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March 8, 2007

Madison's Reading Battle Makes the NYT: In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash

Diana Jean Schemo has been at this article for awhile:

The program, which gives $1 billion a year in grants to states, was supposed to end the so-called reading wars — the battle over the best method of teaching reading — but has instead opened a new and bitter front in the fight.

According to interviews with school officials and a string of federal audits and e-mail messages made public in recent months, federal officials and contractors used the program to pressure schools to adopt approaches that emphasize phonics, focusing on the mechanics of sounding out syllables, and to discard methods drawn from whole language that play down these mechanics and use cues like pictures or context to teach.

Federal officials who ran Reading First maintain that only curriculums including regular, systematic phonics lessons had the backing of “scientifically based reading research” required by the program.

Madison officials say that a year after Wisconsin joined Reading First, in 2004, contractors pressured them to drop their approach, which blends some phonics with whole language in a program called Balanced Literacy. Instead, they gave up the money — about $2 million, according to officials here, who say their program raised reading scores.

“We had data demonstrating that our children were learning at the rate that Reading First was aiming for, and they could not produce a single ounce of data to show the success rates of the program they were proposing,” said Art Rainwater, Madison’s superintendent of schools.

Much more on Reading First and Madison, here.

Notes & Links:

UPDATE: Joanne Jacobs:
In part one of his response, Ken DeRosa of D-Ed Reckoning provides a reading passage altered to force readers to guess the meaning from context. Struggling this way does not inspire love of reading.

In part two, DeRosa analyzes the statistics to argue Madison students aren’t doing better in reading compared to other Wisconsin students; if anything, they’ve slipped a bit. Because the state reading test was made easier and the cut score for proficiency was lowered, all Wisconsin students look better. However, there was no progress in fourth-grade reading on the federal NAEP test.

With help from Rory of Parentalcation, who’s great at finding data, Ken shows that claims of fantastic progress by black students are illusory. Their scores improved on the easier test at a slightly slower rate than white students. It looks like to me as though blacks nearly caught up in basic skills but remain far behind at the proficient and advanced level. Perhaps someone who knows more statistics than I do — lots of you do — can find flaws in Ken’s analysis.

NYT Letters to the editor. Finally, others have raised questions about the MMSD's analysis and publication of test score data.

Andrew Rotherham:

Diana Schemo's NYT story on Reading First is not surprisingly sparking a lot of pushback and outraged emails, especially from the phonicshajeen. But, they have a point. There are problems with Reading First, but this may not be the best example of them at all...but, while you're there, don't miss the buried lede in graf's almost like Schemo got snowed by all sides at once on this one...

Posted by Jim Zellmer at March 8, 2007 8:49 PM
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