Curriculum Opinion

Colleges Fail in Training of Reading Teachers

By Patrick Groff — October 14, 1987 7 min read
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It was predictable that schools and departments of education would come to be named among those responsible for the low levels of achievement in our schools. The gross inadequacies in the great majority of students’ knowledge of their country’s history, as indicated by the recent findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Center for Civic Education, could not have occurred if these students’ teachers had been properly educated. If the performance of students is to improve, so must the training of teachers, and the improvement of teacher education should begin with increased competition for education departments.

The new evidence suggesting the extent of students’ ignorance propelled me into a study of the training of reading teachers. Underlying my study was the assumption that the quality of reading instruction students receive in great measure shapes their achievement in school. Commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Educational Research and Improvement, the project sought to determine ways in which the training of reading teachers might help explain the distressing statistics.

Since the advent of normal schools about 150 years ago and the acceptance of pedagogy as an academic discipline by established colleges and universities after 1900, the preparation of reading teachers has become the exclusive province of teacher-training institutions.

A cooperative network of education professors, state and federal education officials, teacher-union and organization officials, book publishers, school-board members, and school-district personnel has developed over the years to enforce the education monopoly established in the training of reading teachers. This coalition has worked in a determined fashion to define the kind of reading-instruction training that teachers will receive and to control access to this training.

By mutual agreement of the members of this coalition, only the type of preparation offered by education departments is accepted for fulfillment of teacher-certification requirements; it is generally, as well, the only kind of training allowed as evidence that inservice teachers have made the improvement in proficiency necessary to earn salary increases and promotions.

In an arrangement that engenders an inherent conflict of interest, the system that trains the teachers decides if they are ready and able to teach. No disinterested judge evaluates the teachers’ capability.

Few members of this self-serving compact criticize its potentially dangerous consequences. Each of the partners in this Great American Reading Machine, as researcher David Yarington calls it, receives benefits from its operation.

On the other hand, my study revealed that education departments have developed disdainful attitudes toward those who criticize the operations of their exclusive enterprise.

A prime example of this insensitivity to legitimate faultfinding is the unwillingness of the departments to respond to pleas that they bring their training of reading teachers into conformity with research findings. Numerous studies have suggested that what Jeanne Chall of Harvard University calls the “code emphasis” approach to reading instruction produces the best results in basic reading. Despite the overwhelming volume of research to this effect, however, the reading-instruction textbooks used by most departments of education fail to make teachers aware of this method’s advantages.

In the code-emphasis approach, phonics is taught early, intensively, and systematically. Pupils study isolated sound-letter correspondences and learn ways to synthesize the soundsinto spoken words. Teachers de-emphasize pupils’ reading of words as wholes or sight words, and the use of context to guess at the identities of words.

I recently inspected 43 department-endorsed texts published in the 1980’s to see if they reported that research favors the code-emphasis method. None of the books I surveyed cites this approach as the preferred method to teach beginning reading. In fact, only nine of these books even inform teachers that anyone has raised doubts about the propriety of delaying the teaching of phonics and of teaching pupils to read words as wholes or to depend heavily on context for their recognition.

Departments of education usually ignore such criticism. When they do respond to it, they characterize the code-emphasis approach as a political rather than an educational issue; they claim that the advocacy of such instruction is tainted by political motives of a reactionary nature. Despite numerous reports to the contrary, they protest that there is no significant degree of illiteracy in the nation, and thus that the controversy is a non-issue.

The departments have in fact had much practice in dodging the criticisms of their preparation of reading teachers. The literature on the effectiveness of their programs bristles with denunciations of the quality of this training by disinterested critics of it. The Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, for example, finds it common knowledge that many teacher-education programs produce graduates who complain that their education courses failed to prepare them for teaching.

Teacher-education courses are deemed by any standard of excellence to be dismal failures. No less a figure than the president of Harvard University, Derek Bok, has chastised departments of education for failing to come forth with ideas for better methods of instruction. Publications of the U.S. Education Department have reached the conclusion that many teachers do not know how to teach reading.

Despite the torrent of indignation about the results of their practice, departments of education are not likely to accept willingly the changes needed to implement the reforms that research suggests are necessary. The monopoly that the departments hold in the preparation of reading teachers protects them from suffering any consequences of this disapprobation. While the critics have repeatedly described the departments’ indifference to productivity and cost in teacher education, they have yet to see these criticisms taken seriously. Yet there has been no determined assault on this monopoly.

The only effective way to improve the quality of reading-teacher education, my study concluded, is to allow private-sector organizations to compete with departments of education in this enterprise. The absence of significant competition has resulted in the perpetuation of ineffective strategies in the teaching of reading. My analysis of the workings of 27 organizations that prepare reading teachers indicated that they have inherent advantages over the departments in this training.

Unlike education departments, these private groups must continually prove their effectiveness in order to stay in business. They must be cost-conscious in their operations. Furthermore, these organizations can offer instruction tailored more exactly to the needs of clients than can the departments, which are constrained in this regard by a host of self-imposed regulations. Free of such regulations, the organizations can also more easily make changes in their instruction as directed by the research than can the departments.

The authorization of private-sector training would lead to a needed opening of the teaching ranks. If such training were sanctioned for teachers’ credentials, teachers’ knowledge and skills would be honored regardless of when, how, and where they were gained. The states could issue licenses on the basis of tests of teachers’ preparation, instead of the completion of education-department courses.

Private-sector organizations that train reading teachers recommend materials for reading instruction that are less costly than those advocated by departments of education. One superintendent of schools reported that he saved 88 percent on the cost of such materials after having his teachers trained by a private group.

I found, too, that the curricula such organizations use to train reading teachers conform more closely to the findings of empiri6cal research than do the textbooks assigned in education-department courses. The methods of instruction prescribed by these organizations, then, are more likely to prove effective than are the kinds of teaching recommended by the departments. Although comparative studies conducted by the organizations have reached this conclusion, the reports of these studies have been rejected for publication by the educational journals controlled by the departments.

Beleaguered by criticisms of their practices, departments of education need to be rescued from themselves. The single apparent way to cure them of their illness is to give them a healthy dose of competition from private-sector organizations that train reading teachers. Vigorous competition will help bring about needed reforms in the administration, content, and methodology of instruction in the teaching of reading, and will reduce the costs of this operation. As it stimulates more effective reading instruction in our schools, competition will improve the level of literacy across the nation.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1987 edition of Education Week as Colleges Fail in Training of Reading Teachers


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