from an absence of a research base but from willful indifference to what the research has consistently shown and to a theory that has been repeatedly confirmed. Using Jeanne Chall’s The Academic Achievement Challenge as a point of departure, I suggest why our education schools, through their influence on teachers, administrators, textbook publishers, and state and national assessments of students and teachers, have come to be the major obstacle to closing the “gap” in student achievement.
Sandra Stotsky is a research scholar at Northeastern University's School of Education. At the Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences (a part of New York University), on Sunday, October 2nd, there was a seminar: Math and Reading: Delivery on the Promise of Mayoral Control. Dr Stotsky presented a paper: "Why Reading Teachers Are Not Trained to Use a Research-Based Pedagogy: Is Institutional Reform Possible?"