School & District Management

Reading-Research Chief Takes Collaborative Approach

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 01, 2007 7 min read
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There have been fewer headlines heralding the work of the child-development and -behavior branch at the National Institutes of Health in the two years since G. Reid Lyon, its high-profile former chief, left his federal job for the private sector.

For Peggy McCardle, who succeeded the influential reading guru in 2005, requests for guidance from the White House and Congress, as well as rebukes from critics—both common during Mr. Lyon’s tenure—are rare.

As chief of the child-development and -behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Peggy McCardle has kept a lower profile than that of her predecessor, G. Reid Lyon, who wielded strong influence over the federal agenda on reading research.

It’s not that the branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that sponsors reading research is any less vital. It’s that Ms. McCardle’s tenure has been decidedly more low-key than that of her imposing and controversial predecessor. And some observers say that reflects the changing tone of the national debates over instructional methods in reading.

Many reading researchers have welcomed the transition. But at a time when educators and policymakers are seeking greater clarity and guidance in applying reading research to instruction—a trend that many credit to Mr. Lyon—some say the campaign to improve achievement is likely to lose its political footing without his aggressive and effective advocacy.

“There would be very little disagreement if you called Reid Lyon the most powerful leader in the history of reading research, but the downside was he was very divisive to the field,” said Cathy Roller, the director of research for the 84,000-member International Reading Association, or IRA. “Peggy is no less bright, and she is absolutely as dedicated and determined. But she is much more skilled with people, and she’s not going to polarize an environment.”

Instead, Ms. McCardle strives for more collaboration among researchers from a variety of disciplines, and a broader understanding of child development and behavior among diverse groups.

“I was never a public figure like Reid, and I don’t know that I ever need to be, can be, or that I would ever want to be,” said Ms. McCardle, who began her career at the Bethesda, Md.-based NIH in 1992 after stints as a teacher, professor, health-program administrator, and researcher. “Reid was hard-hitting and controversial, but he felt the field needed to be [prodded into embracing] scientifically based reading research.”

Now, due largely to her predecessor’s efforts, she added, “most people agree that evidence-based practice is a good thing.”

Expanding Branch’s Scope

Where Mr. Lyon attracted significant attention to his area of expertise—reading development and learning disabilities—Ms. McCardle has drawn on her background as a linguist to strengthen the branch’s research on bilingualism and “biliteracy.” She is also credited with developing a program in adolescent literacy.

Additionally, the NICHD’s $130 million annual budget supports work in math and science learning and disabilities; school readiness; child social and emotional development; cognitive neuroscience; and behavior. The branch received prominent news coverage recently for longitudinal studies it funded on child care and its effect on student achievement and behavior. (“New Analysis Bolsters Child Care, Behavior Link,” April 4, 2007.)

The $23 million reading-research program includes a network of 44 sites that allow teams of researchers using a variety of methodologies to tackle specific areas of study in literacy development.

Rebuilding Relationships

Mr. Lyon initiated the network approach, but he said in an interview that he credits Ms. McCardle with “extending programs and beginning new programs.”

"I was never a public figure like Reid [Lyon], and I don't know that I ever need to be, can be, or that I would ever want to be," says Peggy McCardle.

Said Mr. Lyon, who is now the executive vice president for research and evaluation at the Dallas-based Higher Ed Holdings: “What Peggy’s done a beautiful job of is extending the network concept, and developing very strong models for bringing all of the researchers together.”

While Mr. Lyon built a large following as he crisscrossed the country to promote a skills-based approach to reading instruction among policymakers, educators, and community groups, he also alienated a number of researchers. Ms. McCardle has tried to rebuild some of the strained relationships between the NICHD and large membership groups such as the Newark, Del.-based IRA and the National Education Association.

Those groups often felt shut out of the discussions on research-based reading instruction, in part because of Mr. Lyon’s harsh criticism of scholars and teacher-educators who did not accept his and his colleagues’ views of the research literature.

“He used his position to promote narrow interpretations of reading, and he seemed to go out of his way to provoke researchers and teacher-educators who did not see reading the way he did,” said David Reinking, a professor of teacher education at Clemson University, in Clemson, S.C., and the editor of Reading Research Quarterly.

That animosity, while still palpable among some educators, appears to be fading. Ms. McCardle has been welcomed at a number of education meetings to discuss the branch’s work. She has participated in joint meetings of the NICHD and other literacy-focused organizations. And she is collaborating with an NEA official on a book to help teachers understand the potential classroom application for the complex research on reading development and disabilities.

“When under Reid would anybody at NICHD have collaborated with anyone from NEA?” said Barbara A. Kapinus, a senior policy analyst for the 3.2 million-member teachers’ union, who is helping Ms. McCardle and NICHD researcher Vinita Chhabra draft what is intended to be a practical guide for teachers.

“We come from somewhat different places on some things,” Ms. Kapinus said, referring to the kinds of research that are of value to classroom teachers, “but she really looks for a place where there can be agreement and collaboration. That bodes very well for the field.”

During Mr. Lyon’s 13-year tenure, which began in 1992, the once-obscure NICHD was propelled to the forefront of the debates over reading. Mr. Lyon advised then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas on reading policy in the 1990s, and after Mr. Bush became president.

The branch’s research was widely cited in the influential report of the National Reading Panel in 2000. Although the NICHD was charged by Congress with appointing the panel, Mr. Lyon did not participate in the lengthy proceedings, to help ensure the panel’s independence. The panel reviewed quantitative studies on reading development and intervention. As the branch’s associate chief, Ms. McCardle served as a liaison to the panel.

The panel’s findings—that most children need explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—became the basis for the federal Reading First program, which Mr. Lyon helped draft. The $1 billion-a-year program was authorized five years ago under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Lyon and the NICHD’s sway was such, in fact, that in many ways the branch overshadowed the role of previously influential organizations, and even the U.S. Department of Education, according to a study by Cecil G. Miskel, who studied policy leaders in Washington, including Mr. Lyon, and their role in shaping Reading First. (“Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

Influence Waning?

That influence may be waning, according to Mr. Miskel, who was a reading researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before his retirement last year.

“My guess is that the influence of NICHD has diminished and will likely diminish further,” Mr. Miskel wrote in an e-mail. “The new leadership [of the child-development branch] probably lacks the close political connections that Lyon had to the Congress and the office of the president.”

Indeed, the agency is unlikely to have the kind of influence on policymakers that the gregarious Mr. Lyon achieved, his colleagues say.

Where Mr. Lyon “helped market the research” and “articulate the importance of the research and move the basic research toward educational application,” his successor is promoting a sharper focus on English-language learners and the needs of struggling readers in the upper grades, said Barbara R. Foorman, a prominent reading researcher who has conducted a number of NICHD-funded research projects over the past 15 years. Ms. Foorman served as the commissioner for education research at the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences from 2005 to last year.

“Under Reid Lyon and now Peggy McCardle, NICHD has become the lead scientific agency on reading research,” said Ms. Foorman, who credits the branch with supporting a corps of researchers whose work in the area of intervention, including her own, became the foundation of current state and federal reading initiatives.

“Peggy’s the right person at this time to lead the branch,” Ms. Foorman said. “She’s laid-back, and she’s focusing on the broader issues in child development beyond reading.”

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Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as Reading-Research Chief Takes Collaborative Approach

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