ID Bar
Volume II, Number 2, February, 2004

Father Knows Best?

Legions of federal bureaucrats strut across the landscape dictating reading strategies for poor children, using federal funds to enforce a particular approach. Many of these bureaucrats spout pseudo science to support their claims and their bias. Many have no training in education, are ignorant of pedagogy and are ill prepared to advise, let alone dictate.

The Times article quotes Chris Doherty, the director of Reading First, as defending the program's directives:

"We really don't feel the requirements are overly rigid at all," he said. "It's helping focus the funds on programs that have proven to work."

And just who is this Mr. Doherty to dictate the choice of reading programs? What qualifies him to boss local schools around?

Beltway Bosses:

It's Beltway or the Highway - DC Reading Bosses Dictate Programs for the Big Apple

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

© 2004, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

With all the talk of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq, it is disturbing to watch Washington dictating the choice of reading programs to local schools.

The level of federal interference and dictation is unprecedented, dangerous and reprehensible.

Because the Feds threatened to cut off $34 million in funds, New York City was recently forced to shelve a brand new reading program for 49 elementary schools. Even though the NYC program was based on some of the best research and thinking in the field, they had to teach reading with a Beltway approved reading program or lose the funding.

This is big government at its worst.

"For U.S. Aid, City Switches Reading Plan" - New York Times, January 7, 2004.

A Track Record of Lackluster Results in Baltimore

Before he was promoted to dictate reading policy from Washington, the director of Reading First managed a reform program in Baltimore that created lackluster results for the children and their families.

The Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP), a reform effort funded by the Abell Foundation for eighteen Baltimore elementary schools that hoped to improve the reading scores of disadvantaged urban children using so-called "research-based" programs had to admit disappointing achievements after five years.

This effort asked schools to use a method called "Direct Instruction" that has been around since the sixties and has quite a research base behind it. It is often cited as an example of a program that works. It is heavily scripted, heavily structured and very controlling.

It is not the kind of program you would wish on your own child unless you are fond of strait jackets and heavy-handed approaches. As a former elementary principal with considerable background in reading methods, I would pull my own children out a school that turned to such methods.

It just goes to show that research-based programs do not guarantee success despite the bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated claims and propaganda coming out of Washington these days. The BCP experience should be mandatory reading for any Senators or Representatives who think NCLB's reading mandates are healthy for children or approach anything like "science-based" school improvement.

Proven to Work? Where?

The State of Maryland reported in 2003 that seven of the Title One Schools in Mr. Doherty's program had not met proficiency targets for Reading and Language Arts. Five others were slated for "corrective action" or "restructuring."

For reporting on School Year 2002-2003

School Name Reading? Status?
0023 General Wolfe EM
Not Met
0025 Dr. Rayner Browne EM
0034 Charles Carroll Barrister EM
corrective action
0045 Federal Hill EM
corrective action
0053 Margaret Brent EM
Not Met
0054 Barclay EM/MS
Not Met
0082 Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy
Not Met
0097 Collington Square EM
Not Met
0134 Walter P. Carter EM
Not Met
0142 Robert W. Coleman EM
Not Met
0164 Arundel EM/MS
0201 Dickey Hill EM/MS
Yr. 2 - Math

The current dictation of reading programs by Washington is as weakly grounded in reality as the rapidly evaporating, so-called "Texas Miracle" that created doubtful score improvements on a foundation of drastic student attrition rates, questionable accounting methods and incentives for school administrators to rush children out onto the street before their time.

Reports of Disappointment and Muddled Results - Excuses, Excuses, Excuses!

Despite bold promises and assurances to the community and the families, the so-called research-based Direct Instruction program did not work very well for Mr. Doherty or the children and the schools entrusted to his care and guidance. Mr. Doherty failed to show what would now be called AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) in these 15 schools. After five years, the Abell Foundation had to admit defeat:

Beginning with six pilot schools and eventually expanding to 18, implementation proved extremely difficult, for the same reasons that plague most school reform efforts: high teacher turnover, constant external demands that distract schools from focusing on instruction, weak commitment by school leadership, and the often intractable social and academic deficits typically found in children raised in poverty. Though there were some bright spots, all of these factors led to only incremental progress in student achievement in the project's first four years.

What a whining list of excuses!

Here they applied one of the most research-based reading programs in the land and failed to show important results or improvement. Why not blame the system, the children and everything except the program itself?

The evaluation of the BCP Direct Instruction program by the Baltimore City Schools is lukewarm at best, with some cohorts showing some progress and others not showing progress. Half went up. Half went down. Both cohorts reverted to the mean.

Achievement data show that two of the four Direct Instruction cohorts outscore the BCPSS counterparts on TerraNova Total Reading, with cohorts 2 and 3 being the exception. TerraNova Total Mathematics results varied.
"An Evaluation of the Direct Instruction Program"
Kecia L. Addison
Mary E. Yakimowsk
Despite his claim that he and his colleagues know what works, the director could not make these programs work in Baltimore.

Quite simply, they failed.

The Research-Based Myth

BCP proudly mentions the research base:

There is a clear and extensive research basis for DI’s effectiveness in improving student achievement.

To find out more about Direct Instruction, click on these links: and
A Brief History of the Baltimore Curriculum Project
By Muriel V. Berkeley and R. John Blackley

Despite this research base, BCP had little to show for its efforts.

The research on most of these programs is mixed at best. Many times the studies are flawed. Many times the results match the BCP experience for lackluster disappointment. The fans of these programs frequently mention the exceptions but ignore the failures. It turns out that the true causes of school improvement are usually the result of many different factors, some of which might include heroic leaders, unusual teachers or skewed collections of students. The studies of reading programs tend to average out these other factors in ways that exaggerate the impact of the reading programs, creating a false impression of effectiveness and reliability.

Sometimes the company that publishes the program also creates the tests used to measure its effectiveness. In many domains that would be viewed as a conflict of interest - much like CBS News rating the Super Bowl half time show of business partner (and Viacom possession) MTV.

If programs like Direct Instruction were predictably reliable and effective, all urban children would now be reading above grade level. After all, this program has been around since the 1960s and has been judged effective for decades. If we know what works, why have we waited so long? If we know what works, why did it fail in Baltimore?

All we need to do, so the research-based myth argues, is give children the right reading programs and they become good readers - all reading at or above grade level - all above average!

If that were so, why did Direct Instruction fail in Baltimore and many other places where it was advanced as some silver bullet, miracle fix? Why did Direct Instruction fail the Reading Boss - Chris Doherty - when he used it in Baltimore?

Why is this whole approach to school improvement a terrible fraud?

Pseudo Science and Voodoo as an Excuse for Oppression

It is misleading and wrong when Washington-based bureaucrats claim that they know better than the folks in New York City. They have no track record of success that stands up to scrutiny. There are no research-based (favored) programs that work well in all circumstances. "Research-based" means "studied" but it does not mean "guaranteed." The research actually shows that they are unreliable and unpredictable, but proponents gloss over these findings. They pick and chose across the findings to push their pet programs.

We also have no evidence that unfavored programs will fail because they lack the research base (or corporate financing) that characterize favored programs.

Well meaning citizens of both political parties should demand that this federal interference in what should be a local matter - the choice of reading programs - stops immediately.

A Failure of Intelligence

We have here a failure of intelligence - a misreading of the research and a misunderstanding of its purport. We have politicians promoting personal agendas by twisting science, research and information about learning to serve their own policy interests.

When a program is research-based, it only means it has been studied. It does not mean that we can predict future success. Many of the studies show little progress at a statistical level of significance. Some might show progress under special circumstances. Even if the research is a mixed bag, proponents focus the light on the success stories and ignore the failures or the projects that were inconclusive

We witness politicians and their staff picking and choosing research that suits their goals. They create what amounts to virtual truths.

"It's helping focus the funds on programs that have proven to work."

Words of Mass Deception - Are there no Poor Houses?

Within the next few years, real reading progress in these urban districts employing Beltway mandated reading programs will prove as elusive as the weapons of mass deception the Bush administration used as an excuse for invading Iraq without international or United Nations backing.

The claims of research-based programs will soon be discredited as the limitations of these highly scripted, heavily structured programs do damage to the thinking skills and the reading comprehension of urban children who are subjected to very bad reading strategies that undermine reasoning and deprive them of their birthright as American citizens.

The contrast between the progressive reading experiences of affluent American children in the suburbs and the plight of disadvantaged urban or rural children is dramatic and tragic. The plight of poor children in America is Dickensian - reminiscent of Oliver Twist and other tales of woe.

"Are there no poor houses?" complained Ebeneezer Scrooge.

To see the difference in black-and-white terms (pun intended), read about the diet of thinking, questioning and wondering that greets first grade students in the classroom of Debbie Miller vividly describes in her book - Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Students in her class are challenged to collect and explore fascinating questions. Understanding and insight are priorities. Phonics are also stressed, but reading is broadly defined and students are encouraged to think about their own thinking behaviors, taught to take responsibility and to wrestle with the surprising or unexpected.

The student role in Debbie's classroom is elevated and teacher control is minimized as young ones are expected to handle difficulties without relying upon memorized patterns. The contrast with Direct Instruction is dramatic.

Hot Air, Fake Miracles and Hidden Agendas

NCLB and its reading agenda condemn poor children to a low wage future - one where pay is $7 per hour, there are no benefits and one need only punch pictures of hamburgers on a cash register. No thinking required. Follow orders. Do what you're told. Follow the script. Never challenge authority. Do what the boss says. The boss knows best.

Our way or the highway. Beltway or no way!

Many children will end up sleeping on air vents as adults like this homeless person in our nation's capital.

One group will move into highly paid professional jobs while the other takes the minimum wage jobs that are the only job sector the Bush administration has expanded. Along with tax breaks for the wealthy, we see the rich get richer and the poor grow in numbers and poverty.

© 2004, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.