by James J. Campbell, M.D.
Such commitment and determination to provide teachers with a scientifically sound pedagogy for the instruction of reading and language skills, and correct the decades of failing education suffered by children in these United States is worthy of applause and admiration.
In contrast, Dr. Strauss' comments are anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and provide a smokescreen for actual and potential educational failure. Most grotesquely, the smokescreen is the alleged mental health and self-esteem of the children.
Dr. Strauss begins by bemoaning that the NICHD has a "narrow set of criteria for scientific rigor" for research proposals.... He is disturbed that the studies "must be experimental, not descriptive,... as accepted "among educators".... On its face, this position is anti-conceptual. Descriptive observation or science is indeed important, because when done accurately it provides concrete information about the subject or entities being studied. But this is merely the perceptual level of understanding. Abstract, conceptual, scientific/intellectual understanding the type required to reach a human level of achievement requires the logical integration of such information. The conceptual understanding achieved is then tested in reality through experimental methods and integration with established knowledge. To oppose the scientific method in research is to advocate a return to the ignorance of the medieval ages.
Indeed, the gulf between the educators' understanding of reading and the linguists' understanding of reading originates in this dichotomy: the educators have rejected the scientific method, and the linguists have embraced it. The prevailing view of educators is the Rousseauean notion that children are natural geniuses who will learn to read on their own with adult facilitation; whereas linguists regard reading as an intellectual skill that can be analyzed and understood, and then taught deliberately and effectively to children by teachers who know therefore what must be taught, and how.
The scientific standards Dr. Strauss rejects are the very ones required for quality research in any discipline: well-defined hypotheses, appropriate measurements, matched control groups, objective evaluations, etc. It is instructive to look at the National Reading Panel's Report of last year. There one finds that of 20,000 articles on vocabulary instruction in the educational literature, only 50 (or 0.25%) were scientifically useful. Of 1300 articles on phonics, only 38 met scientific standards. Most studies on the effectiveness of teacher education in reading instruction did not even include assessment of student outcomes! This information was presented as background to the researchers' work. But it is a clear indication of the shoddy quality of research in the educational community over the last several decades on the subject of reading. Despite this, Dr. Strauss urges its acceptance.
Dr. Strauss attempts to demean the work of the NICHD by saying that they "may be able to point to its own funded studies in claiming the ‘most trustworthy scientific evidence' for the role of phonetics and phonemic awareness in reading"... But scientific evidence on this subject has been accumulating over decades, and from many sources. In a letter to the Commissioner of Education of the State of Massachusetts, forty prominent specialists in linguistics and psycholinguistics from prestigious academic departments stated that the results of the descriptive methodology reflected in the educational literature on this subject "runs counter to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics and psycholinguistics... research that supports the approach advocated by Dr. Lyon and the National Reading Panel Report. In a separate letter, Dr. David Pesetsky, Professor of Linguistics at MIT, wrote of the rejection by some educators of "controlled research"... that "includes experimental results on reading as well as standard assessments of student performance.... "Instead,... he wrote, "they appeal to unverifiable and subjective reports of classroom experience"... [The "descriptive methodology... referred to by Dr. Strauss.] He further wrote, "Concerned educators, citizens, and parents should find this rejection of verifiable research in favor of unverifiable research alarming....
After assailing rational scientific standards in research on reading, Dr. Strauss then attacks the notion that there should be standards and accountability in the teaching of reading. His principle concern is that there will be an outbreak of anxiety among teachers and administrators that will spread epidemically to parents and children. He expresses no concern whatever that children learn to read, or that their intellectual development is impaired by the currently dominate method of instruction. Dr. Strauss' reasoning is extraordinarily muddled, as he confounds pedagogic problems with health problems, and problems of health with problems of behavior. Further, he fails to account for the fact that teaching reading is teaching a skill, not an academic subject.
Dr. Strauss is afraid that teachers will be compelled to "teach to the test,... and that this will "eliminate spontaneity,... and lead to inattention to individual students. In the case of an academic subject there might be such a consequence, as the choice of facts and range of material, or interpretation of data, might be limited by the standards in a manner substantially different from the teacher's perspective on the subject (although choices would have to be made at some level by someone). In the case of a skill, such as reading, however, the elements of the skill that must be taught can be scientifically identified, and so the curricula would naturally be more uniform. There really is no "teaching to the test,... because the test is not "what does the child know? ... it is "can the child read?... Even considering this difference, Dr. Reid's testimony was quite right that curricula designed to achieve the standards would admit creativity in design and execution.
Notice that the "high stakes test... that scares Dr. Strauss is the test of school and professional performance, not the testing of the children per se. Why should educators suffer excess stress simply because they are expected to achieve a standard in teaching, such as that most children should be able to read at grade level? Why does Dr. Strauss think its okay for teachers and administrators to project their anxiety onto the children? Under this view, children's intellectual development should be sacrificed in order to shield professional adults from anxiety provoked by an expectation that the adults perform their jobs well. Perhaps the school psychologists should attend to the teachers and administrators.
That children suffer intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally from the consequences of the ineffective reading instruction of the past fifty years has been documented and remarked upon by many prominent reading experts over the past 70 years, including Celia Pollock and J.Chall. In my practice of pediatrics, we regularly see a pattern of behavioral and emotional problems associated with cumulative reading and cognitive deficits resulting from the poor instructional programs. The younger children exhibit poor attention and distractibility, disruptive behavior, negative attitudes toward teachers, significantly delayed reading skills especially in the area of phonemic and phonetic decoding, self-doubts about general intellectual ability (they "feel dumb...). They are often referred as children with ADD or AD/HD. When such children are given rational instruction in reading, they usually respond within a few months with significant advances in reading ability, and resolution of their emotional/behavioral issues (showing that they are neither learning-disabled, nor ADD). We have had scores of such children over the past six or seven years.
Consonant with Dr. Reid's remarks concerning the link between poor reading ability and later poor self-esteem and drug abuse, we have noted that older (>10 years) children in our practice who have continued to have significant reading difficulty become more negative about school and alienated from learning. They are more convinced that their predicament is hopeless, and subsequently exhibit more oppositional, as contrasted with disruptive, behavior. They do not like school, and seldom read on their own. They cannot concentrate well, and they often begin to skip school. Such children respond more slowly to remediating instruction, but many have dramatic improvements if the reading problems are successfully addressed with focused, intelligent instruction.
As the National Reading Report has shown, what needs to be taught, and isn't, is substantially known. Furthermore, there are already successful programs in use around the country that curriculum designers can use as a base of development. Indeed, there are some curricula available that may not need substantial modifications at all.
It is disgraceful to hold children's intellectual development hostage for the sake of anxiety over teachers' anxiety. A wealth of excellent information on this subject has been available for over 75 years, and it is about time that it is applied for the benefit of our children's educations.
James J. Campbell. M.D., F.A.A.P
Fulton, New York
Subcommittee on Education Reform
Committee on Education and the Workforce
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D. C.
James J. Campbell, M.D.
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