Even Scarier than Wild Animals

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  • 22 July, 2009

It’s good to be back from Africa—I guess. Each day (and night), Cyndie and I had fascinating new experiences, sometimes frighteningly so: like the night we were awakened by a lion fight; or the hippo that chased us; or the time we mistakenly found ourselves inconveniently between a bull elephant and what he wanted to eat. Scary stuff.

Not that I’m home, I’ve been going to meetings, reading emails and the latest journals, and maybe I was safer with the cheetahs! Just in the past few days I’ve been hearing over and over the kind of anti-research rhetoric that was popular back when the National Reading Panel report came out.

The claim being made is that now that No Child Left Behind is over we can go back to making decisions based on any kind of evidence—the studies don’t have to be appropriate to the claims and there doesn’t need to be much evidence either. In other words, these folks want to set public policy on the basis of single case studies or determine how teachers should teach based on a single lesson observational study.

The remarkable positive thing during the past decade has been the requirement to say something worked that one has actually tried the something out with kids and shown that the kids actually benefited. Qualitative and correlational research studies are great, and they definitely can be rigorously designed, and they are definitely scientific (when done correctly)… what they can’t do with that kind of research is determine whether something works; whether it confers a benefit on children. If we go back to deciding whether teaching approaches work by looking at indirect or inappropriate research evidence, that really will be scary.

One more interesting development: a couple of weeks ago Education Week asked me to opine on the new literacy bill Congress is considering. I was positive, but said I didn’t think they should have dropped reading comprehension from what will be taught (the law calls instead for instruction in “meaning in context”.) The reporter followed up with a nameless Congressional aide who sniffed, “that is the latest terminology” (or something along those lines). That’s fascinating: I’m in schools all the time, I review a ton of textbooks for teachers and students, and I’m working on various teaching standards and research issues and no one let me in on the secret that reading comprehension was no longer the correct term. It is so frustrating to find that Congress found out about this sea change before me. I do wonder what states are going to require teachers to do to demonstrate that they are teaching “meaning in context.” I wish Ed Week had the well-informed staffer on the record, as I’m sure we could refer the queries to him.


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Even Scarier than Wild Animals


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.