"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Naked Truth about the National Reading Panel Report

Stephen Krashen's letter to Ed Week in the previous post has motivated me to post the following review here for all those young teachers who are reading the deceptive, revisionist crap by those who want to impose another generation of the mind-scrubbing literacy tactics based on ideology rather than pragmatic practice grounded within good research and sound principles.

I did the following review of Gerald Coles' book in 2003, which examines the manipulations and strong-arming that produced the NRP Report and the failed Reading First initiative that followed.  The review was published by Gene Glass at Education Review.  Please excuse the short history lesson at the beginning.

Please buy and read the book.  

Coles, G. (2003). Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. $24

October 12, 2003

A hundred years ago in America the contestants in a new conflict were fortifying their positions for the opening battles in a war for the control of American schools, a war that would see no lasting truce even to this day. While not the only contenders in a lengthy conflict that has seesawed back and forth over the generations, both of the primary combatants claimed progress as their cause and science as their main weapon. Their definitions and aims of science and progress, however, represented two very different and increasingly-polarized conceptions that were reflected in acrimonious differences on the aims and proper methods for schooling. One side, the hard progressives, wished to extend the goals of prediction and control from the hard sciences to efficiently manage social problems and maintain social stability through proper school training; the other softer progressivism blended philosophical romanticism with the emerging social sciences in an attempt to map and understand child development as the natural beginning point for designing school lessons.

By the 1930s the divide between these hard and soft versions of progressivism had reached such proportions that John Dewey (1938) devoted a volume to bridging the chasm between the ideological extremes by exposing the deficiencies of both. Unfortunately (and with no blame placed on Dewey), the educational compromise that emerged following WWII combined the worst of both ideologies in the “life-adjustment” curriculum that sacrificed child-centeredness and social efficiency for an oppressive, activity-based mediocrity devoid of both rigor and spontaneity. Though short-lived and spotty in actual implementation, life adjustment opened up the educational bureaucracy to scathing critiques that found their way into the mass media, where all subsequent battles have been aired and played out since.

In the field of reading pedagogy during the 60s and 70s, the reemergence of the education war took the form of whole language vs. phonics. The lengthy history of that confrontation is the subject of an earlier Coles title (1998), and in it he tells the story with an unapologetic bias toward the soft progressive focus on comprehension and meaning in reading, yet with a pragmatic acknowledgment of the importance of the phonics skills approach. In fact, all three of Coles’s recent books have been critical of evidence put forward to establish decoding and phonics skills as the prevailing pedagogical hegemony for reading instruction; yet Coles consistently reaffirms that phonemic awareness and phonics are important elements in reading instruction, elements to be included, however, as needed rather than as the sole or primary component of reading instruction.

That same clear bias informs Reading the Naked Truth . . ., a detailed critique of the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report (2000), a federally-sponsored study that offers a meta-analysis of reading research since 1966. Adding significance, perhaps, to Coles’s focused review of the Report’s findings is the fact that the NRP Report was imported, with little modification and no criticism, into the Reading Section of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). Coles argues that this cozy fit was not coincidental, and the opening chapters provide some context for linkages between the NRP’s sponsoring agency within the NIH, and Reid Lyon, George W. Bush’s Texas “reading czar” who was, according to a Wall Street Journal article cited by Coles, placed in charge of making the Texas plan the model for the nation. What takes shape rather quickly, then, is a blistering critique of the NRP Report as an ideologically-driven effort to eliminate any “wiggle room” from the conclusion that reading should be taught through programs based on phonemic awareness and phonics programs. This conclusion runs counter, of course, to the purported purpose set forth by Secretary of Education Paige and others within the Administration who appeal to the NRP’s review of “100,000 studies” as the final arbiter for “scientifically-based reading instruction”, a phrase, Cole points out, that is used nearly fifty times in NCLB.

What we find out in subsequent chapters is that the NRP reduced the 100,000 possible studies to an actual examination of around 500 studies. This feat was accomplished through the use of selective filters that eliminated nearly all studies that were not experimental and quantitative in nature. Also eliminated was research concerned with reading motivation, writing and reading, and children’s interest in reading. In the end, the surviving studies in the Panel’s meta-analysis fell into one of five areas reached by a consensus that, Coles contends, was assured by the biased selection of the Panel members to reflect a understanding of reading as involving these aspects or processes: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and computer technology.

Beyond the questioning of the NRP’s narrow parameters for science-based research, Coles provides numerous examples of misrepresentation of research findings to advance the orthodoxy of the Panel, and the overlooking of research design flaws when findings from those flawed designs coincided with the Panel’s apparent preconceptions. In the middle chapters that reexamine the studies cited by the NRP in the Alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics) chapters of the Panel’s Report, Coles provides detailed examples of these breaches. A flaw that appears repeatedly is the Panel’s use of studies that show clear advantages of phonemic awareness or phonics training when compared to a control group that had no identifiable reading program or a discredited reading program. Coles calls this the “compared with what?” problem, and he is right to remind the reader that it is a problem that sound research recognizes and avoids.

Another shortcoming Coles identifies is the NRP’s inconsistency in distinguishing between correlational and causal findings. He points out that NRP reviewers were quite forgiving of research shortcomings when the research findings supported their preferred outcome; yet when research did not favor the phonics skills approach, there reemerged an insistence by the NRP for rigorous research standards. For example, Coles repeatedly points out that in its Alphabetics chapter the Panel ignored the distinction between correlation and causation when the studies they examine provide strong correlation between the skills approach and increased reading ability. However, in the Report’s section on sustained silent reading (SSR), where comprehension was examined as “holistic process” vs. “distinct skills,” studies that support the holistic approach were discounted as correlational rather than causal. Coles concludes that the Panel’s “antipathy of anything that veers away from direct instruction model” (p. 110) led them to the bizarre conclusion that there is not sustainable evidence, i.e, causal findings, to support the notion that children become better readers by reading and discussing books or by having encouragement and time provided to read books.

Coles argues that the NRP Report, with its appeal to “scientifically-based research” and its bare-knuckled certainty, is driven by a distinctive ideology rather than the objective science that it advocates. Reading the Naked Truth should be considered, then, as an essential counterbalance for understanding, interpreting, and evaluating the NRP Report and its larger political context. Not only does Coles offer an effective antidote to a conservative policy document cloaked as an objective scientific report, but this work reminds us throughout that teaching children to read with skill and meaning requires a commitment to professional judgment capable of bracketing any exclusionary methodology that may interfere with students becoming capable and enthused readers. This makes Reading the Naked Truth a significant contribution toward a possible truce in the continuing pedagogical war, a war that may be settled by “scientific research” only after there is some consensus as to 1) the questions that science is being asked to answer, and 2) an accepted definition of the science or sciences that will be used to answer them. It is clear that those who call upon the science of reading to replace the inefficiency of theory or philosophy must be accepting of a science that is at least as flexible and beneficial as the philosophy of reading that the science was intended to replace.

In the end, Coles’s analysis of the NRP Report reminds us that rapprochement will not be achieved by the arbitrary imposition of research methods, scientific or otherwise, that are chosen for the likelihood that they will produce the preferred results. Such a strategy may impose a decisive winner in this current battle, yet it signals a continuing war whose lasting victims will not be the politicians and academics who devise policy strategy and tactics, but rather the teachers and students who will be held accountable for these strategies in practice. If the history of American education has any lasting lesson, it is that the unchecked spread of an extreme ideological commitment is the best predictor, in a democratic society, of its eventual demise. It is, after all, the implementation of any policy that exposes that policy’s shortcomings, and it is the measure of its limitations that emboldens the opposition to freely propose alternative strategies. This time around Coles has provided us educators with some useful clues about some potential weak spots along the line.

Coles, G. (1998). Reading lessons: The debate over literacy. New York: Hill & Wang.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education (reprinted ed.). New York: Touchstone.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching people to read. Washington: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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