All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1997

Competition in Education: The Case of Reading

Only the Marketplace Can Determine the Best Pedagogy

Mr. Hager is a senior research associate with Patrick Henry Associates, a consulting firm. An earlier report on H.O.P.E. Academy appeared in the June 1992 issue of The Freeman.

The nature of accountability in the public and private sectors is fundamentally different. Perhaps nowhere is the contrast more vivid than in education, particularly the teaching of reading to young children.

A private school named H.O.P.E. (an acronym for Heightened Options in Private Education) Academy in Lansing, Michigan, offers a good example of free-market accountability. The school is organized as a for-profit institution sustained solely by tuition money. Its owners must provide value to attract and retain customers.

The school markets its ability to teach youngsters to read. More than half of its customers are minority families, many with limited incomes. As a result, the owners have to offer a reading pedagogy that is not only effective but inexpensive. Failure to deliver the promised results would lead to declining enrollment, loss of revenue, and potential extinction for the enterprise.

By contrast, there is little accountability in public school systems. The schools isolate their customers from the choice of reading pedagogy. Parents must try to exert their influence through elected representatives, who usually defer to professional managers on curriculum matters. This political insulation allows professionals with motives and agendas at odds with those of parents to nevertheless impose their choices. Only through political pressure, a process that is simultaneously more time-consuming and less effective than merely taking one’s business elsewhere, can customers modify the services offered to their children.

H.O.P.E. Academy’s teaching technique is phonics. Children are taught the relationships between sounds and alphabetic symbols and learn how to combine the correlations into words, sentences, and meanings. This system flourished when private schools were the rule in teaching the nation’s children. The dominant text then was Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller, the familiar name for a book first published in 1783 and used for more than 100 years. Webster provided an analysis of sounds leading from the simple to the complex, numerous tables of words illustrating an easy standard of pronunciation, and practice lessons for students to read.

Make Way for Dick and Jane

The method used to teach reading that prevails in public school systems today originated in America in the first half of the nineteenth century, when it was touted by a number of educational elitists, including Horace Mann, the leading figure in establishing state control over education. Under this system children are introduced to reading by memorizing whole words and later receive instruction in symbol relationships, though not in the systematic manner provided by Webster.

In his 1973 book The New Illiterates, Samuel Blumenfeld traced the roots and development of this newer reading technique. Thomas Gallaudet, who taught from 1817 to 1830 at the American Asylum at Hartford for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, used it, plus supplemental pictures to link words with objects, to teach deaf-mutes to read. He applied the method to his own children, who had normal hearing; they enthusiastically and rapidly learned the meanings of simple words without having to first master phonetic principles. The sight-word technique was soon adopted by other textbook authors. But it resulted in poor results in Boston, where a group of schoolmasters succeeded in banishing it after 1844.

However, the social-management philosophes who fashioned the progressive education principles that spread into the nation’s schoolrooms in the early decades of the twentieth century revived Gallaudet’s method after a period of obscurity. In 1930 Dick and Jane made their debut in a series of readers featuring controlled vocabularies to be mastered by students through the sight-word or look-and-say technique.

Hooked on Failure

As this reading pedagogy proliferated, Blumenfeld noted, the failures of the method soon led to a whole remedial reading industry. Critic Rudolf Flesch pointed out that the method reduces English to an ideographic language, using symbols to stand for whole words and negating the advantages offered by alphabetization. He explained, We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese. According to Blumenfeld, whole-word memorization enables children to get off to a fast start, but this initial success is deceptive because it does not provide the foundation for learning thousands of additional words, and therefore it is in the second and third years in which the sight readers’ problems become evident.

This pedagogy, despite significant opposition, has remained entrenched in public educational systems. An amendment to the 1986 Human Services Reauthorization Act required the Department of Education to study costs and benefits of different beginning reading instruction programs, including phonics. It took seven years for the Department to produce a report titled The Beginning Reading Instruction Study.

The highest-priced programs employ sight-word instruction. The most expensive cost $312.97 per pupil to implement, or nearly $9,400 per 30-student classroom, based on 1992 prices. Other systems ranged downward between $309.80 and $205.26 per pupil, and several fell below $200 per pupil. Phonics-based programs ranged from relatively costly to very inexpensive. One system ran $215.20 per pupil, but others, consisting simply of kits for classroom use, cost as little as $.83 per pupil. The cheapest offered only a teaching manual and cost just $18, or $.60 per pupil.

That manual is used in each classroom at H.O.P.E. Academy in conjunction with an $18 set of phonograms or flash cards to drill students in phonetic relationships. A library of graded books enables them to practice and improve their reading skills. Making the cards instead of buying them could further reduce costs, says school co-owner Eleanor Sambaer. The students also use notebook paper for students’ writing exercises instead of the expensive workbooks included in sight-word programs.

H.O.P.E.’s tuition runs about two-thirds the average cost per pupil in Michigan’s public school systems. Sambaer and partner Marina Farhat are so confident of their pedagogy that they offer a tuition refund to parents of any kindergartner who is not reading at first-grade level by the end of the school year. The school has not had to issue a refund in its nearly 12 years of operation.

The public sector, of course, could not make such a guarantee, since it would quickly run out of money. Insulated from consumer pressure, educational professionals continue to promote their costly pedagogy while refusing to take responsibility for substandard literacy around the nation. Only the marketplace can determine the best pedagogy—the process of teaching reading that produces the best results for the lowest cost.

In short, the only really effective educational reform would be to abolish public education. Then schools would have to compete for customers, and parents could choose with their checkbooks.

  • Daniel Hager is a writer and consultant in Montgomery, Illinois.