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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Pushes Highly Prescriptive & Inflexible Commercial Phonics Programs

TEMPE, Ariz.- A policy brief released today by the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) argues that the Bush administration's
interpretation of a National Reading Panel (NRP) report on teaching reading has led to an emphasis on "scientifically based" teaching
methods. Researcher Harold Berlak with the Applied Research Center (ARC)
asserts this emphasis drives teachers to rely on highly prescriptive, commercial phonics programs in order to meet the No Child Left Behind act's (NCLB) requirements for "Adequate Yearly Progress."

Interpreting the National Reading Panel

Berlak argues that although government sources repeatedly cite the superiority of a phonics emphasis as beyond question, a reading of the
full NRP report indicates this conclusion is false or at best misleading. The report states, Berlak reports, "Teachers must understand
that systematic phonics instruction is only one component - albeit a necessary component - of a total reading program . . ." The full report,
Berlak emphasizes, is filled with numerous caveats against heavy-handed emphasis on phonics drills, urging educators to make available to early readers real books and quality literature.

Berlak maintains that the most striking limitation of using the NRP report as a guide to policy is that the panel ignored a large body of research on reading and language that does not fit their criteria for what is considered "scientific," eliminating studies of teaching of reading as it occurs in a natural setting.

How NCLB's Provisions Influence Teaching Reading

Berlak argues that two of the NCLB's provisions have a direct and immediate influence on how schools will teach reading: those governing
testing and the "Reading First" program. The most obvious consequence of NCLB testing provisions, asserts Berlak, is the loss of flexibility on the part of districts, schools, and classroom teachers to modify pedagogy based on individual learning differences and differing cultural and linguistic histories.

Relying on what the Bush administration asserts are the conclusions of the NRP report, Berlak argues that the "Reading First" program only
provides grants to improve reading instruction if the methods used are scientifically based, including all teaching materials, books, and
assessments. Berlak maintains that these restrictions require teachers to use highly prescriptive phonics programs such as Open Court, Reading Mastery, and other highly scripted programs that focus almost entirely
on teaching children to read through a structured and intense focus on phonics.

Concerns about Highly Prescriptive Phonics Programs

The most obvious consequence of using highly scripted reading packages, argues Berlak, is the loss of flexibility, which limits the ability of classroom teachers and schools to use their own judgment in selecting teaching materials and methods that respond to children's learning differences as well as to differences in culture and language.

Berlak also documents that while the negative consequences of current NCLB policies impact all children, those disproportionately affected are poor children and children of color, which manifests as a form of institutional racism. Berlak concludes with questions that parents, the public, the press, and researchers should raise about the quality of reading instruction offered in public schools.

— Harold Berlak
NCLB Pushes Educators to Use Highly Prescriptive & Inflexible Commercial Phonics Programs
Education Policy Studies Laboratory
May 2003


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