Curriculum

Former Reading Czar Teams Up With PR Executive on Book

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — August 08, 2006 2 min read
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The man who spearheaded the use of “scientifically based reading research” to drive instructional changes in the nation’s elementary classrooms has teamed up with the public relations experts who helped spread the influence of that work among policymakers.

This time, G. Reid Lyon, who until last year was the chief of the division of the National Institutes of Health that oversees reading research, wants parents to demand more explicit, systematic approaches to teaching reading.

Mr. Lyon has co-edited Why Children Can’t Read: Challenging the Status Quo in Education with Phyllis Blaunstein, an executive for the Washington-based Widmeyer Communications. Widmeyer was charged with organizing focus groups and an extensive dissemination plan for promoting the work of the National Reading Panel. The 2000 report of the congressionally mandated panel has had broad influence over federal and state reading policies.

Critics of the report have contended that its summary and informational materials misrepresented the findings to focus more on the importance of phonics and give a boost to commercial reading programs based on the method.

Widmeyer also represents the New York City-based McGraw-Hill Cos., the publisher of Open Court Reading, which has gained a reputation for being well aligned with the panel’s findings and state and federal policies that have been based on them.

“We had both been so excited by the research that came out of the NRP,” said Ms. Blaunstein. “We knew we needed to do something more to get the parents the good news.”

Mr. Lyon added: “If parents just work with schools, there’s a small dent possible, depending on the school. But frequently, it’s not an easy road. This book tries to bring together multiple avenues to help kids.”

At least two chapters outline how two elementary schools raised student achievement after making administrative and instructional changes, like adopting Open Court.

Other reading programs were not featured as prominently. Ms. Blaunstein said the book encourages parents to push for broad change in instruction and leadership, not the use of a particular text.

But a chapter commissioned for the book from two Kansas administrators was rejected after the editors deemed it did not align with their view of the research. Ron Brown, a principal at Heller Elementary School in Neodesha, said he believed the editors did not want to use the chapter because it outlined how the school turned around reading scores using Success for All.

“They told us not to name the program, and we were uncomfortable with that because we know that SFA works,” said Mr. Brown, who retired last year. He wrote the chapter with Missy Hollenbeck, who took over as principal.

Ms. Blaunstein said the problem was not that the whole-school-reform program could be identified in the chapter, but that the strategies the administrators described seemed to reflect whole language, a method not supported by the reading panel report. SFA is not considered a whole-language program.

Ms. Blaunstein said she is not involved in the McGraw-Hill account, but that naming the company’s reading program may not have been the right decision. “Perception is everything,” she said. “In retrospect should I have cut it out? Probably, but I didn’t.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week

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