Today I read with interest an article by Jennifer Palmer for Oklahoma Watch, "In Oklahoma, a Discredited Theory of Reading is Widely Used". In her piece, she informs that a documentary by a group called "American Public Media Reports" has found that many schools across the nation are using a type of reading now called "three-cueing", but what has also been called for decades, "whole word language".
In this type of reading instruction, children are, in essence, shown pictures of words which they then memorize to mean the word and if they don't know a word, they simply skip it.
The whole word language method of reading instruction has been decried for decades as confusing children learning to read and producing poor reading results (I would put a link here, but really, all one has to do is a basic internet search using the words "whole word reading approach problems" to easily find the research and arguments). In fact, years ago, as we were actively fighting Common Core, I put together a video outlining the differences between Progressive and Traditional education. Whole word language falls in the progressive camp, while phonics falls into the sphere of traditional education.
After reading the article, I couldn't help but being struck by the author's interview with Oklahoma State Department Reading Sufficiency Director, Melissa Ahlgrim. In her interview she acknowledged that, yes, public schools in Oklahoma were using the debunked whole word reading method, but addresses it by saying,
"We are trying to push out the phonics, we strongly encourage it, but it's not something we can require. That's a local control issue."
After having researched reading methods extensively during the years our organization tried to stop Common Core in Oklahoma, I remembered several pieces of law from just before the Common Core repeal and went back to track them down.
Unfortunately, Melissa Alhgrim is incorrect in her comment.
In fact, the State Department of Education has a mandate to cause teachers in Oklahoma public schools to use phonics-based reading instruction. There is a law on the books, HB1269 by Coody of the House and Jolley of the Senate which was passed in April 2011 and signed by Governor Fallin on May 25 of that year, which includes the following language:
All teachers of reading in the public schools in this state in kindergarten through third grade shall incorporate into instruction the five elements of reading instruction which are phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
There is nothing ambiguous about this law. It states ALL Kindergarten through third grade Oklahoma public school teachers SHALL include the elements of phonics in their instruction of state students. Why does Ms. Alhgrim not know this to be true as the Reading Sufficiency Director over state public schools? Why is the Department of Education not doing its job in enforcement? The last paragraph of the bill says,
The State Board of Education shall recognize schools and districts that attain or make progress toward achieving the reading goal and shall provide technical assistance to schools and districts that do not make progress toward the reading goal. The district reading sufficiency plan shall be submitted to the State Board if the district has any schools that are not achieving the required annual improvement goals pursuant to this section.
Clearly, whether or not the enforcement arm of this bill was to fall on the State Department of Education, it is the State DOE which is charged and tasked with upholding the progress of schools toward the goals of the Reading Sufficiency Act, to which the sentence above regarding phonics was added via bill HB1269, in effect MAKING them the enforcement arm of this bill.
But there's more to this issue. An earlier bill from 2010, HB1581 by Coody and Jolley, requires teachers pass a test indicating they can teach phonics:
Effective July 1, 2010, teacher candidates enrolled in an institution within The Oklahoma State System of Higher Education in an elementary, early childhood education, or special education program approved by the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation shall pass, prior to graduation, a comprehensive assessment to measure their teaching skills in the area of reading instruction. The assessment shall be developed and administered by the institutions that offer elementary, early childhood education, or special education programs that lead to certification. The assessment shall measure the knowledge and understanding of the teacher candidate in the teaching of the five elements of reading instruction which are phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The results of the assessment shall be reported annually by the institution to the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation as a part of the required annual report for the institution. The Commission shall include the data in the annual report to the Oklahoma Legislature as required pursuant to Section 6-186 of this title. It is the intent of the Legislature to ensure that teachers graduating from institutions within The Oklahoma State System of Higher Education have the knowledge and skills to effectively teach reading to all children.
Why is this LAW (signed by Governor Brad Henry 4/24/2009) not being upheld? Again, why is a representative of the State DOE saying that she can't do anything but wring her hands over the poor performance of state students in reading?
Another bill from the 2011-2012 legislative session by Coody and Justice, HB2511, states that students must be assessed in the same methods which must be taught, according to HB1269.
It would appear that if the Department of Education was producing adequate assessments - as the bill requires - taxpayers in Oklahoma would know if their money is being used to properly instructs students in reading according to the law. Apparently, this is not happening either, and in fact we warned Oklahoma tax payers of exactly that fact during the time the new Oklahoma Standards were being created and approved. We even reported when the new English/Language Arts Standards were called out by the Feds for not being testable - a problem that may relate to this issue in more ways than one.
Considering all this information, it appears the real story here is not that schools are teaching inappropriate, debunked reading methods, but that they are MANDATED to be teaching something else, to provide testing to students to indicate they do (or not) have skills in phonics and that teachers must pass a test saying they can teach phonics, yet it's apparent that no one cares enough to either follow the law and make these things happen. In addition, though the State Department of Education has all the power to make this happen - fully well knowing that the wrong teaching methods are being used - they simply prefer to wring their hands and cry that education is a "local matter" they can do nothing about. How that particular method of governance helps anyone from the taxpayer to the student makes little to no sense, but then, a common definition for insanity is doing the same thing over and over and getting the same results - we'll just add, "in defiance of the law" to the definition as an exclamation point.