NEW YORK - "Reading Is Fundamental," says the bumper sticker. "If you can read this, thank a teacher," says another. Whom do you thank, or blame, if you can't read or read well?
New Yorkers can thank (or blame) the new "phonics" program embraced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel L. Klein. It is not a true phonics program, but a witch's brew of small amounts of phonics and heaping doses of the failed "whole language" approach that is increasingly being abandoned in school districts across the country.
G. Reid Lyon, a researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is President Bush's top reading adviser. He says New York City's new reading program has no proven record. He suggests that its adoption might cost the city millions of dollars in federal assistance.
Mr. Lyon told The New York Times: "We can find no published research indicating that this program has been tested with well-defined groups of kids and shown to be effective."
New York state is about to receive nearly $70 million of $900 million earmarked for reading instruction this year. Most of that allotment will go to New York City, which has the nation's largest school system. Shouldn't the taxpayers expect a better return on their education investment?
The course adopted by the school system is called "Month by Month." It blends literature and language drills to teach students how to sound out and understand words. The phonics program teaches children to read and pronounce words by learning the phonetic value of letters, letter groups and, especially, syllables. After initial opposition from teachers unions and the rest of the education establishment, phonics is being embraced by schools across the country because it has proved to be superior.
The reading principles and objectives of phonics are required by the Reading First program, signed into law last year as part of Mr. Bush's education reform initiative. It includes $1 billion for states and local school districts in greatest need to train their teachers, purchase instructional materials and help identify children who have specific reading difficulties.
In New York City, 60 to 70 percent of black and Hispanic children are illiterate. If the system fails to teach these children to read, they'll face a bleak future.
The new city budget will spend $11,128 per pupil, a whopping 57 percent increase over the 1983 level. Much of the increase comes from the hiring of 13,000 additional employees since 1995 during a period of flat enrollment and an increase in teacher salaries and benefits, which are rising at nearly three times the rate of inflation. But too many kids still can't read.
It costs $20,000 for each of the 200,000 "special education" students. Some researchers estimate nearly 3 million children are shunted into special education simply because they have not learned to read. Those researchers say 90 percent of them could become literate, saving an estimated $180 million if they were taught phonics as part of a complete reading program that includes vocabulary development, fluency by practicing reading and comprehension skills.
A book like Phonics Pathways costs only $30 and could do the job if properly taught. There are more expensive programs, like Open Court, that also have proved successful.
Superintendents in Sacramento, Calif., and the Los Angeles Unified School District, among others, have found student reading scores dramatically improve when they commit to a true phonics program.
The reason it is taking so long to switch from failure to success is the usual one. Success means people will need the government less. Failure ensures more money will flow into "the system." Though that system fails to teach kids to read in sufficient numbers, it does provide jobs and income for lot of people who put themselves ahead of the children they teach.
No school system should receive federal money to support reading programs that do not work. Success may not be in the interest of the bureaucrats, but it is in the interest of the children, their parents and the country.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at www.calthomas.com.