Idaho's Voice for Parents in Education

Idaho's Voice for Parents in Education
September 1, 1997

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)

Dr. Anne C. Fox was elected the state of Idaho's
Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1994. Her goals for Idaho
public schools include accountability, raising education
standards, teaching reading with phonics, upgrading technology,
improving vocational education, and providing better pre-service
teacher training. She is opposed to federally mandated
outcomes-based education.

A former school teacher, school principal, superintendent, and
Associate Professor at Gonzaga University, Dr. Fox is also the
founder of a Children's Village for abused children. Recently,
she was interviewed by School Reform News' managing
editor George Clowes.


Clowes: What led you to run for State
Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1994?

Fox: I was a professor at that time, and I
had reviewed so much research and watched such a tremendous
decline in student performance, nationwide and within our state.
I saw it in the test scores, in the review of the literature, and
in the decline in the ability of students coming to get masters
degrees: their writing ability, and their general knowledge.

Also, people in the business community told me that they were
receiving students without basic skills, unable to compute
mathematic facts in their heads, unable to fill out job
applications. And parents were complaining that there seemed to
be less academic rigor in what the students were learning in
school.

I felt also that there had been a major shift in basic reading
instruction. My professional expertise is in reading, and I was
aghast at the changes that I saw in school districts and how they
were teaching reading.


Clowes: Over what time period had you
seen those changes?

Fox: The instruction changed in the early
'80s. I had been a school principal and a school superintendent
in the '70s and '80s and saw a major change in the textbook
industry. In fact, I wrote two books analyzing all the textbooks
in the market in the field of reading instruction from 1970 to
1986. I analyzed every story and every reader on the market for
that time period. I saw a tremendous decline in the quality of
the reading instruction for classroom teachers in the textbooks
themselves.


Clowes: What kinds of changes did you
see?

Fox: There was a movement away from teaching
reading with phonics. The number of reading series that had good
phonics instruction fell, and there was this movement for whole
language. The classroom teacher was no longer required to be
guided by a textbook for reading instruction. They would just get
what we called "literature books." For early reading
instruction of K-3 students, that's inappropriate.

I also saw a major change at the university level, where
professors were promoting the dumbing-down of instruction.
Professors were telling their students: "You don't have to
worry about teaching accuracy in English, you don't have to
correct spelling problems in writing, and you don't have to use
drill and practice in mathematics because that's 'drill and
drudgery.'"

Those philosophies became paramount in our country and, the
classroom teachers dropped the rigor. They started to use
calculators, they didn't focus as much time on mental
mathematics, on mental drill and practice for building reading
vocabulary, and they didn't focus on giving a strong phonics base
to decode the English language.


Clowes: Didn't the whole language
movement begin much earlier, even as far back as the late '30s?

Fox: Yes, whole language was in the system
back then, but it was used pretty much for remediation, as a way
to teach kids who just didn't have enough skills or mental
ability to crack the code very well. If you use the child's
language, teach a child a word he or she is familiar with,
there'd be a better chance of remembering it. That's true of all
of our children. But it's a much slower approach to teaching
language acquisition and reading decoding skills.

If you wanted your child to learn how to drive a car, you
would not hand the child the car keys and say "Go out and
experiment and come back and figure out how to drive."
You've got to show the child how to put the key in the ignition.
The same is true with reading instruction. If you sit there and
wait for a child to ask you "What is this word in the
book?" you might be there all day. The whole language method
is a much slower approach to reading and it wastes a lot of time.


Clowes: When you took office, what
reforms were already underway, and what was different about the
reforms you implemented?

Many good-intentioned people started reforms, but they had
been influenced by the very people who had created the problem.
When I came into office, I called attention to how the reformers
were dumbing down the system, with things like outcomes based
education. In fact, when I got into office, we had literally an
uprising of parents in three different places in our state over
OBE. One group of parents, in Idaho Falls, got rid of the
superintendent and stopped the OBE movement totally.

I halted everything in the state department that pushed those
kinds of reforms. We did away with the reform committee. We no
longer promoted the curriculum booklets, which the reform
committee had developed, that had philosophies in them that would
have appalled a normal person. We went to the legislature for
help for accountability. We got money for testing grades 3-11 so
that we could get a handle on how elementary school children were
doing. And we asked all the superintendents to focus on basic
skills.


Clowes: What results have you seen from
the changes you implemented?

Fox: The test scores are going up. We have a
profile book on all the school districts in the state, and the
majority of those school districts are now focusing on basic
skills.

We were able to get money for training K-3 teachers for
reading with phonics. We believe in local control, and so the
local school districts can hire whomever they want for that
training. Also, we put an ombudsman in the state department. He
received over 400 phone calls within our first couple of months
in office from parents all over the state who at last felt that
the state department was listening.


Clowes: How have parents reacted to your
reforms?

Fox: The parents love it. Wherever I
go--convenience stores, places like that--people will hug me and
tell me they're behind me no matter how much criticism I get, and
to hang in there. We now have parents who actively help
throughout the state in areas such as textbook adoption. We
couldn't believe some of the philosophies that were being taught
in some of the textbooks. Now we have very conservative parents
screening those books thoroughly. They read every story very
carefully and ask "What is this really teaching our
students?"


Clowes: What kinds of philosophies had
you found in the textbooks that would appall parents?

Fox: In mathematics, there was the idea that
children did not have to get the right answer--that you could
just focus on the problem-solving. It's crazy in mathematics to
think that a student can problem-solve the right answer if they
can't calculate properly when they are using calculators for all
of their math.

There was a lack of teaching of mental math. There was a lack
of promotion of competition. In fact, there was one school where
the students did cooperative learning all day long. I'm not
saying you shouldn't use cooperative learning, but not all day
long, and not when students get grades. Students need to do their
own work and earn their own grades. It's part of learning the
work ethic.


Clowes: And that philosophy was embedded
in the textbooks and in the curriculum booklets that you
mentioned earlier?

Fox: Right. We also found in the textbooks a
total push for environmental education, with no balance between
business and industry and the environment. We're a heavily
agricultural and logging state, and we have been one of the
leaders in the country in environmental management practices and
good logging practices. Here in Idaho we have reforestation, yet
the textbooks were showing pictures with homeless little
squirrels because the forests had been cut down. The textbooks
were demeaning many parents' jobs.


Clowes: What was the reaction to your
work by other groups, like the press and local school boards?

Fox: The press raised holy Cain with me. For
example, we reorganized and changed personnel to get rid of some
of the old philosophies. I got tremendous criticism from the
press for that. And, of course, the teachers' union did not want
me in this position.

I haven't been afraid of the media. After they beat me up, I
bounce back like a punching bag. I say the things the parents
want said. I get on the airwaves as much as I can with talk
radio. That works really well.


Clowes: Did this direct approach help you
get your message across?

Fox: The newspaper reporters are starting to
see what it is I'm trying to do. I'll give you an example of one
issue that I took a stance on: gun safety instruction. I really
promoted that and shooting sports in schools. Idaho is a heavily
rural state where a lot of people shoot deer for food. Others
just like shooting sports. It's something that is not
harmful--these people are not going out killing other people. So
I recommended that we allow shooting sports in the high school
activities association.

I also took a strong stance on an abstinence-only approach to
sex education in high school. So much of how we dealt with the
high school students was assuming that they engaged in sexual
activity. By approaching them that way, I think we encourage them
to engage in sexual activity. Many parents wanted
abstinence-only, and so I tried to carry the parents' voice
forward--to teach kids refusal skills.


Clowes: What one message would you like
most to communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our
readers about education issues?

Fox: I've got two. One message is that you've
got to have phonics with reading in basic instruction. And, two,
that parents must be involved. There has to be a push for
parents' involvement in their children's lives and in
decision-making in the public schools.

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)