Friday, March 09, 2007

In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash

MADISON, Wis. — Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

March 9, 2007


“Pumpkin,” ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.

“Look at the word,” the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?”

Parker looked again. “Pea,” he said, correctly.

Call it the $2 million reading lesson.

By sticking to its teaching approach, that is the amount Madison passed up under Reading First, the Bush administration’s ambitious effort to turn the nation’s poor children into skilled readers by the third grade.

The program, which gives $1 billion a year in grants to states, was supposed to end the so-called reading wars — the battle over the best method of teaching reading — but has instead opened a new and bitter front in the fight.

According to interviews with school officials and a string of federal audits and e-mail messages made public in recent months, federal officials and contractors used the program to pressure schools to adopt approaches that emphasize phonics, focusing on the mechanics of sounding out syllables, and to discard methods drawn from whole language that play down these mechanics and use cues like pictures or context to teach.

Federal officials who ran Reading First maintain that only curriculums including regular, systematic phonics lessons had the backing of “scientifically based reading research” required by the program.

But in a string of blistering reports, the Education Department’s inspector general has found that federal officials may have violated prohibitions in the law against mandating, or even endorsing, specific curriculums. The reports also found that federal officials overlooked conflicts of interest among the contractors that advised states applying for grants, and that in some instances, these contractors wrote reading programs competing for the money, and stood to collect royalties if their programs were chosen.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has said that the problems in Reading First occurred largely before she took over in 2005, and that her office has new guidelines for awarding grants. She declined a request for an interview.

Madison officials say that a year after Wisconsin joined Reading First, in 2004, contractors pressured them to drop their approach, which blends some phonics with whole language in a program called Balanced Literacy. Instead, they gave up the money — about $2 million, according to officials here, who say their program raised reading scores.

In New York City, under pressure from federal officials, school authorities in 2004 dropped their citywide balanced literacy approach for a more structured program stronger in phonics, in 49 low-income schools. At stake was $34 million.

Across the country — in Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine and New Jersey — schools and districts with programs that did not stress phonics were either rejected for grants or pressured to change their methods even though some argued, as Madison did, that their programs met the law’s standard.

“We had data demonstrating that our children were learning at the rate that Reading First was aiming for, and they could not produce a single ounce of data to show the success rates of the program they were proposing,” said Art Rainwater, Madison’s superintendent of schools.

Both the House and the Senate are laying the groundwork for tough hearings on Reading First, which is up for renewal this year.

Robert Sweet Jr., a former Congressional aide who wrote much of the Reading First legislation, said the law aimed at breaking new ground by translating research into lesson plans. Under the law, the yardstick of a reading program’s scientific validity became a 2000 report by the National Reading Panel.

That panel, created by Congress, with members selected by G. Reid Lyon, a former head of a branch of the National Institutes of Health, set out to review the research and tell Americans what worked. It named phonics and related skills, vocabulary, fluency and reading comprehension as the cornerstones of effective reading instruction.

Mr. Sweet firmly believes that phonics is the superior method of instruction; he is now president of the National Right to Read Foundation, a pro-phonics group. His e-mail address begins phonicsman.

With Reading First, he said, “we felt we could put education on a new path.”

Dr. Lyon, another architect of the legislation, also strongly favors phonics. Teaching children to read by reason and context, as Parker did in Madison, rather than by sounding out letters to make words, is anathema, he said in an interview, suggesting that teachers of the whole language approach be prosecuted for “educational malpractice.”

Mr. Sweet agreed. “You’ve got billions used for the purchase of programs that have no validity or evidence that they work, and in fact they don’t, because you have so many kids coming out of the schools that can’t read,” he said.

But educators in Madison and elsewhere disagree about the effectiveness of phonics, and say their results prove their method works.

Under their system, the share of third graders reading at the top two levels, proficient and advanced, had risen to 82 percent by 2004, from 59 percent six years earlier, even as an influx of students in poverty, to 42 percent from 31 percent of Madison’s enrollment, could have driven down test scores. The share of Madison’s black students reading at the top levels had doubled to 64 percent in 2004 from 31 percent six years earlier.

And while 17 percent of African-Americans lacked basic reading skills when Madison started its reading effort in 1998, that number had plunged to 5 percent by 2004. The exams changed after 2004, making it impossible to compare recent results with those of 1998.

Other reading experts, like Richard Allington, past president of the International Reading Association, also challenge the case for phonics. Dr. Allington and others say the national panel’s review showed only minor benefits from phonics through first grade, and no strong support for one style of instruction. They also contend that children drilled in phonics end up with poor comprehension skills when they tackle more advanced books.

“This revisionist history of what the research says is wildly popular,” Dr. Allington said. “But it’s the main reason why so much of the reading community has largely rejected the National Reading Panel report and this large-scale vision of what an effective reading program looks like.”

Under Reading First, many were encouraged to use a pamphlet, “A Consumer’s Guide to Evaluating a Core Reading Program Grades K-3,” written by two special education professors, then at the University of Oregon, to gauge whether a program was backed by research.

But the guide also rewards practices, like using thin texts of limited vocabulary to practice syllables, for which there is no backing in research. Dr. Allington said the central role Washington assigned the guide effectively blocked from approval all but a few reading programs based on “made-up criteria.”

Deborah C. Simmons, who helped write the guide, said it largely reflected the available research, but acknowledged that even now, no studies have tested whether children learn to read faster or better through programs that rated highly in the guide.

Fatally for Madison, the guide does not consider consistent gains in reading achievement alone sufficient proof of a program’s worth.

In making their case, city officials turned to Kathryn Howe of the Reading First technical assistance center at the University of Oregon, one of several nationwide paid by the federal Education Department that helped states apply for grants. But early on, they began to suspect that Dr. Howe wanted them to dump their program.

At a workshop, she showed them how the guide valued exposing all children to identical instruction in phonics. Madison’s program is based on tailoring strategies individually, with less emphasis on drilling.

Dr. Howe used the Houghton Mifflin program as a model; officials here believed that approval would be certain if only they switched to that program, they said.

In interviews, Dr. Howe said she had not meant to endorse the Houghton Mifflin program and used it only for illustration, and had no ties to the company. She added that she might have been misunderstood.

“I certainly didn’t say, ‘You should buy Houghton Mifflin,’ ” she said. “I do remember saying: ‘You can do this without buying a purchased program. It’s easier if you have a purchased program, so you might think about that.’ ”

Dr. Howe said Madison’s program might have suited most students, but not those in the five schools applying for grants. “Maybe those students needed a different approach,” she said.

Mary Watson Peterson, Madison’s reading chief, said the city did use intensive phonics instruction, but only for struggling children.

After providing Dr. Howe extensive documentation, Madison officials received a letter from her and the center’s director, saying that because the city’s program lacked uniformity and relied too much on teacher judgment, they could not vouch to Washington that its approach was grounded in research.

Ultimately Madison withdrew from Reading First, said Mr. Rainwater, the superintendent, because educators here grew convinced that approval would never come. “It really boiled down to, we were going to have to abandon our reading program,” the superintendent said.

A subsequent letter from Dr. Howe seemed to confirm his view. “Madison made a good decision” in withdrawing, she wrote, “since Reading First is a very prescriptive program that does not match your district’s reading program as it stands now.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


  1. You may not see the rebuttals and refutations of this sloppily-researched, biased article.

    1. Rebuttal by Reid Lyon:


    Diana Jean Schemo’s recent piece about the Reading First program (In War Over Teaching Reading, Some Districts Clash With U.S., March 9) misstated several facts. First, her claim that I selected members for the National Reading Panel is flat wrong. Then Education Secretary Richard Riley and Dr. Duane Alexander, Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, were charged by Congress to select panel members. Second, she insinuates that Reading First supports only those reading programs based on phonics. That’s not true. Reading programs that receive funding must be comprehensive. Phonics is only one of five elements in such programs, and not necessarily more important than any of the others. The report of the National Reading Panel makes this clear. So does the law—at least a dozen times. Schemo’s implication that schools should have been allowed to use federal money for programs that were not based on the scientific criteria for Reading First funding is in direct contradiction with the law. Federal officials’ insistence that schools only use programs that aligned with the scientific research is exactly and specifically what the law requires. And, scientifically based reading approaches, strategies and methods are now being implemented successfully in over 5,000 schools across the country leading to substantial improvements in the reading abilities of children from disadvantaged environments. The bottom line is this: Reading First provides federal funding to those programs incorporating methods that are based on scientifically proven principles of instruction. When I served at the National Institutes of Health, my job was to work with other scientists and identify and validate such instructional methods and specify the conditions under which they were effective. Our findings, in combination with corroborating evidence from dozens of studies conducted since 1965 by other groups in the U.S. and internationally, became the genesis for Reading First. These findings were reported in the National Research Council’s report in 1998 and in the National Reading Panel Report in 2000. Moreover, these findings were presented to several congressional committees from 1997 through 2005. The federal government wouldn’t dole out money for medical procedures that aren’t proven to work. Why would it do otherwise for reading?

    Reid Lyon
    Dallas, Texas

    2. Bob Sweets' response
    March 10, 2007

    The New York Times
    229 W. 43rd St
    New York, NY 10036

    To the Editor:

    Time and space are not available to point out the naiveté and multiple errors in Diana Schemo's March 9th above the fold article, "In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S. – Local Clash." As the newspaper of record, that is a missed opportunity. In the same issue another front page story caught my eye. It discussed the 71 percent increase of crime in America's cities. In the article Rochester, NY Mayor Robert Duffy is quoted as saying, "his city had the state's highest dropout rate - half of all students drop out.” Hello? Anyone make a connection between the lack of reading skills, drop out rates and increased crime?

    Reading First unanimously passed Congress with strong bipartisan, bicameral support. The leaders in developing this legislation were Chairman of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee George Miller; Senate Education Committee members Ted Kennedy and Judd Gregg, and Minority Leader John Boehner. President Bush signed it into law January 8, 2002. None of these leaders considered that the RF law was abridging local control when the law was passed. Rather they believed that the time had come to change the paradigm from years of federal education program failure to one of success. The 2007 review of effective programs by the Office of Management and Budget placed RF as ONE of only four federal education programs considered to be “effective”. In RF, accountability was the theme, and what better way to improve reading instruction for America's most vulnerable children than to apply the converging findings of the last 30 years of research in reading methodology and brain function? This research was conducted at some of America's most prestigious Universities such as Harvard, Yale, NYU, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech, at a cost of more than $200 million.

    As Ms. Schemo knows very well, the RF law is very specific and unambiguous that a "comprehensive" approach to reading instruction is required for any state or local school accepting federal RF funds, not a "phonics only" approach. Rather, the law requires "explicit, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension strategies.”

    That the program was voluntary is illustrated by the fact that Madison, WI chose NOT to accept RF funds. They chose rather to eschew the converging findings of decades of research and continue using the discredited, unscientific and ineffective approach labeled "Whole Language" aka "Balanced Literacy," an approach used by most of America’s schools. However, the poor, disadvantaged children for whom RF was specifically targeted lost out. The State of Wisconsin’s own statistics tell the story. In 2005, forty five percent of African Americans in Madison schools are in the lowest two categories of reading ability. In another State assessment corroborating this fact forty six percent of third grade African American students scored below grade level compared to nine percent of white students.

    Implying that the whole language approach being used in a few classrooms in Madison, WI should apply to ALL classrooms in the nation is a classic example of why America never cleans up its act on illiteracy. The findings of quantitative research in reading instruction must be applied in our schools, taught in the schools of education and demanded by the public or the growing scourge of illiteracy, school dropouts and crime will continue to plague America with disastrous consequences.

    The Old Gray Lady missed a golden opportunity to shed a bright light on a decade’s old problem. Instead, she blinked and turned her head away from America's most vulnerable children. A missed opportunity indeed.

    Robert W. Sweet, Jr.
    Former Professional Staff Member
    Committee on Education and the Workforce
    U.S. House of Representatives

    3. Louisa Moats response

    New York Times
    Letters to the Editor

    To the Editor:

    The front page article on the federal Reading First program (March 9) was terribly disappointing and unconstructive. It neglected to mention that the General Accounting Office recently gave the Reading First program its highest (and unusual) rating of effectiveness. Why is it working to improve reading in low performing schools? Because there is overwhelming scientific consensus that comprehensive reading instruction, as required by Reading First, should include the components named in the legislation, including (but not limited to) phonics. Like the issue of global warming, there is no scientific debate about whether children benefit from direct instruction in how the alphabetic code of English represents speech. There is, in contrast, plenty of evidence that teaching children to guess at words through context and pictures is, indeed, malpractice, and that most poor readers fall by the wayside early because no one is teaching them how to read. Richard Allington, who was quoted in opposition to Reading First, has no credentials as a researcher or scientist. He and the "reading community" to which he refers have perpetuated myths and ineffective practices associated with Whole Language for decades – and look at what those have brought us. Contrary to the article's data, in a search of Madison's reading achievement scores we find that 45% of African-American children in that city are not proficient readers. After all, they were eligible for Reading First!

    The bipartisan legislators who supported the Reading First program never intended this to be another entitlement program. They had the courage to require educators to use the best practices supported by research – or leave our tax dollars for those who will.

    Louisa Moats, Ed.D.

    (Formerly co-investigator of the NICHD Early Interventions Project, a 5 year, federally funded study of reading instruction in high-poverty schools.)

    4. Linnea Ehri, Ph.D. and Joanna Williams, Ph.D. response

    To: New York Times Editor

    From: Linnea Ehri, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor, CUNY Graduate Center, and Joanna Williams, Ph.D., Professor, Columbia Teachers College

    Re: Letter to the Editor regarding the article by Diana Jean Schemo, March 9, "Federal-

    Local Clash in War Over Teaching Reading."

    We are appalled at the biased reporting in the article by Schemo, "Federal-Local Clash in War Ov er Teaching Reading." As members of the National Reading Panel (NRP), past presidents of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, and researchers who have studied reading acquisition for years, we wish to set the record straight.

    1. The reading community has not largely rejected the NRP report and its vision of effective reading instruction although some very vocal critics would like to think so.

    2. The NRP vision is not exclusively phonics; it includes four other essential components of a comprehensive reading program: phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension instruction. It is obvious to any teacher that if reading instruction consists only of phonics, children will not become skilled readers.

    3. The NRP did not advocate "drilling children in phonics." It did find strong evidence that systematic phonics instruction helps children learn to read, but this instruction comes in many effective forms.

    4. To become good readers, children must acquire knowledge of letter-sound relations and their application in reading and writing words. Some children get a head start by receiving help at home. Others do not, and so they must depend upon instruction in school. To insure that all of our children have the opportunity to become literate, schools must teach phonics.

    Linnea Ehri, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor
    Program in Educational Psychology
    CUNY Graduate Center
    365 Fifth Avenue
    New York, NY 10016

    Joanna Williams, Ph.D.
    Professor, Program in Cognitive Studies in Education
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    525 West 120 Street
    New York, NY 10027

    5. Timothy Shanahan response
    Letter to the Times.

    Dear Sir or Madam:

    Diana Jean Schemo's article (March 9, In War Over Teaching Reading) evidences a lot of sloppy reporting. The article makes it sound like mismanagement of the Reading First program occurred because "federal officials and contractors used the program to pressure schools to adopt approaches that emphasize phonics." Actually, the Reading First law required schools to employ programs that emphasized research-based instruction in phonics and other key elements of reading.

    Ms. Schemo describes successful schools serving Madison, WI and federal efforts to undermine their success. But Reading First funds are only for failing schools, so the schools in the Times article would not have been eligible for funding. If poor, minority kids were suffering high failure rates in Madison, why were Madison school officials so unwilling to improve reading instruction?

    The article quotes Richard Allington as saying that "the reading community has largely rejected the National Reading Panel." The Panel's report became the basis of Reading First, and has been cited hundreds of times in scholarly research journals, endorsed by the International Reading Association, and identified as one of the most influential educational reports by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. It is sad that there are some who still would prevent schools from providing sound reading instruction to children, and even sadder the Times would trumpet such misinformation, with no attempts at balance.

    Timothy Shanahan
    Professor of Urban Education, University of Illinois at Chicago
    President, International Reading Association

    6. Mark Seidenberg comments

    Madison WI school officials state that they decided to forgo $2 million of "Reading First" funds because this would have threatened the integrity of Madison's successful "balanced literacy" program.

    This account does not hold water. The Reading First program requires that funds be used for instructional activities that conform to the recommendations of the National Reading Panel. That panel recommended a multicomponent balanced literacy approach. The programs that would be funded in this way therefore posed no threat to Madison's existing "balanced literacy" approach. Nor would accepting these funds (which were to be used in 5 low-achieving schools) have any bearing on the curricula used in other schools. Thus the asserted threat to current practices did not exist.

    "Balanced literacy" programs raise other questions, however. The term refers to programs that mix elements of phonics and whole language approaches. However, in Madison, as in other districts, the balance between the two is not specified or monitored. When asked why her first grader had not been taught any phonics, one Madison parent was told, "your daughter was absent that day." My own experience as the parent of two young readers is that the amount of phonics is up to the discretion of the teacher, most of whom were schooled in the Whole Language method. The needed phonics instruction is then out-sourced, to parents, commercial "learning centers," and private tutors.

    Why would a school district decline to accept federal funding for remedial reading programs? There are two main reasons. First, there is resistance to federal control over local education via legislation such as NCLB, of which Reading First is a part. Reading First is seen as the slippery slope toward greater federal interference with local decision making. Madison school officials acknowledged this in articles published in our local newspapers.

    Second, there is resistance to two decades of research in psychology and neuroscience about how children learn to read and the importance of phonics in early reading education. The anti-phonics ideology among these educators runs so deep that they would deny funding for children who are at high risk of educational failure. This in a cash-strapped district that announced increases in classroom size and significant program cutbacks the same day your article appeared.

    In declining these funds, the Madison school district put its educational ideology ahead of the needs of its students

    Mark Seidenberg
    University of Wisconsin - Madison

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