Resisting Reading Mandates: How to Triumph with the Truth
reviewed by Betsy VanDeusen-MacLeod - 2003
The National Reading Panel. Phonics. Comprehension. Testing. Scientifically Based Research. No Child Left Behind. If you’ve picked up a newspaper, journal or other educational publication recently, chances are you have read about these issues and the ongoing debate regarding reading instruction and our nation’s literacy. Bombarded by test scores, state and federal legislation and arguments over pedagogy, educators find themselves overwhelmed and confused by the politics and policy of literacy mandates.
The Report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) is the focus of Elaine M. Garan’s latest book, Resisting Reading Mandates: How to Triumph with the Truth. Garan, an Assistant Professor at California State University-Fresno in the Department of Literacy and Early Education, takes issue with what she calls this “shamelessly flawed research effort” (p. xiii). Since its publication in 1999, the NRP report has sparked intense debate over its emphasis on scientifically based research, its criteria for selected research, and the conclusions drawn from its efforts.
Garan’s book is formatted as a handbook for any educator who wants information to respond to the research claims in the NRP report. She singles out teachers, especially, as an important target audience in her “About This Book” section (p. xv) where she pens a “Dear Teachers” letter, urging educators to take an active part in literacy advocacy. She organizes her book in a question-and-answer format, responding to commonly asked questions from teachers in the field.
Garan begins by explaining the origins of the NRP, the products it produced, and the members of the panel. The NRP is a government-funded research project, commissioned in 1997 by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. Garan summarizes the NRP mission this way: “…their mission was to review the field of literature related to reading instruction, analyze it using a medical research model, and formulate a strategy for changing our classrooms on the result of its 'science' (p. 3).” Garan strongly recommends that readers secure hard copies (free and/or downloadable) of the NRP products to refer to as they read. Since Garan uses solely these resources as references and cites exact sections and page numbers for her direct quotes from the report, she constantly reminds readers that her analysis is taken directly from the words of this research project. The three main products of the NRP are the Summary Booklet, the Report of the 6 subgroups, and a 15-minute publicity video. In her analysis, Garan finds that many of the findings in the Summary Booklet “do not match up with the data in the actual report” (p. 8) and this summary is most commonly used for public consumption. She also notes that only two of the fourteen NRP panel members had experience in the actual teaching of reading in schools.
Among the other issues Garan addresses are the populations of children left out of the studies used by the NRP, the conclusions drawn regarding kindergarten-aged children, and the lack of research available on reading comprehension. She notes that the NRP findings apply only to problem readers and that key populations, such as English Language Learners (ELL), were noticeably absent from the research. Most of the studies selected for use by the NRP focused on struggling readers, not normally developing readers. According to Garan, the NRP findings are problematic when applied to kindergarten-aged students because, again, the studies reflect only at-risk students with English as their primary language. Like many educators, Garan is also concerned about the volume of studies examining phonics and phonemic awareness and the lack of research on reading comprehension.
Throughout the book, Garan uses the work of the NRP and of the panel members as evidence to support a balanced literacy approach, not one that consists of only isolated skill instruction. In particular, she highlights the research of the U.S. Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary Susan Neuman, a highly respected education researcher. Garan uses Neuman’s own research findings “that skills are acquired through authentic literacy activities” (p. 28) in an interesting juxtaposition with the current federal policy espoused by the Bush administration: an emphasis on the decontextualized isolation of particular literacy skills in such programs as Open Court and Direct Instruction (DISTAR).
Of great interest to this reviewer was Garan’s discussion of the professional and financial stakes of the NRP panel members (p. 77-81). She gives a basic overview of just some of the cursory links between the State of Texas, the U.S. Department of Education, the Bush administration and McGraw-Hill Publishing that muddy the credibility of the report and, as Garan states, creates the “appearance of impropriety” (p. 76) among panel members. This reviewer read this section with a sense of naiveté with regard to the extent to which commercial programs can influence policy decisions.
Elaine Garan is obviously passionate about her beliefs and supports these beliefs with a painstakingly intricate analysis of the NRP report and all its components. Readers must take an active role in weighing the arguments she presents with the NRP data and their own professional knowledge and judgment. Garan ends the book with a letter from a teacher that compliments her letter to teachers at the beginning the book. This ending letter argues against the notion of the “quick fix” for the literacy challenges we face and against the increased control of teachers through high stakes testing and scripted programs. The overriding message, from Dr. Richard Allington’s foreword and throughout Garan’s work, is that educators, at every level and position, can no longer watch passively from the sidelines while policy is mandated to them. And, clearly, the best education advocate is an informed one.