An Interim Report released by the US Department of Education concludes that the government-mandated reading programs that are a component of NCLB (the Reading First programs) have failed to make kids better readers. Specifically, the study finds Reading First has had no significant impact, even though students are spending increased class time working directly on the reading skills the program promotes (i.e., phonics, fluency, and comprehension). And, though there was some improvement in comprehension for first and second graders who entered the study a little later, that improvement disappeared in grade three.
So, surprise, surprise: more and more time for reading skills, and no significant results. I don’t know if future studies will bear out these findings, but if they do, isn’t this exactly what many of us have suspected all along? Better reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Kids need a diverse curriculum that will give them background knowledge, and any gains from skill drills could be irrelevant after the early grades. As a teacher said to me earlier this week, the teaching of discreet reading skills is “more gimmick than education and more test prep than reading.” Some skill work may have its place in reading instruction, but across the country it has come to replace the instruction kids really need, such as instruction about history and the world around them, and about science and the arts.
And in New York City the DoE has taken skill drills to a ridiculous extreme.
How extreme? In New York, we may be light on phonics, but overall skills is a fetish. Just about every elementary teacher I know (and many in the middle schools) is forced to implement skills driven pedagogy whether or not they believe it’s good for kids. “Balanced” literacy lessons are tightly supervised, and teachers are routinely punished if they swerve in their adherence to its precepts. Teachers are micromanaged, and yet if Chancellor Klein and his merry minions had their way, they’d fire teachers (but not themselves, of course) based upon the students’ test results!
ED Hirsch has recently proposed an interesting way out of the skills obsession. Since tests are driving instruction these days, says Hirsch, let’s place reading passages on the tests that encourage schools to teach specific background knowledge:
[If] third-grade science standards call for studying the speed of light, and third-grade social studies standards include the Vikings’ explorations of North America, then passages on the third-grade reading test should cover those same topics. We would then have true curriculum-based reading tests instead of the mysterious tests we now have. This cunning device would make tests fairer and pedagogically more useful, and boost our students’ abilities.
Hirsch isn’t talking about testing specific content; rather he’s talking about using reading passages that engage students with the content they should have learned.
I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but it sure is intriguing. I’d love to know what others think.