When George Bush became president in 2001 he championed programs that emphasized the importance of paying systematic and explicit attention to teaching children that words were composed of sounds, letters represented those sounds, and that facility with the relationship between letters, sounds and words enabled children to “decode” new words. Decoding, it was asserted, had been neglected in favor of whole language strategies that de-emphasized the acquisition of discreet skills. Decoding was never meant to be the whole meal. Rather, it was to be just one part of a healthy diet of literacy instruction that included attention to vocabulary development, oral language, reading fluency, comprehension, writing. (It seems so quaint and somehow sad, given all that’s happened since September 2001, that Bush was reading a story to first graders to promote his education agenda when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.)
As President-elect Obama takes office a new conventional wisdom is emerging from progressives: kids have been drilled on letter sounds for eight years in an attempt to boost test scores. Thinking and understanding have been neglected. “Reading First,” the $1 billion a year federal program to support comprehensive reading instruction, has failed because it overemphasized skills. Bubbling in sample tests has replaced learning to read real stories.
Journalists need to be wary about being swept up in what I think may become a rancorous post-hoc critique of reading instruction in the Bush years. As journalists, pundits and policymakers struggle to make sense out of the many Bush administration failures, it will be tempting to add reading instruction to the list. It is important, however, to be skeptical about how much has actually changed instructionally. Is it credible to think that teaching in first grade classrooms across the vast and decentralized non-system of American public education really was transformed–and not for the better–in only seven years? (Louis V. Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM and a longtime laborer in the vineyard of education reform argued in this Wall Street Journal piece this week that the U.S. should do a massive consolidation to reduce the number of school districts to only 70 school districts, so that change can come more quickly.) If scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are any guide nothing much is different.
These musings were prompted by two articles in this week’s excellent edition of “Education Week.” On the bus this morning I read television journalist
/”> John Merrow’s back page commentary on his impressions of approaches to early literacy in New Orleans elementary schools. (You have to subscribe to read it online but here is a link to a transcript of related program he did.) Merrow highlights first grade classrooms where children not only read the words, they understand them, certainly a good outcome. He asserts that his visits show children do not (italics his) need more decoding drills and says that “that they get too much now” because of the over-emphasis on testing. The implication is that NCLB is at fault here. But I suspect the reality is that early reading teaching in most classrooms today looks a lot like it has for decades.
What we know from research is that teachers should be paying attention to skills, oral language development, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, writing–the whole gamut–from preschool on. Real reading, discussion, and thoughtful attention to the characteristics of words should be a daily occurrence. As with the example in Merrow’s piece, even beginning readers can take a critical stance toward what they read and question its accuracy and meaning. This is not easy for students or for their teachers.. Merrow is certainly right when he says that teachers’ attitudes about their students’ capacity to engage in these high level literacy activities is important. But it’s also critical that teachers know how to make this happen. Caring and trying different approaches, while positive, is not enough.
That brings me to the other piece in Ed Week, the cover story on a new evaluation of the effects of Reading First. The research could not find evidence that the program improved students’ comprehension. Most of the article dealt with the limits of the research. But I predict that it will be used by some to argue that too much attention has been paid to phonics. Journalists should be wary of getting involved in the back and forth over that question. Instead, they should seek out excellent first grade teachers and get a first-hand look at what kids can do with reading when they’re well taught by well-trained teachers who know the research on literacy acquisition.. That’s what Merrow did.