Federal

Plans for Federal Reading Panel Hit a New Roadblock

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 10, 2007 7 min read
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After several years of planning and a series of false starts, a new federal venture to review reading research has hit another bureaucratic hurdle—one that could keep it from ever getting off the ground.

A planned announcement last week of the membership of the Commission on Reading Research was put on hold by the National Institute for Literacy while officials sought final approval from the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies that the institute reports to.

Although the institute, known as NIFL, has already recruited commission members after a lengthy nomination and selection process, Education Department officials said it has not been decided if such a panel will ever be established.

“The National Institute for Literacy Interagency Group has not made a formal decision about the formation of a commission to look into reading research,” Samara Yudof, the department’s press secretary, wrote in an e-mail.

If such a group is formed, she added, it will have to be screened under the department’s new ethics-review procedures.

That news surprised some observers who have followed plans for the panel over the past several years.

“This commission had been developed in a transparent manner; the members had been solicited in a transparent manner,” said Richard Long, the government-relations director for the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association, which recommended several nominees for the panel. “A lot of progress had been made, and it’s unfortunate that things are once again being slowed down.”

Broader-Focused Research

In the midst of an intensive national effort to improve reading instruction through research-based methods, there is rare agreement among many educators and reading researchers that the time is right to take another close look at evidence of how best to teach the skill, much like the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel did nearly a decade ago.

The NRP’s findings have been widely infused into reading instruction, and state and federal officials have pumped unprecedented resources into professional development and materials aligned to the recommendations. Yet student achievement in the subject has barely budged, according to the latest national assessment results and international comparison studies.

“The time lapse is good because we’ve had time to use the materials and methods that came out of the NRP recommendations, and teachers have had time to see how they work in the classroom,” said Joanne Yatvin, a member of the NRP who wrote a minority report that questioned some of the panel’s findings and recommendations. “We’ve seen the results from both the international comparisons and the results from [No Child Left Behind Act testing mandates], and that should be a leavening influence. As I read both sets of results, they don’t show progress.”

The idea for the research commission came about shortly after the release of the reading panel’s 2000 report, which has strongly influenced state and federal policy in the subject. In fact, NIFL began publicly soliciting nominations for what is to be the new panel more than three years ago, and appointed a chairman, who stepped down about a year later.

After reviewing nominees, the institute, a federal agency formed to disseminate literacy research, had recently appointed a new chair and secured commitments from the rest of the 15-member panel, according to NIFL Executive Director Sandra Baxter.

“What we need to do in the education community so that reliance on research becomes part of the culture is … have an organized effort to support periodic reviews of the literature, using the best experts you can find,” Ms. Baxter said last week. “One of my goals for this is that it will drive a closer working relationship between the educational research field and practitioners.”

While the National Reading Panel’s report is viewed as a landmark work among many researchers, educators, and policymakers, it also has drawn considerable criticism as having too narrow a focus. The report, “Teaching Children to Read,” is a synthesis of studies that met strict criteria for quantitative research. The studies used scientific methods, including control groups, underwent peer review, and were published in scholarly journals.

The planned Commission on Reading Research was designed to have more leeway to look at different types of research, including experimental and quasi-experimental studies, as the earlier panel did, but also findings from observational and descriptive studies.

Shortly after the release of the 2000 report, plans were announced for three follow-up studies, including one looking at more recent research and studies that used qualitative methods such as ethnographies. The reading-research commission was intended to do that job.

The new panels were proposed under the auspices of the Education Department, NIFL, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the part of the National Institutes of Health that oversees reading research. (“New Panels to Form to Study Reading Research,” Jan. 30, 2002.)

NIFL was authorized by Congress in 1991 as a resource for expanding adult-literacy services, and is now charged with disseminating information on reading research for all age groups. The federal agency works in consultation with the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. Its $11.5 million annual budget includes $5 million from the No Child Left Behind Act, some of which was to be used for the reading research commission.

The Education Department has interceded in one of those other panels as well.

In 2005, the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Youth finished its work, but the Education Department chose not to publish its findings, citing flaws discovered during the peer-review process. The panel’s report was instead published last year with support from the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based organization that promotes learning about other languages and cultures.

The National Early Literacy Panel, which began synthesizing research on early-childhood development several years ago, has just completed its report, which is undergoing peer review.

The road has been rocky for the Commission on Reading Research as well. In July 2004, NIFL appointed Jack Fletcher, a respected reading researcher at the University of Houston, to chair the panel and asked several education organizations and others in the field to nominate potential members. Mr. Fletcher resigned the following year. The process has been stalled until recently.

‘Great Anticipation’

Some prominent experts, meanwhile, say the need for a new review of reading research is clear.

G. Reid Lyon, who was an adviser to President Bush while leading the NICHD branch responsible for reading research, said he had proposed an ongoing process of reviewing research and disseminating the information to educators as needed.

“The field is fairly contentious, and there’s a lot of controversy, … but it’s important that the debates and controversy be settled in an objective way,” said Mr. Lyon, who left his NICHD post in 2005 to help launch a teacher-preparation program with Dallas-based Best Associates. He added that the NICHD recommended that additional research reviews include studies done with quantitative and qualitative methods, and that they be conducted regularly.

Linda B. Gambrell, a professor of education at Clemson University, in South Carolina, who is serving as the International Reading Association’s president, agreed on the need for a fresh review of the research.

“People in the field have great anticipation for this new panel,” she said.

“Panel reports serve to provoke debate, as they should,” Ms. Gambrell added, “but they move our field forward and provide information about what constitutes evidence-based best practice.”

The time lag since the National Reading Panel’s report, which could reach a decade by the time a new commission could produce a report, might be an advantage to doing a follow-up review now, some research experts say.

“There’s been even more research done [since the NRP report], so there’s a greater reason for a synthesis being undertaken at this time,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, which advised on the creation of the commission.

“There’s the obvious trade-off between getting a report out more quickly and having more time to talk about it,” he said. “I’m not sure how to decide” which is better.

Some observers, however, say there is no reason for further delay.

“Oh for goodness’ sake. ... What’s holding things back?” said Ms. Yatvin when told of the latest postponement. “What are they afraid of? They need to get on with it already.”

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