Education Letter to the Editor

On Reading Research

September 22, 2004 3 min read

A Healthy Diet of Skepticism Is in Order

To the Editor:

In your article about the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s branch that sponsors reading research, G. Reid Lyon, and his leadership in the design and promotion of federal reading policy (“Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy,” Sept. 8, 2004), Mr. Lyon is quoted as saying, “We are shifting toward education policy that is driven on the back of evidence rather than competing beliefs and philosophies.”

He not only claims that there is “evidence” behind federal reading policy, but that it is “scientific evidence” that somehow proves what instructional approaches and programs are most effective for teaching all of America’s public school children to read. And he is particularly condemning of those researchers among us who question whether these statements represent the realities of reading instruction in our nation.

We argue, first and foremost, that the “evidence” on which the federal government bases its policies is inaccurate and insufficient to justify mandating uniformity of instruction throughout the nation’s schools and endorsing a few commercially produced reading programs. In addition, we challenge the notion of reading methods based on “scientific” research.

An analogy may be in order to help state and local education policymakers and the public understand the fallacies in Mr. Lyon’s arguments, as well as in current federal reading policy.

Science has given us a great deal of information about what constitutes a balanced diet. We know this based on research about the basic food groups, calories, cholesterol, vitamins and minerals, and so forth. Suppose we say that the purpose of eating a balanced diet is to prevent malnutrition? Then we have made a value judgment about the purpose of eating, and have taken a particular focus on the “scientific evidence” about a balanced diet. Rather than examining a balanced diet based on a positive, life-enhancing perspective, including all of the factors that go into motivating people to eat healthy foods, we focus on preventing malnutrition.

If the federal government were to mandate a diet for all American schoolchildren with an emphasis on preventing malnutrition, would we not question whether or not there was ample evidence that malnutrition was a pervasive problem? And if it were, would we not want to have ample evidence as to the causes of malnutrition among these children? What if the reasons for their malnutrition were that they did not have access to healthy foods in sufficient quantity? Or that they had access to healthy foods, but were not motivated to eat them because they were not tasty or well-prepared?

We would also be inclined to study evidence from children who do eat a healthy diet and to try to understand how they are given access to these foods and what motivates them to consume them with appropriate balance and in sufficient quantities to enhance their energy and stamina. We would want to know what factors produced lifelong healthy eaters. We would not be inclined to have the federal government sponsor research into packaged meals containing all the “evidence based” basic food groups, which the government would then require all schoolchildren to consume to prevent malnutrition.

Wouldn’t a far better approach be to focus on the elements of healthy eating and the ways of promoting it as part of larger lifestyle issues?

As we dissect the science-of-reading-research metaphor, it’s also important to keep in mind the federal government’s purpose. The science metaphor was not created by literacy educators who, in order to inform our practice, went clamoring to Washington to support a line of research we saw as lacking. The call for a science of education and the creation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences were actions taken by federal bureaucrats, largely in response to reports funded by various foundations and interested “think tanks.”

The students in our public schools are not being well served by federal agencies and policymakers that seek to cut off lines of research and professional inquiry into the multiple factors that promote high levels of reading achievement and various avenues for addressing the wide array of causes of reading problems among our nation’s children.

Jill Kerper Mora

Associate Professor of Teacher Education

San Diego State University

San Diego, Calif. 1p