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Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Here is a good column from the City Journal about the fruit which one aspect of Bush's No Child Left Behind policy has reaped. Read it if you get the chance, the mainstream media won't ever mention this.
At $1 billion per year, Reading First, part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, accounts for just 2 percent of federal education spending. Yet this program for lifting reading achievement, always the apple of George W. Bush’s eye, is already delivering promising results. The commonsense idea informing it—that the best scientific research should guide the teaching of reading—was one of Bush’s signature education initiatives since his days as Texas governor, and it makes even more sense today.
To see clearly what’s at stake, we need to remind ourselves of the gravity of the national problem that Reading First seeks to solve—and of how it proposes to solve it.
After a century and a half of universal public education, and despite the highest per-pupil expenditure on public elementary and secondary education in the world, 40 percent of U.S. fourth-graders are reading below the minimally acceptable level, according to the gold-standard NAEP test. For minority students in inner-city schools, the reading failure rate is a shocking 65 percent. This educational failure bodes ill: children who don’t read by fourth grade almost always fall behind in all other subjects, often wind up in costly special education programs, and, as adults, have higher rates of drug addiction, incarceration, and welfare dependency.

Making the situation more tragic, nineteenth-century American children learned to read very well, thank you, in one-room schoolhouses, with nothing more than a single determined teacher wielding Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller and the McGuffey readers. Even before a public school system existed in America, Alexis de Tocqueville had marveled at the country’s extraordinarily high literacy rates.

Happily, recent developments point the way to a solution to the nation’s reading woes. For the past several decades, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), a wing of the National Institutes of Health, has sponsored reading research at universities across the U.S, with scientists from cognitive neuroscience, pediatrics, genetics, educational psychology, and child development publishing hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that describe not just how children learn to read but why so many fall behind—and how schools can best keep it from happening.

The converging scientific evidence confirms what our great-grandmothers knew intuitively. The most effective reading instruction for most children—especially for those from disadvantaged homes—begins by training them to recognize the relationship between letters and the sounds they make (phonemic awareness), moves on to teaching them how to sound out whole words (phonics), and then focuses on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Reading science has also developed effective new technologies to assess students’ progress in mastering the skills they need to decode written language. To make an analogy with medical science, reading science has discovered not only the educational equivalent of treating diabetes but also the technology that monitors how the treatment is working.

Unfortunately, the similarities between reading science and the medical kind end there. A breakthrough in medical research soon leads to new clinical practice. In education, however, the science has collided head-on with the ideologies and economic interests of the panjandrums of public education.

Reading science is a mortal threat to what E. D. Hirsch has called the “Thoughtworld” of American education—the system of “progressive” beliefs about classroom instruction promulgated by the ed schools that monopolize teacher training. The Thoughtworld has a cult-like attachment to a Romantic theory of reading instruction called “whole language,” which recently morphed into “balanced literacy” to make it sound more reasonable to dubious parents. Balanced-literacy true believers claim that to subject children to the “drill and kill” of direct phonics instruction is a form of child abuse.

The balanced-literacy cultists believe that learning to read is a natural process and that most children can intuit the alphabetic principle and the meaning of printed words with a little guidance from a teacher and through pleasant cooperative classroom activities such as “shared reading” and “reading circles.” Basically, this approach says that kids can learn to read by reading—by immersing themselves in print. And for some children from literate homes, where print and articulate conversation abound, this approach can work.
[T]he evidence is starting to come in. More than 5,600 schools in 1,700 school districts nationwide have received Reading First grants. The participation level is impressive in itself. It means that state education agencies and a large number of districts have pledged (in writing) to use Reading First grants exclusively to teach according to the principles of Scientifically Based Reading Research—a phrase that appears so often in the legislation that it has become an acronym, SBRR. So unless officials are lying and just grabbing the money, we now have a critical mass of educators willing to try the pro-science side of the reading wars.
A comprehensive study by an outside evaluator will appear in 2007, measuring Reading First’s influence on student achievement nationally. But some states and districts are already seeing significant improvement. When the relevant congressional committees hold hearings on NCLB reauthorization, they might start by looking to neighboring Virginia, where they’ll discover a dramatic example of Reading First’s power. With apologies to Dickens, we might call it a tale of two school districts—one welcoming Reading First, the other disdaining it.

The first, Richmond, offers a classic profile of an inner-city school district. Of its 25,000 students, 95 percent are black, more than 70 percent are poor enough to be in the free-lunch program, and 44 percent change schools during the year. Until 2001, Richmond’s student test scores were among Virginia’s worst. Only five of the district’s 51 schools achieved the status of full state accreditation.

But 2001 is also when Richmond school officials embarked on an ambitious reform, whose centerpiece was a standardized reading program based on evidence from the NICHD studies. By the time Reading First funds were available in 2002, Richmond was already up and running with a phonics-based reading program called Voyager Universal Literacy. The district channeled the modest $450,000 Reading First grant into a handful of its lowest-performing schools. But the principles of scientific reading instruction took hold throughout the district.

Since then, Richmond’s test scores have skyrocketed. By 2003, the number of the district’s schools achieving full state accreditation had climbed to 22. The next year, it rose to 39 and has now reached 44.
[T]he $6 billion for Reading First has more generally been one of the best investments ever in federal education spending. It has already brought some remarkable reading breakthroughs in many parts of the country and among at-risk students. It has spread awareness of what should be going on in the classrooms and in the teacher-training institutions. It has shown that a comprehensive solution to the nation’s reading crisis is right in front of our noses. If, in another decade, an unacceptable proportion of America’s children still can’t read by fourth grade, don’t blame George Bush. Blame the education leaders in our states and cities who, offered the solution, didn’t grab it.


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Darius' book montage

The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
Les Misérables

Darius Teichroew's favorite books »