As a direct result of the NRP, those directing federal educational policy held up phonics as a sort of magic bullet, even though the data, critics say, fell well short of supporting such a blanket conclusion. For example, while the full NRP report acknowledged that “phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in second through sixth grade” and “there were insufficient data to draw conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above first grade,” the more widely distributed NRP summary report endorsed phonics without qualification. “Phonics instruction,” it read, “produces significant benefits for students in K through sixth grade and for students having difficulty learning to read.”
The conspiratorially minded likened the NRP study to other Bush-era tactics like payola for columnists or doctoring official opinions on the environment. Was it a coincidence, they wondered, that Voyager Expanded Learning, the company that made a phonics program that fit neatly within the NRP guidelines, was founded by Randy Best, a Texas entrepreneur who raised money for the Bush campaign and whose company Website once displayed a picture of Bush endorsing the program? Best sold the company for $360 million. “This is what I call the triumph of entrepreneurism over evidence,” says Richard Allington, president of the International Reading Association, a 40-year-old professional organization of teachers. “Even the NRP found only a small benefit for systematic phonics instruction—and they could not describe with any specificity what that ‘systematic’ instruction looked like.”
One critique of the NRP’s report was that it included mainly studies of struggling readers. The report’s conclusion seemed to be that every child, from a severe dyslexic to the precocious toddler plowing through all the Olivia books—must learn the same five skills in the same sequence to learn to read. But what if that’s a faulty assumption, whole-language advocates ask. If the vast majority of kids read without a problem, they say, then gearing an entire curriculum to the learning-disabled is unnecessary—and may impede other kids’ progress.
With the government’s support of phonics in place, the NRP compiled a list of so-called evidence-based programs that included an emphasis on the five basic phonics skills. Then, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the Bush administration held back funding from any school curriculum that didn’t use one of those programs. Balanced Literacy, naturally, was not on the approved list.
In New York, G. Reid Lyon, Bush’s chief education adviser and the chair of the NRP, threatened to pull $240 million in federal funding from city schools if Klein didn’t supplement Balanced Literacy with something “evidence-based.” Eventually, Klein added a small phonics program called Passport, to be used in schools alongside or in place of Month by Month Phonics. Balanced Literacy was retained as the primary reading curriculum in all but 49 of the city’s elementary schools; in the rest, Klein agreed to use Harcourt Trophies, a phonics-friendly curriculum, as the main reading program. “The city was looking to turn over no schools. And the federal government, I’m sure, wanted every school to be using an evidence-based program. Clearly there was a negotiation,” says Ravitch.
In the years after the NRP report, phonics racked up more scientific support. In the Yale MRI studies, researcher Sally Shaywitz, a member of the NRP, demonstrated that kids learning the NRP way developed their occipital-temporal parts of the brain (the part responsible for reading) more dramatically than the other children did. (Shaywitz was one of three members of the NRP to co-sign the open letter to the mayor in 2003 lambasting Month by Month Phonics.) “Learning to read used to be catch-as-catch-can, but now it is real science,” she says. “There is evidence now that if you use evidence-based teaching methods, you can really rewire the brain.” Faced with these results, Shaywitz says, it’s foolish to hang on to whole language. “If you had a program that you know works, and something else you just feel pretty good about, would you volunteer your child for the one you weren’t sure worked?”
By the spring of 2004, Diana Lam was gone, but Joel Klein went out of his way to defend Balanced Literacy. He promoted Carmen Fariña, a respected Brooklyn superintendent who had used Balanced Literacy as a teacher and principal. Fariña proudly took up the cause. But behind her bluster, Fariña seemed to understand she had inherited a PR problem. “If I could take all of our critics into our schools, you wouldn’t have people thinking the same way,” she said not long after taking the job—and she soon reached out to them. For possibly the first time, a leader of the New York schools invited some of the local evidence-based reading experts, including four of the seven signers of the 2003 open letter criticizing Month by Month Phonics, to gather for a meeting at the Department of Education. At the time, this was a little like J. Edgar Hoover inviting the KGB over for cocktails. In the parlance of the Reading Wars, it was glasnost.