A Reason for Worry?

Karen Wixson has been named dean of UNC-Greensboro’s School of Education and will begin her tenure in January 2011. Wixson is a professor and former education dean at the University of Michigan. She is also an expert in reading, literacy, and language arts instruction. Because many public school students in North Carolina lack basic reading skills, it would appear beneficial that an expert in the field would become dean of one of the state’s top education schools.

North Carolina’s performance on standardized reading tests, such as the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), has been mediocre at best. In 2009, only 32 percent of fourth-grade students statewide performed at or above NAEP’s “proficient” level. Only 29 percent of eighth graders achieved reading proficiency. The performance of racial and ethnic minority students in North Carolina is alarming: fewer than 15 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students in the fourth and eighth grade reached either the proficient or advanced level.

Unfortunately, optimism that Wixson will inaugurate a resurgence of reading scores in the state is not warranted.  She is a well-known proponent of “constructivist” theories of reading and her ideas about reading instruction differ little from the impotent theories already embraced by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

According to the theory of constructivism—as articulated by Karen Wixson and others—a text cannot be understood in a way that is independent of the knowledge and experiences of the reader. That is, the reader constructs his or her knowledge in cooperation with the texts and other sources of learning.

Wixson and like-minded colleagues wrote in an article for Educational Leadership that “we no longer define good readers as those who are able to decode precisely all the words on the page but rather as those who can build meaning by integrating their own knowledge with information presented by an author.”

Most reading programs attempt to increase literacy by starting with letter and word recognition and slowly cultivating skills and strategies that allow children to produce articulate compositions and understand complex texts. The best way to do so has been the subject of a decades-long debate within the educational community, but longitudinal research largely validates traditional rather than constructivist approaches to reading instruction. Phonics, which allows students to easily decode words by connecting sounds to letters, appears to work best for beginning and struggling readers. Researchers have also found that direct instruction, a highly structured reading approach that includes phonics, is one of the best instructional methods for children requiring remediation.

But reading instruction that relies solely on the constructivist framework radically alters reading instruction and assessment. Students are taught to disregard the intent of the author and use the information in the text as a springboard for assessing their own worldviews. After reading a series of “authentic” or “real-world” texts, students assemble a portfolio of written responses for the teacher to review.

Classroom teachers who adhere to constructivist theories do not assess reading comprehension or try to cultivate the mastery of skills like drawing inferences or evaluating context. Many true believers in this theory hold standardization and memorization in contempt and eschew reading techniques like direct instruction and phonics. As a result, many children never master the “decoding” process and struggle to understand texts that present unfamiliar subjects or ideas.

Proponents of constructivist theories of reading claim that the work of twentieth-century psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky and, later, Jerome Bruner, validates their approach. Yet, as E.D. Hirsch points out in The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, the term “constructivism” has become “a kind of magical incantation used to defend discovery learning [the ‘learn by doing’ approach], which is no more sanctioned by psychological theory than any other form of constructed learning.

Education historian Diane Ravitch further disputes the historical lineage of constructivism. She concludes that it was one among many education school fads to emerge during the 1970s and 1980s. They all employed notions recycled from the child-centered theories popularized by progressives like John Dewey.

Some may write off these theories as being harmless academic musings that have more to do with tenure reviews than reading instruction practiced by our teachers. Our public schools would be better off if that were the case. However, such theories have detrimental real-world impacts. As a professor at the University of Michigan, Karen Wixson was instrumental in transforming constructivist theory into policy and practice. Wixson was involved in a well-known battle over the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) reading curriculum. In The Rising State: How State Power is Transforming our Nation’s Schools, Mengli Song writes:

In 1993, the Michigan State Board of Education awarded Karen Wixson and Sheila Potter a $1.3 million grant to develop standards and a language arts curriculum for the state. The process, however, turned out to be a bumpy one.  Wixson and Potter’s constructivist perspective on reading met with strong resistance from the newly elected president of the state board of education, Clark Durant, who called for a greater emphasis on direct phonics instruction.

By 1996, Wixson and Potter prevailed, and Michigan adopted a curriculum based, in part, on the constructivist theories of its authors. Song points out that the standards written by Wixson and Potter mentioned the terms “phonics” and “phonemic awareness” only once. 

A year later, Sandra Stotsky, a recognized expert in reading currently at the University of Arkansas, evaluated the English standards of 28 states, including those written in Michigan by Wixson and Potter. Her report, prepared for the Fordham Foundation, awarded Michigan’s English language arts standards an F. Stotsky did not directly attack the authors for constructivism but for ambiguity, among other defects: “Too many standards are neither clear, nor specific, nor measurable,” she wrote and concluded, “As a whole, the document is excessively repetitious and verbose.” Wixson countered that Fordham’s grades reflected a prevailing bias against constructivism.

The conclusion of the Michigan story offers grounds for hope, however.  In 2005, state education leaders in Michigan reversed course and prominently inserted a major phonics component back into the curriculum. Even poor policy decisions based on spurious theories are reversible.

In a November 2000 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, Wixson and eight other education school leaders urged presidential candidates and the educational community to move beyond politics and study all school reform proposals carefully. Much has changed in the last decade, but I hope Wixson still believes in the “all options on the table” approach.

Soon, she will become a resident of a state where education leaders and elected officials refuse to put all options on the table.  As dean of the UNC-G school of education, she will have a rare opportunity to bridge the ideological divide.