Pedagogy of the Absurd

There's an agenda behind the "reading wars" and it harms teachers and students

By Ken Goodman

Illustrator: David McLimans

Illustration: David McLimans

In the two decades since the founding of Rethinking Schools, the media has portrayed the struggle between child-centered and skills-centered education approaches as the “reading wars.” Or it has simplistically reduced our differences to “whole language” versus “phonics.”

Teachers are caught in the middle of this “manufactured crisis,” as author and researcher David Berliner terms it. Neoconservatives have waged a relentless campaign in the media to portray the teaching of reading and writing as “abysmal” failures in public schools. Media personalities are paid to support this campaign and the government hires the same high-powered PR firms that represent publishers like McGraw-Hill to conduct media campaigns.

How did we get here?

In the late 1970s a movement led largely by classroom teachers began to produce radical change in literacy education in America. These teachers built the knowledge base to free themselves from textbooks and standardized tests. They came together and shared materials and strategies at local, state, and national conferences. Rethinking Schools has always been a part of that movement.

Simultaneously, we began to gain a strong scientific understanding of language development, of the relationship of language and learning, and of how the reading and writing processes develop. Research showed a natural development of children as readers and writers as they become aware of how print is used in a literate society. This knowledge base became a strong support for learner-centered, humanistic progressive traditions.

Teachers examined research and theory and built their own pedagogy. They were ready to learn from researchers and teacher educators but they expected to be respected as professionals who had practical real-world knowledge to share. And what the teachers achieved with learners of all ages and all socio-economic groups confirmed and furthered the scientific research base.

The first issue of Rethinking Schools contained an article rejecting the domination of reading education by basal readers. (See “From the Archives,” p. 32.) The basal focused on skills and word attacks and provided detailed manuals to control how teachers taught. A grassroots movement of teachers quickly threatened this huge industry by demonstrating that teachers could teach without basal readers. At the same time there was an explosion in children’s literature as teachers replaced the basals with real books. Writing was reborn in the curriculum as knowledgeable teachers demonstrated that children could write if given the opportunity to do so. Children invented their own spellings as they moved toward the standard spellings they found in books.

Teachers used thematic units around scientific and social studies inquiries to provide pupils with opportunities for learning written language. They also shared useful instructional materials that had been developed in New Zealand, Australia, and England for use in their holistic teaching. Big Books, which was developed in New Zealand by teachers, was an example. Publish-ers in the United States had no choice but to begin to make changes in their basals and re-label them. A broad range of research in reading was producing a consensus that reading is a process of making sense of print. And teachers were demonstrating that using real books was the most effective way to teach reading.

The very success of this view led to it becoming the object of attack in the reading wars.

The ‘Reading Wars’ Begin

This holistic approach, dubbed “whole language,” spread rapidly and peaked about 1994 when conservatives based in right-wing think tanks launched the reading wars. This was not a conspiracy; it was a political campaign. It framed itself as a movement to reform education and eliminate school failure, but its basic goal had little to do with reading education. Its goal was and still is the privatization of American education.

Public education has always had its opponents — those who resent being taxed to educate other people’s children. The conservatives recognized that the ideal of universal free education was too well established in American society to attack it directly. Their plan was to discredit public education. And what better way to do so than to spread the belief that public schools were failing to teach basic reading and writing.

Their message was simple: Tests show children are failing to learn to read. That’s because na95ve and basically incompetent teachers have been duped into using whole language rather than phonics, which has been demonstrated by research to be the one sure way to teach reading.

The conservative campaign found a group of academics and reading researchers willing to support its views. These are people who did experimental research and who were outraged that teachers had the gall to reject their research. And the well-funded campaign offered them research grants, high-profile publicity, attractive perks and titles.

Unlike previous back-to-basics movements, this one is different. It has unlimited financial resources from foundations with anti-public education political agendas and it is being coordinated by neoconservative think tanks that know how to manipulate the federal and state legislative processes. They controlled access to education funding by threatening to withdraw federal funds if schools didn’t buy into their reading and math curricula and methodology. Though federal support for K-12 education is only about 8 percent of the total spent on education, threatening to withdraw it from states and districts is the big stick used to impose conformity.

Two national panels with carefully controlled membership and agendas coordinated through the National Institutes of Health were used to marginalize holistic research and eventually any methods or materials that were not phonics- and skills-based. And conservatives blamed teachers and their unions for the reading “crisis.” This political campaign was so successful that it succeeded in developing remarkably similar laws in a number of states and passing two federal laws, the Reading Excellence Act and the Reading First initiative contained in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. And it did so with bipartisan support. Critics portrayed teacher education as a key source of misleading teachers. Reid Lyon, from his position at the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, publicly advocated “blowing up” colleges of education.

In the name of providing “scientifically based” literacy education, NCLB requires absurd, poorly written “decodable” text programs such as Open Court and Direct Instruction, both published by McGraw-Hill, and tests such as the silly one-minute DIBELS (an acronym that has become a verb in many schools. “I got DIBELLED today”) for states to qualify for federal funding. Federal ideologues impose texts and tests that could not pass any professional review. In many cases the proposal judges are also authors of the programs and tests. A Congressional committee is now investigating this conflict of interest.

I believe that in the future the current era will be regarded as the “pedagogy of the absurd.” People will wonder how such nonsense could have been treated seriously. Eventually, parents and the public will recognize that the absurdities are hurting their children. In the meantime, much damage will be done. The voices of teachers and administrators have been silenced, and too many good teachers are being driven out of education.

The perpetrators of the pedagogy of the absurd have money and political power on their side. They think they can use these to compel conformity of teachers. But over time, knowledge must prevail over nonsense. Good teachers will always find ways of using their professional knowledge on behalf of their pupils. Amidst the repression, there are shining examples of courageous teachers. And laws and intimidation can’t limit the advance of knowledge through sound research.

Rethinking Schools can continue to be a voice of reason as we strive to continue to research literacy processes and document truly sound practices and effective teaching.

Ken Goodman ( is professor emeritus of language, reading, and culture at the University of Arizona in Tucson.