Commentary: Why can’t Vermont kids read? Left Wing ideology trumped evidence

Earlier this month Seven Days ran a remarkable story titled, Too Many Vermont Kids Struggle to Read. What Went Wrong — and Can Educators Reverse a Yearslong Slide in Literacy? It’s long. 5000 words, but very much worth the time. The piece details how for over two decades our public schools have been using unscientific, non-evidence-based teaching methods born of ultra-Left-wing, touchy-feely ideology resulting in a generation of insufficiently literate Vermonters.

The consequences of teaching kids the wrong way to read – which is the consequence of our Left-leaning colleges teaching teachers the wrong way to teach – is dramatic and tragic. According to the story, “Today, only about half of Vermont third graders read proficiently. Results are far worse for children of color and those with disabilities or living in poverty. Once ranked second nationally for reading achievement among fourth graders, Vermont has dropped to the middle of the pack,” now tied with Mississippi.  As the Seven Days article points out, “Low literacy is linked to a host of negative effects, including poor health, poverty and incarceration. And there are less obvious costs. Being unable to read proficiently causes deep hurt and shame.”

One parent, Julie Brown, fed up with how the public schools were failing her own child, got a master’s degree in language and literacy and ultimately started a program teaching reading the proper way in Woodstock. Again, according to Seven Days, “The results have been striking. Of the roughly three dozen students who completed the program and were reevaluated, about two-thirds were able to leave special education entirely and only a handful still showed signs of a reading disability.” Think about that for a minute. How many kids have been diagnosed and stigmatized as “special education” in Vermont – and at what taxpayer expense – not because they had a learning disability, but because the school was actively undermining their ability to learn to read proficiently! 

The culprit behind the decline is a curriculum called “balanced literacy” pioneered by Lucy Calkins and her organization the Reading and Writing Project which was, until last month, affiliated with ultra-Left wing Columbia University’s Teachers’ College. The glaring failure of the program, which was never based on evidence or science, became too much even for Columbia to ignore – it just took forty years. Still, Leftist educators bought into it hook, line and sinker and stuck with it in our schools for a quarter of a century, much to many a child’s detriment.

So why did we abandon a scientific, evidenced-based method of teaching kids to read that worked and had for decades – “phonics” – for one that isn’t and doesn’t? Or, as Louisa Moats, a nationally known reading expert described it to Seven Days, how was it that “Vermont and other states fell victim to the ‘philosophical entrenchment of wrongheaded thinking’ [my new favorite phrase to describe our State House] in classrooms and colleges and universities?”

Moats, who according to the article describes herself as a liberal Democrat, answered her own question: “she believes the politicization of literacy — with phonics often being thought of as a Republican cause — is one reason that scientific knowledge about reading hasn’t been put into practice widely.”

Huh…. Really….

So, the scientific, evidence-based, “Republican” policy worked, but was rejected by Leftist educators (who always, you know, “follow the science”) because it was a Republican idea in favor of a steaming pile of psycho-babble and unicorn farts spawned by so-called experts from so-called elite universities leading to disastrous, tragic results for individuals and society at large. Got it!

I’m grateful to Seven Days for shining a spotlight on this issue, but I think it’s actually just one example in a broad pattern of public policy failures driven by the ‘philosophical entrenchment of wrongheaded thinking’ on behalf of Leftist policy makers wherever they are in government....

Happily, it looks like there is now some movement in our schools to return to the evidence-based phonics program, despite its boogeyman Republican association, so kids will be able to learn to read again. Let’s hope this sparks a broader trend of getting back to effective, evidence-based policies on crime, energy, economic growth, healthcare, taxes, environmental conservation….


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