Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

People Who Study the Brains of Cadavers and Credulous Reporters

Ohanian Comment: Bowler is nastier and more anti-teacher than usual in this one. He is very confident that he and a couple of scientists who study the brains of cadavers are right--and that millions of teachers are just stupid and lazy. They just cling to their haphazard habits.

AMONG YOGI Berra's famous malapropisms, "This is like deja vu all over again" has become a cliche.

No doubt that's why it kept coming to mind Wednesday, as 367 Maryland educators gathered at Turf Valley conference center in Ellicott City to launch a multiyear, $66 million campaign to help Maryland children learn to read.

From state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and several of the nation's eminent reading researchers, the educators heard a familiar litany:

Four of every 10 Maryland third-graders lack proficiency in reading.

Special-education programs are bursting with kids who can't read or who read poorly.

Many teachers are clueless, believing kids learn to read by osmosis.

It's not only an education crisis; it's a health and economic crisis, because 70 percent of kids who read poorly in third grade also read poorly as adults. In the upper elementary grades, the "Matthew Effect" takes hold: Good readers get better and poor readers deteriorate.

They'd heard it all before.

"Guess what," said Grasmick, kicking off the one-day conference. "Our reading scores haven't improved substantially over a 10-year period."

Which is disgraceful, given everything that's happened over that decade.

Two U.S. presidents made reading a priority. So did Grasmick and the state school board. Maryland elementary teachers were required to take new reading courses, and literacy courses were added to the teacher education curriculum.

All of it appears to have made little difference, in large part, Grasmick said, because few teachers wanted to abandon the old ways, in which reading is taught haphazardly, not in a systematic way based on scientific research.

It's as if everyone in the audience were to march over to Johns Hopkins Hospital and demand treatment, the superintendent said. If the hospital started dispensing pills without testing anyone, she said, "There would be general alarm." But that's what happens with the first R.

The shame is this: Studies show that 70 percent to 90 percent of dyslexic kids can learn to read in the average range if teachers intervene in the earliest grades.

The key is the instruction, said Jack M. Fletcher, a neuropsychologist at the University of Texas at Houston who demonstrated for the Marylanders the latest research in how the brain functions while a child is reading.

Scientists in Houston, New Haven, Conn., and elsewhere have been doing a whole lot of watching these 10 years. And, as Yogi also famously said, "You can observe a lot by watching."

A child's brain is wired for talking and walking, said Fletcher, and those two do come automatically and naturally. Not so reading. The offspring of kings, CEOs, nuclear scientists and welfare mothers - all must be taught to read by an adult, often by a teacher.

"The instructional aspects [of learning to read] are underestimated," said Fletcher.

He and his colleagues in Houston have been able to greatly improve the reading of dyslexic kids in Houston public schools in as little eight weeks. "It can be done," he said.

The latest federal initiative, known as Reading First, is different from its predecessors, said Christopher Doherty, a Baltimorean who heads the program in the U.S. Department of Education.

To get the money, he said, states had to propose a "comprehensive program instead of a little of this and a little of that." Maryland won approval from Doherty's office, but only after its first application was rejected - for proposing a little of this and a little of that.

That lack of substance may be at the base of what's been wrong these 10 years. It's not that the education establishment resisted phonics - though heaven knows it did.

Rather, it's that the establishment resisted the science of reading instruction in all of its components, from phonics to fluency and comprehension. Teaching someone to read isn't a mystery, but it's not easy.

As Yogi also said, "If you don't know where you're going, you will wind up somewhere else."

— Mike Bowler
Baltimore Sun
Teaching kids to read needs scientific method





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.