Reading Between the Lines
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."
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."