Let's use research to fix what's wrong with our schools

January 29, 1998|By William R. Brody

RECENTLY, readers of The Sun have learned about the re-emergence of phonics as the preferred method of reading instruction in places as diverse as Oakland, Calif., and Auckland, New Zealand.

This ''sound it out'' approach to reading has been used successfully since the 1700s. But in the 1980s, both California and New Zealand (and many other localities) abandoned phonics for a new approach called whole language. In these places, phonics went the way of the McGuffey Reader, consigned to the dustbins of outmoded instructional history.

The trouble is, research going back almost half a century has consistently demonstrated that phonics is the single most effective system of reading instruction.

As if to illustrate that point, the results of whole language instruction in California, New Zealand and elsewhere were nothing less than disastrous. Seven years after rejecting phonics for whole language, California's fourth-graders had dropped from 12th place in reading achievement to dead last of 39 states tested. Fully 60 percent of the state's 9- and 10-year-olds were reading below grade level. Meanwhile, New Zealand children, once the world's best English readers, declined to sixth place, behind the United States.

Clearly, we have a problem, as The Sun's ''Reading by 9'' series has so successfully documented.

But the problem is not, I believe, a simple question of whole-language vs. phonics. The real issue is our reluctance in education to use the very tools that have made U.S. technology dominant in nearly every other field.

I'm speaking of research, the systematic, scientific and dispassionate study of what works and what doesn't. It's time we started using our tremendous research expertise to fix what's wrong with U.S. schools.

At present, bona fide research efforts into K-12 education are woefully underfunded. Consider the U.S. pharmaceuticals industry, a recognized world leader responsible for helping people everywhere live longer, more comfortable and productive lives. In 1995, Americans spent about $70 billion on prescription and nonprescription medications. In addition, we spent more than $16 billion, nearly a quarter of total medication expenditures, on drug development and testing.

As a medical doctor, I can tell you this is why we have effective painkillers beyond aspirin, why we have anti-allergy medications that don't put us to sleep and a whole host of drugs that save countless lives every day.

Now consider our schools.

Lack of research

In 1995, the country spent approximately $300 billion on public K-12 education, or more than four times the amount we spent on medications. But we spent less than $300 million on research to find out what educational techniques actually work and how to improve them. That $300 million represents only 0.1 percent of our public expenditures on schools.

Much of that was spent on routine data collection that is only research in a very nominal sense. In fact, the total national funding of true scientific research into educational issues is likely to be in the tens, not the hundreds, of millions.

As a parent and educator, I can tell you this is why we have so many snake oil salesmen selling unproved and useless educational systems to our schools.

In medicine, when there is a sudden outbreak of a terrible new disease, our first instinct is to invest in research and development, to investigate how the disease works and what might beat it. We do this because we know that it's the best way to fight illness.

In education, on the other hand, when we're faced with a problem, the typical response seems to be to try to solve it right now, with whatever we have lying around. Clearly, this is not the best way to fight ignorance.

Consider America Reads, President Clinton's recent plan to bolster our public schools through a gigantic, multibillion-dollar program of volunteer tutors. This may not be a bad idea. It certainly sounds like a good one. But frankly, we don't know for certain if it is a good idea, a bad one or merely a feckless plan to spend many billions of dollars without much in the way of results.

What we do know is that there is a lack of evidence that an army of volunteer tutors will do much good. We also know the president's plan is proposed without any program of research and development that will produce models proven to be effective. The idea seems to be to go out, spend the money and then sit back and say, ''Things will now be better.''

This approach is not unique to Mr. Clinton or either political party. Across the United States, at all levels, there is a tendency to embrace various theories of education without funding the analytical research needed to support or debunk proponents' claims. Where research evidence does exist -- as in the case of phonics -- it is often simply ignored. Ideas such as school vouchers, state-mandated busing, after-school programs and national testing are proposed, and often implemented, without clear evidence they will do what they are intended to do.

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