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Children’s Literacy: Sometimes New Ideas Aren’t Better

Children’s Literacy: Sometimes New Ideas Aren’t Better


As a history major, I learned the importance of locating and reading multiple perspectives about an event or topic. Early in my career, I began reading a British publication, The Economist, for its non-U.S. perspective on current events and other topics.

When I opened the June 12, 2021 issue of The Economist, I found an article titled “The reading wars and subtitled “American schools teach reading all wrong.”

Statistically, Americans are way behind many developed countries in their reading proficiency. Only 48% of adults in America were proficient readers in 2017. U.S. fourth graders rank 15th on the international Progress in International Literacy Study exam, and those results were from testing before public schools in the U.S. were closed for 56 weeks due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, according to The Economist, America’s schools are stuck in a decades-long debate about teaching children to read. The two dominant theories about reading instruction are phonics and whole language. Approximately three out of four teachers use a mix of these two called “balanced literacy.” Leave it up to the British to point out that we’ve known for years that whole language instruction does not work well.

The article cites Mississippi’s improvement in its reading scores as an example of what can be done if phonics is used as the dominant reading instruction methodology. In 2013, Mississippi’s legislature passed new literacy standards. Ms. Kymyona Burk, the State K-3 Literacy Director for the Mississippi Department of Education at the time, implemented the new literacy program based on a body of research known as the science of reading. A National Reading Panel, convened by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Department of Education at the request of Congress in 1997, found that phonics worked best for reading fluency and comprehension.

Despite the panel’s findings, most children in America are taught to read without the use of phonics. Ms. Burk states that teaching reading without phonics is “malpractice.” Since the implementation of phonics, Mississippi’s fourth graders have moved from 49th to 29th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. In 2019, Mississippi was the only state to improve its scores.

Fortunately, other states have noticed Mississippi’s progress and have passed similar laws. North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee have passed laws mandating instruction on the science of reading.

According to Timothy Shanahan, one of the authors of the National Reading Panel study, politics has played a role in keeping whole reading alive. Balanced literacy, the methodology that uses both techniques, “gives everybody something they want.” That said, he likes the idea of states being a laboratory for best practices.

Mr. Shanahan adds that if a state is going to copy a policy that works in another state, they have to do exactly what those states did, including the hard parts. Hopefully, more states will stop ignoring the 1997 panel recommendations and recognize Mississippi’s results achieved by following reading science. The future success of our children depends on it.

My predecessor at APUS, founder and Chancellor Jim Etter, frequently commented about the importance of reading in people’s lives. His saying was, “People learn to read first, in order to read to learn the rest of their lives.” Improving our citizens’ ability to read, will help them be more productive and successful citizens.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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