The Academic Achievement Challenge

Article excerpt

The Academic Achievement Challenge by Jeanne S. Chall Guilford Press * 2000 * 210 pages * $26.00

Jeanne Chall's The Academic Achievement Challenge, published after her death in 1999, is a brilliant analysis of what research tells us about effective and ineffective teaching. It is also a mournful reflection on why we have so much of the latter.

After decades of education research, Chall posed a question that should chill the blood of every policymaker: "Why were the same reforms proposed again and again, under new labels, with little recognition that they were similar to practices or policies that had failed in the past?" The victims of educational malpractice are real and numerous. Behind grim statistics like "70% of inner-city 4th graders read below grade level" are yet grimmer consequences, like a burgeoning prison population made up mostly of men whose mathematical and verbal-literacy skills are of the eighth grade level or below.

Chall is perhaps best known for her definitive studies of reading instruction. This research demonstrated the effectiveness of phonics instruction-teaching the relationship between letters and sounds and the ability to "decode" unfamiliar words into their correct sounds. The "whole language" reading method that Chall criticized attempts to teach sight recognition of whole words and sentences at the earliest stages of reading. Despite the evidence of its failure, whole language has had remarkable longevity. And this is precisely Chall's point: whole language has been around since the 1920s, but its advocates in the 1980s and 1990s never referred to the decades-old body of evidence that warns against it. Even now, we are not over this infatuation with bad practice. For example, at the State University of New York (which intends to open an Urban Teacher Education Center soon), one still finds catalogs spouting such arrant nonsense as:

The Graduate Reading Program is firmly committed to the philosophy that reading is comprehension and that reading comprehension is a dynamic transactive process of constructing meaning as the reader brings prior knowledge to the text within the context of the reading situation. Reading is now regarded as an active search for meaning rather than a mechanical translation of the written code.

The Academic Achievement Challenge demonstrates that failed education theories such as whole language have deep ideological roots and thus do not go away easily. Phonics, like careful exposition of mathematical problem-solving and practice in basic calculation skills, reflects a "teacher-centered" approach. Such methods put a much greater burden and responsibility on teachers and schools to construct appropriate lesson plans and to set and meet goals. Education schools train new teachers primarily to use a "student centered" or "constructivist" approach, one that encourages children to identify their own interests and to pose and answer questions that are most meaningful to them. …