Back to the Future of Reading Instruction: 1990s Edition

The year is 1997 and the topic, of course, is improving a failing education system in the U.S. Linda Darling-Hammond explains in the Preface [1]:

This follow-up report, Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching, seeks to gauge the nation’s progress toward the goal of high-quality teaching in every classroom in every community. It draws on data about the conditions of teaching that have become available since the original Commission report was released, and it examines policy changes that have occurred.

This report has five recommendations that may sound familiar:

I. Standards for teachers linked to standards for students….

II. Reinvent teacher preparation and professional development….

III. Overhaul teacher recruitment and put qualified teachers in every classroom….

IV. Encourage and reward knowledge and skill….

V. Create schools that are organized for student and teacher success.

We need better standards for teachers and students, better teacher education, better recruitment of teachers focusing on high quality, better reward systems for teacher expertise and outcomes, and better teaching and learning conditions.

Yet, the report also offers some sobering information:

Over the last decade, reforms have sought to increase the amount of academic coursework and the numbers of tests students take, in hopes of improving achievement. These initiatives have made a great difference in coursetaking: In 1983, only 14% of high school students took the number of academic courses recommended in A Nation at Risk—4 units in English and 3 each in mathematics, science, and social studies. By 1994, more than half (51%) had taken this set of recommended courses.

Despite these changes, achievement scores have improved little, and have actually declined slightly for high school students in reading and writing since 1988 (see figure 3). [emphasis added]

Let’s look at that figure 3:

NAEP trends 1980 1990

Notice anything familiar above when we look at 4th and 8th grade reading since the early 1990s?

trend grade 4 readingtrend grade 8 reading

While this report concedes what research has long shown—the largest influences on measurable student outcomes are out-of-school factors (parent income, level of education, etc.)—the focus remains on teacher practices, offering a rare set of correlations between scores and those practices:

Correlates of reading NAEP 1992

Here is where I want to pause to note that while no one has conducted even a correlational graph such as the one above—and no one has conducted scientific research to identify causal relationships—to draw conclusions about 2017 and 2019 NAEP scores, this chart raises some key questions about the current “science of reading” claims about teacher education and the need for systematic intensive phonics (and not whole language or balanced literacy).

Note above that whole literacy practices and training correlate with higher scores.

Twenty years after this report from Darling-Hammond have seen at least two significant additional rounds of educational reform, one driven by No Child Left Behind and another sputtering one connected to Common Core.

Just as educational leaders were in the 1990s, we are left with the same data problems, notably flat or dismal reading scores, and can only reach for the same lazy arguments that have never worked before.

The five recommendations from 1997 are echoed today by political leaders and the “science of reading” crowd, all bashing teacher education, teacher expertise, and focusing on standards, tests, and programs.

And little to nothing is done about food and work security, healthcare, or class size—even though these conditions combined would dwarf any measurable impact of teacher quality or program/standards quality.

Ultimately, the “science of reading” and NAEP-crisis rhetoric are doomed because the Christopher Columbus syndrome (thinking you have discovered something that others you ignore or marginalize have known forever) insures that one truism will remain true—those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

Today’s reading crisis is that, back to the future of reading, a 1990s edition recast [2].


[1] Credit and appreciation to Diane Stephens, literacy expert and former professor at the University of South Carolina, who brought this report to my attention.

[2] Don’t forget the 1940s also: “What Shall We Do About Reading Today?”