As we approach the dawn of a new administration with hope for a brighter future given the shortcomings of the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation, the connections across the texts I’ve read this week seem eerily appropriate as the history of both the teaching of reading (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2000) and reading research and practice (Alexander & Fox, 2004) are illustrative of how socio-political factors influence both educational ideologies and methods. Though Paris (2005) cautions that such political dictates have resulted in “a greater than ever reliance on scientific evidence to guide educational policies for assessment and instruction” (p. 184), Allington & McGill Frantz write of the influence of the scientific method on educational practice as early as the turn of the century (p. 6) that continued through the mid-century’s cold war battle for superiority that saw the emergence of behaviorist approaches to reading instruction (Alexander & Fox, pp. 34-37), followed by Chomsky’s linguistics-based language acquisition research in the mid 1960s to early 1970s (Alexander & Fox , pp. 37-38), and schema theory rooted in cognitive psychology from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, revealing a century-long trend that has had both positive and negative effects on the ways we educate our young people.
Research trends and change in instructional methods over time indicate a constant drive to improve the skills and experiences of students. There is no doubt that good intentions persist, that educators and researchers have students’ best interests at heart, but, at the same time, one must acknowledge the “enormous political pressures and commercial interests [that have] made learning to read a contentious issue in the United States” (Paris, p. 184). NCLB’s focus on assessment, according to Paris, is not only changing reading instruction by testing “constrained” areas such as “alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness, and oral reading skills” (p. 187, pp. 200-201), but is resulting in an instructional shift to the detriment of other methodological foci, “creat[ing] a minimum competency approach to reading assessment that does not adequately assess children’s emerging use and control of literacy” (p. 201). Current teachers are all too familiar with recent curricular mandates that, more often than not, drive them to teach to the test.
As instruction becomes more automated, establishing totalitarian classrooms centered on rote memorization and devoid of innovation, there is no doubt that criticism of the educational system will continue. Given Ron Wolk’s (1998) observation that “education policy is on a ‘collision course with reality’ “(qtd. In Allington & McGill-Franzen, p. 22), Allington & McGill-Franzen still argue that “expert teachers” have more influence on the quality and extent of learning than pre-fabricated curricula, citing Linda Darling-Hammond’s remarks from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (p. 24). What is important to remember, however, is that the state of our schools in the 21st century “will depend largely on whether policymakers decide to invest in fostering commitment to reform as opposed to trying to simply mandate it” (Allington & McGill-Franzen, p. 24).
Central to arguments about education and, more specifically, reading instruction, is what W.E.B. DuBois identified as the fundamental “right to learn” and “the right to have examined in our schools not only what we believe, but what we do not believe” (Darling-Hammond, 1996, p. 5), something that does not happen in schools that teach to the test – and more teaching to the test seems to happen in urban and poor schools who have the most to lose if their test scores do not skyrocket, a result of NCLB’s punitive measures. In The Shame of the Nation (2005), Jonathan Kozol writes of administrative praise of automaton teachers who exhibit “managerial proficiency” (p. 72) in urban schools where reading teachers are told that “any digression from printed [lesson] plans could cause them problems” (p. 71). It is as if there is a dichotomous education system in this country where upper class students receive a much different education than others, pointing to the political function of establishing and maintaining very different schools. Darling-Hammond (1996) writes of “[f]actory model schools with highly developed tracking systems that stressed rote learning and unwavering compliance for the children of the poor … counterposed against small elite schools … that offered a stimulating curriculum, personalized attention, high-quality teaching, and a wealth of intellectual resources for an advantaged few” (p. 6) as representative of a past American system, but that many, like Kozol, argue still exists. One need look no further than Charles Murray’s Real Education (2008), in which he argues that most Americans do not have the intellectual capacity to succeed in higher education, to understand the political implications of a segment of our society not believing in all students having the possibility to achieve – whether that is in reading, writing, mathematics, or in their collective education. And this tension in our society is one that drives the dramatic shifts seen in the last century in the foundation of our theoretical and methodological emphases.