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Who Ya Gonna Believe?

The ongoing battle between facts and mythology.


It has long been accepted that good teaching requires a mixture of art and science. Outstanding teachers possess a solid knowledge of learning theory and human development. That content knowledge is brought to life by personal gifts, creativity and craft. Sadly, education news stories suffer from a lack of critical analysis or follow-up questions, and educators too often justify questionable practices on the basis of personal beliefs, even when such beliefs are contradictedby evidence.

There is perhaps no greater educational battleground in the fight between ideology and fact than reading instruction. In fact, No Child Left Behind went to great lengths to redefine “science” when it insisted that every classroom practice adhere to “scientifically-based research” to the exclusion of evidence that interfered with the supporters’ belief system. The underlying assumption of NCLB’s Reading First program was that every child learns to read through a program of “highly structured, systematic sequential explicit phonics instruction.” Research and common sense challenges that belief system.

Other professions have a term for when you put your personal belief ahead of facts-malpractice.

First of all, not everyone learns everything the same way. Second, if the only way to learn to read is this form of alphabet- sound connection, how does one explain the billions of people who read languages such as Chinese or Hebrew that don’t have such written language systems? How do deaf people read?

The Department of Education’s May 2008 report on the efficacy of Reading First concluded, “Reading First did not improve students’ reading comprehension.” Wow! That’s fairly unambiguous. The creators, funders and enforcers of a national reading initiative announced that it did not work. Surely, a reading method that failed to improve comprehension would be tossed on the dustbin of history, right? Not so fast.

Let the spinning begin. On the plus side, researchers found that Reading First teachers spent more time emphasizing phonics and other aspects of what many experts consider solid instruction—about 10 minutes more a day, or nearly an hour more a week. “Teachers’ behavior was changed,” says Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the DOE’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Fantastic! Teachers are spending more time doing what doesn’t work. Just as the program was declared ineff ective and long since its corruption was made public, Jean Claude-Brizard, superintendent of Rochester (N.Y.) City School District, proposed to spend $1.2 million dollars of local funds to “save” Reading First in his district. Truth makes some educators emotional. Th e Arizona Republic recently wrote about educators who “mourn” the passing of Reading First. Barbara Wright of the CasaGrande Elementary District told the paper, “This was good, solid, research-based information, and we implemented it in all our schools at the time, even though only two schools were funded.” She said that despite the probable death of the ineffective program, it will “continue to guide the district’s reading program.”

You should not be allowed to claim something is solid or research-based when it has been proven ineffective. Such claims are not scientific. They are religious.

It’s Not Just Reading

In the April 2008 issue of District Administration, Christopher Steinhauser, superintendent of the Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District, proudly boasts of his use of grade retention. The Broad Foundation even rewarded him for it. Like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Florida governor Jeb Bush, Steinhauser embraces making students repeat a grade as an effective policy tool in the face of an overwhelming mountain of evidence that it does more harm than good.

Other professions have a term for when you put your personal belief ahead of facts—malpractice.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan often said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” This is good advice for educators who eliminate recess, impose zero tolerance policies, cut arts programs, maintain agrarian school start times, “teach algebra” at younger and younger grades, and spend months each year preparing students to take high-stakes tests. Conventional wisdom too often goes unchallenged, and ineffective practices become myths. These practices are justified by personal beliefs. Philosopher Stevie Wonder reminds us, “When you believe in things you don’t understand, you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.” In education, adult superstitions cause children to suffer.

Gary S. Stager,, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate.