At Last, an Educational Success Story!

Cassie Gilboy teaches reading at Broad Rock Elementary School in Richmond using phonics. Photo credit: New York Times

by James A. Bacon

A major theme of Bacon’s Rebellion is that governors and lawmakers should cease chasing chimera like “equity” and “social justice” and focus on programs that demonstrably improve peoples’ lives. The question we should be asking is, “What works?”

One program that works, we are told by no less a left-of-center authority than the New York Times, is the use of phonics in teaching children to read. After decades of failed “progressive” experiments in pedagogy, many school systems are returning to the old tried-and-true teaching strategy of teaching children how to sound out words.

In an article profiling successes in Richmond City Public Schools, the Times writes:

For the moment, at least, this is the method that researchers, educators and classroom teachers, especially, seem to agree on. After several decades of so-called reading wars, where dubious theories led educators to abandon the phonics method in favor of a variety of divergent — and often unsuccessful — literacy learning techniques, a growing number of states and districts are right back where they started. And there seems to be growing consensus, and evidence, that this is a solid path to improving literacy at an early age.

Richmond Public Schools, where 40% of 1st graders were identified as needing reading intervention before the COVID pandemic, has undertaken a five-year literacy initiative to get all students reading at grade level in the 3rd grade.

The core of the new initiative is the data-based “science” of reading.

“The difference between what we’ve been doing historically and what we’re doing now is that this is based on research,” said Tyra Harrison, executive director of teaching and learning for the Richmond school system.  “They’re proven to work for children.”

City schools have used more than half of their $122 million federal COVID allotment to fund the literacy plan: investing in evidence-based curriculum, hiring reading specialists in every school, and training teachers in the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling program, which takes about 160 hours over two years to complete.

The Times article does not make the point, but the new emphasis on evidence-based practices for teaching reading may be one of the few positive legacies of the Northam administration, which otherwise was an educational disaster. Former Superintendent of Instruction James Lane referred frequently to evidence-based practices, although the media never paid much attention. The  Northam administration’s final budget, adopted with modest modifications by the Youngkin administration, prioritized reading initiatives for 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders.

Also deserving credit for implementing the program are the Richmond school board and Superintendent Jason Kamras, who Bacon’s Rebellion has criticized in the past for their flailing COVID policies and social-justice rhetoric.

Learning to read in early grades is foundational to educational success. Much of what ails public schools today can be traced to the failure of trendy but ineffectual reading pedagogy. Once children fall behind in reading, they rarely catch up. Students get discouraged and disengaged, and the learning shortfalls compound. The new approach addresses “root” problems of educational failure. It’s a program that works.

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32 responses to “At Last, an Educational Success Story!”

  1. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
    Virginia Gentleman

    “lawmakers should cease chasing chimera like “equity” and “social justice” and focus on programs that demonstrably improve peoples’ lives.”

    Signed White People

    1. The policies that ensue from the insufferable moral preening of people like you have proven disastrous to Black Americans in K-12, higher ed, housing, welfare dependency, family breakdown, crime, and almost every other sphere of life you have touched. Because you are insulated from the consequences of your theories and poor Black people are the ones who suffer, you never have to confront the damage you have wrought. But go ahead and feel morally superior.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        signed… white conservatives…..

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Whitehead signs too!

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        Black folks are far, far better off today than they were back before these programs were passed that were opposed by Conservatives.

        In the Conservative world, it don’t matter how far blacks have come. If they still have some to go – someone has be blamed – the folks that actually passed the programs that have improved their lot.

        1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

          A white guy drawing conclusions about black people. Just like woke Democrats in office or running therefor opining on what’s needed for POC.

          Why don’t woke people give up their jobs or contribute most of their wealth to POC? Seems to me to be quite racist for white people to believe POC need white saviors. Woke white people should stop running for office. There are plenty of blacks and Hispanics capable of serving as public officials.

          Notice I did not add Asians since they are both non-white and white depending on the needs of the white woke people.

          On the merits, my daughter never sounded out a word in her life. But my son struggled with reading until we pushed FCPS until they were willing to let him work with a reading teacher who used phonics with him. That did the trick. BTW, both of my kids are Korean. We are a minority family – mixed races.

          1. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
            Virginia Gentleman

            Seems to me that the POC are partners with the white woke people and are supportive of the social justice and equity programs. Nobody is opining on what’s needed for POC without the involvement of the POC. Except of course, the majority of the people who are objecting to the social justice and equity programs.

          2. James McCarthy Avatar
            James McCarthy

            Keep in mind that the objecting group tends to the belief that children “belong” to them.

          3. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

            L.F. v. Breit, 736 S.E.2d 711, 721 (Va. 2013).

            The relationship between a parent and child is a constitutionally protected liberty interest under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000); Wyatt v. McDermott, 283 Va. 685, 692, 725 S.E.2d 555, 558 (2012) (“We recognize the essential value of protecting a parent’s right to form a relationship with his or her child.”); Copeland, 282 Va. at 198, 715 S.E.2d at 19. Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States has characterized a parent’s right to raise his or her child as “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.” Troxel, 530 U.S. at 65. Any statute that seeks to interfere with a parent’s fundamental rights survives constitutional scrutiny only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. McCabe v. Commonwealth, 274 Va. 558, 563, 650 S.E.2d 508, 510 (2007); see also Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 721 (1997).

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            re: ” The relationship between a parent and child is a constitutionally protected liberty interest under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

            and it protects the rights of the child equally and that’s why and how the State decides that they must intervene to protect the rights of the child.

            It’s NOT what the parents “think” their rights are but rather what the law says especially with regard to the rights of the child.

          5. James McCarthy Avatar
            James McCarthy

            No one disagrees concerning parent interests in children even expressed as a right. That does not translate to a possessory interest or right to persons called children. Children are not chattel. Thus, I do not understand the legal brief presented with respect to objectivization of children as belonging to others.

          6. LarrytheG Avatar

            so how does the State end up taking some kids away from their parents ?

            Apparently there are indeed situations where the “parents fundamental rights” are not greater than the rights of the child.

          7. And what about the growing numbers of POC who don’t support the “social justice” and “equity” movements.

            Oh, that’s right, our president has already answered that question. According to him, those people “ain’t black”.

          8. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

            Your answer dodges the issue. There are plenty of blacks and Hispanics that could serve in elected offices. If woke white people in public office believe the system has unfairly excluded blacks and Hispanics, why not resign?

            For example, Maura Healey (D) is expected to be elected Governor of Massachusetts. Why doesn’t woke Senator Elizabeth Warren resign so that Deval Patrick could be appointed to her Senate seat by Healy?

            It’s easy to mouth words, but often hard to do something at great personal cost.

          9. James McCarthy Avatar
            James McCarthy

            Surely resignation by (un)woke conservative whites applies as an equal equitable criterion. Why doesn’t Sen Ron Johnson resign? He was unfairly “set up” by the woke FBI. His opponent would make a great replacement – causing Tucker Carlson to bleat that his theory is being fulfilled.

          10. Lefty665 Avatar

            “blacks and Hispanics that could serve in elected offices.”

            In Virginia they have.

            Virginia had the first black Governor since reconstruction. Virginia currently has a black Lt. Gov and Hispanic AG.

            In all that’s a better record than any other state.

          11. LarrytheG Avatar


      3. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
        Virginia Gentleman

        Thanks Mr. Bacon for your opinion. But unfortunately, you are dismissing and ignoring the numerous positive outcomes of equity and social justice. Our criminal justice system, our democratic and political systems, our financial and tax systems, employment and labor systems, and the opportunities that have been presented by these equity and social justice programs have been anything but disastrous to Black Americans. But as a white male, you likely wouldn’t notice and apparently don’t care.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          In Bacons world, VDOT is a massive failure because despite spending billions, even trillions of dollars, there is STILL congestion and traffic accidents!

          Ditto with crime. Despite all the money we spend on police, there is STILL crime!

          All the money we’ve spent on health care – there is STILL disease and people dying!!

  2. JD Cribbs Avatar

    Amen: Many years ago in a small school system near Tulsa, OK, my big sister was 6 years older than I, when it was my turn to be old enough I was given phonic training and have enjoyed speaking and reading. My big sister had always had difficulty with reading and vocabulary. Bottom LINE
    I was far better than my big sister. Phonics worked, for me, over sixty some years ago. Oh, B.A. and M.A. Big sister not so much.

    1. Cynthia  Phillips Avatar
      Cynthia Phillips

      not everyone fits the same box. this is where the teachers need time to get to know their students and what works. Phonics works for most but not all.and this has been since 1990 or 1991 when they started doing other methods.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Virginia is several notches up from Oklahoma on NAEP reading.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    That is indeed good news about Richmond. This is similar to the approach Mississippi took several years ago that resulted in significant increases in test scores years later. Kathleen Smith is correct. Phonics has to be combined with vocabulary. Many poor kids have never been exposed to the vocabulary they will encounter in their reading at school.

    On a personal note, my wife used phonics to teach our daughter to read, beginning around two years old. This way of teaching resulted in her being able to read at a fast pace and to comprehend what she was reading.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Two years old! Great story. First day of Kindergarten a youngster is supposed to already know 5,000 to 10,000 words. Then they need to learn at least 3,500 words a year. 50,000 by graduation. Based on his writings, Shakespeare knew about 66,000 words.

    2. On a personal note, my wife used phonics to teach our daughter to read, beginning around two years old.

      My mother did the same thing with my siblings and me. We could all read pretty much any basic children’s book by the time we were four years old.

      Ms. Smith and you are 100% correct about vocabulary, too. A young child who is neglected by parent(s) struggling to make a living and/or whose primary interactions are with uneducated or poorly educated people cannot be expected to have a “grade-level” vocabulary when they start school. It is the job of Kindergarten and early-grade teachers to help such children close that vocabulary gap. And it’s harder for them to do their jobs when education “experts” keep changing the rules for teaching kids how to read.

  4. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Now political and educational leaders ae cautioned to abandon the pursuit of goals characterized as chimera in the author’s opinion. Equity and social justice may be difficult goals to achieve but without them as north stars, what is being pursued? Don Quixote’s “impossible dream” resonates to and for the effort to deliver on life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights. Woke conservatism seems bent upon discouraging such aspirations. When did that happen?

    1. Lefty665 Avatar

      “Equity and social justice may be difficult goals to achieve but without them as north stars, what is being pursued?”

      Literacy, the ability to read and write is what is being pursued. Literacy is the foundation that enables people to have the opportunity to earn a decent, honest life.

      Without literacy the options for people are marginal, lives as low level drug dealers and thugs who inevitably come into conflict with cops and jail because of the illegal behaviors they do not have the literacy to transcend.

      Literacy is the path to equality, equity and social justice. Without literacy equity is fools gold that dubs parity on people who cannot read or write to take care of themselves. They are not equal, no matter how hard you try to make it so by decree.

      Often equity is not earned equality. Equity without skills is phony, a disservice to those to whom it is applied. It is an artifact of woke racism largely advocated by clueless virtue signaling white people who are inspired by black racists like Kendi.

      ps: What do you have against the north star that you would slander it by associating it with woke racist equity and social justice?

  5. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    While there appears to have been a war over teaching phonics, I am not sure it ever existed at the K-1 level. Beyond that grade, it did exist, but fundamentals are fundamentals. Sight based knowledge of high frequency words and phonics have always been taught. The PALS data is proof of that. What hasn’t been taught, is an emphasis on vocabulary as well. Research proves its need in the pedagogy of teaching of reading. Many high poverty schools also have high numbers of students who fail semantic screening in K. Why would anyone doubt research to begin with? Don’t oversell phonics without selling all of the five pillars of reading research.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      What Kathleen is saying is what I’m hearing from other teachers.

      And the current approach came from the same places that prior thinking came from. It’s not a “failure”, it’s changes as more is learned about what works and what does not.

      PALS – as Kathleen pointed out , from UVA Education is: Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) and the current approach is MORE than just phonics but phonics is an important component.

      JAB can’t seem to credit the Education Establishment without also slapping them at the same time it seems.

      I don’t see where Northam caused an ” educational disaster” either. Schools across Virginia and across the country suffered from the pandemic – both public and private but Conservatives can’t even acknowledge those realities.

      THe pandemic HAD to be someone’s fault and to Conservatives it had to be liberals. Neanderthal thinking at it’s worst but hey it’s what Conservatives do when faced with real issues… demonize and blame.

  6. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    My wife taught kindergarten in Anchorage, Alaska 20 years ago. Most of her students could read and write at a first-grade level when they departed her classroom. The district was systematic in its approach to reading back then. Every child was screened for dyslexia their first year in the system. Those who were dyslexic where funneled into classes which emphasized the use of the Slingerland program to address their special reading needs. It wasn’t perfect, but worked well for most kids. Four years later we moved to Katy, Texas where she tried to volunteer as a reading tutor. After school administrators told her they didn’t want her using phonics in her sessions with students, she decided to do something else. Sounds like schools in Richmond might be doing a good thing.

  7. Cynthia Phillips Avatar
    Cynthia Phillips

    my then 3rd grader granddaughter in 2000 shocked me as she was reading to me and couldn’t pronounce some words. so i,of course, told her to sound them out. looked at me like i was crazy and had no idea what i was talking about. had no idea what a syllable was. she still doesn’t like to read in her mid 20’s. it took Harry Potter to get her to read at all.

    now if we could just get them to realize the importance of the times table and teach it instead of grids

  8. Lefty665 Avatar

    Richmond schools have earned so few atta boys that it is especially nice that you have identified something profoundly positive that the schools are doing and have written about it.

    If Richmond schools can achieve their goal to have all kids reading at grade level in the 3rd grade they will make a profound difference in the course of the lives of tens of thousands of kids, and for the city too. It will be a huge long term improvement in the quality of life for everyone in the Richmond area.

    Go Richmond. Go Phonics. The schools have the right tool and are focusing on the right kids, K-3 to achieve profound change.

    If there is anything any of us can do to assist and support Richmond public schools in their campaign to teach all kids to read I encourage us to get on board and do it.

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