Educational Research AnalystsExcerpts from our December 1999 newsletter


Hard numbers for "decodability" a national first

Texas transforms fight for phonics

Children were the winners when Texas' elected State Board of Edu­ca­tion (SBOE) – with the unani­mous backing of its heroic con­serv­ative mem­bers – ordered major pub­lish­ers at its Novem­ber meeting to raise to 80% the decod­a­bility level of their Grade 1 Reading programs submitted for 2000 local Texas adoption. When some said the Board could not or should not so vote, SBOE conserv­ative Dr. Richard Neill of Fort Worth replied: "I am willing to fall on the sword for this issue."

All real phonics programs are fully de­cod­able. "100% decod­ability" means they con­tain only pho­ne­tic­ally regular words ("run," "sit"), all of whose sounds have been taught, plus pho­ne­tic­ally ir­reg­ular words ("said," "have") that have been taught. This is the opposite of the fail­ed "whole lang­uage" approach that cripples so many read­ers. Texas is the first to man­date a specific percent decod­ability. "80% de­cod­ability" is the new start­ing point for future phonics gains.

Demanding 80% decodability was gutsy as well as right. Texas' SBOE broke publicly with its own staff, the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which had told pub­lish­ers the rules required only 51% decodability. The Board rejected the usual claim that some compa­nies might not submit text­books next time if it overruled TEA so late in the adoption process. It ignored lib­er­als' pretense that it lacked authority to set stan­dards. It defied bogus hints of a pub­lish­ers' lawsuit.

TEA clearly went too far this time. Texas SBOE conser­va­tives have been saying the state education bureau­cracy is out of con­trol, il­legal­ly exer­cis­ing Board pero­ga­tives. Early in their writing phase, pub­lish­ers asked TEA what should be these read­ers' percent decoda­bil­ity. By law, TEA should have asked the SBOE this. Instead it gave pub­lishers the 51% figure on its own au­thor­ity. The Board did not learn of it until short­ly before it was to vote to approve those programs.

Decodability got all the media atten­tion, but it is not the sole concern in these Grade 1 readers. Compre­hen­sive­ness, inten­sive­ness, and con­sis­tency of phonics in­struc­tion are im­port­ant issues too, as our comparison chart shows. We also check­ed these series' story content in Grades K-3 and found no negative or evil themes, though some stories are bland or boring. You may be interested in our standard review criteria for judging story content at all grade levels.

Most of the "conforming" programs on our compar­ison chart had been more consis­tent­ly "whole language" in earlier versions. Some publish­ers were more organ­ized and coherent in revising these for Texas adoption. Their series are thus more purg­ed of "whole lan­guage" vestiges than oth­ers. Hence our chartís spectrum show­ing relative­ly strong or weak phonics cores. ("Conforming" and "noncon­form­ing" are Texas' terms for whether they meet all state standards.)

Frequently Asked Questions

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 What are the big textbook reform stories of the 1990s?

  • Our textbook rating sheets' impact on textbook sales, media coverage of textbook factual errors we find, and the election of more conservatives to Texas' State Board of Education. These members are saints, with whom it will be an honor to spend eternity.

  •  How do your ratings impact textbook sales so much?

  • Local schools respect our work. We absolutely document all we say. Texas itself cannot match our thoroughness. (We took eight months of quality time to critique five 1999-copyright high school World History books that aver­aged 1000 pages each.) Our academically rigorous standard textbook review criteria correlate with the state curriculum. We offer valuable info free.

  •  You are in the news for finding factual errors in textbooks. Do you no longer focus on editorial bias?

  • We still review and rank textbooks for substantive subject-matter content just like always. The factual errors we happen upon catch the media's eye because they are sensational one-liners.

  •  Which are the good publishers, and which are the bad ones?

  • There are no good or bad publishers. There are good and bad editors. A publisher can have the best text in one adoption, and the worst book in the next, depending on who the editor is.

  •  Where does Texas rank in national influence on textbooks?

  • Texas state-adopts textbooks at all grade levels, California only through Grade 8. Texas therefore most influences high school textbooks, and is second only to California in influencing Grades K-8. Other states should always demand the Texas edition of a book if there is one; and if there is no Texas edition it is probably an inferior book, since publishers submit their least offensive books in Texas, because Texas has "watchdogs."

  •  Have publishers ever paid you, or given you anything of value, for reviewing their books?

  • No. Our reviews include a text's bad points – including all factual errors – for which no publisher would pay.

  •  You no longer testify at the Texas State Board of Education annual textbook adoption public hearings. Why?

  • Lowering our voice and working under opponents' radar gets better results.