It is like the perfect storm for reading instruction. The final IG report on Reading First implementation. The ramp-up for RF reauthorization. And now a review of Reading Recovery on the What Works Clearinghouse website. I’ll admit, when I first saw the Reading Recovery report on WWC, I had to look again to make sure I was reading it correctly.
I waited patiently to see how long it would take for the conflict between RR and RF to make its way into the media. It was only a matter of days. Education Week posted a piece on the disparity on its website earlier this week. And Eduwonk reflected on the debate earlier today.
Full disclosure, I was a consultant to the National Reading Panel throughout its entire lifespan. And I remember clearly the discussions about Reading Recovery. Their presentations to the Panel. The review of their research base. And the dialogue on how Reading Recovery aligned with the the charge placed on the NRP.
Education Week seems to be painting this to show that WWC, and thus the Institute for Education Sciences, is contradicting Reading First. After all, WWC reviewed the research on Reading Recovery, and deemed it an effective program in teaching children to read, while RF has allegedly denied use of its funds for RR adoption.
As the media begins to dissect this issue (and I am sure they will), they need to remember there are clear distinctions between the intents of WWC, RF, and NRP.
The NRP was charged with looking at the existing research base and determining what components include a strong research base, could be put to use immediately in the schools, and could be implemented at scale. That last piece — scalability — is essential in understanding this issue. While RR has a research base (I’ll reserve judgment on the strength of the research itself), it has never been viewed as a truly scalable solution. To many, RR is one-to-one intervention. Can we really expect all of our elementary schools to implement a one-to-one instructional model?
Reading First was designed to take the findings of the NRP — the need for research-based programs built on the foundations of phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension — and empower our states, districts, and schools to put such research-based programs into practice in classrooms throughout the nation. Regardless of what one thinks about the effectiveness of implementation or the motives of some of the players, the mission of RF is one we all should share. RF is about ensuring that every classroom and every child receive access to research-based instruction proven effective in teaching children to read. A mouthful, yes, but it is a promise that our classrooms would no longer serve as instructional test tubes, and that every student has a right to be a proficient reader, and every school has an obligation to fulfill that right.
WWC was designed to collect, screen, and identify the effectiveness of educational interventions. Essentially, it validates the research, looking comprehensively at the design, analysis, and reporting of the data. A simple explanation for a complex process.
So what does all this mean? How does one really communicate the differences and not simply lump them all together? Some key rhetorical points to consider:
* After all these years (we are now approaching the seventh anniversary of the NRP’s release) the findings of the National Reading Panel have withstood the criticisms, the character attacks, and the gross misrepresentations. The five tenets of effective reading instruction still stand. And when a Rutgers University professor decided to re-examine the NRP’s findings, in 2002, in an effort to show they were wrong, his own research demonstrated that the research findings of the NRP stood firm. The NRP succeeded in mission — it identified and documented the essential components any reading program needed to succeed.
* Reading First is meant to empower schools to do the right thing. By providing both the carrot and stick of federal funds to implement and enforce SBRR, the law provides the opportunity for every school in the country to put research-proven instruction in their classrooms, and get every child reading at grade level.
* WWC is not in the business of reviewing scalability, cost, or similar implementation issues. It reviews the research it has been provided. And, in this case, that research says, according to WWC, that in those classrooms that can afford RR and can implement it with fidelity, Reading Recovery can be effective in teaching children to read. No one, not even the NRP, has ever said RR doesn’t work, particularly if placed in the right environment.
I recognize that this is more wonkish than most of what I tend to opine on, but it is essential to understand if we are to continue discussing Reading First and how we improve reading instruction in our schools. NRP is a non-negotiable that has withstood the test of time and is the basis for a new era in education research, an era of accountability, replicability, and effectiveness. If managed appropriately and with the full intent of the law behind it, RF is the mechanism for getting those NRP findings into the classrooms that need them the most, providing the resources to adopt SBRR programs and guidance on effective implementation. WWC is the external reviewer, providing school districts with additional validation and understanding of the specific programs they may adopt in the pursuit of real instructional reform.
The short story — these are three distinct programs with three distinct impacts on the improvement of our schools. Let’s not lump them all together, in an attempt to use X to disprove Y and Z to call Y into question. These all serve a role, and they all can be a part of student success.
I yield the soapbox.