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New National Reading Panel Faulted Before It's Formed

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A new national panel that will evaluate reading research has drawn skepticism even before it has been selected.

Some experts are questioning whether the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel, whose membership is expected to be announced later this month, can realistically fulfill its mandate: to provide an objective and comprehensive review of research in the field.

Dr. Duane Alexander

The 15-member panel was authorized by Congress last summer to identify reliable and valid research into effective methods of teaching early reading; to determine how they can be applied in the classroom; to disseminate the information to teachers and parents; and to discern where more research is needed.

More than 300 people have been nominated for the panel, which will include researchers, reading teachers, university professors, state and local education officials, and parents. It will review published research and hear testimony from experts in the field before reporting its findings to Congress in November.

Gerald S. Coles

The panel will be chosen with "an eye toward achieving balance," said Dr. Duane Alexander, the director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, a federal agency. "If we pick people favoring one [method of instruction] or another, we are not going to have any credibility," said Dr. Alexander, who is heading the selection process in consultation with the U.S. Department of Education.

Some observers are already questioning whether that can be done. At least one potential member has withdrawn his name from the running, saying Dr. Alexander's involvement in the selection process could pose a conflict because nichd-sponsored studies are bound to be a considerable part of the review. Many of those studies have concluded that explicit, systematic phonics instruction, which emphasizes the sounding out of words, is most effective in teaching some children to read.

Pedagogical Bent

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., wrote the bill creating the panel after learning of testimony G. Reid Lyon, the NICHD's director of research, gave in a hearing before the House last summer. Many conservative lawmakers around the country have cited the NICHD's preliminary findings as proof that skills-based approaches to teaching reading are the most effective and are pushing for the use of phonics programs in schools. Those efforts have drawn the ire of supporters of the whole-language method, which relies more heavily on literature and reading comprehension in the early grades, and of educators who prescribe a balanced approach that draws on both kinds of instruction. The research, these educators say, does not prove any long-term benefits of one method over another.

"The concern that I have is that the panel is going to be weighted heavily toward people who are supportive of NICHD research," said Gerald S. Coles, an educational psychologist in Ithaca, N.Y., and the author of the forthcoming book Reading Lessons: A Debate Over Literacy. He withdrew his nomination, citing the concerns over Dr. Alexander's role. "Obviously, this is going to be a report that is going to offer further recognition of [the NICHD studies] and be critical of research on whole-language," Mr. Coles maintained.

But Dr. Alexander said that panelists will represent a broad range of views on the issue, and that no one with a strong ideological commitment to either method will be selected.

"If we pick people favoring one side or another, we're not going to have any credibility," Dr. Alexander said in an interview last week.

The panel, he said, is similar to many others convened by the national institute to investigate matters of serious contention within the scientific community, such as the ethics of using human subjects for medical research. The NICHD's research will undergo strict scrutiny by the panel, he said.

Neutralizing the Debate

Some experts are holding out hope that the panel will help neutralize the debate over reading methods. If done well, they say, the report could help disperse information on sound research to teachers and steer researchers toward filling in the gaps.

"If the panel is perceived as being broadly representative, perhaps it can provide some insights into what we know and what we don't know about beginning reading instruction," said John J. Pikulski, the president of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association.

The nomination process, however, may prevent many experts from serving, added Mr. Pikulski. The NICHD has asked all nominees to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, including consulting with publishers.

That criterion could eliminate almost everyone in the field, said Richard L. Allington, who chairs the reading department at the State University of New York at Albany. Mr. Allington, a nominee to the panel, said it is unlikely that even the best of panels would be able to do the job.

"To think that we can create a panel with no staff and little funding in what will be six months ... that is going to be able to provide us with any kind of comprehensiveness or reliability is unlikely," Mr. Allington said. And its work will likely overlap that of a similar panel, convened by the National Academy of Sciences, which has spent two years reviewing reading research, he said.

The most useful result, Mr. Allington suggested, would be a realization of how little is known about how children learn to read and how the research can be misinterpreted. "The public and legislators are being led down a primrose path that suggests that research has the answer. ... It will become clear research doesn't have the answer yet."

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