Teaching Teachers How to Teach Reading: Don't Rock the Boat

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The title of the latest book from the National Academy of Education certainly raised our hopes, making us think that teacher educators were at last reconsidering their anachronistic approach to reading instruction. Knowledge to Support the Teaching of Reading: Preparing Teachers for a Changing World, by Catherine E. Snow, Peg Griffin, and M. Susan Burns, is nominally intended to take on the tough challenge of persuading teacher preparation programs to teach scientifically based reading instruction. However, the book falls prey to the typical flaws of education scholarship. Loaded with meaningless platitudes, it pays only lip service to its purported intention of fixing reading instruction.

The book is almost deliberately obtuse, brimming with a superficial complexity, that masks the authors' unwillingness to commit to saying anything that would either be of practical use or alienate its audience of teacher educators. This equivocation is best illustrated by its observation that the basic components of good reading instruction are "likely to be found in exemplary classrooms, but they are by no means the whole story of what makes a classroom exemplary." Why is the uncontroversial need for teachers to have both knowledge and skills always the excuse for not giving teachers the knowledge they need?

We have heard it all before and wonder why we need to hear it again, especially in this context. An exemplary teacher, according to the authors, is like a coach, more concerned with motivating students than with providing direct instruction in reading. A good teacher guides students, not so much in learning as in exploring ideas, manages behavior "unobtrusively," and offers instruction that capitalizes on students' cultural knowledge and interests. The authors' indulgence in these tired cliches is another sign that they're not really here to shake things up.

At no point in the volume do the authors explicitly lay out a program of action identifying for teacher preparation programs the components of a good program in reading instruction. What's worse, the omission appears intentional, an effort to avoid "patronizing" teacher educators. Education, it seems, is that rare profession in which it is considered patronizing to offer practical, concrete training. Snow and Co. instead work to appease their audience of teacher educators--most of whom, shamefully, have yet to acknowledge the science of reading instruction.

It seems that the authors don't believe that teacher preparation programs actually bear the responsibility for teaching the science of reading instruction. Instead, they think this role is more the purview of professional development run by school districts. It's clear that this group is quite happy to let teacher programs continue to do what they have been doing all along, which is very little at all.