Eager to show schools the way

Change: If President Bush's education bill becomes law, big changes in the way reading is taught in the nation's schools could follow.

January 06, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IF YOU'RE offended by federal interference in local school affairs, get ready: The federal government is eager to tell your neighborhood school how to teach reading.

Sprinkled throughout the reading provisions of the landmark education bill awaiting President Bush's signature this month are references to "scientifically based reading research." If your school district's program doesn't pass the SBRR test, you can't share in the nearly $1 billion a year in funds for reading improvement authorized by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Moreover, your program will be monitored by a new "peer review panel" with the power to recommend that federal funds be withheld if you're not making "significant progress." That applies equally to kindergarten classrooms in public schools and teacher education classrooms at state universities. (Under the new bill, up to 15 percent of the reading funds can go to teacher training.)

The 1,200-page bill, which I wouldn't recommend for bedtime reading, isn't awfully specific in defining scientifically based research. This is about as close as it gets:

"The course of reading instruction that obtains maximum benefits for students includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency and reading comprehension strategies."

In other words, out with the feel-good philosophy that has children learning to read as naturally as they learn to speak. There is a best way to teach reading, this act says. It requires work and specialized knowledge.

"We're trying to change the culture through this legislation," says G. Reid Lyon, who is in charge of reading research at the National Institutes of Health and who wrote most of the reading portions of the bill. "Unfortunately, the culture to this point has been that anything and everything goes in reading instruction."

Lyon is specific about his goal: "The 20 million children who are suffering today from reading failure could be reduced by approximately two-thirds."

Lyon has become the top reading adviser to the president and first lady Laura Bush, a former school librarian who has made early childhood reading a White House priority. His Bethesda-based agency, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has been funding reading research for 36 years in Houston, Tallahassee, Fla., Albany, N.Y., Syracuse, N.Y, Atlanta, Boston, Seattle and the District of Columbia. Yet few NICHD research findings have found their way across the gulf between researcher and classroom practice.

They will now - if the government enforces the new law. The law's predecessor, the Reading Excellence Act, which President Clinton signed in 1998, had far fewer teeth (and one-third of the funding for reading), requiring only that programs receiving federal funds be based on the "best reading research and practices." That provision was mostly ignored, Lyon says, but that's going to change.

He has plenty of support. "The president and first lady have taken this issue on with great commitment to retraining teachers and making sure federal funds go only to schools that use programs which are proven and use brain-friendly methods," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based promoter of school choice. "We're talking about programs that emphasize phonics, not just books that say they do."

The act doesn't name the commercial programs that meet the test of scientifically based research, but one could envision an approved list from which recipients of federal aid would have to select. That concerns Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. He predicts the new law will require "more federal direction, and I'm skeptical about it. I don't know what any secretary of education can do in terms of telling a district what to do in reading instruction."

But Jennings, who also is co-chairman of the Visionary Panel examining Maryland's school reform programs, says there's "huge potential for change. The intent is to be concrete, not to be vague. If [Education] Secretary [Rod] Paige and Reid Lyon are successful, it will cause big changes in many schools of education. I don't know if they realize it yet."

cat tales are growing

Even young felines are in on the reading craze. A popular holiday gift at my house this year was a "Teach Your Cat to Read" kit.

The "kitty literacy" kit, which my wife found, consists of a red plastic feeding dish with the letters of the alphabet embossed around the edge. You put the bowl in the "revolutionary all-in-one book-rest and feeding tray." While Kitty is feeding, he or she can peruse the two books from the kit, The Cat's First Reader and The Advanced Cat's Reader, while checking the letters on the bowl rim.

The first reader is a picture book with seven words and accompanying illustrations: bird, fish, milk, heater, mouse, tree and cushion. The advanced reader presents the "A to Z of feline philosophy." Beside the word "leaping," for example, is a drawing of a cat leaping on a turkey.

The advanced reader includes a cat's dictionary and further reading list, suggesting, for example, that newly literate cats might enjoy A Tale of Two Kitties. My two cats, who learned phonics during kittenhood, appreciated the tips.

The kit is available from the Windrush Press in Gloucestershire, England, for 4.99 pounds sterling (about $7.25).

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