Readin', writin', politickin'

In the current Policy Review, David Davenport and Jeffrey Jones discuss the politics of literacy and its transformation from a local education issue to its current role in national public policy. Much of federal legislation has its roots in state level policies, such as California's knock-down fight over "whole language" versus phonics-based reading strategies or Texas' pioneering testing and accountability system. But the literacy debate is often so politicized and polarized that the actual question of how best to teach children to read is lost. The authors argue that any plan to improve literacy must contend with two major and seemingly durable political changes: "the increasing federalization of literacy policy and the emergence of more centrist and pragmatic neoconservative and neoliberal leadership on educational matters." They recommend funding research on literacy and then teaching scientifically proven methods; they also suggest using tests to provide more localized data on school achievement and to narrow the achievement gap. We worry that the blithe suggestion that everybody just needs to chill out and do what's "best for kids" is a bit na??ve considering both honest differences of opinion on what "best" means and the less-honest entrenched interests that make money off reading instruction. Still, they make a valid point. With state and local literacy programs taking in a billion dollars a year in federal money, it is important that literacy methods be based not on politics, but on proven results.

"The politics of literacy," by David Davenport and Jeffrey M. Jones, Policy Review, April-May 2005