School-Induced Illiteracy Spurs Spending Explosion

Published February 1, 1999

The army of teachers, aides, and support personnel involved in K-12 remedial education has grown so dramatically over the past decade that it now approaches the size of the United States Armed Forces and will cost over $65 billion in 1998, according to a leading education researcher.

At the same time, enrollment in Title I and Special Education programs has ballooned to the point where fully 36 percent of public school students–more than one in every three–are now in remedial education classes. Despite congressional opposition to a national curriculum, one in five public schools now falls under federal control because of Congress’ redefinition of “school-wide Title I” schools.

Of the nation’s 16 million children now enrolled in Title I and Special Education remedial programs, only about 1 million have physical or mental handicaps that require them to take such classes, according to Regna Lee Wood, director of statistical research at the National Right to Read Foundation. The vast majority of students in remedial classes–15 million children–are there because of what Wood labels “school-induced illiteracy”: the continuing failure of regular instructors to teach them how to read.

“There wouldn’t be any remedial reading cases if we started teaching reading instead of guessing in the first grade,” noted Dr. Rudolph Flesch as long ago as 1955 in his book Why Johnny Can’t Read. Wood blames elected officials, educators, and the news media for long ignoring “overwhelming evidence of rocketing illiteracy among school children who are not poor, retarded, or physically handicapped.”

Remedial teachers would be unnecessary, Wood says, if regular teachers did what they are paid to do.

“Americans are paying billions of tax dollars to nearly 600,000 largely graduate-degree Title I and Special Education remedial reading and math instructors after they have paid billions of tax dollars to 600,000 bachelors-degree primary grade reading and math teachers,” notes Wood.

The growth of Title I and Special Education programs is even more remarkable given that both are documented failures, according to official congressional reports. Interim and final 1993 reports to Congress on Title I concluded that Title I programs were ineffective: Disadvantaged children in Title I programs did no better academically than disadvantaged children not enrolled in Title I. The final report is a seven-year study of 40,000 Title I students in three grades.

The results from Special Education programs are equally disturbing. A congressionally commissioned ten-year school exit survey–the National Longitudinal Transitional Study of Special Education Students–reported that a startling 95 percent of Special Education students are still in the remedial programs when they leave school. A meager 7.5 percent of Special Education students graduate with regular diplomas, and 40 percent drop out of high school.

Life after remedial education is bleak. Although 80 percent of Special Education participants have no physical or mental handicap, only 20 percent are fully independent. Fully half of Special Education students who are emotionally disturbed are arrested within two years of leaving school, and 60 percent are arrested within three to five years of leaving school.

“Welfare workers, prison and parole officers, employers of the handicapped, parents or guardians, and a few institutional personnel are supervising four out of five former Special Education students three to five years after they leave school,” notes Wood in her September 1998 study for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, “Time for a ‘2 By 1’ Core Curriculum.”

Illiteracy isn’t confined to the 36 percent of public school students who are in remedial classes:

  • 70 percent of U.S. high school students can’t read ninth-grade assignments.
  • 30 percent of U.S. twelfth-graders can’t read proficiently at a fourth-grade level.
  • 50 percent of U.S. citizens are effectively disenfranchised because they can’t read ballot propositions or explanations of them.

Decision-makers must recognize that reading comes first, says Wood. Instructors cannot teach anything except reading to illiterate students of any age, and the empirical and physiological evidence is overwhelming that this reading instruction must involve learning to spell sounds–that is, phonics.

“The major job security for legions of Special Education and Title I remedial teachers and their support personnel is the continuing failure of regular instructors to teach millions of normal children to read,” laments Wood. “We have to stop this flow of students who leave third grade not knowing how to read,” she adds, proposing that Congress should support early phonics reading instruction in all schools.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

Regna Lee Wood’s September 1998 study, “Time For a ‘2 By 1’ Core Curriculum,” is available from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, 100 West Wilshire #C-3, Oklahoma City, OK 73116, 405/843-9212. The study also is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old document #2113434.