“Reading” the Research

The early ballots on beginning reading programs are in, and the results are quite interesting.  For those who missed it, the What Works Clearinghouse released its review of the research behind a significant number of beginning reading programs.  EdWeek’s Kathleen Manzo has a good piece on the topic — http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/08/15/01whatworks_web.h27.html.

Following months of criticism regarding Reading First and how programs were chosen or how programs were discouraged from implementation, the WWC’s information is bound to further confuse the issue.  WWC has looked positively on the research behind Reading Recovery, a program that bore the perception of being on the RF black list.  Programs that have benefited under the RF program, like Voyager, posted mixed results.

So what does it all mean?  As Eduflack opined back in March, there is a big difference between WWC and RF.  http://blog.eduflack.com/2007/03/21/can-reading-recover.aspx  And these reviews only strengthen that view.  Knowing all this, how exactly does an ed reformer talk about doing what works in reading instruction, when it seems we have no idea what actually works?

First, it is clear that the WWC (and by extension, IES) is doing its job.  WWC was not designed to hand out gold stars to off-the-shelf basals.  It’s goal was to review and evaluate the research behind what was put in the classroom.  It’s done just that.  Slowly but surely, WWC is helping to change the educational culture, placing a far greater emphasis on the research base.  And they mean real research, not what many pass off for “research” these days.

Second, it demonstrates there is no magic bullet when it comes to reading instruction.  If a school is looking for a quick fix, and believes that one publisher is going to meet all of its reading instruction needs, it is setting itself to be severely disappointed.  Some are strong in alphabetics. Others in comprehension.  And some on general reading achievement.  If you want to get kids reading, you need to understand the specific needs of your classroom or district, and apply the appropriate evidence-based interventions.

Third, this demonstrates there is a notable difference between scientifically based reading research and pre-packaged programs.  Sure, many publishers simply attach the National Reading Panel research to their products, slapping a “research based” sticker on it.  But what NRP actually did is identify those specific research-based components necessary to reading success.  Strong skills in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.  All are necessary.  All come with research-based principles for effective teaching.  WWC is measuring whether those research-based principles are found in the products we use, and whether we can provide that they are effectively conveyed and student achievement is demonstrably measured.

Where does that leave us?  It’s clear we still need a better understand of research, how it is gathered, and how it is evaluated.  And it needs to be good research.  We need to learn the questions to ask about products, understanding whether there is a real research base or whether there is simply some snazzy wrappings to distract us from the lack of evidence.  And we need to continue to push forward on this evolution to a research-based classroom.

At the end of the day, this should not be a debate about Open Court or Trophies or Voyager or Reading Recovery.  The name shouldn’t matter.  We need to really look under the hood, taking a close look at what the program is built on and what results the program is getting.  Our end game is getting all kids reading and boosting student achievement.  That doesn’t come from a logo, a catchy slogan, or a collection of smiling child photos.  It comes from an evidence base.  Like it or not, WWC is getting us a little closer to it.

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