Title: Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence
Author: Richard Allington
Publisher: Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
ISBN: 0-325-00513-3, Pages 304, Year: 2002
Time to Trump Big Brother
Richard Allington (2002), professor of education at the University of Florida, invites you to look around next time you are in a restaurant. According to politicians, almost half (40%) of the people you see cannot read the menu. Allington explains this phenomenon in only a few words, “It is simply not true (p. 8).” He agrees, indeed, there are negative phenomena in education, but reading failure is not one of them (Allington, 2002).
Allington (2002), and a host of others, wasted no time in authoring Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence a mere two years after the Report of the National Reading Panel (NRP)(National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The theme of the book reflects a particular distaste for the federal government’s sneaky stranglehold on education. Allington claims federal ideologies have masked what research says about teaching reading by using snazzy words like “research based” and “meta-analysis.” His major claim explains the NRP Report’s detrimental impact on education and resulting policies based on flawed research.
Allington has a long history bridging the educator-researcher gap, and is well known by various groups involved in education. As a classroom teacher, I remember reading Fluency: The Neglected Reading Goal (Allington, 1983), and being surprised it spoke so directly to educators. His ability to represent research on behalf of the teacher adds to his standing and respect in the field. He has authored many books, and countless journal articles. His induction to the Reading Hall of Fame solidified his authority in reading education as does his various awards and stint as the president of the International Reading Association. His credibility lends to his associates included in Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence.
Because the NRP Report was endorsed federally, researched by a politically appointed panel, and seemingly dogmatic, James W. Cunningham claims it had a larger impact than other research. Allington (2002) and others saw this impact as a problem. First of all, according to Cathy Toll of Illinois State University, the discourse patterns of teachers and the panelists did not match. In fact, they were in direct opposition. The NRP believes in “objective knowledge” and “puts teachers on the receiving end of change and sees children as variables in research (p. 147).” Whereas the National Education Association (mostly made up of teachers) “positions change in the hands of individual teachers in response to their engagement with their own students, of in relation to their affective concerns (p. 148).” Already, the discourse divided educators from the panel. But, as big brother continues to trump evidence, it gets even worse.
Joanne Yatvin was on the panel. Her somewhat humorous addition to the book was a chapter called Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel (Allington, 2002). From the inception of the panel, to the parting of ways, it was doomed. Yatvin noted unrealistic time constraints imposed by congress, no support, isolation, and pressure. The panel consisted of 12 professors—two administrators, eight reading researchers, a teacher educator, and a medical doctor. The panel also included a parent, a principal and a middle school language arts teacher. Yatvin was quick to point out the lack of a primary reading teacher. That, apparently, would have made too much sense. Essentially, after two years of research, the report yielded eight topics comprised of flawed research that was unedited, unruly, and unapproved. Yatvin created her own subgroup by the end of the catastrophe—a good read—the minority report.
James W. Cunningham asked the obvious question. First, the NRP prided itself on its “scientific methodology.” They selected only experimental and quasi-experimental studies. In other words, they neglected most of the research in the field. After all, they were supposed to be rigorous. The NRP would like to claim they used objective scientific standards every step of the way. Cunningham’s question crumbles the first step. “Where are the scientific, objective, and rigorous studies that compare different ways of selecting and reviewing literature to improve practice? (p. 54)” There it is. The NRP’s entire methodology does not actually fit their methodology. If they had to do it again, one might wonder if they would rule out their own study.
Beyond the first step, there were other methodological problems with the report. Elaine M. Garan (Allington, 2002) critiqued the phonics section:
If Teaching Children to Read were a typical research study, published in an education journal and destined to be read only by other researchers, then I could simply end my analysis by saying that the panel’s own words have established that the research base in its report on phonics is so flawed that the results do not even matter. (p. 109)
Once again, another reference to the power of the report, and the unwanted impact due to its flawed research, manifests itself from a respected researcher. Following Garan’s chapter was a similar chapter written by Stephen Krashen who took on fluency. He begins by noting this was the only section of the NRP Report that did not include the rejected studies. However, the 14 studies used were clearly not enough for a meta-analysis. He also notes that one study included only lasted ten days. The NRP, apparently, reported it lasted an entire month. It is definitely the little things, along with the big things, and the in-between things that inspire a good chuckle at the phrase “scientific rigor.”
So what does all this mean? Well, we have a not-so-well-done report that has found its way into many more hands than most other reading research. This includes the hands of the politicians. So, essentially, the NRP Report is making a large impact from the top down. Although, according to Frances R. A. Patterson, there was no mention of the impact of decodable texts in the NRP Report, they are mandated. Furthermore, Allington’s (2002) own research prior to the NRP Report indicates there is no evidence that decodable texts are important in reading development. Where are these mandates coming from? Not only is the NRP Report suspected to be methodologically inaccurate, but is sometimes misinterpreted; does the double negative make a positive?
Allington (2002) agrees with the contributions from Jacqueline Edmondson and Patrick Shannon. Independent reading may not be classified as instruction, but it should not be thrown out and deemed useless. Independent reading allows students to self-select, and enjoy. This enjoyment is a great form of practice that will, according to research ignored by the NRP, improve reading (Garan & DeVoogd, 2008).
Allington (2002) ends by analyzing the basic premise of the NRP Report. The panel was commissioned to delineate effective reading instruction. This would then become the national methodology for teaching reading. First, children learn in different ways. Second, some of the findings of the NRP are ridiculous. A national reading methodology would not represent progress. Ideology has, indeed, trumped evidence.
Although Allington is against the report and its trickling effect, one cannot completely dismiss all the findings of the NRP. We can, however, dismiss the way in which they were found or reported, but, for example, repeated readings still foster oral reading fluency (Dowhower, 1987; Hudson, Lane, & Pullen, 2005; Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; Samuels, 1979) The NRP agrees on the method of repeated readings, yet we cannot dismiss repeated readings because of a rushed and methodologically rigid report. Denying any validity of the report is as dangerous as making it doctrine. There may be one way to destroy the negative impact of the report and clear up misconceptions; it should be redone.
Allington’s claim of the NRP Report sending us in the wrong direction politically and educationally is heavily supported in Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence. Members of the panel were not selected wisely. The strict guidelines on the inclusion of research eliminated much of the research in reading education. The not-so-meta-analyses were flawed. The poor research has since been misinterpreted and misrepresented resulting in policy moves detrimental to education (Allington, 2002).
Allington, R. (Ed.). (2002). Big brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Allington, R. L. (1983). Fluency: The neglected reading goal. Reading Teacher, 36(6), 556-61.
Dowhower, S. (1987). Effects of repeated reading on second-grade transitional readers' fluency and comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 22(4), 389-406.
Garan, E. M., & DeVoogd, G. (2008). The benefits of sustained silent reading: Scientific research and common sense converge. Reading Teacher, 62(4), 336-344.
Hudson, R., Lane, H., & Pullen, P. (2005). Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What, why, and how? Reading Teacher, 58(8), 702-714.
Kuhn, M., & Stahl, S. (2003). Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 3-21.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the national reading panel. teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH publication no. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Samuels, S. (1979). The method of repeated readings. Reading Teacher,