Wednesday, May 04, 2005

In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit and Education Collide --

This is a review of the book by Elaine grain from the TCO Record by Gary Ratner, and according to this review Ms. Garan has a lot to say especially about NCLB, the NRP Report, and Reading First, which require "scientifically" based curricula.

"Although the scientific research requirement may be reasonable on its face, Garan argues that the government is abusive in its administration of the requirement. Instead of the government's consistently applying the same objective standard of scientific research, she asserts, there is no set standard. . . . The definition of science now amounts to this: If we [government officials] approve it, it's scientific. If we don't, it's not. (p. 45). Instead of the government's fairly evaluating all reading programs submitted to it, Garan indicates that it has approved a limited number of particular commercial reading programs. (These include McGraw-Hill's Open Court Reading and Houghton Mifflin's reading program) In one instance of what Garan views as administrative abuse, the President's reading adviser made a public recommendation against use of a different commercial program (not among the ones the government has approved), and other government reading advisers pressured New York City not to seek funding for purchasing it, even though it is, according to Garan, both "scientific" and much less expensive than the ones the government has approved (pp. 45, 81-82)

Moreover, Garan says, the government has approved certain commercial reading programs notwithstanding that the seminal report of the congressionally created National Reading Panel (NRP) found that they do not significantly improve children's reading. Indeed, the NRP report found that use of the Open Court Reading program in first grade actually resulted in children's loss of reading skills "in every skill that was tested," including, most importantly, comprehension and spelling (pp. 87, 88). Despite this finding, Garan notes, "Open Court is the hands-down favorite with the Reading First panels of experts" (p. 81).

Even worse, the NRP "summary booklet" that "forms the basis of current [NCLB] legislation and mandates" (p. 97) misrepresents what the full report found. Whereas the report itself explicitly found that "'systematic phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance [of the students assessed] in 2nd through 6th grade' (NRP report 2-88)'" (p. 94), the summary booklet asserts that the report "'revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade"NRP report 2-88)" (p. 97) Even though the NRP was informed that its summary booklet contained this serious misrepresentation, the panel continued to publish it for years on its Web site without change.

As to alleged conflicts of interest, Garan's principal argument seems to be that many of the preparers of the NRP report and the summary booklet were not independent analysts but had a personal investment in what these documents would conclude. For example, NRP adviser Barbara Foorman had authored four of the studies she was responsible for reviewing, and three more had been written by coauthors of her own "profitable commercial program" (p. 102). In addition, "[t]he NRP summary (inaccurately reporting the findings) was written in part by Widmeyer-Baker, the public relations firm that Open Court's publisher, McGraw-Hill, pays to promote its products" (p. 99).

As noted earlier, Garan emphasizes that the full NRP report found that phonics instruction did not significantly improve, and in some instances retarded, acquisition of reading skills. She also points out that the NRP "did not recommend any commercial reading program, but it actually warned against the boring skill and drill of scripted programs and called for balanced reading" (p. 90). Assuming that these statements are accurate, even if there were conflicts of interest among NRP participants, it's not apparent that they impaired the objectivity or validity of the report itself...


Beyond challenging the justification for insisting on the use of commercial reading programs, Garan argues that the use of "scripted" programs causes severe injuries to teaching, learning, and opportunities for social advancement. Since instructors of scripted programs are not intended or expected to be able to meet individual students' unique learning needs, but only to implement a preset script, there is no need to prepare teachers of such programs to use diverse pedagogical methods. In this respect, Garan observes, NCLB is "redefining what it means to be a teacher" (p. 145). Further, Garan asserts, scripted programs provide a low-level curriculum teaching low-level thinking skills.

In conclusion, Garan has performed a valuable service by challenging the purported "scientific basis" for the commercial reading programs that the government requires states and localities to adopt to receive funding under NCLB's Reading First initiative. And she is right to urge parents and teachers to learn more about the new NCLB "reforms," to organize, and to advocate at the state and local levels against "corporate takeovers" of public education and "deskilling of teachers" (p. 150)...

And by the way a study in April's Reading Teacher finds that students in two of those Reading First schools do not actually decode or comprehend as well as students from a school where reading is taught using the Fountas and Pinnell literature based style of guided reading. (Sorry you need to be a subscriber to read the report but perhaps you should join anyway, and perhaps also buy Garan's book while your at it.))

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