Reading & Literacy

Teaching & Learning

May 15, 2002 6 min read
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Reading Association Recognizes ‘Phonicators’ Group

With the increasing focus nationwide on research-based instruction, the formal recognition of educators interested in teaching phonics by the world’s largest reading organization would not necessarily stop the presses.

In fact, the International Reading Association’s approval last month of a phonics special-interest group went smoothly. But its organizer intended to arouse interest in the group with what she viewed as a humor-tinged press release announcing the first meeting.

“‘Phonicators’ Win Official Recognition and Right of Assembly,” read the headline of the announcement distributed to IRA members and news organizations.

The group’s inaugural gathering attracted only about two dozen of the 16,000 people who attended the IRA’s annual convention in San Francisco, held April 28 to May 2. Meanwhile, the term got an icy reception from some officials of the 80,000-member reading association, based in Newark, Del., who described it as derogatory.

But Lynn Melby Gordon, the special-interest group’s organizer, said many phonics proponents, herself included, refer to it fondly.

“I’m a phonicator. ... It’s a term I’ve taken to heart,” said Ms. Gordon, a professor of education at the Los Angeles campus of National University. At the April 27 pre-convention meeting, Ms. Gordon asked attendees if it was a bad word. She concluded that it all depends on who’s doing the name-calling.

“It sounds kind of naughty,” she said. “I thought it was cute.”

The slang term, of unknown origin, has been used several years as both a term of endearment among those aligned with advocates of systematic phonics instruction and a slur by those critical of the intensive emphasis on skills.

The phonics group intends to provide a forum in which reading professionals with expertise in systematic, explicit phonics instruction can meet to share lesson plans and discuss such topics as the reading-acquisition process, and effective teaching methods. The group will not endorse specific commercial materials, Ms. Gordon said.

Approval of the group by the reading association reflects the diversity among its membership, according to IRA Executive Director Alan E. Farstrup.

The organization has long sponsored a whole-language umbrella group, for educators interested in an approach to reading instruction that has less emphasis on phonics.

“IRA is a forum for the free expression of ideas,” Mr. Farstrup said. “We have members who are very interested in phonics, as well as other approaches to teaching reading.”

For more information on the phonics special-interest group, e-mail Ms. Gordon at Lgordon@nu.edu.

Science Teachers

Nobel laureates will be working side by side with high school students in a new partnership between the National Academy of Sciences and a District of Columbia high school.

Teacher Douglas Tyson is helping set up a partnership with the National Academy of Sciences to bring scientists to Banneker High.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

The academy announced last month that it would work closely with students and administrators at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, a selective public school in the nation’s capital.

The congressionally chartered academy, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific society, will send scientists to the school to give lectures, help with science fairs, and make other regular visits to Banneker.

Every summer, the NAS will hire four of the school’s seniors interested in pursuing science, medicine, or engineering for paid internships. The interns will be promised jobs for the summer as they pursue college degrees, with their responsibilities increasing every year. The first four interns are scheduled to start work this summer, with a new group added each year.

Banneker admits students based on grades, test scores, and written essays. It provides a rigorous academic program in which more than 25 percent of the school’s 400 students take an Advanced Placement test every year. The school also offers the International Baccalaureate program.

The National Academy of Sciences has its headquarters in Washington, five blocks west of the White House.

The partnership is the first between the science organization and a nearby high school. “There’s a possibility that we will expand to other institutions in the community,” said William A. Anderson, an associate executive director of the academy’s division on earth and life studies. “We felt that Banneker is a good place to start” because of its strong academic record.

Crying Foul

A public-interest law firm is complaining to the U.S. Department of Labor that the National Education Association fails to come clean about its political spending.

The Landmark Legal Foundation asked the department last month to audit the nation’s largest teachers’ union to determine the extent of its support for political causes. The conservative legal-advocacy group contends that the true amount is far above what the union reports on forms it is required to submit each year to the federal agency.

“NEA has got away with paying tens of millions each year out of tax-exempt general revenue, consisting largely of membership dues” without reporting it, charged Mark R. Levin, the president of Landmark, based in Herndon, Va., and Kansas City, Kan.

A spokeswoman for the 2.6 million-member union dismissed the charge that the union has misrepresented itself on the forms and the implication that it hides the extent of its political activities from its members.

“We believe we’re doing everything by the book,” said Kathleen Lyons. “And we are very open about how we spend our money. ... Landmark is trying to create a buzz that NEA is engaged in illegal or inappropriate behavior, but there’s nothing behind that.”

Mr. Levin singled out the union’s UniServ program, a national network of NEA-affiliate employees charged with overseeing local operations. “We think the money used to pay salaries and benefits and activities of UniServers should be reported when it involves their role in political activities,” he said, calling the union representatives “the foot soldiers of NEA’s political operations.” The NEA overwhelmingly supports Democrats in elections.

Landmark has also challenged the union’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service for the past two years. The tax agency has taken no action.

Chicago Discounts

The city of Chicago plans to become the next jurisdiction to offer educators discounts on housing in an attempt to attract and retain teachers. While other communities have implemented such strategies, Chicago—which requires its teachers to live within the city limits—is thought to be the largest district in the nation to try such a tactic.

The Chicago public schools and the city’s departments of housing and planning announced last month that they were collaborating on the Teacher Homebuyer Program to provide educators and their families with affordable housing in the city, said Charles C. Campbell, a spokesman for the 435,500-student district. Beginning this summer, teachers will be offered financial breaks on houses, interest-rate reductions, and low-down-payment programs through partnerships with area lenders and landlords, he said.

Information on the discounts will be made available through the newly created Teacher Housing Resource Center.

“We’re doing this to recruit and retain great teachers in the public schools,” city Housing Commissioner Jack Markowski told local newspapers.

All 26,300 public school teachers who work in the nation’s third-largest district must maintain a residence in the Windy City, Mr. Campbell said.

More information can be found by calling (773) 553-1000.

—Julie Blair, David J. Hoff, Bess Keller, & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo inclass@epe.org

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Teaching & Learning

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