School bureaucracies are largely insulated from consumer dissatisfaction, especially in states and districts without a school choice program
The Fairfax County NAACP in Virginia is making demands on the local school system: they want the schools to teach black and Hispanic kids to read. And they want the school to start using the best research‐tested methods, the phonics‐based approach that I wrote about last August.
The NAACP points out that Fairfax County Public Schools first promised to make “minority achievement” a priority in 1984, yet the achievement gap in reading between black and white students has persisted. In a meeting in March 2021 and an open letter the following month, the Washington Post reports, they blamed “the absence of systematic, cumulative, phonics‐based reading instruction in the early elementary classroom.” And, they wrote, “All the research suggests that this shift would have the most immediate and profound impact on closing the achievement gap.”
And now, Sarah Carr reports,
This past school year, dozens of elementary school administrators started training in LETRS, or Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which says it teaches them the “science of reading,” including how students learn to “decode” letters on the page and form meaning from words. The district gave all kindergarten through second‐grade teachers scripted lesson plans featuring phonics. They were told to implement them immediately.
Noel Klimenko, assistant superintendent for instructional services for FCPS, acknowledges that it was the NAACP letter that lit a fire under the school district.
Sujatha Hampton, the education chair of the Fairfax County NAACP
taught many youths who had been labeled as “emotionally disturbed” — almost all of whom, she says, were Black and struggled with reading. So Hampton taught herself how to teach phonics, and she devoted much of her time to tutoring her students in reading. “As soon as they learned to read, a lot of troubling behaviors disappeared,” she says.
Fairfax County isn’t alone in its decades of reliance on modern theories of how to teach reading that just don’t work. A 2019 investigation by American Public Media revealed “American education’s own little secret about reading: Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers — and educators may not even know it.”
Businesses that keep providing poor goods or services tend to go out of business. But school bureaucracies are largely insulated from consumer dissatisfaction, especially in states and districts without a school choice program. Most parents don’t really know what the schools are doing wrong, and it’s hard to organize parents or voters to pressure a largely unknown school board. In this case an activist group, the NAACP, figured out what the problem is and used its clout to pressure the school system. Let’s hope the new approach actually helps Fairfax kids learn to read.
A few footnotes: I’m less impressed by the Fairfax NAACP’s efforts to change the admissions system for the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology magnet school to rely less on merit, but I’m with them on phonics. The nearby Arlington NAACP is making similar demands. Several years ago I asked why Arlington refused to expand its very popular “back to basics” magnet schools that parents lined up overnight to get in. More on phonics and its alternatives here.
Originally published by the Cato Institute. Republished with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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