Hidden Assumptions

Last week I was asked why I thought systematic instruction in phonics isn’t part of early reading programs in Iowa.

It isn’t a question I had particularly considered before, but my response was that there is a philosophy that children can learn to read as easily and naturally as they learn to speak.  The theory is that children learn to speak by being immersed in an environment of authentic spoken language, so they can learn to read by being immersed in an environment of authentic written language.

So, in all the talk of third grade retention and improving reading instruction last year, there was very little talk of the fact that there are different educational philosophies about how children learn to read.  More importantly, there was no discussion that powerfully positioned people have determined for all of us in Iowa that implementing this particular philosophy of how children learn to read is more important than achieving higher rates of literacy using science-based reading instruction.

Too often, in my opinion, we lose sight of the fact that most decision-making in education is  based on values, philosophies, and preferences and too often we don’t have a full and public debate about the underlying values at stake.  Is global economic competitiveness a higher value than democratically-controlled, community schools?  Is career preparation the most important purpose of public education?  Is standardization more important than diversity and optimal individual development?  What values are served by the push for standardization anyway?

I can understand the desire to avoid debates over values.  They can be heated–a local community is divided over how to prioritize the value of having neighborhood schools and the value of ensuring that every child receive equitable educational opportunities–but surely better policies result from a thorough airing of the issues.  And by better, I suppose I mean policies that better align with the values, philosophies, and preferences of the community.