Leave No Teacher Behind

Jan 20, 2003 by

Jimmy Kilpatrick
Senior Fellow, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution

As a policy advisor, I am both excited and nervous about the new emphasis on research-based reading instruction.  Excited because finally, at long last, there is a national push to bring the mountains of good research information about reading instruction and reading acquisition into classroom practice.  Nervous because I don’t think we really understand what is involved in bringing research into practice.

Jimmy Kilpatrick Senior Fellow, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution

Over the past 35 years, there has been a massive proliferation of research information about how children learn to read, and, by extension, why some children fail to learn to read.  The level of consistency and agreement across this body of research is substantial and confidence inspiring.  The challenge we now face is translating that research information into classroom practice.  While most reading researchers would say they have a good understanding of how children learn to read, most teachers report that they have not been adequately trained to be effective reading teachers.  Studies indicate that, among elementary school teachers in this country, approximately 80% are not very knowledgeable about reading research, and by extension, they do not apply reading research findings in their classrooms effectively.  Among middle- and high-school teachers, very few would consider themselves to be reading teachers who integrate research-based approaches into their classroom instruction.

The challenge is substantial, but the mandate is has been set — reading instruction in America ‘s classrooms must be “research based.”  The goal is clear, but the pathway to achieving that goal is not, and this is why I’m nervous.

It is obvious to me that professional development for teachers is the coin of the realm.  For over 35 years, research studies have indicated that the single, most influential school variable that affects the reading performance of a child is the knowledge and sophistication of the child’s teacher — not the reading program, not the class size — the quality of the teacher.

Ironically, professional development for teachers and teacher quality are issues that we seem to be loathe to address in education.  Rather than invest energy and money into cultivating highly-qualified, knowledgeable master reading teachers, we tend to seek out the quick-fix solution.  Rather than making determinations about the quality of teachers and providing consistent, job-embedded support and training for teachers who need it most, we seem to think that the solutions for our literacy problems can be found in highly scripted, “teacher-proof” reading programs.

The research on reading programs is spotty — some programs seem to be moderately effective in certain contexts, but there is contention and debate over how “success” is defined, and over how effective the programs are in different contexts.  But the research on teacher quality has been quite consistent.  If I wanted to rise to the challenge of using research to insure we leave no child behind, I would invest heavily into teacher quality and professional development for all educators — that is what the research says we should be doing. But we don’t seem to be doing that.

Publishers are pushing their highly-scripted, standardized programs, claiming that their reading program is the best “research based” program available.  Who can blame them?  There are billions of dollars up for grabs.  Politicians are falling under the weight of lobbying efforts sponsored by special interest groups and wealthy companies.  A tremendous amount of energy is now focused on finding the panacea program that will make all children successful readers — the quick fix — the simple solution.  I really don’t think that is the best way to bring research into practice.

I firmly believe that we are so willing to invest billions of dollars into teacher-proof programs because we are afraid to tackle the much more challenging problem of teacher quality. It is easier to buy a highly scripted program than it is to provide high-quality, long-term professional development for teachers.  But until we insure that all teachers are highly qualified, highly trained, and very knowledgeable, we will not begin to rise to the challenge of leaving no child behind.

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