Ohio lawsuit returns to battle over how to teach reading

By | November 3, 2023

When Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio set out to overhaul reading instruction in his state this year, it seemed like another sign that the decades-long debate over how to teach reading had reached a head. critical point.

Ohio has joined the growing list of states that require schools to follow the “science of reading” — an approach that emphasizes systematic, sonic instruction, known as phonics, and direct teaching of other skills, such as vocabulary.

The movement, fueled by long time search, sought to oust “balanced literacy,” which was supposed to give teachers the flexibility to meet students’ needs while promoting a love of reading. This can include phonics elements, but also other strategies, such as encouraging students to use contextual clues – like pictures – to discern words.

“The weight of the evidence is clear,” Mr. DeWine said in an interview this week. “My only regret is not having done it sooner.”

But a recent lawsuit filed by the Reading Recovery Council of North America, an Ohio-based nonprofit that supports balanced literacy, challenges the state’s new mandate, highlighting the financial and ideological forces behind it. work in the national debate.

“I hope this is the first in a long line of lawsuits aimed at swinging the pendulum that has plagued schools for decades,” Billy Molasso, executive director of the Reading Recovery Council, wrote in a statement. blog postcriticizing Mr. DeWine and Ohio lawmakers for succumbing to a political and media “circus” supporting the science of reading.

Reading Recovery is an intervention program aimed at helping first graders in the bottom 20 percent of their class. The nonprofit partners with universities to train teachers and school district leaders in its methods. In the 2021-22 school year, the program reached approximately 23,500 students in more than 600 districts nationwide.

The program — whose effectiveness has recently been be subject to scrutiny — owes much of its success in the United States to Gay Su Pinnell, balanced literacy star, professor emeritus and major donor to Ohio State University. With Irene C. Fountas, Dr. Pinnell authored one of the most lucrative and popular reading programs used in elementary schools.

But the trend toward the science of reading has put pressure on established players in the education sector, who believe deeply in what they do and have. fought to maintain a foothold in the market.

In its lawsuit, the nonprofit Reading Recovery said it has experienced “a decline in membership” in Ohio and expects a decline in registration for its annual conference, which brings in much of the revenue of the group. Tax records show the group took in just over $1 million last year.

“The practical question is that we need to be able to maintain our activities,” Dr. Molasso said in an interview.

“But our position is principled,” he said, adding: “We believe what we are doing works, and we have evidence to prove that it works.”

The lawsuit contends that Governor DeWine violated state law by pushing a change in the policy’s reading in a budget bill, rather than in specific legislation.

The governor dismissed the lawsuit, calling it self-interest. “They’re upset that they can’t make any more money,” he told reporters after the suit was filed last month.

During daily individual lessons, Reading Recovery students practice reading with the coaching of a teacher. Phonics is included as needed, but it is not primary, said Dr. Molasso, who rejected what he called one-size-fits-all teaching. “We have a “whatever it takes” philosophy. Sometimes it’s phonetic,” he said. “Sometimes it’s something else.”

Students can learn to use context clues, including pictures, to discern the meaning of a word, a practice known as the three benchmarks. The practice was banned in Ohio under the new mandate and was criticized by reading science advocates for distracting students from the letters on the page.

Dr Molasso said the three cues are only used very early on, to build a child’s confidence – for example, if a student knows what an elephant looks like, but hasn’t yet made the connection between the words oral and written.

“It’s not a strategy that we use or support later in the progression of learning to read,” he said.

Dr. Pinnell helped bring Reading Recovery to the United States from New Zealand in the 1980s and helped establish a base at Ohio State. The university is home to one of more than a dozen Reading Recovery training centers across the country.

Dr. Pinnell, a volunteer board member of the Reading Recovery Council, has given more than $400,000 to the nonprofit since 2013, according to his tax filings, and recently made a combined donation of $4 million dollars to support Reading Recovery training programs at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, and Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She also donated to the state of Ohio, including a $7.5 million donation in 2020, it was the largest gift from an individual in the history of the College of Education. The gift, in part, endowed a professorship that helps support Reading Recovery training at Ohio State.

(She is also a personal acquaintance of Mr. DeWine and supported his charitable work for a school in Haiti, named after his late daughter.)

Dr. Pinnell, through a representative for his publisher, declined to comment for this article, citing the pending lawsuit. In his role on the board, Dr. Pinnell is not active in the day-to-day decisions of the Reading Recovery Council, the representative said.

Ohio State, which is not involved in the lawsuit, said that although the university houses the school districts’ training center, its undergraduate education program does not use Reading Recovery to train future teachers.

Reading Recovery Quotes studies who found positive results, notably a large study funded by the federal government in 2016 by Henry May, an associate professor at the University of Delaware, and other researchers. This study found significant gains for students at the end of the first year.

But a follow-up study by Dr. May published this year found negative long-term results. The Reading Recovery Council rejected the results, citing methodological problems.

The follow-up studywho compared students who received a reading recovery intervention with other struggling readers who did not, found that in third and fourth grades, the reading recovery students were behind in ‘a complete school level.

The results surprised the researchers, who “went back, checked, rechecked, triple-checked,” Dr. May said.

Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was not involved in the study and described it as high quality, said one theory explaining the negative results is that students learned to rely on strategies that backfired. where reading became more advanced.

“Young kids start out trying to use a variety of strategies,” he said. “If you show them a tube of toothpaste that says ‘Crest,’ they’ll guess it says ‘toothpaste.’ But he added: “Learning to read means abandoning that strategy and focusing more on ‘How can I actually get the author’s word, not just the general idea?’

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