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Reading & Literacy Commentary

Reading Research Into Practice

By Douglas Carnine — September 03, 1997 8 min read
National policymakers must shape the America Reads initiative carefully and thoughtfully.

In April, President Clinton forwarded to Congress his legislative proposal for the “America Reads Challenge.” Subsequently, House and Senate Republican leaders and the president announced a balanced-budget agreement that committed an unspecified amount of funding for a reading initiative compatible with the president’s plan.

Reading experts and policymakers appreciate that Mr. Clinton has highlighted the problem that almost 40 percent of American children are not learning to read at the basic level, as identified by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But most educators agree that his two proposed interventions--volunteer tutoring and parental training--do not address the central issue of proper classroom instruction and the related issue of teacher preparation and training.

Reading is too important for Congress and the president to offer a program that espouses an excellent goal--helping all children read by age 9--but doesn’t provide the key players, teachers, access to the knowledge and tools they need to achieve it. If we want to avoid another bout of education cynicism within the American public, national policymakers must shape the America Reads initiative carefully and thoughtfully, with a keen eye to the scientific research on reading.

The way Congress formulates America Reads has implications not only for early-childhood reading, but for how all educational practice is conducted. Will we continue to rely on unproven but slickly marketed educational fads? Or will we demand that widely implemented educational practice be backed by rigorous scientific research?

In the medical field, there are well-established protocols for developing new basic and applied knowledge, replicating and validating that knowledge, then widely disseminating the knowledge until it becomes standard practice. The first open-heart surgery, for example, was conducted close to 30 years ago. The procedure was tested and refined on a small scale, then widely disseminated through medical professional development. Now the surgery has been replicated to the point that thousands are performed daily throughout the world, with a 98 percent success rate. This model of self-disciplined commitment to validated, replicable practice must be adopted by educators--immediately as it applies to reading, and eventually in all subject areas.

Congress should shape the America Reads initiative so that it sparks movement toward a research-based approach. It should be aimed at identifying what we know about reading from scientifically based research; broadly disseminating to teachers, parents, and concerned citizens knowledge about the research on learning to read; incorporating research into teacher professional development and classroom practice; conducting new research to address large-scale, persistent problems; and creating incentives in federal programs for schools and teachers to implement research-based practice. Here are our recommendations:

  • Establish an expert reading panel to authoritatively synthesize research-based knowledge about reading and advise the administration on a continuing research agenda in reading. This panel of researchers, possibly chaired by the director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development’s reading project, would be established to use scientific research principles to identify and synthesize for the nation current knowledge about how children learn to read effectively. It would also identify the knowledge “gaps” about reading and recommend a five-year research and development agenda to coordinate research across different federal agencies. Its report would need to be completed early in 1998, so that the results could guide the remaining recommendations, all of which would begin the following fall.
  • Disseminate knowledge about reading research. After the expert reading panel had synthesized current research-based knowledge about reading, the information would be disseminated through several means. The U.S. secretaries of education and health and human services would ensure dissemination in federal education programs such as Title I, Even Start, and Head Start. The secretary of education would see that dissemination activities of the department’s office of educational research and improvement, particularly the regional labs, reflected scientifically based research on reading and that, in addition, the labs would issue a “product recall” of previously disseminated information not scientifically validated. The National Institute for Literacy would work with other federal agencies to coordinate a parent- and public-information campaign about the research. This would target parents, grandparents, and adult caregivers of children, so that they would know what a research-based reading program looks like, and also volunteer organizations interested in establishing tutoring programs to help children with reading difficulties.
  • Get research-based knowledge and practice in the hands of teachers. The best knowledge about how children learn to read is meaningless unless we effectively impart it to teachers. To help teachers already in the classroom and those preparing for a teaching career, the following steps could be taken:

Validate classroom instructional models of teaching reading based on existing research and the report of the expert panel, so that teachers, schools, and districts can adopt reading reforms with confidence. Independent evaluation criteria of reading programs would help local reformers make more informed decisions based on research, not just effective marketing. Models that demonstrate sustained academic achievement for students would be validated as successful and would be given priority for implementation through the Title I schoolwide model program.

Unless research leads to reforms at the classroom level, high standards have little practical impact for many students.

Use research funding to develop and validate professional-development programs that impart research knowledge and tools about early reading to teachers. A wide array of organizations--for-profit and nonprofit groups, teacher and other professional and business organizations, state governments, colleges and universities, and regional education labs--could apply for funding to develop professional-development programs.An independent, third-party evaluator would establish whether the model embodied scientific research principles about reading, and whether the program was able to achieve the results it sought to achieve.

Use research funding to develop and validate pre-service teacher training programs and materials to be implemented in schools of education. These programs could be for use in traditional schools of education, but could also incorporate on-site training in schools or other innovative strategies.

Allocate new literacy funding as incentive funding for states to distribute to schools that implement professional-development models and classroom instructional models that have been validated as effective by independent evaluators.

Allocate new literacy funding to states as incentive funding to encourage incorporating research-based reading practice in schools and classrooms through the purchase or modification of instructional materials and effective professional development. This process could include identification of high-performing schools within a state to serve as mentor schools to help other schools implement effective research-based reading practices. High-performing schools are not schools that have high achievement rates because of the socioeconomic status of their students, but ones that demonstrate the highest levels of academic achievement among schools with comparable demographics.

  • Institute Title I school-change incentive funding. To facilitate schoolwide reforms in the Title I program, new funding would be made available to Title I schools that chose to adopt a schoolwide reading reform. To qualify, schools would either adopt a reading program that had been validated as successful, or enter into a mentoring relationship with other schools that had been identified as high-performing because of demonstrated success in helping disadvantaged children learn to read well.
  • Initiate “design competitions” for continuous-improvement-in-reading practices. With guidance from the expert reading panel, new discretionary funds, as well as some money currently directed to the OERI, would be directed at conducting research to develop more sophisticated teaching models and materials to address such challenges as making English instruction for non-English-speakers more effective; implementing a volunteer tutoring program that supplemented and complemented a good classroom reading program; improving reading instruction for severely learning-disabled students; and improving reading remediation for adolescents experiencing reading failure. After a rigorous and controlled process of development, implementation, and evaluation, models that demonstrated sustained academic achievement for students would be validated as successful and given priority for implementation through the Title I schoolwide model program.

Serious-minded educators and policymakers agree that educational practice must have a solid research foundation. Advocates of standards-based reform agree that unless research leads to reforms at the classroom level, high standards have little practical impact for many students.

Teachers, more than anyone, want to succeed in the critical job of helping their students learn to read. But in talking with teachers, we see immense frustration over the difficulty they face in accessing knowledge and teaching materials based on solid research findings. It is confounding why, even in an area so well researched as early reading, there has been such enormous difficulty in turning that research into widely replicated practice. On the contrary, poorly researched programs, such as an extreme whole-language approach, have been quickly and widely adopted across many states, most notably California.

President Clinton and Congress need to recognize that the final verdict on America Reads will depend not on whether they enact and advertise a catchy new program, but on whether that initiative actually assists teachers and school leaders in transforming research into practice for the benefit of all children.

A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 1997 edition of Education Week as Reading Research Into Practice

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