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Dear Diane,

Glad to hear you are of two minds about this “scientifically-proven” stuff that the Bush administration is so fond of touting when it comes to K-12 schooling. To pursue the point a bit.

Why do I think the Bush Administration claim to stand for science when it comes to teaching reading to be nonsense? Since being well educated rests, I’d argue, on respect for credible evidence and learning from the past it would seem I’d count Bush as an ally. (I would perhaps chuckle at the irony that the Bushites require obedience to "scientific evidence" when it comes to prescribing how Johnny learns to read but not the scientific consensus on global warming, or the origins of the species.)

So why do I cringe every time I hear that phrase? Because there is nothing comparable in the science or consensus behind the research on learning to read that should allow the Federal government to dictate particular publisher products to the nation's schools, nor ever likely to be. It’s dumbing down Science. Even in the field of medicine or related fields like nutrition we are more humble about the role of science. When I showed three highly regarded doctors my x-rays, described my symptoms and underwent an examination not long ago, I got more than one opinion. In the end, despite my enormous respect for the profession, I had to exercise my judgment. Good doctors are, furthermore, aware that individuals differ and what’s best for x may not for y. Unlike the Fed’s understanding of reading research.

Fortunately Big Brother doesn't dictate that overweight people buy specific brand-named diet cures, or that we outlaw coffee one year and then require it the next based on the latest Science research. Yet defining and measuring good reading is more, not less complex than losing weight, or testing the impact of coffee. For some odd reason when it comes to the teaching of reading we have allowed the Department of Education to exercise the power of the purse to dictate which reading methods we buy, in the name of Science!


(p.s. It would help if teachers had the professional time to be the wisest professionals they could be, still I’m not prepared to substitute the wisdom of those who do not know my kids at all for the school’s judgment and mine.)


Also worth noting that Office of the Inspector General found that the same Department of Education that is pushing "scientific evidence" was guilty of overlooking issues of bias and lack of objectivity in dealing with a contract related to Reading First assistance programs, and also appeared to promote one of assessments related to Reading First (which they are not supposed to do!).
Read the report at

or a summary of it at

Last time I checked, issues of bias and objectivity are key to questions of "scientific evidence", so maybe the current powers-that-be in the Department of Education should be a little more rigorous in their own methods before they start telling everyone else what counts as valid knowledge.

Would either of you comment on the trend of teaching reading earlier and earlier. Children in kindergarten are now being taught what used to be taught in first grade. If we are using "scientific research", perhaps we need to look at child development theory and what is appropriate for young children. Also, many children do not come to school "ready to learn" and very little is said about this when talking about education reform. If children are coming to school without proper nurturing, too much media influence, and unstable family life, then even the best teaching practices won't be effective. Many parents, who may be well intentioned, seem to lack confidence in how to parent and set limits for their children. Perhaps, we need to educate families on how to parent, protect, and nurture children properly.

The anti-science, anti-research bias here reminds me of a wonderful quote I read years ago in a good mystery book, to wit: "If you don't trust statistics, next time your doctor wants to do a blood test, tell him to 'take it all.' "

When my son was young, although he tested out with an exceptionally high IQ, the Hunter College Elementary School powers-that-be refused to even interview him, much less admit him. A group of parents, to which I belonged, who all had kids in similar situations got together and started (via blood, sweat and tears) The Anderson Program for exceptionally gifted children in the very liberal Upper West Side's Community School District 3.

Unfortunately, Anderson, like all other CSD 3's schools and programs, was afflicted with the district's whole language penchant, to the point that even Anderson teachers were strictly prohibited from teaching reading, although the kids were literally begging to be taught. My son, although quite, quite bright, was one of those kids who needed explicit, systematic reading and spelling instruction. He didn't get it on his own. His 2nd grade teacher, defying authority (she was a very senior, tenured teacher), taught some reading anyway, but didn't have time for teaching spelling. So he was a pretty decent reader by end 2nd grade, but his spelling was, frankly, atrocious to the nth degree. Intelligent kids can get very, very inventive!

For 3rd grade, we transferred him to Forest Hills' PS 196, which had a principal - bless her soul - who did the Harcourt Open Court program thoroughly and completely. She simply insisted that all teachers get with this program and drove those who refused, or who couldn't master and implement it, right out of her school. Thank you, Eleanor Levy, wherever you are!

The school had 3 classes per grade, but for reading, and separately for math, regrouped all kids into "advanced," "grade level" or "below grade level/need more help" classes. A month after school began, progeny's regular home class teacher told me she wanted to refer him for a special ed evaluation. She said he was a good reader, and obviously extremely intelligent, but his spelling was so terribly poor that it had to be due to a disability.

Instead, I went to his reading class' teacher and privately begged her to just teach him to spell. She was kind and gracious enough to believe me and give him explicit spelling lessons when she could grab the time. So by the end of 3rd grade, he was a truly advanced reader and a decent speller. They did the Harcourt Open Court 3rd grade program - quickly - and then went on to fantastic literature. My son refused to leave our apartment over Christmas vacation until he'd finished The Hobbit, which they'd started in class, and got half way through the next book in the series, too.

PS 196 was an interesting school. While most people think "upper middle class, white" when they think about Forest Hills, in fact, a large proportion of the neighborhood - and Ps 196's students - lived in pre-war, rent-controlled apartment complexes. 196 had a very diverse student body, racially, ethnically and SES-wise speaking. My son attended; so did the 3 kids of the Puerto Rican janitor who lived in the apartment next to ours. So did a lot of similar kids, since the really comfortable families sent their children to private schools.

The kids of our janitor-neighbors did fantastically at 196: all went on to middle school honors programs; all did well in high school, and their proud parents, neither of whom were graduated from high school until after their kids all started college, told us that all the kids received full scholarships to fine universities. It also turned out that PS 196 also had an extremely low rate of referral of students for special ed evaluations.

Harcourt's Open Court program is, I'm told, one of the programs which USDOE looked favorably upon for Reading First because there was a lot of scientific data showing that it was effective in teaching diverse children how to read. I am not aware of any substantial body of similar research regarding any of the whole language programs or approaches.

So, again, if scientific research is supposed to be a suspect basis for selecting an effective reading program for a diverse group of children ... next time you go to the doctor, perhaps you should consider telling him to take it all?

Dee Alpert
The SpecialEducationMuckraker.com

Dee, thanks for sharing your story.

However, please check the publisher for Open Court. My textbooks say SRA/McGraw-Hill, not Harcourt.

Hi Suzanne, Well there are those in the field--like the Finns who get high marks for reading a lot, or the Waldorf/Steiner School folks--who don't start any instruction in reading until kids are about 7 years of age. I'll bet a lot of the kids have already learned to read on their own by then, which helps! I predict that our reading problems will grow the earlier we instruct in reading, above all for boys. My rule? When they seem eager and ready for it, and before they start to worry that there must be something wrong with them! The same way I responded to my kids learning to talk, walk, ride a bike, swim, and on and on. We also are losing those early years of listening to stories--written and oral--with no intention of instructing, except that any good story has unintended instructional value.

Dee--it's really my love of science that makes me nervous about words like "scientifically-proven". Even in science there's a lot more "uncertainty" than such phrases suggest. Yes, there is a scientific bent of mind--meaning we learn from our own and other people's experiences, some of which is more systematically gathered than others. But I remain a skeptic about the degree of certainty that we seem so eager to find to avoid judgment. I honor your anecdotal stories; and my own! They lead in opposite directions, but I keep them both in mind, Of course, it's harder to get data on "whole language" because it's not a program, but an approach. It happens to be the approach popular 70 years agao when I learned to read. Of course, there was far less testing then, thank goodness. So we didn't judge everything by test scores which are a very inadequate way to find out whether someone can read well. You can't do well on a test if you can't read at all; but you can do poorly on a test and be a fluent and voracious reader.

Ah - it's true that I've become spellcheck dependent. My spelling skills are okay, but my typing skills'

Dee, I'm so delighted with your blood sample metaphor. I heard that first from a friend, Susan Harman, who used it as a response to testing every kids every year for "accountability" purposes. Sampling is so much more effective, and undermines teaching to the test, and is thus more accurate and less corruptible. But we've been told that the "public" doesn't understand sampling!

It's another argument in favor of more attention in our schools to statistics and probability theory.

For a good commentary on the limits of scientific thinking for schooling, please see David Ferrero's "Does 'Research Based' Mean 'Value Neutral,'" published in Phi Delta Kappan, February 2005 (pp. 425-432). A trenchant quote from Ferrero's article: "Research tells us almost nothing about what to teach and why to teach it. This is because what and why aren't empirical questions; they are normative ones. Their answers derive from beliefs, value systems and world views." -Jim Nehring, UMass Lowell

Susan Weaver-Goss,

I meant to respond llong ago to your comments. Yes I think we are foolishly pushing children into reading too early, and doing damage in the process. I don't think however that children are "not ready" for Kindergarten or first grade--or for learning in general. They can't help learning from the moment they appear in the world. And they are efficient learners--about what interests them, what counts in their lives. Expanding their interests through books is fine and healthy, and to be applauded. But first comes "experiencing" the world, including talking about it, imagining it, playing with it, creating replicas of it, and questioning it. The text comes second, and when it overwhelms children's curiosity--and narrows it down only to symbols of the world--it cuts us off from the rich intellectual and asthetic future we are all entitled to. So! That's my rant. Thanks for giving me a chance to make it. Deborah

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