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Researchers Disagree On Improving Reading In Rural Areas

By Diette Courrégé Casey — December 12, 2011 4 min read
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A study about improving rural students’ reading skills published earlier this year has prompted a series of four responses both criticizing and supporting its findings.

Three of the four responses already have been published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education, and the fourth is expected early 2012.

We wrote in June about the study creating all this debate, “Increasing Reading Skills in Rural Areas: An Analysis of Three School Districts,” by Jean Stockard, the director of research at the National Institute for Direct Instruction and Professor Emerita at the University of Oregon.

The debate revolves mostly around Direct Instruction, a “model for teaching that emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons designed around small learning increments and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks. It is based on the theory that clear instruction eliminating misinterpretations can greatly improve and accelerate learning,” according to the National Institute for Direct Instruction’s Web site.

This isn’t the first time the Direct Instruction model has been criticized since its development in the 1960s. One study found it not to be as effective as traditional methods that allow teachers more flexibility, but that study wasn’t consistent with at least 20 others that have showed it to be effective, according to Wikipedia.

Stockard’s initial study involved districts implementing Reading Mastery, a highly structured and explicit reading curriculum using Direct Instruction. Those districts received intensive support and guidance from the National Institute for Direct Instruction. She compared the test scores of students in those districts who had the curriculum since kindergarten to students who began it in later years, as well as to samples of students statewide and nationally. The students who had the lessons since kindergarten outscored the other groups through the early elementary years.

The first article in the journal’s response series is “Reading Mastery as Pedagogy of Erasure,” by Karen Eppley, of Pennsylvania State University-Altoona. Eppley criticizes Stockard’s work, primarily as it relates to Direct Instruction. Eppley contends Direct Instruction “deskills teachers” and cites other studies that have said “Direct Instruction teachers are not to function as transformative intellectuals who educate students to be thoughtful and active citizens but instead are specialized technicians whose job is to manage and implement curriculum.”

Eppley’s article says Reading Mastery, by requiring teachers to follow a script of instruction, forces teachers to ignore any possible links to their students’ lives and assume their children bring no relevant knowledge to the classroom. The article also says it’s a flawed methodology to compare students who had some intervention with those who had nothing and then fail to describe what the “nothing” involved.

Finally, Eppley draws the conclusion that Stockard believes the answer to improving rural schools’ reading is to standardize and decontextualize the teaching of reading so that it eliminates any rural context.

Stockard responds to Eppley’s work in the second article of the series, “Enhancing Achievement in Rural Schools: A Reply to Eppley.” She sums up her position in her second sentence: "[Eppley’s] paper contains numerous statements that misrepresent both the content of my original paper and the social science literature as well as a number of provocative philosophical comments.”

Stockard encourages readers to read her actual paper rather than Eppley’s summation because “her characterizations bear almost no resemblance to the actual content of the paper.” Stockard says Eppley’s claim that her paper suggests teachers intentionally avoid making connections to children “appear to be fabrications and included only to help support her polemics and cast aspersions.” Stockard also says she doesn’t explicitly recommend Reading Mastery curriculum as the answer to rural students’ reading problems.

She contends Eppley’s critique of her methodological error is “patent nonsense,” and in reference to the rigid structure of Direct Instruction and its alleged erasing or ignoring cultural identity, Stockard says that’s an “obtuse discussion” unsupported by research.

The third paper in the series comes from a colleague of Stockard’s and one of the creators of the Direct Instruction model, Siegfried Engelmann. The article, Critique and Erasure: Responding to Eppley’s “Reading Mastery as Pegagogy of Erasure,” says Eppley’s arguments and conclusions are not “merely unsupported by facts; they generate conclusions that are the opposite of what the facts show.”

If Eppley were correct, teachers easily would be able to ignore students’ backgrounds and follow a script to achieve great reform with at-risk students. But that is not so. The article continues its defense of Direct Instruction, saying Eppley “wants to believe that direct instruction teachers are inferior, without a shred of data, and she wants to believe that the teachers do not treat individual children as individuals, regardless of what the data show.”

Stay tuned early next year for the final paper in this series.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.