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CULTURE WATCH / Bush's 'Scientific' Vision: A Nation of Rote Readers

RIGHT AFTER becoming president, George W. Bush sent

Congress an education reform blueprint that included a proposal for "ensuring

that every child can read by the third grade" with a system of "scientifically

based reading instruction" based on the lessons of 100,000 research studies

reviewed by the National Reading Panel from 1967 to 2000.

In the versions of the education bill passed by the House and Senate and

soon to be finalized in conference committee, the term "scientifically based

reading instruction" appears a total of 52 times. Nobody is contesting it, but

they should be.

The reading education Bush has long had in mind can be gleaned from his

advice in 1996 that Texas teachers get "back to the basics" -that is, return to

traditional education that focuses on basic skills and facts. "We do not need

trendy new theories," Bush explained. "The basics work. If drill gets the job

done, then rote is right."

Although even the president's allies might take issue with the "rote"

comment, Bush accurately described the essentials of this teaching. "Trendy" is

code for reading instruction that stresses comprehension and teaches skills as

part of students' reading for meaning. "Basics" is code for beginning reading

instruction emphasizing explicit, direct and systematic instruction of skills

and minimizing the need for meaning and comprehension until skills are learned.

The trouble is, under such an approach, teachers follow established,

one-size-fits-all reading programs that move children through a step-wise

process from small parts of language to larger ones, with limited ability to

identify and address individual needs. A more precise reading of the research

evidence than Bush's shows that basics is hardly the only or best way for

children to learn.

The figure of 100,000 studies on reading is a number also cited by

Secretary of Education Ron Paige to justify the administration's program.

Unfortunately, this number does not remotely describe the actual number used in

the analysis by the National Reading Panel, which was created by Congress in

the second Clinton administration to assess the effectiveness of different

approaches to teaching children to read. (The reading researchers who advised

Bush as governor and now advise him as president are the same ones who selected

the members of the National Reading Panel in 1998.)

The panel did begin by identifying about 100,000 studies on reading but

pruned them extensively by narrowing the criteria-the studies had to be about

the "scientific" parts of instruction and so forth. At the end, there remained

52 studies on the ability to separate and manipulate speech sounds to identify

words; 38 studies for phonics; 14 for fluency; and 203 for comprehension.

Certainly these numbers are enough for drawing some reasonable conclusions, but

they do not add up anywhere close to 100,000. And they do not give enough

evidence to justify restrictive legislation mandating how all children should

be taught.

What about the reading panel's findings themselves? The primary method of

evaluating the research was a meta-analysis, a statistical method that pools a

group of studies and estimates the average effect something has on something

else-in this case, the effect of aspects of reading instruction on student

achievement. While a meta-analysis can be useful, it can also have substantial

deficiencies. Such analysis will not, for example, distinguish the quality of

the reasoning used in the studies pooled. The reading panel's report is filled

with such problems almost entirely.

The panel describes, for instance, a study supposedly showing that children

trained to separate and manipulate speech sounds did much better than a group

without the training. (They learned letter names and sounds, were read to and

did some writing.) This provides evidence, wrote the panel, that the training

used in the study could be "used effectively in American classrooms."

This group comparison is correct as far as it goes, but the report does not

explain that there were two control groups-not one. The other group learned

skills "as needed"-when children demonstrated they needed a specific skill,

they were taught the skill directly and specifically. Research shows that

children learning to read this way tend to read more books, enjoy reading more,

are more thoughtful and critical readers, and write more. Teachers using this

approach tend to devote more time meeting individually with students to address

and assess their needs.

In this study, then, we have an opportunity to compare children learning

these skills either through a training program or an as-needed approach.

Although this comparison would have allowed the panel to delve into the

question of how these skills should be taught and learned, it did not do so.

Therefore, we will.

At the end of the school year, the skills-training group did significantly

better on tests requiring them to separate and manipulate sounds, but there

were "no significant differences between the groups on the tests of word

reading and spelling." The researchers had expected much higher reading scores

from the skills-trained group, but the National Reading Panel report did not

mention this finding.

The original researchers went on to propose that the "writing experiences"

of the skills-as-needed group might have accounted for their reading success.

On average, they "wrote longer stories than either" the training group or the

"normal" kindergarten group. These conclusions too were omitted. In other

words, the study showed that children can learn reading and spelling without a

rigid skills-training program. It suggests a more holistic approach, in which

skills are learned within a rich array of reading and writing activities, is

just as successful for teaching reading skills-with the added advantage of

giving the students more time learning how to write.

In "Misreading Reading: The Bad Science That Hurts Children," published

last year, I reviewed the large body of research that underpins claims about

"scientific" reading instruction and concluded that the studies flagrantly

failed to justify the step-wise reading instruction that now defines the Bush

reading legislation. Nothing in the National Reading Panel report refutes that

critique. Nor do three independent evaluations contradicting claims about the

so-called Texas "educational miracle" under then-Gov. Bush.

The Republican orchestration of hearings on the reading legislation

excluded all voices that could have offered an alternative perspective on the

claims of scientific evidence. Little wonder no one in Congress has raised even

the mildest objection to the proposed reading legislation. Little wonder that

no member of Congress seems to realize that this legislation will exclude

numerous effective instructional practices and diminish teacher initiative,

creativity and professional expertise.

One might reasonably conclude that having Congress legislate reading

instruction is itself dubious. But, given the lack of full information provided

Congress, a vote supporting federally crafted "scientific" standards for

reading instruction is misguided, unwarranted and even harmful.

In the days remaining before the final bill is drafted, the concept of

"scientifically based" instruction should be deleted from the legislation. This

will allow funding for other programs in which educators at the local level

can combine their study of reading research, knowledge of effective teaching

practices and understanding of students to arrive at the best way to teach

reading for each individual student.

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