Learning to Read And the ‘W Principle’

Force-feeding direct instruction to poor kids won’t help them learn to read.

By Gerald Coles

-photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

The Peter Principle maintains that in a hierarchy, one rises to a maximum level of incompetence. The domestic and foreign policy of George W. Bush gives rise to a new principle I call the W Principle: In a “compassionate conservative” hierarchy, one rises to a maximum level of cruelty.

The trajectory of Bush’s cruelty in political office goes back to his first years as governor of Texas and continues to the present. Just minutes before his evening speech declaring the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq, Bush zestfully clenched his fist and exclaimed, “I feel great!”

The cruelty of Bush’s education policy is no less real. Susan Neuman, former assistant U.S. secretary of education for elementary and secondary education, told Education Week that she joined the Bush administration because the “No Child Left Behind” act embodied a “fundamental belief in social justice.”

Neuman went on to explain that the Reading First portion of the act “provides a historic opportunity to prevent reading difficulties in the first place.” These problems could be prevented, Neuman insisted, by applying a “research base” that has made clear that “coherent, consistent, and explicit skills-based instruction of greater duration and intensity does improve achievement.” Bush’s education legislation, according to Neuman, offered “high-quality education” as “an entitlement for all children, regardless of their life circumstance.”

Fine sounding words, but unfortunately none is true, starting with the bedrock myth of the “research base.” In my book Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies (Heinemann, 2003), I provide a thorough analysis of all the scientific studies in this “research base,” the one used to justify the skills-emphasis direct instruction (DI) – such as the Open Court program – that is mandated in Bush’s “Reading First” legislation.

An actual reading of the research shows the following:

  • Skills-emphasis direct instruction is not superior to teaching skills as needed. Within a comprehensive, literature- based instructional program, where teachers identify and teach specific skills that children actually need, students learn as well as those taught with a comprehensive, step-by-step skills program.
  • Direct instruction is not superior for teaching comprehension. There is little evidence that it benefits comprehension beyond first or second grade.
  • Direct instruction is not superior to whole language teaching. On conventional reading tests that include tests of skills knowledge, children in whole language classes do as well as children taught in direct instruction classrooms.
  • Direct instruction does not help “at risk” children. There is little evidence that it helps “disabled” readers overcome their problems and become normal readers.
  • Direct instruction is not superior for poor children. There is little evidence that it provides superior reading outcomes for these children.

Promoters of Bush’s Reading First instruction fail to mention the following benefits to literature-based/whole language teaching:

  • It fosters comprehension without diminishing the use of strategies and skills.
  • It encourages a more positive attitude and enthusiasm toward reading.
  • It’s more likely to incorporate extensive writing that in turn helps students learn reading skills, written expression, and vocabulary use.


The Reading First fiction has been driven by political ideology and design that has excluded all viewpoints that are not cheerleading this instruction. A vivid example is the list of speakers who have appeared at hearings of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the committee that wrote the federal reading legislation and whose members and staff helped move it through Congress.

Shower praise on “scientific” reading instruction and you’re welcomed through the hearing room doors. Enter Reid Lyon, described by the Wall Street Journal as Bush’s “reading guru.” Enter Donald N. Langenberg, chair of the National Reading Panel Report that purportedly mustered the scientific evidence for Reading First. Enter Diane Ravitch, a member of several conservative policy institutes.

With “Reading First” a McCarthyist blacklist has emerged. Applicants for the legislation’s funds have quickly learned which blacklisted concepts, terminology, publications, and scholars to avoid. Educators who agree with the blacklist feel compelled to comply because educational funding is scarce.


Much of the adminstration’s education policy has been refined by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. The foundation’s chief education document is No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools. The central ideology in the book is that we need not weep for poor children, only for poor children who aren’t doing well in school. The foundation accepts high poverty as a given that need not be addressed; it’s what to do educationally within high poverty that is the foundation’s sole concern. Naturally, the Heritage Foundation fails to note its own role in formulating policies in the Bush administration that actually maintain high poverty, such as tax reductions that primarily benefit the rich and super- rich, cutbacks in domestic social programs, and opposition to minimum-wage laws.

Here’s how the Heritage Foundation discusses poverty in the “Issues” section of its website: “The lack of progress in reducing child poverty since 1965 can be explained in part by the erosion of marriage and the growth of poverty-prone single-parent families,” especially out-of-wedlock childbearing. In addition to explaining poverty through a decline (especially for women) in adherence to traditional values, poverty is revealed to be overstated by governmental statistics; in fact, asserts Heritage, it has “dropped substantially.” And many of the so-called poor, the Foundation tells us, have jacuzzis, microwaves, and own two cars. Clearly, the foundation insists, spending so much federal money on the poor has not done any good in improving their morals, stopping them from taking advantage of the tax dollars of hard-working Americans, or boosting their self-reliance.

And the Heritage Foundation has the answer for getting children out of poverty: replace “progressive education” with basic skills teaching, use rigorous and regular testing, hire principals who will make their budgets “work” and not complain about needing more money, and “use the hiring and firing of staff to communicate the ideals of [a school’s] mission.” Although Heritage is a think-tank serving wealth and power, it assures educators that “running a high-poverty school is one of the most important leadership positions in America.” And the use of Heritage Foundation lessons in running the school will make certain that poor children not only succeed educationally, but that they eventually rise to master the “rigors of global competition.”


As if taking a chapter out of the Heritage textbook on poverty and education, George W. Bush displayed a colossal indifference to the poor children of Texas while he governed that state. He claimed a dedication to ensuring that children obtain basic reading skills but displayed no meaningful concern for the overall quality of education or for children’s lives. His record was particularly dismal in policies that could affect learning outcomes. For example, under Bush, Texas ranked second highest among states in the percentage of people – especially children – who went hungry. The state ranked third in the percentage of malnourished residents. After vetoing a bill to coordinate hunger programs in Texas, a reporter asked Bush about hunger in the state. “Where?” the baffled governor asked.

Texas was tied for the third highest percentage of children in poverty. Under Bush, Texas slashed its food stamp payments, an essential program for the poorest of children, by $1 billion. Texas ranked second in the percentage of poor children who lacked health insurance. In 1999, when Texas was flush with a budget surplus, Bush initially fought to block some 250,000 children from receiving affordable health care. While fighting this insurance program, he declared a legislative emergency to push through a $45 million tax break for oil well owners, saying, “People are hurting out there.” He also had the opportunity to invest more of the surplus in education but instead pursued tax cuts. Under his governorship, Texas teacher salaries ranked 36th among states, with Bush opposing adequate raises. He opposed the reduction of class size, arguing that it was “an infringement of local control.”

In all, the Bush “back-to-basics” reading education combined with social policy for children and produced the educational “Texas Myth,” not “Miracle.” Students did better on the Texas tests because teachers taught to the test or students were pushed out of school or held back. Independent evaluations found that the seemingly huge achievement on the Texas tests was not duplicated. Fourth and eighth graders overall did about the same as students nationally – not worse, but not better. For minority students, however, the gap widened.


Bush, accompanied by accolades for his commitment to education, carried his Texas game plan into the White House, insisting, “We believe education is a national priority.” But what was the extent of this commitment? The first Bush budget (fiscal year 2002) added 5.9 percent to education, not exactly a great leap forward compared to the 18 percent increase over the previous year’s funding in Clinton’s last budget.

For fiscal year 2004, the Bush budget provides a zero percent increase over the fiscal year 2003 education budget. About $1 billion is allocated for Reading First, not a lot when spread over 50 states, but enough to get educators to toe the instructional line if they hope to make up for budgetary cuts, especially those caused by reduced federal support for state budgets. As an example of priorities with respect to these budgets, consider the following: The cumulative state deficits for 2003 will be $68 billion; the tax savings for the top 1 percent of taxpayers under the Bush tax cut for that year will be $69 billion, according Education Week reporter Bruce Fuller.

And the U.S. presence in Iraq will continue to drain the federal coffers of money that could be used domestically. In March, Congress approved $75 billion to pay for just the beginning of the war, a sum separate from the military budget and almost 50 percent more than the entire annual education budget.

The Bush budget includes deep reductions in virtually every area that could impact children’s learning: food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, child nutrition, foster care, child support enforcement, health insurance programs for children, childcare grants to states, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

And, according to Education Week, Bush plans to eliminate the following federal education programs: elementary and secondary school counseling, Rural Education, the National Writing Project, and Comprehensive School Reform (a program that underwrites school improvement efforts for low-income areas).

Bush also wants to crack down on freeloaders in the federal free lunch program. Upon learning that about 21 percent of children enrolled in the program were ineligible based on their actual family income, strong measures are now being put in place to halt this egregious swindle. Families will have to provide convincing proof of income and similar documentation, a step that could drive a million eligible students out of the program, according to the American School Food Service Association.

Just imagine what we could do as a nation if the $1.3 trillion (most of which goes to the richest 1 percent) that Bush plans to remove from the federal budget over the next 10 years were to stay. Just half of that amount could provide the following to nurture children and literacy:

  • $32 billion for affordable housing for one million families
  • $33 billion for after-school programs for one million children
  • $193 billion for comprehensive health care for all 9.2 million uninsured children
  • $55 billion for Head Start for all eligible children
  • $47 billion for 100,000 experienced teachers
  • $150 billion for child care for all eligible children


A reigning question among educators concerned with literacy is, “What is the best instruction for teaching children to read?” This question guides much reading research, discussions in reading journals and conferences, and reading teacher education. It is also the question that guided the National Reading Panel Report, the foundational document of Reading First. Unfortunately, it is the wrong question, not because instructional matters aren’t vitally important, but because it excludes all else that is vitally important for literacy success. The question we should ask is, “What needs to be done to ensure that all children learn to read and write?” If we ask this more comprehensive question, we include attention to instruction and to all else that affects children’s learning. A child who is sick and unable to get medical attention, hungry because of insufficient food at home, or stressed because of inadequate living conditions is a child going to school with great odds against being able to learn. So, too, are the odds against a child trying to learn to read in an overcrowded, undersupplied, deteriorating classroom.

In the eyes of those guiding the Bush administration, instruction must be narrowly defined, focusing exclusively on strictly scripted reading programs considered virtually “teacher-proof.” It also excludes a variety of classroom issues, especially whether teachers should work as middle-managers of prepackaged programs or as professionals who use expertise to judge best what their students need.

Although George W. Bush proclaims his love for education, his record shows that he is far more committed to the ascendance of wealth and power than improving the education and lives of all children. An education policy based on an educational bootstrap device devoid of evidence to support its effectiveness is not going to help solve the vast inequities in the U.S. education system.

Marie Antoinette never actually said, “Let them eat cake” when told that poor people were starving. George W. Bush never said “Let them eat skills” as he shaped his compassionate conservative response to poor children. But both might as well have.

Gerald Coles (gscoles@yahoo.com) is an educational psychologist and member of the National Writers Union who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. Portions of this article are drawn from his new book, Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies (Heinemann), which contains additional references.

Summer 2003