In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker created the Read to Lead Task Force to develop strategies for improving literacy. Like many states, Wisconsin has a literacy problem: 62% of the eighth grade students scoring at the Basic or Below Basic levels on the 2011 NAEP; large discrepancies between scores on the NAEP and on the state’s homegrown reading assessment; and a failing public school system in the state’s largest city, Milwaukee. The task force was diverse, including Democratic and Republican state legislators, the head of the Department of Public Instruction, classroom teachers, representatives of several advocacy groups, and the governor himself. I was invited to speak at the last of their six meetings. I had serious misgivings about participating. Under the governor’s controversial leadership, collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public service employees were eliminated and massive cuts to public education enacted. As a scientist who has studied reading for many years and followed educational issues closely I decided to use my 10 minutes to speak frankly. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of my remarks.
From the beginning of those remarks:
Educators are not the only people who think about how people learn to read. There is a vast body of scientific research on reading conducted by scientists, like me, in disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science. We investigate how children learn and develop. We study thinking, reasoning, language, memory, seeing, hearing, attention—all of the human capacities that underlie reading and other kinds of intelligent behavior. We study people in our labs, in schools, in prisons, and on the Internet.
You might not have heard much about this research because scientists usually aren’t included in the conversation. There is no scientist on this task force, for example. Here is what you are missing:
Psychologists have been studying reading since the 19th century. We focus on how children learn to read, how skilled reading works, and the brain structures that support reading. We have identified what makes learning to read hard for many children and impairments that underlie reading and learning disabilities.
This research is conducted by scientists in Wisconsin and every other state. It is studied in dozens of countries around the world, with different languages and writing systems. This research has yielded a remarkably consistent body of findings. They do not depend on the findings of any one lab or funding agency.
Much of this research is about how beginning readers acquire basic skills and about how the ability to comprehend different kinds of texts, for different purposes, develops in later grades.
Very little of this research has had any impact on how reading is taught. There is an enormous disconnect between science and educational practice. We occupy two different worlds. I believe this is an enormous waste.
Many people on the education side dismiss this research as completely irrelevant to their mission. Teachers aren’t exposed to this research as part of their training. From the schools of education, the attitude is move along, nothing to see here. What is the result? The way reading is taught makes learning to read much harder than it should be for many children. And it makes it harder to become proficient. That is truly a way to leave children behind.
Towards the end:
I know that people like me are saying these things to people like you in many meetings at many places around the country.
At this point, the educators start to boil. They feel disrespected and patronized. Teachers know more about teaching children than laboratory scientists. Good teachers discover what works through experience on the front lines. Raising questions about how reading is taught can be seen as disparaging teachers themselves. If there is a problem—and some educators insist there isn’t one—many would argue it could be solved by getting out of teachers’ way. First teachers had to cope with No Child Left Behind, which put the federal government in their classrooms. On top of that they get directives from the state department of public instruction, the local school district, and their principal. Now the scientists are telling them what to do. Perhaps everything would be fine if we would only let teachers teach.
As a scientist, I am not challenging anyone’s integrity, commitment, motivation, effort, sincerity, or intelligence. But scientists are challenging educators to examine their beliefs and open their eyes. The single most influential educational theorist in America is a man named Lev Vygotsky, who lived in the Soviet Union, wrote in Russian, and died in 1934. He never saw an American classroom, or a television, computer, calculator, video game, or smartphone. It is as though we haven’t learned anything relevant to educational theory since the 1930s. Imagine if physicians still relied on the medical authorities of that era.
If teachers really could figure out how reading works just by observation and experience, we would not be having this discussion. But what we can learn about reading from observation is limited. Most of what we do when we read is subconscious. You cannot inspect what happens in your brain while you’re reading. All you know is the result: whether you understood the text or not and whether you got the information you were seeking. People’s intuitions about reading are limited and often misleading. They are also biased: what people observe is affected by what they believe. That is why we conduct research—to understand components of reading that would otherwise be hidden from view and to do it in an objective way.
We aren’t trying to tell people how to teach. We are struggling to get the science into the conversation—about teacher training, curriculum planning, and policy making.
At the end of his presentation, Mark made two specific recommendations for how to improve the situation. To his surprise,
The Read to Lead Task Force eventually endorsed both recommendations. Given the toxic political climate in our state, and a panel of stakeholders with very different views and constituencies, this outcome amazed me. For the first time in many years I felt a little hope that the political process could sometimes manage to yield consensus on an important issue. A bill was written and, with much additional politicking and tweaking, passed and signed into law on April 2, 2012. Whether its provisions will be implemented in the intended ways remains to be seen.
Read the whole thing — it's not long.