The politics of public education makes for strange bedfellows indeed. With test scores continuing their post-pandemic downward spiral, even the leftists at Slate realize that American education needs serious change to turn the tide.
This past weekend, mother and writer Kendra Hurley applauded Columbia University’s decision to close its Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She held the institution responsible for what she called a “decades-long travesty” of foisting an ineffective “balanced literacy” curriculum on the unsuspecting American public.
In her essay, Hurley details the struggles her own family faced while dealing with the failure of New York City Public Schools to teach her children how to read. The school district adopted the balanced literacy curriculum 20 years ago. She describes expensive tutoring sessions, her failed effort to convince her kids’ school to change its reading curriculum, and the damage the distraction wrought on her writing career. Amid these descriptions, she bemoans how the educational establishment broke its “unspoken contract” with her to teach her kids, so she didn’t have to.
It’s tempting to feel some schadenfreude at Hurley’s tale of woe. After all, many other parents have been struggling with the boneheaded policies of educrats for decades. Meanwhile, people like her resolutely stuck their heads in the sand. Still, we should celebrate the fact that more and more left-wing parents finally see the need for education reform.
Phonics Versus Whole Language Instruction
The core of Hurley’s argument is rock solid. “Balanced literacy” (also often called “whole language”) is an unrealistic methodology for reading instruction. The approach is founded on the nebulous idea (what Hurley calls a “fuzzy fantasy”) that human beings are innately capable of reading. They only require a “literacy-rich environment” in which to succeed. Advocates of whole language prefer its unsystematic nature to the more “bottom-up” method of phonics instruction. Phonics emphasizes decoding words through understanding sounds. They regard this more traditional way as too authoritarian because it requires direct instruction and rote memorization of phonograms.
Luckily for reformers, science is quite clear about which approach is more effective. While there are multiple studies of phonics instruction, there is a dearth of solid data about balanced literacy. One meta-analysis comparing the two systems revealed, “Phonics interventions on average show double the results as do Balanced Literacy interventions.” That same report noted that despite the obvious superiority of phonics instruction, “the normative pedagogies of most schools will likely be slow to change,” which is what inspired Hurley to write her article.
In her comments on parental involvement, Hurley is on far shakier ground. By relying so much on the “unspoken contract” between parents and government schools, Hurley rejects her natural duty as a parent to direct the education of her children. Like many other parents (though thankfully fewer in these post-pandemic days), she would prefer to leave that task to the “experts” so that she can freely pursue her career. Her frustration with the educational establishment seems to stem not from the damage it has done to her children and millions of others but from the fact that she has lost “the uncomplicated relationship [her] family once had with [her] kids’ school.”
The Parents and the Experts
Educrats rely on the complacency inherent in that “uncomplicated relationship” to maintain their stranglehold on education. Like it or not, studies have shown again and again that parental engagement is a vital part of student success. The educrats themselves admit this, though they strive to dictate the terms of that engagement.
As a leftist, taking on the educational establishment carries its own set of dangers. In the current climate, how can Hurley avoid being accused by Slate’s readers of having betrayed her ideological principles by siding with the enemy?
Hurley walks this tightrope by staying focused on the single issue of balanced literacy. She conveniently ignores the myriad other ways the educrats have betrayed the trust of parents and cheerfully admits that “with COVID, [she] could cut schools endless slack.” She’s particularly concerned that no one identify her with Moms for Liberty, the grassroots educational reform group. She denounces its members as “angry, red-faced book banners” with whom she is “compelled” to make common cause.
Her liberal bona fides are most obvious in the language of class warfare she employs throughout her essay. She claims that balanced literacy possesses “a subtle but unmistakable streak of classism and parent-blaming” and blames it for “[spurring] parents with means to abandon public schools … [which] inevitably deepens the achievement gap between privileged and poor kids” (emphasis added). She also makes sure to end her article on a leftist high note: “RIP Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. You helped turn learning to read into a rich family’s game.”
The Politically Inconvenient Solution
In ranting against the educational privileges of the wealthy, Hurley disregards the obvious solution to the problem. If lack of money is condemning poor students to a substandard education, then why shouldn’t the families of those students get back at least some of the money their districts dump into failing schools and use it to pursue other educational opportunities for their children (much like well-heeled educrats do)?
Hurley need not fear that adopting such a common-sense notion will completely ruin her political reputation. According to a June 2023 poll issued by RealClear Opinion Research, 71 percent of Americans (including almost two-thirds of Democrats) support school choice initiatives, a massive increase from 2020. The same poll found similar levels of support among Asians (70 percent), Hispanics (71 percent), and Blacks (73 percent). There’s no danger of her being labeled a “white supremacist.”
Sadly, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the educational establishment and its political allies are ignoring this groundswell of support. Instead, they are circling the wagons to defeat school choice. For example, in Nebraska, Gov. Jim Pillen’s signature on a law providing $25 million for private school scholarships was barely dry before the establishment got the issue on the November 2024 ballot. With their deep pockets and totalitarian mindset, you can bet the educrats will pour all their energies into crushing this and similar policies of dissent in the years to come.
So, welcome, Kendra Hurley and Slate, to the ranks of the education revolutionaries. Even though you were late to the party and despise the rest of us, we’re still glad you’re here.