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Reading Between the Lines | The Nation

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Reading Between the Lines

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Is the pattern repeating itself at the national level? On the day he assumed the White House--the day he invited Harold McGraw III into his office--Bush called on Congress to help him eliminate the nation's "reading deficit" by implementing the "findings of years of scientific research on reading." Bush would loosen the purse strings on one condition: Instructional practices must be "scientifically based."

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Stephen Metcalf
Stephen Metcalf is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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The establishment verdict is in: President-elect Bush made an astute choice by tapping Rod Paige, Houston's School Superintendent, to head his Education Department. The New York Times blessed the nomination as "wise," and both major teachers' unions have chimed in with support.

On most of the hot-button questions, Paige is a relatively uncontroversial pick. About vouchers, he has written, "We believe that public funds should go to students, not institutions, and there may be a time when vouchers will be part of the mix." (A limited voucher program in Houston was so modest and so narrowly designed that virtually no one took advantage of it.) Paige is a supporter of "performance pay" for teachers and a fairly strong proponent of a skills-based curriculum, especially phonics, but not to the point where he has openly horrified anyone in the teachers' unions or on the educational left. (Privatization, however, is Paige's one potential skeleton. He contracted with the for-profit Community Education Partners to renovate an old Wal-Mart and take in students expelled from other schools in the district. The Houston Press has reported that CEP falsified academic records to stay in good standing in the district. Paige defends the school, and the local teachers' union loves it because it exiles troublemakers. But when Paige touts the decline in violence in his district, it's important to keep this warehousing policy in mind.)

The basis for Paige's seeming pragmatism, and the core of his relationship with Bush, is "accountability." Both men believe strongly in a descending order of public liability, beginning with the governor, on down to district administrators, principals, teachers and ultimately arriving at pupils themselves: All get measured, and publicly lauded or shamed, by the outcome of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the state-designed standardized test administered annually to public schoolchildren in third through eighth grades. (Passing a tenth-grade TAAS is required before a student can graduate from high school.) Both Paige and Bush staked their reputations on rising TAAS scores, and clearly both would like to see the Texas system--blending autocratic, centralized accountability standards with flexibility on how to satisfy them--bumped up to the federal level. But were the numbers truly what they said they were? And was placing both students and schools on a single-indicator model of performance good for Texas public education?

To begin with, almost none of the independent measures of student performance have confirmed the gains Paige and Bush trumpet on the TAAS. ACT and SAT scores have stagnated, and on the single achievement Bush takes most seriously--early reading ability--the National Goals Panel, by Bush Senior in 1989 to monitor each state's progress on education, found that "between 1992 and 1998 there was no significant change in the percentage of [Texas] public school fourth graders who met the Goals Panel's performance standard in reading." A recent RAND study has come to, at best, mixed conclusions on the Texas "miracle." The most recent compared TAAS scores with the performance of Texas schoolchildren on a national exam. By this benchmark, only the math scores of white fourth graders showed meaningful improvement. The common explanation for these discrepancies has been that emphasis on TAAS, having developed into an institutional mania, forces teachers to teach test-preparation materials in lieu of a full subject curriculum. In other words, instead of receiving an education, students are drilled on how to pass a single multiple-choice exam. Worse, schools now shunt more kids into special ed (where they are exempted from TAAS), hold them back in the ninth grade (to avoid the critical tenth-grade assessment) or even quietly encourage the worst test-takers to stay home on TAAS day (there is no makeup date).

The Bush-Paige system of accountability put such enormous pressure on educators to produce rising scores that inflating special-ed exemptions--and eventually out-and-out cheating by teachers and principals--became scandals. When Paige cracked down on both in 1999, scores went, in Paige's own words, "violently" down. Furthermore, with graduation rates part of the accountability mix, not to mention Paige's own compensation package, a kind of, well, fuzzy math now governs the calculation of who actually completes school. Both a conservative and a liberal gadfly group have protested, independently of each other, for years that Houston's graduation rates are wildly exaggerated, and recently Walter Haney, a Boston College education professor, has noted that "there was a sharp upturn in numbers of young people taking the GED tests in Texas in the mid-1990s." The GED, a high-school-equivalency test, allows students to evade TAAS, and it removes them from the official graduation scorecard.

The simple question to Paige should be: Before we confirm you, and before we move to a Texas-style system of accountability nationally, can you assure us that Houston's educational gains weren't a mirage? That the culture of testing is good for schools? There have been widespread reports of test-prep rallies, school-sanctioned all-night crams, schools forgoing basic educational services to buy expensive commercial study guides.

And testing gets to a deeper commonality between Bush and Paige. As Paige has written, "Nearly three-quarters of Houston's students are disadvantaged, but the factors that make them disadvantaged have nothing to do with ability to learn," a sentiment Bush echoed neatly when at Paige's appointment he said, "He understands that we don't give up on any child, regardless of their background." This sounds caring enough, but it has an edge: Poverty will not be an excuse. This in turn dovetails all too nicely with the culture of testing, which is often Procrustean in ignoring the vastly different social legacies children bring with them to their first day at school.

The tendency to paper over a young pupil's background, as well as the comfort both Paige and Bush draw from purely quantitative, rather than qualitative, measures of a child's well-being, will make a critical difference at the level of policy: Bush has promised to move Head Start from the Health and Human Services Department to Paige in Education, converting it from an antipoverty program for preschoolers into, essentially, a phonics program for early reading. One Head Start founder has already publicly fretted that its broader mission--attending to the health and welfare needs of at-risk children--might be in jeopardy. Notwithstanding the friendly public reception thus far, there should be no shortage of questions for Paige before the reins of federal education policy get handed over.

To the literacy cognoscenti, the meaning was clear: Classrooms must follow the conclusions of the National Reading Panel, a blue-ribbon panel assembled by Congress in the late 1990s to determine the "status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read." Thanks to the NRP report, the phrase "scientifically based reading instruction" appears dozens of times in the new federal reading legislation. Education Secretary Paige recently explained in a speech before reading educators, "The National Reading Panel screened more than 100,000 studies of reading and...found that the most effective course of reading instruction includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, [and] phonics."

Why is the same conservative constituency that loves testing even more moonstruck by phonics? For starters, phonics is traditional and rote--the pupil begins by sounding out letters, then works through vocabulary drills, then short passages using the learned vocabulary. Furthermore, to teach phonics you need a textbook and usually a series of items--worksheets, tests, teacher's editions--that constitute an elaborate purchase for a school district and a profitable product line for a publisher. In addition, heavily scripted phonics programs are routinely marketed as compensation for bad teachers. (What's not mentioned is that they often repel, and even drive out, good teachers.) Finally, as Gerald Coles, author of Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy, points out, "Phonics is a way of thinking about illiteracy that doesn't involve thinking about larger social injustices. To cure illiteracy, presumably all children need is a new set of textbooks."

Coles believes the NRP's conclusions, now implemented into law, are likely to be as friendly to McGraw-Hill's bottom line as Bush's policies were in Texas. "Combine the NRP report and the Bush legislation, and they suddenly have quite a paddle for rowing toward huge profits," he says. "Their products have been designed to embody the phrase 'scientifically based.'"

Several critics have emerged with key questions about the NRP report. To begin with, the 100,000 figure is wildly misleading. The central findings--those most likely to guide school practices, and thus their purchase of textbooks--involved only thirty-eight studies. Coles argues that those studies are often themselves of questionable relevance. On the decisive question of whether phonics instruction has an impact on reading comprehension, for example, the panel cited just three studies supporting a significant boost: one conducted in Spain, one in Finland and one comparing phonics to placing words and pictures into categories--as Coles puts it, in effect comparing phonics to "no instruction at all." Coles found the NRP report to be consistently slanted in favor of the skills-based, phonics approach. Another researcher, Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, complains that the report misrepresents his research and is rife with errors.

Nonetheless, the NRP report was sold to the public as a conclusive end to the so-called Reading Wars. It was presented to educators across the country, and reported by the media, as the triumph of disinterested science, largely by means of a thirty-page media-friendly summary and viewer-friendly video. Both are in lieu of a forbidding "Reports of the Subgroups," which weighs in at a media-repellent 600 pages.

Elaine Garan, an education professor at California State University, Fresno, has parsed through all three. She believes there are wide discrepancies between what was reported to the public and what the panel actually found. Most blatantly, the summary proclaimed that "systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade," while the report itself said, "There were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above first grade."

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