Few experts on reading instruction or teacher preparation are likely to dispute the overall conclusion of a new report that suggests most colleges of education are doing an inadequate job of preparing elementary teachers for what is arguably their most important task: teaching children to read. But many researchers and teacher-educators are questioning the science behind the study, which chastises education schools for failing to teach the “science of reading.”
The report by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality has been drawing praise for highlighting the inadequacy of teacher’s preservice training in effective reading instruction for all students. It is also being challenged on its methodology, its definition of the science, and its failure to reflect recent and planned changes to teacher-preparation programs to incorporate reading research.
“What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching About Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren’t Learning,” released here May 22, concludes that a majority of U.S. teacher colleges are failing to teach the elements of effective reading instruction that research has proved are essential: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
“Almost all of the 72 institutions in our sample earned a ‘failing’ grade,” says the report, co-written by NCTQ President Kate Walsh. “Institutions could receive a passing score if course materials merely referenced each of the five components of good reading instruction—without our knowing for certain that the science was taught correctly or adequately.”
The report’s authors gathered information on required reading courses from a sample that was deemed representative of the nation’s nearly 1,300 teacher education programs. They sifted through the syllabuses, textbooks, and other required readings from those courses to gauge whether the five components were taught. Only 11 of the colleges reviewed taught all the components, while 23 didn’t appear to teach any of them.
Those elements were identified as necessary for effective reading instruction in the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel and have been the driving force behind state and federal initiatives for raising student achievement ever since. (“Reading Panel Urges Phonics For All in K-6,” April 19, 2000.)
Citing time constraints, however, the panel of reading experts, higher education officials, and psychologists studied only a narrow body of experimental research and a limited number of categories.
Whether a review of a syllabus and required texts can paint a clear enough picture of what is taught in any given class is questionable, some experts say.
“I think our syllabus reflects the goals of a given course, but not necessarily the content,” said Janet Bufalino, a professor of teacher education at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. That institution was among those analyzed for the study, and one of about two dozen judged to feature no content on the five components.
“I understand where some of the [components] are hidden in the outline, such as under a heading of current theories and practices,” Ms. Bufalino said. “Maybe we should be more definitive in our syllabus.”
Other experts complained that the NCTQ study assumes that the National Reading Panel’s findings are the last word in what works in teaching children to read. The panel’s work is widely viewed as narrowly focused and is criticized as having failed to consider credible research beyond the five components, or research using more qualitative methods. A follow-up panel that promised to look at a broader range of studies is being coordinated by the National Institute for Literacy, located in Washington, but has yet to be formed several years after the effort was announced.
“I’m not going to claim that the field of reading or teacher education writ large is covering these things the way they should. I don’t think there’s a misrepresentation [in the report] there,” said P. David Pearson, a well-respected reading researcher and the dean of education at the University of California, Berkeley. “This report only reinforces the unfortunate position that the Big Five [components] are all that matter,”
But while the methods used in the study can be scrutinized, many experts agree that teacher education needs to incorporate more reading research into content.
“I have to agree with the overall thrust, that too often beginning teachers aren’t being taught what they need to know about reading,” said Timothy Shanahan, the president of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association and a member of the National Reading Panel. “Even if I changed the methodology of the study, I’d still come away with the conclusion that we aren’t doing a good enough job of preparing reading teachers.”
Changes Under Way
Many colleges have already begun reorganizing required reading classes around the findings of the national panel and other research on effective reading instruction, he said.
Colleges approved by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, did not fare any better in the NCTQ study than those without the stamp of approval. Ms. Walsh urged the Washington-based council to incorporate higher standards for teaching reading research into its accreditation process. NCATE is already in the midst of revising its standards to strengthen the focus on reading research.
Arthur E. Wise, the president of the accrediting body, said his organization evaluates schools on a much more comprehensive model than the NCTQ study, looking more at what graduates know and are able to do than at specific course content.
Changes in education courses at Shippensburg University and elsewhere are not reflected in the new study, which looked at information from the 2004-05 school year. Ms. Walsh said that several deans contacted her before the release of the report to share new versions of their syllabuses that include the research.
Shippensburg has integrated the five essential components of reading instruction throughout three required reading courses. Moreover, half the university’s elementary education students choose to minor in reading and must take several other courses and meet clinical requirements, Ms. Bufalino said.
“Our students do leave with a broad understanding in those five areas,” she said. “We were stuck in the study of children’s literature and that old mind-set [that minimized the importance of explicit-skills instruction], but that was prior to the recent changes.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Teacher Ed. Faulted on Reading Preparation