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A Critical Policy Analysis and Response to the Report of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ)

Curt Dudley-Marling, Lisa Patel Stevens, and Alexander Gurn
Boston College
April 2007

While education has long been a political touchstone in the United States, current federal and state legislation and funding initiatives have raised the political stakes to unforeseen levels. The reach of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and accompanying Reading First program is unparalleled, affecting the form and content of instruction in classrooms across the United States. As debates rage about intended and unintended effects of these policies, we take the stance that, at a minimum, educational policies, including position papers and reports, must be closely examined for their representations of education, particularly how educational policies position teachers and students relative to theories of learning and wider political contexts. It is in this spirit that we offer a critique of a recent report on the preparation of teachers of reading produced by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) which concludes that schools of education are not teaching future teachers about the “science of reading” (Walsh, Glaser, & Wilcox, 2006, p. 48). Specifically, we pose questions about the historical relevance of the NCTQ report and explicit and implicit definitions of reading proficiency embedded in the report. We also suggest how informed educational professionals—like NCTE members—can and should engage with policy documents that shape their daily work. We begin by situating the NCTQ report in a broader historical and political context.

Situating the NCTQ Report

Discussions of policy conjure images of meetings of elected or appointed officials   drafting complex and intricate guidelines and regulations. While this is one form of policymaking, any document that captures a crystallization of values can act as policy (Stone, 1997). In the case of education, policy can potentially affect the daily practices of teachers and students, influencing what counts as success in classrooms and beyond. Position papers are one source of policy that specify the theoretical and practical knowledges, skills, and attitudes that preservice teachers are expected to acquire along the road to certification and then enact in their classroom pedagogy. Significantly, such policies do more than rest on shelves in policymakers’ offices; they have the potential to materially change the face of education. No educational policy emerges ex nihilo, however. Educational policies sit in a dialogic relationship with previous and existing policies and policy documents. The recently released paper, What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching about Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren’t Learning (Walsh, Glaser, & Wilcox, 2006), which has had immediate and ongoing effects on educational policy, begs examination of its key definitions, assertions, and its connections to previous policy and policy documents.

To situate the NCTQ report historically, it is necessary to look back to the publication of A Nation at Risk by the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCE) in 1983, a watershed moment in the recent history of American educational reform. Inciting a moral panic over the quality of American schooling, A Nation at Risk served as a call to arms for educational reformers across the political spectrum. According to the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the state of education in the United States was such that

if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. (NCE, 1983)

Since A Nation at Risk was published there have been a spate of reports critical of American education, many focusing on presumed failures in the teaching of reading (e.g., Barth, 2001; Lyon & Kameenui, 1997; Peterson, 2003; United States Commission on National Security, 2001). Although claims of a broad-based crisis in literacy have been challenged by a number of scholars[i] (e.g., Berliner & Biddle, 1995; McQuillan, 1998), the presumption that significant numbers of American school children are failing to learn basic reading skills has achieved the status of common sense among politicians, educational policymakers, media pundits, and the general public.

Public policy solutions to the presumed literacy crisis have generally focused on identifying “best methods” for teaching reading. In 1997, for example, the U. S. Congress charged the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to appoint a national panel to assess research-based knowledge on beginning reading instruction. The National Reading Panel (NRP)—which closely followed another national report on reading, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998)—identified research-based reading practices in five areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary instruction, and reading comprehension. Many policymakers have interpreted the NRP report to mean that beginning reading instruction must focus on these five components of reading and include only reading methods supported by “scientifically-based research,” which the Panel limited to reading research employing experimental and quasi-experimental designs (Pressley, 2001).

Despite numerous critiques of the methodology, findings, and interpretations of the National Reading Panel (e.g.,  Allington, 2002; Almasi, Garas-York, & Shanahan, 2006; Camilli, Vargas, & Yurecko, 2003: Coles, 2003; Garan, 2001; Erickson & Gutiérrez, 2002; Hammill & Swanson, 2006; Pearson, 2004; Pressley, 2001; Pressley, Duke, & Boling, 2004), the work of the NRP is having a profound effect on reading instruction, pushing out reading methods—independent reading, for example—that do not find support in the NRP report (Edmondson & Shannon, 2002). School officials are taking seriously the admonition by Tim Shanahan, a member of the NRP, that “if it isn't proven to work through [scientific] research, you can’t count it toward instruction” (Diegmueller & Manzo, 2001, p. 5).

Perhaps the most powerful tool for enforcing compliance to the standards of scientifically-based reading instruction advanced by the NRP has been the Reading First program, which provides federal support for state and local reading programs “founded on scientifically-based reading research” (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). The U. S. Department of Education (USDOE) has warned states that the agency will be closely monitoring how they spend money intended to support local reading initiatives “after reports that local recipients may not be following ‘scientifically-based’ principles” (Manzo, 2002, p. 1). In this way, the USDOE maintains a unitary, material enforcement of overly narrow views of research and reading that have been challenged in numerous forums (e.g., Cunningham, 2001; Edmondson & Shannon, 2002; Stevens, 2003; Strauss, 2003).

It is not only “local recipients” (see above) who have been suspected of failing to embrace the scientifically-based principles of the NRP. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) report on the teaching of reading in schools of education was inspired by the suspicion that reading methods courses in university-based teacher education programs are not attending to the NRP’s call for “explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics, guided oral reading to improve fluency, direct and indirect vocabulary building, and exposure to a variety of reading comprehension strategies” (Walsh, Glaser, & Wilcox, 2006, p. 3). To further examine this conclusion, the NCTQ undertook a study of reading courses at 72 American universities. Using course syllabi and course texts as indicators of course content, the NCTQ report concludes that only 15% of the schools of education in their sample provided future teachers with even “minimal exposure” to core components of the science of reading (Walsh, Glaser, & Wilcox, 2006, p. 3).

Ultimately, the NCTQ report links reading failures in this country to faddish reading instruction unsupported by scientific research. The ultimate responsibility for reading failures among the nation’s youth, however, is laid at the feet of teacher educators who, the authors of the NCTQ report assert, cling to outmoded theories and methods of reading instruction like independent silent reading and whole language that lack a (scientific) research base. Based on their findings, the NCTQ recommends that states implement a variety of policies and procedures to overcome resistance in schools of education to the “science of reading” (Walsh, Glaser, & Wilcox, 2006, p. 48).

The NCTQ report is characterized by its authors as “a reasonable assessment of what elementary teacher education candidates are learning—or failing to learn—about the teaching of reading” (Walsh, Glaser, & Wilcox, 2006, p. 10). We disagree—strongly. Forceful claims about the content of reading methods courses, particularly the proportion of course time devoted to particular topics based on course syllabi, are unwarranted. Certainly, the authors of the NCTQ report present no independent evidence that course syllabi are valid or reliable indicators of course content. Arguably, the NCTQ research says more about the quality of course syllabi than the content of reading methods courses. Curiously, the authors of the NCTQ report dismissed the possibility of contacting faculty or interviewing students on methodological grounds, arguing that this kind of input would have undermined the objectivity of their study. The examination of course syllabi is augmented by an analysis of course texts, but no description of this analysis is provided, once again calling into question the validity and reliability of the measures. Additionally, the findings of the NCTQ study are not supported by any kind of third party (peer) review, a fundamental expectation for the publication of scientific research. Ironically, a report that valorizes scientifically-based reading research fails itself to meet minimal criteria for valid and reliable research.[ii]

The rhetorical force of the NCTQ report is further undermined by the way the report links itself to commonsense—or tacit—theories of reading that underpin the report of the National Reading Panel and current policy discussions of reading. By failing to take an explicit, theoretical point of view, the NCTQ report restricts reading debates to technical issues of method separate from issues of culture and ideology of which all language practices are a part (Gee, 1996). Situated against an increasingly diverse student population and complex trends of immigration, the (a)theoretical stance that undergirds the NCTQ report (and the report of the NRP) privileges an overly simplistic, rote view of reading that is naïve and, ultimately, harmful to young learners. While we strongly disagree with the hierarchical, skills-based, autonomous model of reading (Gee, 1996; Street, 1995) implicit in the NCTQ report and its referential notes, we are equally disturbed by the way the report evades explicit discussion of its theoretical underpinnings and the pedagogical methods favored by its authors. We agree with Bloome et al. (2005) who caution that

the separation of theory from methods results in researchers engaging in unreflected action and holding magical beliefs; that is, they conduct research without questioning why they do what they do or how their actions are connected to understandings of knowledge, people, or language. (p. xviii)

The danger of putting forth such “magical beliefs,” particularly in such implicit fashion, is that it easily and quickly closes off dialogue about just what sorts of ideas, concepts, and theories about reading, teaching, and learning are most useful. Because any policy acts as a crystallization of values, readers must be able to engage deliberately with basic assumptions about education that inform the theoretical grounding of educational policy. In the case of NCTQ, this base is not offered openly to consumers or implementers of policies that draw on the report. In the rest of the paper, we open this base, interrogating the theoretical stance implicit in the NCTQ report to identify magical, taken-for-granted beliefs that the authors of the NCTQ report hold about reading and the consequences of these beliefs, including the consequences of failing to make these beliefs explicit.

Taken-for-Granted Beliefs Underlying the NCTQ Report

The NCTQ report, like any text, is a representation of the values and perspectives of its crafters. By definition, a representation is a partial rendering of a whole and any author must make decisions about what to include, what to omit, and why. Policy texts act no differently and, as such, can and should be questioned for what is included and what is left out and how this serves to communicate how education should be shaping literate subjects of the state (Luke, 1998). However, such readings must delve deeper than what is explicitly stated to examine taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions that carry powerful representations of values and ideologies.

Our reading of the NCTQ report reveals a number of assumptions at work, including taken-for-granted assumptions about what counts as reading; how quality in teaching is defined; how teacher education programs are represented and assessed; and the role of reading and language competency in students’ development. Although none of these topics are defined explicitly in the report, they are presented singularly, often implicitly, as though they are not open to interpretation. The authors never explicitly acknowledge the possibility of other positions on literacy teaching and learning informed by different assumptions and beliefs. As one specific but telling example, the NCTQ report takes for granted the autonomous model of reading implicit in the NRP report which has been exhaustively challenged as limited, incomplete, and colonizing to young learners from diverse cultural backgrounds (Allington, 2002; Almasi, Garas-York, & Shanahan, 2006; Camilli, Vargas, & Yurecko, 2003: Coles, 2003; Garan, 2001; Erickson & Gutiérrez, 2002; Hammill & Swanson, 2006; Pearson, 2004; Pressley, 2001; Pressley, Duke, & Boling, 2004). The NCTQ’s lack of explicit engagement with these critiques positions the technicist view of reading implicit in the NRP report as a centered truth, not open to theoretical discussions of language and culture.

While all texts are representations and, therefore, contain selected views of the world, we argue that policy texts, and those documents purporting to be scientific, carry a special responsibility to be both explicit and rigorous in explicitly stating the choices and ideologies shaping the representation. The danger in the atheoretical stance of the NCTQ report, which grossly oversimplifies reading, is the silencing of engaged dialogue around the complex ways that reading should be taught in today’s classrooms. Without this being done explicitly within the document, the onus is even greater upon the reader and consumer to bring these questions and taken-for-granteds to the fore, to participate in open, democratic dialogue about what these taken-for-granteds imply and how they coincide with other possibilities.

In the following section, we examine taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions underpinning the NCTQ report and situate them in broader contexts. By doing so, we engage in a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction. We actively deconstruct the implicit ideological infrastructure that shapes this document, thereby drawing it into question. However, engaging only in deconstruction can be viewed as an exercise that results only in critical nihilism, so we follow this deconstruction with suggestions for alternative representations and truths as a way to reconstruct other possibilities. In keeping with the history of critical literacy, pertinent critical policy questions include (1) Whose perspectives are represented and silenced? (2) What are the methods used to construct the logic of the text? (3) What are the likely effects of the text? With each iteration of responses to these questions, it is incumbent upon informed readers of the NCTQ text to situate the text within, against, and alongside their own taken-for-granteds about students, reading, and teacher competency. In light of the ways in which No Child Left Behind and Reading First have led to complex, intended, and unintended effects (Kozol, 2005; Gerstl-Pepin & Woodside-Jiron, 2005; Roche, 2006), this kind of interrogation should be done quickly and with a view to how educators might engage with policy texts like the NCTQ report and the possible substantive changes that the NCTQ report may impart. In fact, we argue that any policy should be engaged critically, as a form of swift democratic discourse, and offer this critical reading of the NCTQ report as an example of the kinds of critical questions that can mark such practices.

Critical Policy Question One: Whose perspectives are represented and silenced?

As discussed earlier, the dominant perspective of reading taken for granted in the NCTQ report is that forwarded in the NRP report of 2000. This definition of reading is one that comprises a set of discrete and easily defined skills, such as oral fluency, basic comprehension, and recognition of common phonemes. This collection of skills represents a view of reading that is in agreement with the prevailing, although widely criticized, discourse of “scientifically-based reading research” underpinning  the NRP report, a view of language that privileges mastery of discrete, autonomous skills (Street, 1995), singularly taught, performed, and measured across large numbers of culturally and linguistically diverse children. This technicist, decontextualized theory of reading skims from the complexity of literacy the most rote skills, lassoing them together in a view of reading that reflects neither the intricacies of reading texts nor the situatedness of meaning-making skills, processes, and practices. While all pedagogical, curricular, and assessment practices do have technical aspects to them, reducing reading to a limited set of techniques results in an overly simplistic technicism that evades the theoretical complexities in any suite of approaches.

The autonomous model of reading underpinning the NCTQ and NRP reports, far from being a “settled” theoretical, practical, and political concept, has been challenged by literacy educators and researchers who understand reading as a sociocultural practice (e.g., Bloome, Harris, & Ludlum, 1991; Gee, 1996, 2001; Street, 1995). Viewing reading as a sociocultural practice privileges a worldview of meaning-making that first asks what kind of meaning-making situation is at hand, who the participants and purposes are, and what sets of skills and processes are necessary to fit within this practice. For example, a sociocultural view of reading emphasizes that the skills and processes necessary to read and respond to comprehension questions on a standardized test are vastly different from what is necessary to use the appropriate tone, semantics, and language in reading an email message from a close friend. More importantly, sociocultural theories of reading hold that neither of these two practices can be decontextually prioritized as a more literate practice than the other. Instead, the anchoring concept is that being literate entails a complex performance of skills, processes, and abilities that addresses what is required in the particular context. Similarly, what is crucial in exploring this critical policy question is noting that, contrary to the taken-for-granted assumptions at work in the NCTQ report, there is not, nor should there be, a singular, settled, and static definition of reading for students, teachers, and teacher educators. However, engaging in this kind of juxtaposition between views of reading is only part of what is required in this type of critical policy reading. Kept at this level of engagement, the dialogue can quickly devolve into a bland version of “he said, she said.” Instead, what is necessary, particularly with texts like the NCTQ Report that take an atheoretical stance, is to interrogate the logic at work in the document. This allows the discourse around the policy to claim and use tenets, such as explicitly stated ideology, as foundations for engaged democratic dialogue (Gutman, 1987).

Critical Policy Question Two: What logic is used in the text?

All texts seek to achieve some effect that reflects the author’s intentions in producing that text (Searle, 1969). The NCTQ text, like any document seeking to affect public policy, attempts to persuade its readers, in part, by positioning itself relative to other texts and other groups of people. This positioning—to other texts and people—is the primary means by which texts seek to situate readers in discourse spaces in which certain assumptions obtain (Gee, 1996). For example, the NCTQ report attempts to establish its authority, in part, by how it positions itself within a web of policy institutions that operate outside of traditionally accepted research practices for conducting research and sharing one’s results. (For a discussion of scientific guidelines, see Shavelson & Towne, 2002.) As Laitsch, Heilman, and Shaker (2002) maintain, “rather than engage the community of educational researchers with their arguments, advocates are creating a parallel system for communication that is fully integrated in its structure. That is to say, there are funding sources, scholars-in-residence, institutions, and liaisons to policy-makers and media” (p. 259). In this way, NCTQ’s study gives the appearance of “academic” research, yet eschews many of the established research channels, such as external peer review. Operating outside of these traditional procedures does not assume unscholarly work, yet does warrant a close inspection of the methods and findings.

The persuasiveness of the NCTQ report derives in large part by the way it links itself to the report of the National Reading Panel and the taken-for-granted assumptions undergirding the NRP report; therefore, the authors take great pains to establish the authority of the NRP. The NRP is, according to the NCTQ report, composed of “reading experts” whose commitment to scientific rigor led them to produce findings that are “so conclusive and clear that they became the foundation for federal legislation” (Walsh, Glaser, & Wilcox, 2006, p. 10). To further emphasize the conclusiveness of the NRP’s work, the authors of the NCTQ report assert that “no subsequent work of serious scholarship has challenged [the NRP] findings” (p. 10). Of course, there have been widespread challenges to the methodology and findings of the NRP (see above), so either the authors of the NCTQ report are unaware of these challenges or, more likely, they deliberately chose to characterize contrary views as not the result of “serious scholarship.” In any case, representing the NRP report as settling the reading wars through the use of scientific methods is a key rhetorical move that enables the authors of the NCTQ text to present themselves as defenders of scientific research and, simultaneously, position university faculty who resist or ignore the findings of the National Reading Panel reports as unscientific (the authors of the NCTQ report assert that course syllabi reveal a tendency of teacher education faculty “to dismiss the scientific research in reading” [p. 5]). Presenting the findings of the NRP as the product of unquestionable, scientific inquiry positions teacher education faculty who dare to question these findings as insolent, or worse, ignorant.

In general, the NCTQ report positions teacher education faculty who teach reading methods courses as, at best, consumers of reading research. The authors of the NCTQ report repeatedly refer to members of the NRP as “reading experts”[iii]  who identified scientifically proven reading practices that teacher educators are expected to embrace and pass on to future teachers in reading methods courses, a responsibility the authors of the NCTQ report accuse teacher educators of failing to meet. Reading experts in the employ of the NCTQ rendered judgments on the syllabi and textbooks used in reading methods courses for their fidelity to the science of reading. Even the authors of the textbooks used in reading methods courses, most of whom are university-based teacher educators, come under the scrutiny of these reading experts who scour the pages of reading texts in search of scientific errors and omissions. Positioning teacher educators as subject to the evaluation and direction of reading experts diminishes the professional discretion of teacher educators who, in the construction of the NCTQ report, are not experts and, therefore, have no right to their own judgments.

Accepting the logic of the report means that the only reasonable (read: scientific) move available to teacher educators—and teachers—is to look to the National Reading Panel and other reading experts to identify reading strategies that have been proven to work. This stance denies the possibility that classroom teachers or faculty who teach methods courses possess independent expertise in reading theory or research. In this formulation there is no room for theory and practice to mutually inform one another. This technicist representation of teachers (and teacher educators) contradicts what is one of the most salient findings of reading research: that no one method has been found to be effective with all children, all of the time (Allington & Johnston, 2001; Duffy & Hoffman, 1999; Pearson, 1997) with the concomitant that teachers are the most important factor in students’ reading development (Allington & Johnston, 2001; Pressley et al., 2001).

In the end, the NCTQ report seeks to control the work of teachers by imposing on teacher educators the narrow definition of reading and reading research embedded in the work of the NRP. This move is dramatically illustrated by the invitation on the NCTQ website to reading educators who disagree with the NCTQ’s initial evaluation of their programs. Reading educators who received a “low grade” are encouraged to resubmit their course syllabi and other supporting materials for the inspection of NCTQ experts. Teacher educators who take up this offer acknowledge the regulatory status of the NCTQ and, more troubling, their own status as mere consumers of expert knowledge, simultaneously disempowering them and the teachers they serve.

Critical Policy Question Three: What are the intended material (or constitutive) effects of the policy text?

In a world of mass-communicated texts networked through online connections, a document such as the NCTQ report carries renewed, reconfigured, and wholly different sets of implications than if it were a print-bound binder sitting on office shelves far from classrooms and children. The accessibility and communication of a digital text, combined with the recent intensification of the federal government’s role in education, heightens the necessity to question its implications. Working from the taken-for-granted assumptions of reading competency in this text, what are the implications for students, teachers and teacher educators?

As discussed previously in the work that challenges the NRP, this skills-based definition of reading implicit in the NCTQ report, which emphasizes discrete skills (e.g., decoding, oral fluency exercises, factual level comprehension) has clear implications for classroom practice. Often characterized by drills of orally repeated decoding banks of words and phonemes, these practices privilege automaticity in a narrow set of skills, effectively silencing the various linguistic registers, ranges, and skills that increasingly diverse groups of students bring to classrooms. In this way, reading is defined as a narrow and singular list of English language skills and children are taught a form of literacy that functions as a linguistic colonizer of their backgrounds, skills, and knowledges (Gutiérrez, Baquedano-Lopez, & Asato, 2000). Even for children from English-speaking backgrounds, the classroom practices used and perpetuated by this stance position them as passive recipients of overly rote sets of skills, as readers who are restricted to superficially processing texts, and as literate subjects of state capable of little more than the most basic interactions with linear, print-based texts. This model casts children as either proficient or deficient, a sort of possessive individualism (Apple, 2006) that decontextualizes human beings from the world around them and also works to place sole responsibility for achievement and progress within the individual, disconnected from society. Cohorts of children emerging from such a perspective may be significantly challenged in contending with an information age that demands fluid, flexible, and critical reading and writing across platforms, contexts, and sign systems.

For teachers, the technicist definition of reading taken for granted in the NCTQ and NRP reports relegates them to the delivery instruments of such a reductionist pedagogy and curriculum. Simply put, they become little more than the enforcers of a law that has been preemptively drafted and decided. Their role is to follow, in arguably more and more detailed ways, the prescribed curriculum and pedagogy that matches this singular definition of reading. They may administer assessments that are packaged with reading programs that deliver this approach, but they need not use higher-order thinking skills for analyses of the results. Rather, a definition of reading that relies upon discrete and easily measurable variables, such as number of words orally decoded per minute, leaves very little for teachers to do other than metaphorically (literally in many schools) turning to the correct page in their teachers’ manual, following the script, and quantifying students’ correct and incorrect responses. Such a role for teachers is not only ethically bankrupt, it also conflicts with research about the central role of teachers in improving students’ learning.

For teacher educators, the NCTQ report basically removes one of the central roles of classroom- and university-based researchers: to engage in applied research that advances situated and collective understandings of appropriately complex practices like learning to read. By summarily choosing a simplistic definition and anointing it as the truth, the report has the potential implication of ending scholarly, research-based, and praxis-informed investigations into how to best support readers, their teachers, and the systems in which they work. Additionally, by offering such a definition of reading as truth, or any definition for that matter, the report removes from social science a key responsibility: to continually interrogate, with practitioners like teachers, existing practices for their relevancy in social, cultural, political, and economic contexts. This type of inquiry not only resists static routines, but transforms the work of social institutions, such as schools. For example, in the context of the NCTQ’s taken-for-granted assumptions about reading and research, investigating how reading skills and processes would need to contend with both rapidly changing networks of digital texts and widely diverse cultural backgrounds of children is not a topic of research, dialogue, or attention. Instead, the NCTQ report offers a decontextualized definition of reading that summarily ignores such broader contexts. Under the intended effects of this policy, it is not within the scope of the teacher educator to even engage in questions about how shifts in context should be reflected in pedagogy. Taking for granted the truth of one definition of reading, as the NCTQ report does, denies teacher educators even the possibility of questioning this stance; instead, they are expected to provide inservice and preservice teachers with a compendia of skills, exercises, and activities that deliver the prescribed definition of reading. This reductionist role is only strengthened by the report’s stance on what counts as research, delimiting any research that is not experimental or quasi-experimental employing inferential statistics. These two taken-for-granted assumptions regarding the definitions of reading and scientifically-based reading research significantly inhibit teacher educators and schools of education from developing sentient, dynamic professional thinkers to training predictable and measurable pupil and teacher behaviors.

What Are Alternatives?

At heart of the NCTQ report and its weak foundation is an implicit ideology that is manifested through a number of taken-for-granted assumptions which we have discussed above. Concealing its theoretical assumptions abrogates the responsibility of policy to put its ideology on a public stage, so that accountability can be actively refracted upon policymakers and their guiding principles (Stevens, 2003). In fact, the fundamental value of accountability is determining how well policy serves the beliefs and practice of the people it seeks to impact. In this way, the role of ideology is not one that can be removed from texts; instead, what is paramount is that taken-for-granted assumptions, or prevailing theoretical stances, are made explicit, so that they can be openly interrogated through democratic discourse (Stevens, Dudley-Marling, & Lucas, 2007). Without an explicit discussion of these taken-for-granteds, the onus is upon the reader to critically examine policy texts for their ideological stances, and this exercise will yield substantive areas of connection and concern.

By deconstructing these taken-for-granteds, our stance is not to eradicate the presence of ideology from policy texts. Rather, our position is that it is incumbent upon us to question such texts to assess their fit with our sets of what we know, our values, ideologies, and systems of logic. From our perspectives, the NCTQ report falls well short. Clearly, our stance is one that has little regard for the particular representations of reading, students, teachers, and teacher education found within the NCTQ report. To only deconstruct, as we have done to this point in this critical policy analysis, is to antithetically render somewhat implicit the views and ideologies of other parties. What must follow critical deconstructive questions are additional questions that offer alternative and dissenting viewpoints. With other taken-for-granteds explicitly offered to inform the question of what elementary reading teachers should know, stakeholders can engage in democratic processes for deciding what should inform policy, research, and practice. Put simply, providing alternatives to the policy in question allows and actually holds teachers, teacher educators, and researchers accountable to claiming their values and perspectives. With ideologies and ensuing methodologies made explicit, participants can discuss the resonant societal, cultural, and political aims of the document and other approaches.

Below we offer lists of themed articles and texts that provide ideological and methodological alternatives to the taken-for-granted assumptions and findings of the NCTQ report and policies that may derive from this report. Our hope is that these methods and ideas will invite other voices into this conversation in order to engage interested participants in necessarily nuanced democratic discussions of what schools owe young children for their language and literacy development.

Alternatives to the Taken-for-Granteds of the NCTQ Report

Grunwald (2006) exposes how corruption and insider politics have trumped science and rigor in the implementation of the Reading First program.

Harrison (2006) discusses the “sustaining myths” and “necessary illusions” fundamental to recent educational policy in the United States and the United Kingdom.

McGill-Franzen, Zmach, Solic, and Zeig (2006) analyze two “scientifically-validated” reading programs and cast doubt on the programs’ capacity to support instruction for students whose achievement is below grade level.

Roche (2006) investigates who stands to benefit from No Child Left Behind and Reading First and finds that the Bush family has profited greatly.

Valencia, Place, Martin, and Grossman (2006) address the negative impact of reading curriculum mandates on beginning teachers’ understandings of reading instruction and their roles and responsibilities in the classroom.

Alternatives to the Findings

llington (2002) provides a scathing critique of the methodology, findings, political motivations, and impact of the NRP 2000 report.

Almasi, Garas-York, & Shanahan (2006) illustrate how the inclusion of qualitative research in the NRP would have enriched the panel’s conclusions on reading comprehension instruction.

Camilli, Wolfe, & Smith (2006) and Hammill & Swanson (2006) seriously call into question the NRP’s conclusions about the advantages of systematic phonics instruction by reanalyzing the report’s central findings.

Pearson (2004) examines some of the historical and political forces that have shaped reading research and instruction, and champions a balanced approach to reading research, policy, and practice to halt the “pendulum swings” that have fueled decades of “reading wars.”

Pressley, Duke, and Boling (2004) argue that the federal government’s policies on scientific research permit only a narrow range of potentially effective reading instruction and present an alternative model for reading research and public policy.



Allington, R. L. (Ed.) (2002). Big brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Allington, R. L., & Johnston, P. (2001). What do we know about effective fourth-grade teachers and their classrooms? In C. Roller (Ed.), Learning to teach reading: Setting the research agenda (pp. 150–165). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Almasi, J. F., Garas-York, K, and Shanahan, L. (2006). Qualitative research on text comprehension and the report of the National Reading Panel. The Elementary School Journal, 107 (1), 37–66.

Apple, M. W. (2004). Ideology and curriculum (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2006). Understanding and interrupting neoliberalism and neoconservatism in education. Pedagogies, 1(1), 21–26.

Barth, P. E. (Ed.). (2001). Youth at the crossroads: Facing high school and beyond.  Washington, D.C.: Education Trust, Inc. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED45835).

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud and the attack on America’s public schools. Redding, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bloome, D., Carter, S. P., Christian, B. M., Otto, S., & Shuart-Faris, N. (2005). Discourse analysis and the study of classroom language and literacy events: A microethnographic perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bloome, D., Harris, L. H, & Ludlum, D. E. (1991). Reading and writing as sociocultural activities: Politics and pedagogy in the classroom. Topics in Language Disorders, 11, 14–27.

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Note: Every effort has been made to provide current URLs, but because of the rapidly changing nature of the Web, some sites may no longer be accessible.


[i] Although alarmist claims of a widespread literacy crisis have been challenged, there is no disagreement that the reading achievement of Black and Hispanic children lags compared to White students (NAEP, 2003).


[ii] In an article in Education Week, “After Complaint, Teacher Council Changes Rating,” on July 12, 2006, the Dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Education wrote that [the NCTQ report’s] “methodology is so flawed, none of us would accept it as a paper for a course” (Manzo, 2006, p. 12).


[iii] Joanne Yatvin, a member of the National Reading Panel who took exception to the findings of the NRP by filing a minority report, noted that only 8 of the original 15 members of the Panel could be characterized as reading “experts” (Yatvin, 2002). Indeed, the chair of the NRP was a physicist. Yatvin further argued that the reading researchers on the NRP generally held the same (behavioral) perspective on reading.


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