About a week ago, I learned of an anonymous “cancel culture”-like attack which threated harm to me and my family. Separately, but at the same time, several individuals posted attacks in Facebook community groups and the local NextDoor site, attempting to convince the community that I am a racist and political extremist.
The first of these events left me quite unnerved, and the attack posts threatened to do so as well. But the “cancel-culture” attack did not succeed, and, with respect to the Facebook/NextDoor attacks, community members have, generally speaking, not joined in on these attacks, so that their actual effect was quite limited, and I suspect that no one who was otherwise inclined to support me was deterred by these claims, and they only served to give some satisfaction to those who would have opposed me in any case.
Nonetheless, these attacks do not belong in a school board race. The incumbent candidates have been asked to disavow any such attacks or “dirty campaigning” and have refused to do so. For my part, I will not respond in kind by attacking my opponents with any personal accusations, nor will I make claims that their political opinions are disqualifying unless it is directly related to school board policies and actions.
But simultaneous to these events, New York Times columnist published a column titled, “Two-Thirds of Kids Struggle to Read, and We Know How to Fix It” (original version here and syndicated unpaywalled version here) and I happened to listen to a Bari Weiss Honestly podcast on the same topic, “Why 65% of Fourth Graders Can’t Really Read,” while on a walk on a springlike day. Both of these share insights from another podcast, “Sold a Story,” which reports on the how’s and why’s of reading education, and in particular the longstanding failure of the profession to properly teach children to read, or for university education departments to teach teachers how to teach their students. Instead of adopting the “science of reading” and teaching children to sound words out, teachers have taught children to guess words based on the pictures or context clues, a dead-end approach that has led to dismaying statistics in which two-thirds of fourth graders rank at less than “proficient” in reading according to the NAEP.
But what’s dismaying is the key reason why teachers resisted phonics instruction. Kristof says,
I spent much of the 1980s and 1990s as a New York Times correspondent in East Asia, and children there (including mine) learned to read through phonics and phonetic alphabets: hiragana in Japan, bopomofo in Taiwan, pinyin in China and hangul in South Korea. Then I returned with my family to the United States in 1999, and I found that even reading was political: Republicans endorsed phonics, so I was expected as a good liberal to roll my eyes.
The early critique of phonics in part was rooted in social justice, trying to address inadequate education in inner cities by offering more engaging reading materials. The issue became more political when the 2000 Republican Party platform called for “an early start in phonics,” and when President George W. Bush embraced phonics with a major initiative called Reading First.
For liberals, Bush’s support for phonics made it suspect.
Weis’s podcast goes into much more detail, but, of course, that’s a podcast and I don’t have a transcription. But the turning point is this: after a long stretch in which teachers and education schools thought they could skip the “boring” reading instruction, under Clinton, the federal government began promoting grants to expand phonics. When Bush expanded this, political antipathy towards Bush meant that his attempt to reform reading instruction became a victim of political backlash, and it took far too long to undo this damage.
So what’s my point? Readers, regardless of whether you think you and I align politically or not, there’s a real danger and potentially serious lasting consequences to bringing political litmus tests into areas where they don’t belong, and I hope you will recognize that when you make your voting decisions.