Reading & Literacy

Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 21, 2004 11 min read
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He’s become a familiar face in congressional hearings, satellite seminars, general-session presentations, foundation symposia, and town meetings. G. Reid Lyon, the director of the branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that sponsors studies on reading, has crisscrossed the country to herald the findings of scientific research on the subject and press for sweeping change in reading instruction.

By all accounts, his intensive campaign to convince lawmakers, educators, and parents that science holds the answers to sound reading instruction has been effective. His zeal has earned him the labels “guru,” “catalyst,” “champion.”

It has also made him the target of stinging criticism from researchers and other experts who complain that the former Army paratrooper has commandeered the debate, pushed out alternative opinions, and rewarded a small cadre of colleagues with like views.

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Bio: G. Reid Lyon

Mr. Lyon’s rise to prominence has gone hand in hand with the changing tone of the reading debates that have marked the field for decades. With increasing attention focused on reading achievement and the potential for policy to bring higher standards to instruction, the reading agenda once controlled by those in academe is now being set more and more by Washington.

There is little disagreement that Mr. Lyon’s efforts have been instrumental in guiding that transformation over the past decade and fueling the back-to-basics movement. More recently, he has helped shape the current federal reading policy that is projected to shell out $6 billion dollars over six years and touch a generation of American schoolchildren.

The institute’s influence looms so large, in fact, that it has in many ways overshadowed the role of the U.S. Department of Education, as well as those of the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, which together represent more than 140,000 scholars and educators.

The work by Mr. Lyon has propelled the once-obscure nichd, part of the National Institutes of Health, to the forefront of the reading debate, where he and a few others seem to dominate.

“There is no question that the nichd, through the funding of high-quality research into the reading process, reading instruction, and reading disability, has had a profound impact on public policy and classroom practice,” writes Robert W. Sweet Jr., in a chapter of the recently published book The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research.

“The leadership of [Mr. Lyon] has been nothing short of astounding. [He] has eschewed the ideological battlefield and concentrated on methodically and rigorously pursuing the scientific basis of reading instruction.”

‘A Nation of Decoders’

Not everyone would agree. Mr. Lyon’s detractors charge that he has positioned himself on the front lines of the debate, and that his mission is not purely that of promoting the efficacy of science.

Indeed, Mr. Lyon’s presentations on the science of reading are often interspersed with criticism of teacher-educators and those who do not subscribe to his views on research.

G. Reid Lyon

“He’s simply pushing an old paradigm [of skills-based instruction] that’s never been successful, and it’s commercially driven,” said Sid Glassner, the executive director of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, a 3-year-old advocacy group for holistic approaches to education. “We are developing a nation of decoders and kids who hate reading,” he said.

Mr. Sweet, a senior staff member with the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the founder of the National Right to Read Foundation, which promotes phonics instruction, is unrestrained, however, in his praise for the indefatigable Mr. Lyon in The Voice of Evidence.

Mr. Sweet has been a key adviser on President Bush’s Reading First initiative, as well as the Reading Excellence Act crafted by Republicans during the Clinton administration. That legislation first required scientifically proven practice and instructional materials.

Other contributors to the 480-page book—edited by Peggy McCardle and Vinita Chhabra, nichd researchers who work for Mr. Lyon, and published by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.—heap similar plaudits. Moreover, the book includes a tribute to Mr. Lyon by Robert H. Pasternack, a former assistant secretary for special education at the Department of Education.

While Mr. Lyon has publicly sought to deflect such praise, a recent study of the “elite policy actors” for reading legislation confirms such pronouncements. The study, by researchers Cecil Miskel of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Mengli Song of the American Institutes for Research, based in Washington, concludes that Mr. Lyon, a 55-year-old born in Tokyo and raised in rural Virginia, was part of a small group of influential insiders that set the reading agenda in Washington.

Of all those actors, Mr. Lyon, who spent two years as a 3rd grade teacher and a special education teacher in New Mexico in the 1970s before delving into reading research, has the most extensive experience in literacy, primarily in learning disabilities research. The Vietnam veteran brought his expertise in special education to the nichd in 1992 to expand reading-disabilities research. As the chief of the branch that deals with child development and behavior, he oversees a $60 million annual research budget and 44 centers devoted to studying reading development and disabilities.

Mr. Lyon and the other participants in driving policy on reading—from President Bush, to the American Federation of Teachers (which has widely promoted phonics-based instruction and a stronger reading focus in teacher preparation), to pivotal members of Congress—formed “a tight-knit clique, exerting strong influence on the development of Reading First,” says the Miskel-Song study. The journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis published the study this summer.

The federal endeavor drew ammunition from the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel, which concluded that the systematic and explicit teaching of skills, and other essential components, proved most effective in addressing the needs of struggling readers.

Science or Self-Interest?

With the implementation of the Reading First initiative, that inner circle has expanded slightly to researchers and consultants who have aligned themselves with the NICHD or the strict research principles it promotes.

Scholars at Florida State University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Texas at Austin, where the three regional technical-assistance centers for the Reading First program are housed, have been particularly visible as consultants in the process. Researchers such as Joe Torgeson at Florida State; Douglas W. Carnine, Ed Kaméenui, and Debra Simmons of the University of Oregon; and Sharon Vaughan at UT-Austin have been sought out by state and local officials looking for guidance on how to translate the federal reading policy into practice. Several have also become superstars on the nichd research team.

But some in the field have complained that a select group of researchers—many of them colleagues of Mr. Lyon and some with connections to commercial products—have unfairly benefited. The role of those experts in advising policymakers and school administrators, and their potential to profit from the millions of dollars dedicated to making changes in reading programs, have raised questions about whether the changes are being fueled by science or self-interest.

“The research evidence is being distorted and purposefully misrepresented in ideologically consistent ways, in politically consistent ways, in reliably profitable ways,” Richard A. Allington, the vice president of the International Reading Association, charges in his book Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence.

Others more closely associated with the skills-based-reading campaign, however, counter that the critics are simply trying to salvage their own unproven methods and philosophies.

“We’ve been through a number of fads that did no one any good,” Mr. Lyon said at a reading conference last spring.

The Education Department has also become a critical part of the coalition. It has taken a hard line on implementation of Reading First, providing close oversight of states to ensure they follow the strict guidelines set in the legislation, which was authorized in the No Child Left Behind Act.

The message is helped along by a strong public relations campaign, led by Widmeyer Communications. That Washington-based company is under federal contract to help the Partnership for Reading, which includes NICHD, the National Institute for Literacy, and the Education Department, disseminate the findings through a summary of the report and brochures aimed at parents.

Through its three-year, $1.7 million contract with the Education Department, the company has helped promote NICHD panels, and at least one Widmeyer representative has accompanied Mr. Lyon to conferences where he has worked to rally educators around research-based practice. Widmeyer has also represented the McGraw-Hill Cos., the publisher of Open Court, sra Reading Mastery, and other popular reading programs that are expected to benefit from the initiative once the federal funds reach them.

States and districts seem to be more committed to complying with the federal mandates than perhaps ever before, say experts in the field, setting up stringent rules for grantees and ongoing monitoring of their compliance.

Evidence-Based Policies?

For Mr. Lyon, described by friends and foes alike as charismatic, all those developments signal the triumph of evidence over intuition in reading instruction. The change, he says, will help more children crack the code of reading and become proficient in the subject.

“We are shifting toward education policy that is driven on the back of evidence rather than competing beliefs and philosophies,” Mr. Lyon told hundreds of attendees at the International Reading Association’s annual convention in May.

His fervent promotion of NICHD research and his denunciations of the reading establishment for, in his view, failing to recognize the value of those findings and the need to shift toward skills-based instruction, have fostered suspicion of the work in some circles.

“They have promoted a manufactured consensus, when the field continues to be deeply divided” about what the research says about effective practice, Gerald Coles, an educational psychologist and author, said of Mr. Lyon and others who have influenced the current policies. Mr. Coles’ latest book, Reading the Naked Truth, is critical of what he sees as the narrowing definition of scientific research in the field. “This is a manipulation of the research to meet policy ends.”

Still, many are reluctant to criticize Mr. Lyon publicly because he has been merciless in his attacks on naysayers, whom he views as irresponsible and misguided. At a 2002 policy forum in Washington, for instance, he charged that colleges of education were failing to prepare teachers to move students toward reading proficiency using research-based methods. Mr. Lyon suggested the answer to the problem was to “blow up the colleges of education,” and start over again.

Ever since, he has repeatedly apologized for the remarks, saying he could have found a more diplomatic way to express his frustration over teacher-educators who, in his opinion, refuse to abandon approaches that have been discredited. The apologies, however, have not stopped him from making other disparaging remarks.

‘A Competitive Approach’

Some top experts in the field say that the dismissal by Mr. Lyon and his allies of a large body of early research is unfair, and that the drive for research-based practice has politicized the field to the point of promoting competition rather than constructive debate.

“We seem to be moving from sort of a consensual approach to a business model, a competitive approach,” said Karen Wixson, the dean of education at the University of Michigan. Ms. Wixson, like Mr. Kaméenui, is an author of the Scott Foresman Reading program, one of the few anointed with Reading First approval. “It’s about winning, about being right. In that kind of environment, things get treated like dogma, instead of like we all have the same goal here, to help kids.”

But other researchers within the small policy circle are unapologetic that the research doctrine excludes many in the field.

“There is a need for results and a desire for results,” said Mr. Carnine, the University of Oregon academic. He counts himself among the relatively few researchers who can provide expert guidance to state and local officials on how to apply the research findings to curriculum and instruction.

“It would be very helpful if there were 20 times as many researchers and 100 times as many practitioners who know how to implement research-based practice,” Mr. Carnine said. “It’s sad that there aren’t more people.”

But Susan B. Neuman, who has had a view from both the policy and research arenas, said there should be more room for other voices.

“It’s politics; there are ‘innies’ and ‘outies.’ But we need to have high-quality representatives in many different areas,” said Ms. Neuman, who served as the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the current Bush administration for two years.

Eventually, said Ms. Neuman, who has returned to her position as a reading researcher at the University of Michigan, a greater number of responsible research ers and consultants will be able to influence the discussion.


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