Long-Delayed U.S. Panel on Reading Yet to Be Named

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 12, 2006 7 min read
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The slow pace of Washington bureaucracy is the stuff of legend, and, occasionally, satire. But even by Washington standards, the progress of the Commission on Reading Research has been particularly plodding.

In the words of one observer, “If we had held our breath, I guess we’d all be dead.”

Now officials with the National Institute for Literacy, which announced more than two years ago that it was seeking nominations for a commission to follow up the influential work of the National Reading Panel, say they are close to a final list of members.

The panel is a highly anticipated next step in the discussion over what research says about how to improve reading instruction and achievement, people in the field say. But the delays, and previous promises that a panel announcement was imminent, have led some observers to wonder whether the commission will indeed materialize.

Reading the Research

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts

In line to become: Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
Would replace: Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo.
Priorities: A key architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, Sen. Kennedy wants to bolster resources for schools in need of improvement under the law and improve tests used to measure students’ progress. He would also like to make it easier for graduates working in public-service fields to repay their student loans.

April 1998: The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development names members of the National Reading Panel to evaluate research to determine effective methods of teaching reading.

April 2000: The National Reading Panel releases “Teaching Children to Read,” a report identifying five elements of research-based reading instruction. The report later becomes the basis of many state reading initiatives and the federal Reading First program.

January 2002: Federal officials announce plans for three follow-up panels to the NRP to look at research on early literacy, literacy in English-language learners, and a more general review of quantitative and qualitative reading studies.

April 2002: The Early Literacy Panel is convened by the National Institute for Literacy to look at research on the skills preschool children need to acquire to become successful readers later on.

July 2004: The National Institute for Literacy appoints Jack Fletcher Jr. as chairman of the Commission on Reading Research and announces a national search for additional panel members. Mr. Fletcher resigns the next year after the panel fails to materialize.

May 2005: A report to the National Institute for Literacy’s advisory board indicates that the long-delayed Commission on Reading Research is “almost ready to go.”

September 2006: NIFL officials send a list of proposed commission members to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for review.

SOURCE: Education Week

“It’s clear to all of us in the reading community that it’s time for an update or follow-up to the National Reading Panel, now that it’s been six years,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association in Newark, Del. “Most of us think that this kind of effort, with strong input from a variety of people and as an ongoing process, is needed.”

The team of reading researchers, and experts on various research methods, will review a broad array of studies to help build on educators’ understanding of effective instructional approaches and strategies. It is expected to consider the findings of studies utilizing a range of research methodologies, including experimental, observational, and ethnographic techniques, according to Sandra L. Baxter, the executive director of the National Institute for Literacy, or NIFL.

“This is not an empty promise,” Ms. Baxter said. She blamed the delays on inadequate staffing at the institute and the difficulty of finding someone to lead the panel, and said the institute now hopes to have the commission named by late fall.

“The bottom line here is we’ve been preaching about the importance of looking at the research and staying abreast of the research, and we want to help people to do that,” Ms. Baxter said.

The National Reading Panel, whose 2000 report has strongly influenced state reading initiatives and the federal Reading First program, looked only at quantitative studies that used strict scientific methods, had control groups, underwent peer review, and were published in scholarly journals.

The follow-up panel could help expand knowledge on which methods and strategies are effective in addressing needs of different children, and when they should be employed, observers say.

Recruitment Tricky

Even planning for such an undertaking, though, has proved daunting. The Commission on Reading Research is the last of three groups to follow up on the work of the NRP and is intended to address criticism that the first panel’s research focus was too narrow.

An early-literacy panel has been working since April 2002 to synthesize research on the skills that preschool children should acquire to ensure later success in reading. But its report has been delayed more than two years and is now expected early next year.

Last year, the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Youth, a federal panel studying how English-language learners develop literacy, finished its work. The U.S. Department of Education chose not to publish its findings, however, citing flaws discovered during the peer-review process. The panel’s report was instead published earlier this year with support from the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based organization that promotes learning about other languages and cultures.

The preparation for the latest panel began in 2002. The project is being managed by the Portsmouth, N.H.-based RMC Research Corp., the same group that is overseeing the national technical-assistance centers for Reading First, a $1 billion-a-year initiative to improve K-3 reading instruction that was launched in 2002 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Timothy Shanahan

In summer 2004, the NIFL appointed a chairman to oversee the research commission, but he resigned a year later after the institute failed to name the other members. Finding a replacement chairman has not been easy, given the extended commitment the volunteer position requires, and the controversy that such a panel could stir up, according to Timothy Shanahan, who served on the NRP and was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate as an advisory board member for the NIFL. The institute has also hired more staff members to help complete its projects. A chairman will be chosen from the final list of participants, Ms. Baxter said.

“At times, it’s controversial,” Mr. Shanahan, who directs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of service on such a panel. “Not only do you get to volunteer your time for the government, you may get some people mad at you.”

Building on the NRP

The National Reading Panel was authorized by Congress in 1997 and convened the following year. Its assignments were to identify reliable and valid research into effective methods of teaching early reading, to determine how they could be applied in the classroom, to disseminate the information to teachers and parents, and to discern where more research was needed.

After an exhaustive search of the related literature, that panel, acknowledging that time limitations and the enormous size of the task would have to restrict the scope of its work, narrowed its review to several dozen quantitative studies. Those studies were peer-reviewed, were replicable and capable of being generalized to the population of students at large, and examined the effectiveness of an instructional approach on student achievement, compared with the performance of students who weren’t taught that way.

The earlier panel, which was selected by the Education Department and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, included reading researchers, psychologists, a university president, parents, and a school administrator. Nominees had to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and were generally deemed ineligible if they had ties to publishers.

The 144 nominees for the new commission will also have to make such disclosures, but Ms. Baxter said it is difficult to find top researchers who are not associated with commercial products.

Joanne Yatvin

Joanne Yatvin, a former superintendent of schools who served on the National Reading Panel and wrote a critical minority report, said she hoped the members of the new panel would be objective and would not include participants in the previous efforts.

“If they really get a mixed group of independent researchers who are the highest caliber, and if they look at other topics more broadly and they’re not there just to justify an ideology,” she said, “I think it can be a good thing for the profession.”

But, she added: “It’s just that they’ve set a pattern that makes me pessimistic.”

Ms. Yatvin has continued to criticize the use of the NRP’s findings to promote narrow views of what is deemed research-based reading instruction. The five components of good reading instruction that the panel identified in 2000—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—have been pushed by some advocates as the only essentials. Other critical ingredients, such as motivation to read, and writing, are too often ignored or undermined by narrow reading policies, Ms. Yatvin said.

The new group will select topics to study—which might include those tackled by the National Reading Panel—and then write related research questions. It will then analyze what panel members deem to be high-quality studies that might provide answers.

Looking for Holes

The Washington-based NIFL, a federal agency, is also steeped in other complex projects. Those include the early-literacy panel, whose study of research on preschool reading acquisition was expected in 2003. The institute is also working on an adolescent-literacy study and considering grant proposals to look at teacher preparation and adult literacy.

Once it gets started, the new panel will not be able to look at all the topics in reading research that could prove beneficial to the field, Mr. Shanahan said. He noted that the NRP took up just five topics and identified more than two dozen others it would have liked to study.

Moreover, there has been an accumulation of new studies that could further inform educators, according to Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research arm.

“Much research on reading has been conducted since the NRP’s report,” he said in a statement. “The [new commission] can serve a valuable function in summarizing what can be concluded from recent research and integrating it into the body of work reviewed by the NRP.”

Because of those reasons, Mr. Farstrup of the International Reading Association argued, a mechanism should exist for ongoing analyses of reading research.

“If we really believe in research-based instruction,” he said, “we ought to be examining the research and identifying where the holes are and supporting new research to investigate these things.”

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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 September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Long-Delayed U.S. Panel on Reading Yet to Be Named


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