Reading choices narrow for schools with federal aid

The start of the school year brought a radical new reading curriculum to schools across New York City. Teachers carved out pockets of time so their students could curl up with well-loved children's books slipped off the shelves of their classroom libraries.

And phonics lessons that relied on simple texts - "Nat and the rat sat on the mat" - to teach children how sounds correspond with letters, were balanced with a focus on teasing out meaning from complex sentences.

Then, earlier this month, the city's education department abruptly decided to abandon its nascent curriculum in 49 struggling elementary schools. In its place - a more traditional phonics program. By doing this, the city hopes to qualify for $34 million in federal funding.

In a letter to the New York Post, Joel Klein, New York City's schools chancellor, wrote: "Officials in the federal and state governments have been putting pressure on districts to adopt a scripted approach to teaching literacy in the early grades. While we disagree with that approach ... we did not want to lose these potential resources."

New York is not alone. Districts from Boston to San Diego have had to weigh whether winning a chunk of the $900 million set aside through Reading First - President Bush's national literacy initiative and part of the 2001 education reform act No Child Left Behind - is worth ceding local control of reading curricula.

To qualify for Reading First dollars, a district must use a reading program supported by "scientifically based research." The catch: The science, according to Washington, points to phonics.

In a time when a dismal 37 percent of fourth-graders are reading below grade level, the Bush administration has pinned its hopes on phonics. But not everyone is hooked.

The use of science to support phonics has rekindled the "reading wars," a long smoldering debate that pits explicit phonics against "whole language" - reading for meaning and context. And the swirl of ensuing questions range from what "scientifically based research" actually means to questions about links between the publishers of commercial phonics programs and the Bush administration.

In 1997, the National Reading Panel was convened at the request of Congress. The panel conducted a meta-study - a survey of all the reading research in the academic ether. They hoped to find a common thread leading to the best method for teaching children to read, and the findings of its 14 members became the basis for the Reading First initiative.

While the panel did not study or endorse any commercial reading programs, its findings have given a clear edge to those that include explicit phonics. And many publishers of programs that include explicit phonics on the market today advertise their products as science-based.

"What they mean is that there's a little vocabulary instruction. There's a little phonics instruction. There's some comprehension instruction, and so on," explains Michael Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University in California, who was a National Reading Panel member. "It doesn't mean that they've tested this program to see that it works better than other programs."

Still, he says, many of these programs are effective because they provide teachers with structure, and they incorporate the five elements the panel found to improve a child's chance of learning to read: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

Few would argue with the finding that science supports phonics instruction for young readers.

Yet those who argue for a more balanced approach to reading instruction are troubled by the way Washington has sided with explicit phonics, which may not be appropriate for all children.

Critics also worry about the studies left out of the reading panel's scope. Of 100,000 studies first culled by the panel, all but experimental research that adhered to the scientific method were eliminated. That left around 40.

"It's raising quantifiable data to the equivalent of a truth and saying nothing else is true," says Kenneth Goodman, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona's College of Education in Tucson.

Shortly before the release of the National Reading Panel's findings in 2000, one member, Joanne Yatvin, decided to pen a dissent.

She worried that the report might be misunderstood and misused by the government and phonics promoters to dictate reading instruction. "And that is in fact what happened," she says today.

Other observers have questioned the widespread use of McGraw-Hill's phonics products in schools throughout the country. They point to the close ties between the McGraw and Bush families. Furthermore, the Widmeyer-Baker Group, the public relations company hired to promote the panel's findings, has counted McGraw-Hill among its clients.

Some educators say that reducing reading to phonics instruction with a script turns teachers into automatons with little room to tailor lessons to the individual needs of their pupils. And it doesn't account for the important role teachers play in the education process.

"Even if you could prove that all these top-down mandates had science behind them, the human spirit would deny and resist that," says Thomas Newkirk, director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institute in Durham.

Professor Kamil at Stanford disagrees. He acknowledges that there may be a "mystery" and "art" to teaching. "But there's a heck of a lot of science," he says. "And we can deal with science."

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