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Education Reporter

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Let's Kill Dick and Jane: How the Open Court Publishing Company Fought the Culture of American Education, Harold Henderson, St. Augustine's Press, 2006, 161 pp., $26.00

In the late 1950s, Blouke Carus began a quest to discern the problems with American education and offer solutions. "Most American first-graders at the time were reading repetitive stories about the daily activities of Dick and Jane, stories with little ethical or literary merit," author Harold Henderson relates.

The Dick and Jane readers relied on the then-popular "look-say" method of teaching reading, in which students grew familiar with printed words through repeated exposure, without learning the phonetic skills necessary to decipher new words. Blouke Carus envisioned a curriculum that would quickly teach students the basics of reading through phonics in the first grade, and then lead them on to challenging and interesting readings of significant literary and cultural merit. His vision inspired him to found the Open Court Publishing Company.

Let's Kill Dick and Jane chronicles Open Court's efforts to change American educational culture from 1962 to 1996. The company's reliance on research, its belief that children could read real literature, and its willingness to focus on skills in the early years through phonics-based instruction set it well apart from any other language arts curriculum.

Henderson believes that the culture of American education, while superficially obedient to the latest fads and theories, is actually deeply resistant to change of any kind. Most 1980s reading curricula that purported to teach phonics nevertheless did not teach "fluent and accurate decoding," one Open Court analyst wrote. By 1987, the "whole language" movement was already gathering steam, and with it renewed opposition to the teaching of skills. In 1987, Open Court fought for the adoption of its textbooks in California. While several of Open Court's strengths — a focus on reading for meaning, ignoring readability formulas — were enjoying a vogue, committees rejected Open Court simply because it also taught phonics.

In order to become literate, students must learn from someone to decode letters into sounds. Students with involved, educated parents can learn at home; children who have access only to "whole language" instruction at school memorize as many words as they can, and then flounder. This book tells the story of one company's valiant but unsuccessful effort to transcend the education culture and enable every student to read and to achieve cultural literacy.

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