Reading ideologists can spin results of research their way

The Education Beat

September 12, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHEN A GROUP of researchers reported last week that two or more significant blows to the head can harm a teen-ager's thinking abilities, I didn't hear a peep of protest over the quality of the research or its conclusions.

Nor did any organization with a political or ideological agenda yell from the rooftops, "We told you so!"

Had the research been about reading, however, it probably would have been a different story. Opinions are so deeply and emotionally rooted that the same research finding can be used to support both sides of a major dispute.

It's not the findings that seem to matter; it's the spin put on them by the ideological combatants.

Is reading achievement affected by the type of instruction? This question is decades old and at the heart of the reading wars pitting proponents of "phonics" against promoters of "whole language."

But there are other major questions, other major disputes. Does class size affect reading achievement? Would a voucher program, allowing students to pay tuition at private schools with public funds, improve learning?

Half of the states and hundreds of school districts (including Montgomery and Howard counties in Maryland) are trimming the sizes of reading and math classes on the basis of Project STAR, an exceptionally well-designed experiment launched in Tennessee in 1985.

The four-year STAR study involved about 7,000 students each year in more than 300 classrooms. It showed positive results for small classes, year after year in kindergarten through the third grade. It showed lasting results, too, even though the children were returned to regular-size classrooms in the fourth grade.

Better yet, there were greater academic benefits -- often twice as great -- for minority students and those attending inner-city schools.

Enough said, you'd think. But you'd think wrong. Along comes Eric A. Hanushek, an economist and public policy professor at the University of Rochester, who argues rather persuasively that there is no relationship between class size and student performance.

Moreover, Hanushek uses Project STAR results to support his position. At the end of kindergarten, he notes, STAR students in small classes scored better than those in large classes. Then they maintained the differential for three years.

"If smaller classes were valuable in each grade, the achievement gap would widen," Hanushek writes. "It does not. In fact, the gap remains essentially unchanged through the sixth grade. The inescapable conclusion is that the smaller classes at best matter in kindergarten."

There's a small army in Hanushek's camp.

Mostly conservatives, they argue that the billions spent on reducing class size -- California alone is at $5 billion, and climbing, with a 20-student limit on primary school classes -- would be better directed toward improving teachers' performance.

Then there are the battles over school choice. Pro-choicers are desperate for good news from the handful of voucher programs around the country.

Anti-choicers are equally desperate for bad news.

When researchers release their findings, the winners will trumpet them, while the losers challenge the research methodology.

Case in point: two private voucher programs in San Antonio, both sponsored by the CEO America Foundation.

When University of North Texas researchers reported a 10-point advantage for the voucher students over kids who stayed in their public schools, the choice proponents rejoiced.

But University of Wisconsin researcher Alex Molnar, who says he has evidence that reducing class size brings better results than vouchers, dismissed the findings.

Only 85 students were tested through the four years of study, he said, "and the limited nature of the results make their achievement findings of little value."

These are the wars that make it difficult to reach consensus on some of the major issues facing American schools.

In these wars, reading and math scores are the missiles fired from various ideological camps, and there's no end in sight.

Some of the disputants seem more interested in fortifying their positions than in assuring that children learn to read.

Books on (school) Buses arrives in York County

In February, I reported on Books on Buses, a program designed to keep young readers busy with literature on those long trips to and from school.

Books on Buses began in Tumwater, Wash., then was picked up by Rincon Valley, Calif., and has migrated east to Tina Long's yellow bus in York County, Pa.

In the York County program, started by AmeriCorps member Becky Ennis, students check books out when they get on the bus and can take them home.

There's a wrinkle to the Pennsylvania program, Ennis said. The law prohibits loose objects on school buses, so Long's bus is equipped with straps and bungee cords to anchor the books.

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