For decades – close to a century, in fact – America’s educators and politicians have argued furiously over how best to teach children to read, pitting advocates of “phonics” against those of “whole language,” a conflict dubbed “reading wars.”
Phonics stresses fundamental instruction in the letters and letter combinations that make up sounds, thus allowing children to “sound out” words and later whole sentences and passages. Its advocates contend that scientific research supports their view.
The whole language approach assumes that reading is a naturally learned skill, much like speaking, and that exposing children to appropriate and interesting reading material will allow it to emerge.
California embraced whole language in the 1970s and 1980s, but nationwide academic tests in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed that the state was very near the bottom among the states in reading proficiency, sparking a backlash.
It was largely led by Bill Honig, a Democrat who had been California’s state schools superintendent until forced to resign by a scandal. Honig pushed tirelessly for a shift to phonics and a series of bills signed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in the mid-1990s made it happen.
Bill Would Abolish Test of Phonics-based Teaching
One measure required almost all applicants for a California teaching credential to pass a Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (RICA) of their ability to teach phonics.
Even though phonics was required in California, it’s uncertain whether it fully penetrated the state’s elementary classrooms. We do know, however, that the state’s students continue to score below average in reading – especially those labeled as poor and/or “English-learners” – on both federal and state tests.
This history is a preface to a new bill that would eliminate the RICA test for new teachers – reigniting California’s reading wars.
Senate Bill 614 passed the Senate as a bill dealing with early childhood education, but its author, Sen. Susan Rubio, a West Covina Democrat, stripped out its contents this month and inserted entirely new language to abolish RICA.
It appears to have at least tentative support from some heavyweight education interests, such as the California Teachers Association, and it reflects criticism of RICA that it is a financial burden on applicants, that it doesn’t respond to needs of high-risk children, that it exacerbates California’s teacher shortage and that “passage rates based on gender, ethnicity and other factors demonstrate bias,” as one state Commission on Teacher Credentialing report puts it.
Commission data reveal that that RICA passage rates generally exceeded 90 percent until dropping to 80.3 percent in 2016-17.
The Bill’s Stakes Could Hardly Be Higher
Rubio, citing her 17 years as a teacher, says “it’s something personal to me” and that she wants to “bring stakeholders to the table” to make RICA “up to date on current standards.”
However, the revised bill is drawing ire from school reformers who often do battle with the CTA and other elements of the education establishment.
EdVoice, one of the reform groups, dispatched a letter to the Assembly Education Committee, declaring, “This bill ill-advisedly proposes to eliminate evidence of competency in science-based reading instruction as a pre-requisite to a teaching credential in California, as specified.
“It’s unfathomable that the state, when over half of California’s students are unable to read at grade level and with no alternative in place, would eliminate the only uniform requirement for teachers of children in early grades to demonstrate their knowledge of teaching literacy with science-based reading instruction.”
The bill’s stakes could hardly be higher. Reading comprehension is a vital gateway skill to all learning and California’s students are not doing well.
Legislation to study whether it’s being taught effectively would be welcome. Abolishing RICA without such an evaluation would be irresponsible.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.