The public is understandably confused about K–12 public education reform. In the midst of battle it’s hard to form a clear picture of what is happening or should happen. Policy positions on vouchers, “fuzzy math,” and “whole language” have become entwined with political battles, ideological conflicts, slogan wars, and rival claims of research. Those who speak with the most certainty out of this dust cloud seem to have the least capacity for nuance. As ignorant armies clash by night, the best policy is cognitive humility, the “learned ignorance” advocated by Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64), and the most useful critical stance may be Mercutio’s toward the Montagues and Capulets: “A plague o’ both your houses.”
Despite the confusion of battle there is universal agreement on the importance of teaching all children to read. In recent years the reading debate has been formulated as “phonics” versus “whole language” (never mind what the phrases mean). But recently, participants in that debate have accepted a welcome rhetorical compromise: that the proper method of reading instruction is to use a mixture of phonics and whole language. It is unclear what this peaceable reformulation means, but its tone is a great advance over the angry denunciations that preceded it—the teacher may at least follow an effective practice without fear of reprisal.
Let us suppose that this rhetorical compromise has caused real improvement in the teaching of reading and that nearly every second grader in the nation can now reliably sound out the words on a page. In technical parlance this skill is called decoding. The reading debate so far has focused on the skill of decoding, with little debate over the effective teaching of comprehension. But the most significant achievement gap between middle-class and low-income students is not in decoding skill; it is in their level of comprehension.
Reading comprehension is an index to almost all academic competencies except math. That’s because reading comprehension means general communicative competence: the ability to understand others and to make oneself understood and the ability to gain new knowledge by reading or listening. It is a stand-in for learning ability and for achieved intelligence. In later life it correlates well with job competence and annual income. Reading comprehension is, in short, a big deal.
The building of reading comprehension requires very different strategies from the building of decoding skills. Any school that aspires to close the reading gap will need to deliver a carefully focused, cumulative curriculum that supplies the knowledge and vocabulary necessary for general reading comprehension. The school will need to oversee the reading of many appropriately chosen books. We now know that vocabulary and comprehension depend on the character and the quantity of the writing a person has read.
The next phase of education reform will have to go beyond the debates over decoding to debates over the kinds of instruction that most effectively close the reading comprehension gap. A gap that accounts for the infamous test score gap between groups.