Introducing the Literacy Pod

Teacher Colleges Shun Best Way To Teach Reading

Imagine what would happen if the nation's medical schools ignored the latest scientific breakthroughs when training tomorrow's doctors. Hospitals would have to spend their time and money training new physicians themselves, or deny patients state-of-the-art treatment.

Sound far-fetched? Not when it comes to scientific breakthroughs in education.

In fact, many of the nation's teacher colleges think nothing of ignoring compelling new research that confirms the importance of using phonics to teach reading. And school districts must choose between re-educating teachers who never learned to teach phonics in college, or cheating children of their best chance of becoming strong readers.

Last month, the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel released a two-year study that scientifically validates the importance of phonics. The panel only considered meticulous research, in which reading methods were compared in clinical trials — the same method used to pinpoint the best drugs or medical treatments.

The findings not only endorsed phonics but also found that to be highly effective, the technique must be taught in a systematic way.

Yet an important group of dissenters is resisting: many on the faculties of the nation's colleges of education. Wed to the child-centered education theories of the 1980s, these deans and professors believe teaching is more art than science. And they view phonics as something to be taught only superficially, if at all.

Instead, many professors at teacher colleges continue to support "whole language" instruction in which children are expected to pick up literacy skills naturally through reading. This technique, first adopted in California, is universally blamed for that state's slide to the bottom of the nation on reading tests.

The effect of teacher colleges' recalcitrance is dramatic: Only about 10% of the nation's elementary school teachers have the skills required to teach phonics most effectively, estimate researchers at the National Institutes of Health, who have carried out the highest-quality reading research.

National Reading Panel members, who were charged by Congress with disseminating their findings, now face a dilemma: They bear a message many in colleges of education don't want to hear.

As a result, they are planning a campaign to pressure teacher colleges indirectly. University of Maryland Chancellor Donald Langenberg, who chaired the panel, plans to spread the phonics message to college presidents, business leaders and teacher unions.

That could help. As could new standards unveiled Monday by the group that accredits about a third of the nation's teacher colleges. Teaching phonics is listed as a requirement for teacher colleges seeking accreditation.

Even more promising, though, are Langenberg's plans for his own university. A physicist by training, Langenberg was shocked at the disregard education professors hold for scientific research. He now plans to require that the University of Maryland's teacher colleges not only teach reading based on top scientific findings but also learn how to conduct quality research.

Education professors may not listen to researchers, but they listen to their chancellors. And the reading crisis won't end until other university administrators demand quality teaching at every teacher college.

USA Today, May 17, 2000