How the ‘reading wars’ are being reignited

Leslie Mercedes, 6, reads with Cameron Lineberger, site coordinator for Reading Partners, at Brightwood Education Campus. The nonprofit group, a Washington Post Charities grant winner, provides tutoring for children reading behind grade level. Susan Biddle / For The Washington Post
Leslie Mercedes, 6, reads with Cameron Lineberger, site coordinator for nonprofit Reading Partners, at Brightwood Education Campus last year. (By Susan Biddle / For The Washington Post)

This is a new piece about an issue raised in this post last week, titled “Literacy experts say reformers reviving ‘reading wars.’” Both of these refer to ratings published in June by a group called the National Council on Teacher Quality of teacher education schools. The NCTQ was created by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 2000 in order to promote alternative teacher certification and try to diminish the influence of education schools. In this post, Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher training, critiqued the NCTQ’s methodology and said the ratings did not reflect the work of ed schools. Last week’s post included a statement by members of the Reading Hall of Fame, an honorary group founded in 1973 with the aim of contributing to the improvement of reading instruction, arguing that the council’s work was effectively reviving the “reading wars” that raged in education for years over the best way to teach reading. This post, by Rachael Gabriel, assistant professor of reading education at the University of Connecticut looks deeper into this issue.

By Rachael Gabriel

The National Council of Teacher Quality’s recent report on teacher preparation programs claims that the majority of reading textbooks included on early-literacy course syllabi were either “partly or wholly unscientific.” The three “reading experts” behind the council’s evaluation of textbooks have one very troubling thing in common: They all worked as trainers for Louisa Moats’ Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading program (LETRS).

Moats is a somewhat polarizing figure in early literacy research circles because of her staunch opposition to whole language and balanced literacy approaches.  The divide between Moats’s approach, whole language and now balanced literacy, is the same fault line that caused the historic “reading wars” over methods of instruction — historic, that is, until now, as the council seems intent on reviving them by assembling a biased and limited panel to rate the choices of professors from across the country.

Seven of Moats’ texts appear on the list as “approved,” though no other author’s work is approved more than three times.  Five of her seven approved volumes are the core texts for the LETRS programs that NCTQ “experts” worked for as trainers. Out of the 866 textbooks reviewed, this panel only found merit in 49 of them, which means Louisa Moats is single-handedly responsible for a full 14 percent of what’s worth reading out there.

Though NCTQ claims the panel was sorting based on the presence of a “scientific basis,” to each textbook, their ratings prove them wrong.  For example, Marie Clay, the founder of Reading Recovery and godmother of emergent literacy, is listed eight times, and each time deemed either unacceptable or irrelevant to the study of early literacy.  Reading Recovery is the only reading program that has received the highest rating for evidence of positive effects from the Institute for Education Science’s What Works Clearinghouse.  Moats, on the other hand, has gotten less than stellar reviews for her programs, which had few studies that met the clearinghouse standard of evidence and no effect on student achievement.  So, if scientific, research-based approaches to reading instruction are what NCTQ was after, they missed by a mile.

Like their review of teacher preparation programs, which ignored existing outcome measures in favor of an anemic attempt to review inputs like GPAs and course syllabi, this review of materials for early literacy only considers the titles on the syllabus: Not how they were presented, critiqued, applied or combined, and certainly not how they impacted the development of pre-service teachers or the achievement of students.

It isn’t the treatment of any single author or their perspective that is problematic in this review.  Rather, ignoring evidence and outcomes to holding up a single version of “scientificness” in a field where diverse approaches have and will always be necessary, is a recipe for a narrow and uninformed curriculum for teachers and their students. Moats herself has campaigned against “ineffective reading programs that surreptitiously hide under the ‘scientifically based’ banner.” By her own definition, such programs “fail to incorporate the content and instructional methods proven to work best with students learning to read.”  I agree that requiring students to learn from materials that do not have a proven track record of success is unconscionable, but it seems NCTQ is happy to ignore this.

According to reports from the clearinghouse, looking at outcomes, rather than inputs, would have disqualified the work of authors like Louisa Moats. A summary of the clearinghouse report on LETRS, a professional development program with texts approved by the NCTQ panel, asserts:

 Providing second-grade teachers training based on the LETRS curriculum (with or without the instructional coaches) increased their knowledge of reading instruction techniques and their use of explicit instruction. However, it did not increase the reading test scores of their students.”

In other words, teachers learned what was in the text, but doing so had no observable impact on their students. Another reason to favor outputs over inputs when rating preparation programs. The number of times Moats and hundreds of other authors appear on the review list demonstrates that professors across the country find value in their work, despite what outside reviewers opine.  Rather than creating a mechanism for banning some books and boosting the sales of others, NCTQ might have invested in broadcasting or encouraging research on the outcomes of teachers who espouse the ideas of one text or another, or the results of teacher educators who use texts in varied ways.

Instead, they held up a narrow and troubled slice of all that could have been possible when teachers and researchers work together to build instruction that works for kids –  narrowing what counts as acceptable at a time when teachers need even richer and broader understandings of literacy than ever before — and reigniting an old and tired war to make some authors money in the process.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 20, 2013