School & District Management

Reading Experts Offer Insights Into State, Federal Policies

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 12, 2004 3 min read
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More than 22,000 teachers and reading scholars in search of effective strategies and instructional materials attended the 49th annual International Reading Association convention here last week.

Several prominent experts offered their views on how current research and state and federal policies should influence classroom practice.

G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the division of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that subsidizes reading research, praised teachers during his presentation and urged them to ignore what he called the “ludicrous” debates over research methodologies that have polarized the field in recent years.

“We have to move beyond either-or conceptions of both instruction and research,” he said, referring to disputes over the best balance between skills instruction and literature-based approaches, as well as the role of quantitative and qualitative research in guiding practice. “Adults get embroiled in all the ‘quack, quack’ about which research is best.”

Mr. Lyon said the rigor of the research, not the method, should determine its validity and its value to the field.

But Mr. Lyon has been accused of perpetuating those very debates. While the NICHD has financed a range of studies over the past 30 years, and in the decade since he has been there, the most influential studies have been experimental. He has been critical of much research in the field that has not met the institute’s standards.

Indeed, some IRA members had planned to boycott Mr. Lyon’s presentation when he was invited to speak at a research-awards event at the convention. His presentation was then moved to a separate venue. (“Father of ‘Whole Language’ Rallying Against Reading-Group Speaker,” March 3, 2004.)

Worries Over Law

Many educators here expressed concerns about how the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are affecting them and their students. A former federal official also lamented some of the implications of the law.

Susan B. Neuman, who served as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Bush administration until January 2003, praised the law she helped implement for holding schools and teachers accountable for student achievement. But she also outlined what she sees as its unintended consequences.

Ms. Neuman said she worried that many of the nation’s most vulnerable children were still being left behind.

“In [the most disadvantaged schools] in America, even the most earnest teacher has often given up because they lack every available resource that could possibly make a difference,” said Ms. Neuman, who has returned to the University of Michigan, where she is a reading researcher.

“When we say all children can achieve and then not give them the additional resources” that are necessary to meet that goal, she said, “we are creating a fantasy.”

Like many presenters and participants at the May 3-6 event, Ms. Neuman also expressed worries that testing is taking valuable time away from instruction.

“We all know children are being tested too much. Let’s be honest,” she said.

Ms. Neuman added that too many schools are being identified as failing based on whether students perform on grade level, even if they are making progress with low-performing students.

“Too many schools are not making [“adequate yearly progress”] based on a statistical nuance and not on what is really happening in that school,” she said. “In Michigan, they are reconstituting schools, firing principals and teachers. ... These are Draconian kinds of consequences.”

Current education policies, she suggested, often oversimplify the problems schools face, overgeneralize solutions, unfairly penalize schools with many struggling students, and do not adequately consider teachers’ views.

Many of the 300 attendees applauded when she challenged policymakers to spend more time in classrooms.

“That might change their perspective a little bit,” she said.

The conference was the first for Ms. Neuman in three years, when she stepped down as an IRA board member to take the federal appointment. “It’s lovely for the first time in a long time to have my own voice,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Reading Experts Offer Insights Into State, Federal Policies

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