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Will the Promise of the Reading Commission Fade Away?

As the clock ticks down on the Bush administration and the tenure of many appointees at the U.S. Department of Education, I keep wondering what will happen to the Commission on Reading Research.

It has been a long, foggy road for this panel, and sometimes I wonder if it has just been a mirage on the horizon. Probably not to the prominent researchers who've agreed to serve on it, and who have patiently endured what may be the longest pending announcement about an education panel in history. Could they still be going through the vetting process? Troy Justesen, who heads the vocational and adult education office at the department, assured me back in February—10 months ago—that it would happen soon.

The panel is supposed to follow up on the work of the National Reading Panel, which issued its influential report in 2000. That report was extremely limited in the scope of its mission, and its findings were far from comprehensive. Many experts in the field agree that there needs to be another, if not an ongoing, effort to review research on reading to include newer studies and qualitative and quantitative ones that could lead to solutions to the nation's reading woes.

I started reporting on the promise of a new panel in early 2002, just as the Bush administration was rolling out its flagship reading initiative, Reading First, which was touted as promoting research-based instruction. More than two and a half years later, the National Institute for Literacy, which was charged with organizing the panel, put out a call for nominations and named Jack Fletcher as chairman.

A year ago, the institute was ready to name the panel, but the announcement was halted by the Education Department pending further review of the nominees' credentials and potential conflicts of interest.

So one has to wonder how high a priority the powers that be in the current administration place on research-based reading instruction? They demanded such an approach under Reading First, but did not get the big bang in student achievement that they hoped for, at least based on this program evaluation. Could that signal that we don't know enough about what makes for effective instruction, or how to implement what we know on a large scale? Would the field benefit from an updated look at the research?

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