Reading Recovery Bites the Dust in Columbus, Ohio

Investors Business Daily Editorial

Investors Business Daily
When Education Theories Go Bad
Date: 4/1/99

Reality has a funny way of intruding on theory — especially when it comes to educators. The failure of another education fad known as Reading Recovery has embarrassed educrats. They’ve been forced to turn to, gulp, the private sector for help.

Columbus, Ohio, is home to the Reading Recovery movement, one of America’s hottest education fads. But the city has learned a costly lesson. It has turned to phonics instruction to make up for another failed product of modern education philosophy.

The Columbus Board of Education has announced it will spend $282,240 to hire Sylvan Learning Systems to train public school teachers to teach reading using phonics.

The surprising move should shock American education. Columbus is home to Ohio State University. And OSU is the U.S. headquarters for Reading Recovery, a remedial reading program that packages an old, failed education theory as a new, expensive failed education theory.

Reading Recovery is big business. It’s used in 49 states and Canada and has spread to more than 2,500 districts in North America. The U.S. Department of Education touted the program as one of the top 12 in the nation for reading instruction in 1987.

Columbus’ public schools were one of the first to turn to Reading Recovery to help ailing test scores in the mid 1980’s. New Zealand researcher Marie Clay invented Reading Recovery because the country’s reading instruction — the infamous whole language theory — was failing. Clay found intensive tutoring could accelerate learning if problems were identified early.

Whole language theory posits that kids learn to read in the same way they learn to speak — through context and ”psycholinguistic guessing.” Spelling and grammar rules are immaterial.

Whole language advocates, like most of the education establishment, said direct instruction — teaching kids how to decode and sound out words —was cruel and ineffective.

Clay found that in whole language ”30 to 50% (of kids) . . . will not be making good progress at the end of their first year of instruction.”

Yet despite Reading Recovery’s implicit critique of whole language, the program draws from the same pool of education dogma. There’s the trouble.

Many districts began to tap Reading Recovery. But they tipped the instruction, once again, in favor of whole language over phonics in these one-on-one tutorials.

It’s an incredibly expensive program. If you include the cost of all the students who enter the program — not just those who graduate — the cost of every long-term success comes to about $9,211 a student, says the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina.

Schools often import education ideas with a hefty price tag, but without a strong research backing.

An April 1998 study funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Education declared Reading Recovery ”an ineffective intervention program for transforming early failing readers into independent readers.”

Fully 96% of children who completed the program were not ”recovered” and were about a year behind their fellow students.

The study said Reading Recovery’s failures are ”not surprising because systematic instruction in word-level strategies is not a component of the RR program.”

These problems can fester for years. Just look at Columbus’ schools. Reading Recovery first came to Columbus public schools in the 1984-1985 school year. So kids have suffered for 15 years as teachers and researchers experiment on Johnny’s brain. And even now, the district is refusing to completely reject the failed theory.

Still, the story has a positive side.

Columbus isn’t the first city to turn to Sylvan to right modern educationist wrongs.

Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis have all done the same. So we applaud any district that has the courage to find real solutions in the ailing system.

Sylvan knows that phonics — direct instruction — is the best way to help kids. The private education market has figured that out. We only hope that more public educrats do the same.

© Copyright 1999 Investors Business Daily, Inc.