School & District Management

National Reading Czar to Leave Public Sector for Teacher Ed. Venture

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 07, 2005 4 min read
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G. Reid Lyon played a central role in shifting the focus on reading instruction back to basic skills.

G. Reid Lyon, the influential chief of the branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that sponsors studies on reading and a key adviser on the federal Reading First initiative, will step down July 1 to take a job at Dallas-based Best Associates.

As the company’s senior vice president of research and evaluation, Mr. Lyon, 55, will work to set up a teacher education initiative.

“I’ve been in government service since 1991, and everything I wanted to do was far enough along so that I feel comfortable leaving,” Mr. Lyon said in an interview last week.

Peggy McArdle, who has been an associate chief under Mr. Lyon in the child-development and -behavior branch, will serve as acting director until a successor is named. She intends to apply for the position.

Controversial Figure

Over much of the past decade, Mr. Lyon has helped shift the emphasis in reading instruction toward methods and materials that are deemed to have scientific evidence of their effectiveness. (“Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

Some of the research sponsored by the child-development and human-behavior branch of the NICHD, which he has headed since 1996, has been used as a framework for determining the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching reading. The NICHD also appointed and oversaw the National Reading Panel, whose 2000 report fueled state and federal policies to bring greater emphasis to skills instruction for beginning readers.

Also during the 1990s, Mr. Lyon was a key adviser to then-Gov. George W. Bush on his Texas Reading Initiative, which promoted professional development and instructional materials based on research. That initiative was a model for the Reading First program, adopted as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Lyon’s skill in promoting what he and supporters see as scientifically based reading instruction, along with the potential for policy to bring higher standards to instruction, also has helped shift the reading agenda once controlled by those in academe to Washington. He has continued to serve as a close counselor to Mr. Bush on reading policy.

“Secretary [of Education Margaret] Spellings and I have worked with Reid for many years and have seen firsthand how he has tirelessly worked to improve educational outcomes for all children,” David Dunn, the U.S. Department of Education’s chief of staff, said in a statement. “His contributions to research-based reading instruction have proven invaluable.”

Mr. Lyon’s dogged campaign has drawn sharp criticism, however, from many researchers and other experts, who complain that he has commandeered the debate over reading instruction, shut out alternative opinions, and rewarded a small cadre of colleagues with like views.

While he gained support from researchers who agreed that the field needed to be held to a higher standard, some say he has focused too narrowly on strict quantitative methods and failed to foster innovation.

“His key contribution was forcing education science to get more scientific with respect to methodology,” said G. Michael Pressley, a professor of education at Michigan State University and a former editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

“I don’t think he did a very good job of getting the field more scientific with respect to theory advancement,” he added, “[or] with respect to using a broad range of pretty defensible approaches.”

Still, Mr. Lyon’s success has helped bring the work of many researchers who have worked with NICHD funding to the forefront.

Yale University researchers Sally E. Shaywitz and Bennett A. Shaywitz, for example, have gained renown for their brain-imaging studies looking into brain function in dyslexics and successful readers. Research into intervention programs for struggling readers by Joseph K. Torgesen, at Florida State University, and Sharon Vaughn, at the University of Texas at Austin, has helped them secure top posts in the Reading First program.

But such research, while valuable, has been limited, Mr. Pressley argues.

“A tremendous amount of energy is being expended paying attention to interventions that were invented a long time ago,” he said. “We probably, with support, could see some new inventions that could take us further than old inventions. … There is a backward-lookingness to the work that is very disturbing.”

Working With Paige

In his new job at Best Associates, Mr. Lyon will help set up a teacher education program that will be affiliated with Whitney University, a new institution in Dallas. The American College of Education, as the venture will be called, is hoping to begin offering graduate classes in Chicago in the fall and to expand initially to other urban areas with shortages of well-qualified teachers, according to Rena Pederson, a spokeswoman for Best Associates.

Mr. Lyon will also be working on a project to help at-risk high school students get on track for college and potentially become teachers.

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige and former Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses will also serve as advisers to the project.

Best Associates, a merchant-banking firm, underwrites start-up companies. Randy Best, a founding partner, was the creator of Voyager Learning, which publishes commercial reading programs that have been approved for use in schools receiving federal funds under Reading First.

Mr. Best sold Voyager Learning in February to ProQuest Information and Learning, a publisher based in Ann Arbor, Mich., for more than $340 million. He was named to the ProQuest board of directors in March.

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