Marion Joseph arrived at the meeting of California reading experts prepared for a bruising debate. It was 1991, and the phonics and whole language troops in the state’s infamous reading wars were lobbing verbal grenades at each other with increasing enmity. But as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, Joseph was surprised at how quickly her questions about the state’s new whole language approach made her an enemy of the progressives at the table. “This woman hit the ceiling and said, ‘You must be one of those phonics nuts,’” the 73-year-old Joseph recalls as she snips at a rose bush in the backyard of her ranch house in the San Francisco Bay area.
Nutty or not, Joseph soon became California’s number one phonics champion. At the time, whole language advocates had the upper hand in the state; to Joseph, the movement was “a holy crusade that spread faster than anything since Christianity.” But soon after leaving that meeting, the longtime political activist and education insider ended her nearly decade-old retirement of gardening and grandparenting to launch a crusade of her own. Taking on the state’s education establishment with all the subtlety of a pit bull, she raised an alarm over whole language that echoed far beyond California’s borders; indeed, Peter Schrag, a noted education writer and a former columnist for the Sacramento Bee, calls Joseph “the Paul Revere of the reading wars.” Later, after whole language forces sounded the retreat, she joined the broader curriculum wars over science, math, and other subjects. Today, she’s once again a top-ranking education official in the state, her rise to power a clear sign of the country’s back-to-basics shift over the past decade.
California’s legendary battle over reading dates to the late 1980s, when the state embraced whole language strategies in its curriculum frameworks. Whole language was in part an import from New Zealand; notable scholars such as Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman promulgated its strategies in this country, arguing that children can best learn to read in a “literature rich” environment in which meaning is primarily “drawn out” as a student grapples with context.
Though whole language proponents don’t oppose teaching decoding strategies, many in California became anti-phonics zealots, says Bill Honig, the state’s schools chief during the movement’s ascendant years in the 1980s. “We made the mistake in the new language arts curriculum framework of not mentioning phonics, and a lot of people thought that meant it was eliminated,” recalls Honig. “The professors and ed schools, many of whom were outright hostile to phonics, took over.”
Joseph first got a sense that something was amiss in 1989, when she visited her grandson’s 1st grade classroom and heard a young teacher deliver a rambling talk on reading instruction. “I thought that the state had some new brilliant reading program that hadn’t yet made its way to the classroom,” she recalls.
Six months later, Joseph found more reason to worry when she and her daughter again visited her grandson’s classroom, this time in a different part of the state where the family had moved. “We asked if we could pick up the reading primers, and the teacher said, ‘We don’t do that anymore.’ Instead, she handed us this anthology of children’s literature. ‘But my child can’t read that,’ my daughter said. ‘He needs books that show him how to read.’”
Joseph spun into action. She was no political novice: During her years as a top aide and campaign manager for Wilson Riles, a Democrat who ran the state schools from 1970 to 1982, she had built a hefty Rolodex of influential contacts. These old friends told her that teachers across the state believed they were forbidden to teach skills. Then, in 1992, California’s reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam dropped-a decline that became even steeper in 1994- giving Joseph and others further evidence that whole language was failing.
After spending a couple of months studying the burgeoning research on reading instruction, Joseph showed up, uninvited, at an education summit in San Francisco. Schrag remembers her as “a one-woman band, collaring anybody she could find, discussing all the research. On the way out, as I recall, she grabbed Bill Honig.”
Joseph told Honig, who by that time had left the education department, that teachers were no longer using phonics. “We never told them to do that,” Honig answered.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” she pressed. “That’s what’s happening.”
Honig and Joseph soon joined forces, eventually persuading the state to convene a task force on reading; its recommendations led in 1995 to the passage of legislation mandating instructional materials that teach reading through phonics and math through basic computational skills. Indeed, from 1994 to 1997, the legislature passed a major bill each year to foster the teaching of phonics and spelling.
In 1997, Joseph was appointed by then-Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, to the state board of education, where she joined the battle to feature strong back-to-basics elements in the statewide standards for the core academic subjects-standards that, by virtue of California’s size, would influence textbook content nationwide. Over time, Joseph had begun to see the state’s reading problem as symptomatic of philosophical assumptions underlying instruction in other subjects, especially math and science. She felt that one of the chief culprits, set loose upon the schools by the colleges and professional educator organizations, was constructivism-the belief that children do not so much acquire knowledge as construct it from their own experiences.
“Aren’t there one or two things from science history that are worth knowing?” Joseph asks with rhetorical exasperation. “I noticed a number of years ago that no one teaches kids about photosynthesis anymore-they’re supposed to discover it on their own. For goodness sake, there are sets of facts that are fundamental-once you have them you can begin to think, to theorize.”
More than a few veterans of the California education department claim that Joseph has overstepped her power as a state board of education member. They say she is indeed a “phonics nut,” pointing to how she persuaded lawmakers to require a phonics emphasis even in such traditionally unregulated areas as professional development.
Joseph, however, remains unrepentant. “The issue was never about denying children literature-of course children should read rich literature,” she says, rolling her eyes. “The issue was about how it became a negative to teach fundamental skills. Look, I never heard even a right-wing person say ‘Phonics is what it is all about, we should never go beyond the basic alphabetic principle.’ The point is about what the child has to know to get to the next point.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Hooked On Phonics