Notes on Timothy Shanahan’s “The Role of Research in US Reading Policy”

Here are notes from a talk today:

Timothy Shanahan, Current President of the International Reading Association

Tim Shanahan is a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of the UIC Center for Literacy. He has played a leadership role at the federal level in making connections between literacy research and educational policy. Dr. Shanahan served on the National Reading Panel, chaired the National Literacy Panel on Language and Minority Children and Youth, and chairs the National Early Literacy Panel. His research interests include: the relationship between reading and writing, the assessment of reading ability, family literacy, and school improvement. Dr. Shanahan has published numerous research articles and written and/or edited several books including Teachers Thinking, Teachers Knowing (1994) and Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Literacy Research (1992).

Notes from the session, “The Role of Research in US Reading Policy”:

  • Understanding reading in the context of US policy; having become a combatant in the “reading wars”
    • I had been invited to be a part of the National Reading Panel and served on it for two years trying to synthesize research through a meta-study
    • The real upswing of all this is that it led to $5 billion infused into reading education
  • An Ideological History Lesson
    • Governmental role in education
      • 1600s: MA, CT, and NH establish public schools for religious reasons
      • 1788: US Constitution ratified, no mention of education
      • 1791: Amendment X for state’s rights
      • 1791: 7 states make constitutional provision for public education (e.g., establish school boards)
      • 1800s: Freedmans‘ act for curriculum for freed slaves
        • First time that feds intervened in local schools at such a large and systematic level
      • 1900s: Increased centralization, immigration
      • 1950s and 60s: ESEA and focus on science and technology
      • Current: More centralized curriculum
  • Current forces in education
    • Explosive growth in informational technology
    • Internationalization of economic markets
    • Changes in the relationship of literacy attainment and well being
  • Current changes in the economy
    • Growth of service sector and decline of manufacturing
    • Transformation of low education blue collar work into skilled labor
    • Free trade movember of low-paying jobs and workers
    • Outsourcing of middle-income jobs and immigration of high-income workers
  • Changes have led to:
    • More jobs that require reading
    • Increased correlation of reading achievement and economic success
  • Current status of education
    • Since “A Nation at Risk,” US education is continually in “reform” mode
    • From 1971 to 1994, there has been no improvement in reading for 4th graders
    • Cost of education has risen in real terms
    • Public dissatisfaction is still there because the fundamental problems have not changed
    • Educators have not been sure footed (neither convinced of the need for reform nor clear on how to make things work better)
      • Where are the experts at the table in most of these debates?
  • What’s the Point?
    • The politicians aren’t crazy — reading has to improve
    • Their “solutions” are frequently wrong, but they deserve credit for making serious attempts to solve a real problem
    • They are deeply frustrated by educators who don’t seem to recognize the problem (or who want to respond with the union shop kinds of solutions)
  • Context for NCLB
    • Low NAEP scores and the reading wars in the 1990s
      • As it got bigger and bigger, politicians decided to do something that they hadn’t done in education before: appoint an expert panel
        • I had become a member of the National Reading Panel
          • They didn’t want our opinions; they didn’t want opinions, they wanted a determination of fact
          • We can’t make recommendations except for recommendations on more research
          • Can’t tell how well we thought things would work, or not
    • Changes during the Clinton administration
      • focusing Title I money on poorest schools
        • This hadn’t happened before, and the dollars were focused a little bit more on poor districts
      • Reading Excellence Act (SBRR)
        • Some direct money is given to states for reading education, given on a grant basis, although this was done before the NRP was finished
        • Every state was able to decide what they wanted to call; “research” and there were no standards on it at all
      • Pushing adoption of proven curriculum
      • Move from professional development to volunteers
        • Big fight on money for teachers vs. volunteer tutors
  • National Reading Panel
    • Appointment process began in 1997
      • How do you build authority and trust?
      • Took 300 nominations and the Secretary of Education created the panel
    • Open meetings with transcripts
    • Public hearings around the country
    • Explicit methodology: replicable searcher, pre-established inclusion criteria, research had to be consistent with questions, meta-analysis
      • Some things we were not able to find conclusive evidence about things, so we didn’t include it
    • Findings on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, professional development
    • Controversy
      • There was a very real chance that this would have all ended up on a shelf, but we had a new president come in and he made it the cornerstone of federal literacy policy
  • No Child Left Behind
    • 2001 reauthorization of ESEA
    • More Title I funding, but more accountability
    • Reading First ($1 billion a year for K-3 PD, curricula, materials)
    • This allows Congress a way out of the unholy bargain. We can control quality without being a part of local decision making since the NRP did it
      • Congress keeps its hands clean of the controversy
  • Results of all of this…
    • Higher 4th grade achievement on both the NAEP and the NAEP trend items (reduction of achievement gap, sizable gains, highest trend performance ever)
      • What’s indisputable is that 4th graders are reading better now than they were 12 years ago, despite how you spin the politics on how the gains have been made and by whom
      • With all the state and federal focus on K-3, there has been some improvement at 4th grade. But…
    • No improvement for older students
      • 8th graders are not moving up, so we are losing the gains between 4th and 8th grade
      • What you see in the whole body of ed research is that Reading Recovery, Head Start, and other programs is that we know how to raise achievement early but that we don’t know how to sustain it
        • For instance, the difference between kindergarten full and half days had their gains erased by the end of first grade because all the same students did all the typical first grade curriculum.
      • We need to reform the system at all levels from the ground up. We need to keep all day kindergarten and then do PD for teachers in first grade to work with these higher achieving students.
  • NCLB/RF Problems
    • Accountability of goals of NCLB are unreachable and fail to reward success
    • The costs of testing are burgeoning in terms of lower morale, corruption, mistrust, etc.
    • States are encouraged to reduce standards
    • Peculiar corruption of Reading First
    • Subtle shift of NRP to WWC
    • Problems with the newer panels (NELP, NLP)
  • What is needed to make research-based policy work?
    • Substantial public support for research
    • Open way of determining specific research priorities
    • Benefits for researchers who choose to do this work
    • Is this likely? No:
      • We don’t see evidence so public support for research.
      • The feds are maintaining power over priorities.
      • There is no real infrastructure for carrying out recommendations for policy into practice.
      • There is likely to be evidence soon of the effectiveness of the Reading First policy.
      • There is no increase in university commitment.
  • Question and answer session
    • Shifts in thinking: Clinton and the Democrats wanted national testing in the 1990s, but the conservatives didn’t want to lose local control; now it is vice versa because all the states have their own standards.
    • Reading First: There is survey data to show that Reading First teachers actually feel better now that they “know how to teach reading” and have books in their classrooms. Part of the reason for this success is the Reading Excellence Act.
    • What is dividing the field is not methods, but thinking about the social and cultural aspects of what counts as evidence.
      • What grad students need to do is set aside the rhetoric of whether things are “good” or “bad,” and look at the field as a whole. It doesn’t mean that there are times when different questions demand different kinds of evidence, especially as it relates to policy.
      • There are people in medicine who do anthropology, but they don’t move into the policy debate.

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