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The Federal Hickory Stick For Teaching Reading

Publication Date: 2003-02-20

Gerald Coles offers important information about Federal arm-twisting for "scientific" reading. Buy his book!

The Bush administration has had no trouble reversing its purported antipathy toward big government and establishing, through the lure of federal funds, a nationally mandated reading curriculum. Recently, G. Reid Lyon, President Bush's chief adviser on reading education, declared that there is no "scientific evidence" that justifies the use of the phonics program New York City has proposed for its schools. Coupled with the threat that adoption of the program could cost the city millions of dollars in federal aid available through the No Child Left Behind-Reading First legislation, this is another instance of Federal arm-twisting demanding the use of one brand of reading instruction--or else! Throughout the nation, applicants wanting Reading First money have quickly learned which beginning reading programs are most likely to be funded or rejected, and which research to include or exclude in their applications. The city's schools were brave to include literature-based instruction--instruction in which children practice reading and writing using books from classroom libraries instead of basic readers--in an effort to achieve a balanced mix with the phonics program, because that form of instruction too is considered by Reading First standards not to have scientific support.

All this correct-thinking and coercion in the name of "scientifically based reading instruction," a term appearing nearly fifty times in the Reading First legislation could be justified if such "scientifically based" instruction existed. Although it's true, as Lyon insists, that there is "no published research" that supports the phonics program the city plans to use, there is also no research supporting the programs that Lyon would support and which would most likely receive Reading First funding.

Take, for example, the science behind McGraw-Hill's "Open Court," the reading program most frequently cited as scientifically-supported and most often recognized as the program-of-choice by schools seeking federal funds. This program has been investigated in only one study that was published in a peer-reviewed journal, a study that has been widely criticized since its appearance four years ago. Perhaps the extent of that criticism is why the study no longer appears on the publisher's website for the program. All one finds there is "research" done under the aegis of the publisher.

For those programs that meet Reading First criteria, there is no such standard of "published research" that Mr. Lyon demands for the city's reading program. Instead, these programs are deemed "scientifically-based," because they are supposedly designed according to scientific research findings--not because they, themselves, have passed scientific muster.

In appraising this claim of "scientifically-based reading instruction" and the phonic program the city wants to use, the issue is not whether phonics and other word skills contribute to learning to read. Everyone debating beginning reading agrees that they do and that these skills should be taught. The questions at issue are, How and to what extent should

An examination of research associated with the Reading First mandates shows that, contrary to the claims:

--Phonics can be learned in several ways: either through a published program with prescribed steps or "as needed" (that is, a teacher identifies specific skills children need and teaches these skills) produces comparable results on skills tests.

--Expectations for the benefits of extensive phonics programs should be restrained because research has not shown that these programs produce an advantage in reading comprehension after first or second grade. --Comparisons of literature-based instruction using books vs. pre-packaged reading programs have found that both produce comparable results on conventional tests of phonics, word skills, and comprehension.

A belief fostered by champions of Reading First is that the reading instruction it mandates was derived from the work of the National Reading Panel, experts who reviewed 100,000 studies and from them identified those meeting the highest research standards. In fact, this number is only the number of studies on reading since 1966, and has nothing to do with the panel's selection process and conclusions. The panel's minutes show that in its first meeting, before a single study was examined, the majority of the panel identified the kind of instruction it thought best--which turned out to be the instruction mandated in Reading First--and thereafter selected studies among the 100,000 that pertained to their foregone conclusions. Any instructional area that was well-researched but not connected to the panel's initial assumptions about instruction was ignored. As a result, the panel used a relatively small number of studies for each of the aspects of instruction it favored. For example, their conclusions about phonics was based on 38 studies.

Moreover, an examination of the scientific soundness of these studies reveals numerous deficiencies. At best the phonics studies and similar research underpinning Reading First might provide tentative evidence for some modest conclusions, but they are hardly sufficient for establishing national instructional mandates!

A practical demonstration of the outcome of "scientific" reading instruction is provided in the test performance of Texas students under then-Governor Bush. "Back to basics" was the demand for state's schools. Independent evaluations, however, showed that during his years as governor, the reading abilities of students continued to be no better than those of students nationally, and, contrary to claims about the racial achievement gap narrowing under his administration, there was actually an increase in the gap between white and minority students' reading scores.

Based on what the reality of "scientific" reading instruction actually is, rather than what it is proclaimed to be, a reasonable conclusion should be a pro-choice one that would provide federal funding for a range of instructional approaches based on various reputable research findings (not one sanctioned brand alone), insights gleaned from a variety of educational writings, a school system's experience and judgment, and so forth.

The mix of a phonics program and literature-based instruction proposed for the city schools, although justified by the actual Reading First research, won't be a panacea. Within the constraints of the times and the inordinate, though unsubstantiated, belief in the "religion" of word skills, this effort at a "balanced curriculum" is understandable and will likely succeed at least as well as scripted, stultifying reading textbooks.

Finally, we need to recognize that the narrow insistence on "scientific" reading education evades the larger policy perspective necessary for literacy success. Instead of the question, "What is the best reading instruction?," we should be asking "What needs to be done to ensure that all children learn to read?" The first question is insufficiently narrow, while the second question includes the first and also all else that bears upon children's successful learning. Given pervasive budget cutbacks on countless areas that affect children, especially poor children, the insistence on narrow basic reading instruction fits within a social policy that offers a meager educational bootstrap, while neglecting all else that influences and might be pivotal in learning outcomes.

Recently, the New York Times had an article on an aspect of the history of the science of "feeblemindedness" and quoted a biologist who described the "research" as an "example of how scientists have distorted research results for ideological and political reasons." Unfortunately, in science and politics, that inclination has not disappeared.

Gerald Coles is an educational psychologist who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. This opinion piece is derived from his new book, Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies (Heinemann).

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