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The Politics of Reading and Dyslexia
Brain imaging and cognition
Steven L. Strauss
If you can't read, you may have missed some recent reports on “breakthroughs” in reading and dyslexia. If we are to believe the words of Sally Shaywitz, M.D., co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention Disorders, advances in brain imaging studies of reading are nothing short of “revolutionary.”
“Society is on the cusp of a true revolution in its ability to use science to inform public policy—a revolution in which biological discoveries serve the health and education of our children,” writes Shaywitz and her coworkers.
Shaywitz's federally-funded research is part of a much larger federal project in the service of corporate America, a project whose goal is a workforce with “21st Century Literacy” skills that can maintain the competitive advantage of U.S. corporations in the global marketplace. Contrary to Shaywitz's claims, this project is fundamentally harmful to the “health and education of our children.”
Drawing on previous research in cognitive psychology that supposedly discovered the core deficit in dyslexia, namely, an inability to sound out letters, Shaywitz claims that her work on reading, using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology, represents the second phase of a revolution in neuroscience—the identification of the neural locus of the core deficit. It lies in the inferior frontal gyrus of the left hemisphere of the brain.
“Revolutionary advances in imaging technology make it possible literally to view dyslexia from within the brain itself.” Anticipating a radical transformation in the way society evaluates reading progress in school, Shaywitz declares that “the discovery of a biological signature for reading offers an unprecedented opportunity to assess the effects of interventions on reading in non impaired readers as well as in individuals with dyslexia.”
Shaywitz acknowledges the vision of Reid Lyon in the progress made over the past decade or more in reading research, referring specifically to Lyon's “targeted program of research.” Lyon is the Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child and Human Development, part of the National Institute of Health, and in charge of funding. He has made the neuroscientific underpinnings of dyslexia the centerpiece of the NICHD's research program.
But Lyon's research program is conspicuously narrow when set against the backdrop of variables that he recognizes are crucial to reading failure. In 1997 testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives, he stated, “failure to read adequately is much more likely among poor children, among nonwhite children, and among nonnative speakers of English.”
His testimony, however, continues with a curious twist of logic: “evidence of serious reading failure cuts across all ethnic and socioeconomic strata. These data underscore the fact that reading failure is a serious national problem and can not simply be attributed to poverty, immigration, or the learning of English as a second language.” He concludes that the focus of reading research should fall on factors “irrespective” of these.
So instead of funding research on the social underpinnings of illiteracy, Lyon funds the research of Shaywitz and likeminded thinkers whose approach to reading and dyslexia is limited and asocial. As this example demonstrates, the social promotion of certain individuals to “expert” status, whether in reading or other areas of funded intellectual investigation, may often be more a function of funding priorities than of merit.
Why are poverty, race, and ethnicity not regarded by U.S. government research institutions as potentially significant contributors to the phenomenon of illiteracy? Why are they excluded from the funding pot? Perhaps part of the answer lies in an ongoing government interest in high-tech solutions to perceived social problems. In 1989, for example, the U.S. Army Research Institute convened a small committee of “experts” to review high-tech approaches to problems in cognitive psychology. The committee entitled its report “Brain and Cognition: Some New Technologies.” The members reviewed past achievements and future possibilities in the use of magnet- oencephalography (MEG), positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and event-related potentials (ERP).
The committee consisted of well-known academic researchers, including Dr. Stephen Kosslyn of Harvard University's Department of Psychology, and Dr. Marcus Raichle of Washington University's Department of Radiology and Neurology. Raichle has been regarded as a pioneer in using PET scanning to study reading.
The report begins by noting that “as part of its mission to apply modern technology to military problems, the Army Research Institute (ARI) asked the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, in its primary role as science advisers to the federal government, to evaluate recent technical developments in the monitoring of brain activity for their relevance to basic and applied issues relating to the acquisition and maintenance of cognitive skills.” The committee then endorsed its own yearlong work by pointing to the importance of high-tech studies of cognition to “any major agency involved in personnel training.”
The committee concluded from its work that “it may be possible to develop measures of brain activity during cognition, already studied in laboratory conditions, to be used as indices in personnel selection and training in the military context.”
However, the committee also expressed its opinion that the more likely short-term benefits of this type of research lay in “the development of cognitive theory and in discovering the specific skills to be assessed…. Particularly promising possibilities exist in the monitoring of the direction of attention, in the measurement of mental workload, and in monitoring performance in missions of long duration.”
The following year, President Bush proclaimed the 1990s “the decade of the brain,” whose declared goal was “to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research.” Bush's short proclamation touted only the potential benefits in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and other neurological disorders. But he managed to find some space to observe, “brain imaging devices are giving ever greater insight into the brain.” Bush's proclamation pointed to studies “conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, and other Federal research agencies.” Perhaps Bush had in mind the Army Research Institute as one of these “other” agencies.
It is not much of a leap to extend to extra-military contexts the logic of the military's own research interest in cognitive traits that are useful for “personnel selection and training.” In fact, just such a parallel development has been occurring in corporate America's interest in the cognitive skills of its workforce. Perhaps no corporate organization expresses this interest more clearly than the Business Roundtable (BRT). The BRT was formed in 1972 “in the belief that chief executives of major corporations should take an increased role in the continuing debates about public policy.” Initially the brainstorm of CEOs of Alcoa, General Electric, U.S. Steel, and several other major corporations, it has since evolved into an organization of CEOs of some two hundred of the largest U.S. corporations, employing more than ten million U.S. workers, and millions more worldwide.
Their publicly available literature states “the Business Roundtable has a single objective—to promote policies that will lead to sustainable, non-inflationary, long-term growth in the U.S. economy,” since “it is only through such growth that American companies will be able to remain competitive around the world.”
Operating through its various task forces, the BRT is active in a number of specific issues. In the 1990s, it became extremely interested in education. True to its word, this interest in education is entirely subordinate to its “single objective.” For example, in 1997, the BRT issued a joint statement on education with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Alliance of Business. Their statement began as follows: “As organizations representing American business and employing some 34 million people, we are concerned that the graduates of America's schools are not prepared to meet the challenges posed by global economic competition. Our nation's future economic security, and our ability to flourish as a democratic society, demands a generation of high school graduates with solid academic knowledge, world-class technical skills, conscientious work habits, and eager, creative and analytical minds. Despite some encouraging recent gains, business continues to have trouble finding qualified workers. The time has come for business to participate far more actively in generating high achievement.”
They go on to say that this “high achievement” must be promoted by having “high standards,” and further that “business can help make this happen by conveying explicitly the skills and knowledge demanded in the new economy.”
Continuing, they state that “many steps must be taken to achieve success, but we agree that three are particularly important, and we commit our organizations to substantive action in these areas: First, helping educators and policy makers set tough academic standards, applicable to every student in every school; second, assessing student and school-system performance against those standards; and third, using that information to improve schools and create accountability, including rewards for success and consequences for failure.”
In 1998, the BRT summarized its objective this way: “The Roundtable CEOs therefore made a 10-year commitment not just to improve individual schools but to reform the entire system of public education.” These are not idle words. The BRT is prepared to employ economic sanctions against U.S. students and workers in order to achieve its goal of elevating the level of technical skill of its workforce, in the service of global competitiveness: “We will support the use of relevant information on student achievement in hiring decisions. We will take a state's commitment to achieving high academic standards into consideration in business location decisions. We will encourage business to direct their education-related philanthropy toward initiatives that will make a lasting difference in school performance.”
Using its vast corporate resources, the BRT operates at national, state, and local levels. Its immediate goal at the national level is “tough” national standards, “applicable to every student in every school.” Former BRT Education Task Force chair Norman Augustine, also former CEO of Lockheed-Martin, praised President Clinton for his “continued efforts to make achievement of high academic standards a top priority,” and for his “call for national tests in reading and mathematics.”
Recognizing that “under the U.S. Constitution, states have primary responsibility in education,” the BRT “asked [its] corporate members to create or join state coalitions of business leaders and others committed to improving schools. These coalitions are central to the success of the BRT strategy.” Organizationally, member companies adopt individual states in which they agree to be responsible for implementing BRT strategy.
A number of states have state business roundtables, with CEOs of major corporations working in these as well as in the national BRT. Lockheed-Martin, for example, is active not only in the national BRT, but in the Maryland Business RoundTable for Education, since it is based in Maryland.
Finally, the BRT operates at the local level through front coalitions, such as the Education Excellence Partnership (EEP). One of the EEP's activities is running television ad campaigns “to dramatize the urgency of the need to raise standards in America's public schools and to motivate citizens to take action.” In one such campaign, the EEP recruited well-known major league baseball players to recite the BRT's line. Reading and mathematics are the main core subjects for which the BRT has advocated tough testing. It laments that “only a minority of students in elementary, middle and high school achieved at least ‘proficient' reading levels” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The BRT has lobbied heavily in Congress, consistently agitating for bipartisan support of its agenda. In this way it has pushed its agenda closer and closer to legal reality. Congress has not disappointed the BRT.
For example, in 1998, Congress set up the 21st Century Workforce Commission. It is “charged with carrying out a study of the information technology workforce in the U.S., including the examination of the following issues: (1) What skills are currently required to enter the information technology workforce? What technical skills will be demanded in the near future? (2) How can the United States expand its number of skilled information technology workers? (3) How do information technology education programs in the United States compare with other countries in effectively training information technology workers?”
The Commission outlined a broad strategy to achieve the goal of increasing “the number of individuals qualified to enter high-skill, high-paying information technology jobs, and buttress American competitiveness well into the 21st century.” It noted that achieving this goal “depends directly on how broadly and deeply Americans reach a new level of literacy—‘21st Century Literacy'—that includes strong academic skills, thinking, reasoning, teamwork skills and proficiency in using technology.”
In a report submitted to the commission to assist in formulating its positions, Kenneth Button, Kenneth Cox, Roger Stough, and Samantha Taylor, of the Mason Enterprise Center and The School of Public Policy of George Mason University, wrote that “given the increasingly important role that IT (Information Technology) plays in the economy, any long-term unmet demand for IT workers has the potential to be a major braking force on the U.S. economy.”
To deal with this potential problem, the Commission advocates an “American immigration policy [that] needs to be flexible to address ongoing skills shortages.” The Commission praised the work of yet another Congressionally convoked advisory group, the National Reading Panel, which operates under the auspices of the NICHD. The commission quotes NICHD Director Duane Alexander on the significance of the NRP's findings: “For the first time, we now have research-based guidance from sound scientific research on how best to teach children to read.”
More specifically, the NRP recommended that the focus of reading instruction be on teaching children how to take apart spoken words into their component sounds (“phonemic awareness”), and how to turn alphabetic letters into these sounds (“phonics”). The 21st Century Workforce Commission also praised states for using NRP's recommendations in the design of standardized tests of reading assessment. It prominently cited Texas's use of NRP-based phonemic awareness and phonics skills to test kindergarten through second grade children.
The personalities involved in the various federal agencies have known each other, worked together, and have had a common agenda for years. There are questions about politically motivated appointments. For example, the Executive Director of the 21st Century Workforce Commission is Hans Meeder. Meeder was formerly employed by ultra-conservative congressperson William Goodling of Pennsylvania to serve on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. He served on that committee at the time that Reid Lyon presented his testimony on the causes of reading failure, the need to focus on phonemic awareness and phonics, and the rationale for ignoring the social causes of illiteracy in the NICHD's funding agenda.
While serving on Goodling's committee, Meeder published a document in the widely circulated Education Week that became the basis for a federal law that would mandate phonics instruction in elementary school classrooms throughout the country. However, under pressure from a variety of teachers' organizations fearful of state-imposed teaching methods (not to mention state-imposed curriculum), the bill never passed (see Z article, January 1999).
Meeder moved on from his work with Goodling, and headed an education policy consulting firm called Horizon Consulting Services. Without letting local parents know his background, and parading as merely a “concerned father,” Meeder asked the PTA of his hometown of Columbia, Maryland to invite Reid Lyon to give a talk to parents on the NICHD reading research agenda. He subsequently tried to organize a reading task force within the PTA, but abandoned this abruptly when another concerned parent exposed his political ties. He then ran on the Republican ticket for Maryland State Delegate, and came in last in a field of three. Following this, President Clinton appointed Meeder to his position as Executive Director of the 21st Century Workforce Commission.
Similar questions can be raised regarding the NRP. For example, with one exception, all the members of the NRP are now available, at NICHD expense, to tour the country, and present the panel's recommendations to the public. The lone exception is panel member Joanne Yatvin, who was personally informed by Reid Lyon that he would not pay any of her speaking expenses, even when lecturing as a NRP member.
Why is Yatvin in Reid Lyon's doghouse? It is because Yatvin was the sole author of the panel's minority report, and the only member to challenge the panel's composition, agenda, and findings. At a recent meeting of Whole Language teachers in Nashville, Tennessee, Yatvin declared that “the panel was stacked from the outset.” She noted that “the panel did not include a single classroom teacher. Just about everyone was an experimental scientist. There was nobody representing the descriptive research of Whole Language. Nobody nominated by NCTE was on the panel.”
NCTE is the National Council of Teachers of English, the largest professional teachers organization in the country, and one that has always been interested in hearing all viewpoints on reading. Yatvin thinks that her nomination to the panel was attractive to the selection committee because she is a school principal (that is, she is not a teacher), and because “I once wrote a letter criticizing Ken Goodman." (Goodman is a leader in the Whole Language approach to reading, and a former president of the International Reading Association.)
It is easy to understand why the NRP would consist of neither classroom teachers nor members of NCTE—it wanted to avoid opposition to its rigged agenda. For example, one of the NRP's conclusions was that current teacher training in phonemic awareness and phonics is vastly inadequate. With this in mind, Reid Lyon stated that “changes in how teaching competencies and certification requirements are developed and implemented is a must.” Lyon advocates increased collaboration between state departments of education and colleges of education in establishing required phonics-based courses for prospective teachers.
But this has already raised serious questions of academic freedom for Whole Language professors, who are now legally required in some states to train student teachers in intensive phonics and phonemic awareness.
Against the NRP's and Reid Lyon's positions, NCTE has a known public stand in opposition to any government law that would force teachers to use a particular method of reading instruction. Whatever the relative strengths and weaknesses of phonics and Whole Language may be, either as cognitive models of reading, or as paradigms for guiding the teaching of reading, the current federal embrace of phonics and rejection of Whole Language is entirely political. It has to do with the fact that, of the two approaches, phonics lends itself to quantitative assessment, and to rigid, scripted classroom lessons for teachers, and, therefore, to the construction of tests that can be used in ranking schools, teachers, and individual students.
Proponents of phonics claim that the fast, accurate reading of single words, using the rules of letter-sound correspondence, is the single best measure of a student's reading ability. Students can therefore be given lists of words, and scored on the basis of the speed and accuracy of their oral readings.
Whole Language advocates see letter-sound correspondences as one of many “cuing systems” that readers use to construct meaning from text. Readers also use their knowledge of syntax and pragmatics, as well as their background knowledge about the topic, the author, genre, and so on. Ultimately, say Whole Language teachers and researchers, readers construct meanings that are inseparable from their own background systems of knowledge and belief, and which therefore vary in fundamental ways from one reader to another. These individualities of interpretation are assessable, but not quantifiable. Yet they are much more important to proficient reading than the fast, accurate identification of single words.
Therefore, it can be understood that the political task of the NRP and the NICHD is to provide lawmakers with a quantitatively testable model of reading, not necessarily a valid model of reading. Even if only a narrow and minute fractional component of the reading process turns out to be quantitatively testable, that component will be the winner of federal research funds. For the same reason, phonics, but not Whole Language lends itself to quantitative experimental methods that are the basis of high-tech neuroimaging research. Researchers in this field have no choice but to embrace phonics in their work. So the work of Sally Shaywitz, a member of the National Reading Panel, provides a high-tech, “scientific” cover to an old, but politically useful, theory.
The current politics of reading is essentially the political program of corporate America, which sees itself in a life or death struggle with foreign competitors in the global marketplace. In order to maintain its competitive edge, corporate America needs a U.S. workforce whose IT skills are second to none, and which can thereby supply the global market with the most competitive commodities.
The fundamental skill of an advanced IT worker is “21st Century Literacy,” that is, fluency in reading, understanding, and even troubleshooting high-tech writings. But corporate America is worried that the current level of IT expertise of the U.S. workforce is inadequate for effective global competitiveness. Therefore, corporate America has undertaken to completely transform America's public schools. Leaving as little to chance as possible, its ultimate weapon in assuring the successful completion of this transformation is “high-stakes testing,” by which students will not only be promoted and graduated as the test scores allow, but where students will also be carrying their test scores with them on job interviews.
Corporate America knows that there will be popular resistance to this transformation, even though its propaganda promotes the change as in the best interests of America's children. BRT literature touts: “It is the dream of every parent: a bright and healthy child. It's the hope for every student: a good, solid education.” And, “raising academic standards will help your child succeed in today's increasingly competitive world.”
But what will happen to students who fail the national tests? And, what will be the reaction of parents and students to the inevitable increase in public school cutbacks of “non-core” subjects, such as music, art, and physical education?
For now, corporate America is relying on media campaigns to influence public opinion, to make its program more palatable to U.S. workers and students, and thereby to minimize resistance. This entire scheme of corporate America has been totally undemocratic. Corporate America has its program, gets Congress to give this program the force of law, and uses the mass media to soften up public opinion and minimize any political opposition.
Absent is an open public discussion of what constitutes a quality, well-rounded education, not to mention the health risks of high-stakes testing, or the kinds of classes, methods of instruction, and methods of assessment that students and workers feel are important.
But there are voices of teachers and students that continue to press the issue of quality education for all, and which oppose cutbacks in non-core courses. There is an incipient education rights movement among teachers. Most significantly, there is a growing movement of young people, along with their parents and teachers, against high-stakes testing. In a number of states, students have organized mass boycotts of standardized tests, even under the threat of expulsion.
This is a movement against a corporate weapon that all progressive-minded people should support. Z
Steven Strauss is a neurologist in Baltimore, Maryland and has been active in the fight for single-payer health care, Cuba solidarity, and other issues.