On the heels of Secretary of Education Rod Paige's characterization of the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization", the Washington Post
today published a lengthy article
on NCLB and Reading First funds, the newest battle in the "reading wars." The article reduces the debates over methods of early reading instruction to simplistic ideological terms:
The reading wars are heating up again...a long-simmering feud between progressive and conservative educators over the best way to teach reading. It is a battle that pits left against right, the feds against local school boards and "child-centered" against "teacher-centered" philosophies of education. ...
Like any good war fueled by ignorance and greed and funded by the Bush administration, this reading war is based on unsound policy, cheap propaganda, and big profits for corporate interests.
Not only does this article quote a terrorist from the NEA, but it also mentions the IRA - that is, the International Reading Association - which the Bush Administration likely considers another contingent in the education axis of evil, since it represents 85,000 reading teachers. Keep reading for one teacher terrorist's thoughts on the newest front in the reading wars.
Left vs. Right: When in doubt, oversimplify
The article reduces the so-called "reading wars" to these opposites (with the purportedly ideological "left" side presented on the left):
"unscientific" vs. "scientifically proven"
"progressive" vs. "conservative"
"child centered" vs. "teacher centered"
"dangerously wishy-washy" vs. "as rigorous as pharmaceutical trials"
"balanced literacy" vs. "scripted phonics programs"
"atmosphere of controlled chaos" vs. "repetitive sound drills"
Richard Allington, VP of the International Reading Association and "critic of the Bush administration" vs. Sol Stern, "education expert at the Manhattan Institute"
No Attempt to Disguise the Sarcasm: A Contrast of Resumes
First, as discriminating readers, let's note an example of either sloppy journalism or obvious bias in favor of the "conservative" side of these wars. Richard Allington (champion of the so-called "liberal" side) is pitted against Sol Stern, who is described as an "education expert".
Education expert? That kind of unquestioningly positive terminology always makes me skeptically flip straight to Google, and it didn't take long to find the Manhattan Institute's summary of Sol Stern's background as a so-called education expert, which makes clear that is expertise in education can be summarized thusly:
- he has been educated
- his wife is a teacher
- his kids went to public schools
Wow! Vast majority of Americans, you too can be an "education expert" simply by calling yourself one! You've been to school, right? Extra points for knowing a teacher or maybe even having kids in a school.
In contrast, Richard Allington is simply described as the "Vice President of the International Reading Association and a critic of the Bush administration". Though the WaPo article doesn't call him an education expert, his biography reveals that Allington:
- is a professor at the University of Florida and holds a Ph.D. in Elementary and Special Education
- has been an actual reading teacher (not that teachers are education experts, of course)
- received a $750K grant funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the US Department of Education on summer reading interventions for socio-economically disadvantaged students
Hmmm. Which one is the education expert again?
It also might have been useful for the article to contrast the Manhattan Institute (sporting the spectacularly arrogant motto "Turning Intellect Into Influence") which promotes itself with the description that it is "a conservative think tank that was founded by Margaret Thatcher's mentor and Ronald Reagan's spymaster" with the International Reading Association. The IRA (not to be confused with that other terrorist organization) represents 85,000 reading teachers worldwide and focuses on professional development for reading teachers, advocacy, and research into effective reading instruction. Not that reading teachers are education experts, of course. That hasn't been "scientifically proven".
What's the war about, anyway?
In very simple terms, the old "reading wars", which have been allegedly raging for decades, pit the "Whole Language" movement against the "Phonics" method of teaching reading.
Critics of "whole language" characterize it as an unstructured way of teaching reading which immerses students in "authentic" literature where students learn to write with invented spelling and read using context clues at the expense of systemic, whole group instruction in sound-by-sound decoding of words. This method is criticized for producing students who "love reading" but lack sound decoding skills.
Critics of the "all-phonics" method say it subjects students to skill-and-drill activities which students can master out of context but never actually apply to authentic reading situations, wasting time at the expense of spending time reading interesting, engaging books. This method is critized for producing students who do well on tests of phonics-based tasks, but don't enjoy reading and lack fluency and comprehension skills.
Real reading teachers will tell you there is no war in the reading classroom once the classroom door is closed.
Good reading teachers, the real education experts, know well that sound reading instruction is a delicate balance of providing students with engaging and rich individualized literacy experiences (that is, reading lots of good books) and structured instruction in phonemic awareness (the relationship of sound to print), word study/spelling, and reading strategies. No reading teacher does "all whole language" or "all phonics".
This fake but very expensive war rages on in think tanks and conference rooms while teachers on the front lines are toiling away with their balanced programs. The problem with the war, though, is when the supply lines and staffing are held up by this idelogical warfare, resulting in waste of taxpayer dollars and preventing teachers from helping struggling students.
But Shouldn't We Trust Scientific Studies?
I found it interesting that one proponent of the phonics-based reading method in the WaPo article is quoted as saying, "Our studies are as rigorous as pharmaceutical trials." The comparison between these scientific studies and pharmaceutical trials is instructive -- like drug studies, these reading studies are often funded by the manufacturers of the products they are hoping to sell.
If I'm a publisher of a phonics-based reading program, the most important thing I am going to do to make my program marketable is to design a "scientifically based study" that will prove that my program is effective. Effective at what, though? As the program designer, I get to decide. If my program drills students in phonics tasks, my assessment will test whether students can complete these tasks. I can do a pre-test and a post-test and show that high percentages of these students improve in these tasks at the end of the program.
But do those test results mean that students are actually better readers? Do students in these programs read more fluently with better comprehension? Have longitudinal studies shown that students who complete these programs in early elementary school do better at all grade levels over the years? Not necessarily. Not usually.
Most "scientifically based" studies cited by the Bush Administration do not demonstrate these long-term gains. Rather, they demonstrate short-term gains that are closely tied to tasks that students are exposed to in the manaufacturer's product.
Why don't "progressives" and "liberals" have scientifically-proven studies, too?
Well, they do. It depends on what you consider "scientifically proven", though. Are grades proof? Are student test scores proof? Are teacher observations scientific?
Put simply, there aren't comparable tightly-controlled studies of the more "balanced" approach because this approach is largely not selling anything. There's not much profit to be made, except for booksellers. So there isn't the same kind of profit motive for funding studies.
Where the Money Goes
Ask any reading teacher what Reading First money should be spent on, and you will probably be told two simple answers:
Yes, after billions of dollars in reading research, it comes down to those two simple things -- more teachers, to reduce class sizes, and lots and lots of really good books.
Shockingly, the "education experts" who fight these fake reading wars can't seem to see these simple solutions. (There's no profit in hiring more teachers.)
They fund millions of dollars in purchases of complex basal materials, big textbooks produced by commercial publishers, textbooks that are so expensive districts can't afford one for every student and so heavy that students can't carry them home. Millions of dollars are spent on computer software, peripheral devices, and supplemental products. Even more millions of dollars are spent on expensive for-profit tutoring programs.
Meanwhile, budgets for library media centers are often the first to be cut, so few new books are purchased for circulation for students. (Don't get me started on the decimation of public library budgets.) Classroom teachers are lucky to get $25-50 per year for purchase of supplementary classroom supplies and materials, so most elementary and reading teachers spend hundreds of dollars of their own money every year to buy books for their own classroom libraries. Elementary teachers struggle with class sizes ranging from 20 to 40 students.
Playing the Game
According to the WaPo article, NYC Public Schools have decided to play the Bush game, to an extent, in order to receive a bonanza of Federal funds, while keeping effective programs in place as much as possible:
Last month, the two sides reached an uneasy compromise when Klein announced that 49 of the city's lowest-performing schools would adopt a phonics-rich reading program acceptable to the federal government, unlocking $34 million in Reading First funds. The rest of the city's 600-odd elementary schools will stick with the [balanced literacy] methods showcased by P.S. 172. ...
Klein and his aides defend their Jan. 9 decision to adopt a federally approved program called Harcourt Trophies in 49 of the city's poorest schools, as a pragmatic move to comply with congressional guidelines. "We tried, we think successfully, to come up with a program that is acceptable to the state and aligned with the work that we do," said Lam, the deputy chancellor.
So 49 of the poorest schools get the money for the materials approved by Harcourt and the Bush administration. The other schools get to teach reading the way they think is most effective.
An uneasy compromise at best, and no win for either side in the reading wars. Teacher terrorists go on with their "unscientific" programs in their own classrooms, Harcourt makes a tidy profit, and the kids...oh, wait, was this supposed to be about the kids?