More than 20 years ago, the federal government released a review of decades of reading research whose findings should have charted a path toward better instruction and higher reading levels.
Based on an extensive research review, the National Reading Panel (NRP) report was an inflection point in the history of reading research and education policy. It found that instruction in five related areas — phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension — benefits early readers. And, in the minds of many, including its authors, it should have ended the debate about whole-language and basic-skills reading instruction.
Instead, the opposite happened: The fighting over reading instruction intensified, and methods that were failing kids became entrenched.
For that result, there are many contributing factors, some of which have been featured in APM Reports’ new podcast series, Sold a Story, which I helped research.
An inadequate media response may well be one of the reasons the NRP report didn’t have the influence it should have.
At the time, few reporters writing for mainstream outlets recognized the significance of the NRP report and gave it the in-depth, prolonged attention that it warranted — or made regular mention of it in subsequent stories.
With some notable exceptions, the report was either ignored, distorted, or shunted into a ready-made “reading wars” narrative about phonics vs. whole language.
Behind the story
During my time helping research Sold a Story, I began to wonder why the NRP’s work didn’t make a bigger impact.
How did such a definitive report on a topic that had worried the public since the 1955 bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read fail to capture the attention of reporters?
For The Grade, I reviewed media coverage of the NRP report in the months and years following its release, and I spoke with some of the top education reporters from the time.
I found that a number of factors made covering the research exceptionally tough work. Some reporters saw the report as an obscure academic document — too dry and complicated to distill for their audiences. Others decided it was too political to take seriously. Still more framed the report as just the latest development in the interminable “reading wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. Few had specialized knowledge about reading instruction to begin with.
Their reflections might steer today’s reporters — at a moment in history full of weighty research findings, from pandemic science to climate change — away from similar misses.
A dry report with no immediately obvious policy implications
When it comes to reasons why the NRP report didn’t get the attention it warranted, the size and scope of the NRP report might be the foremost factor.
Released on April 13, 2000, the 449-page congressionally mandated report synthesized more than three decades of scientific research on five elements of reading instruction: alphabetics (including phonics), fluency, comprehension, teacher preparation, and computer-assisted instruction.
It found that instruction in phonemic awareness and explicit phonics instruction help early readers improve, especially those in kindergarten and first grade; and that instruction in fluency and comprehension skills also improves their reading proficiency.
However, the report endorsed neither side of the previous decade’s so-called reading wars, in which phonics partisans championed the basic skills of phonemic awareness and phonics, while whole-language proponents prioritized joy of reading and comprehension.
Industry publications like EdWeek and Title I Monitor covered the NRP report closely, but the report’s density and lack of explicit policy recommendations made it hard for other reporters to follow.
While there would be sporadic high-quality coverage in subsequent years, immediate or ongoing reporting from mainstream outlets was sparse. The Washington Post and the New York Times were silent immediately following its release, though Post columnist Karin Chenoweth did mention it a couple months later and write about it in detail in following years. The LA Times gave it about 500 words.
“It’s one huge, voluminous report,” thought former NPR education reporter Claudio Sanchez when the massive lime-green report slapped down on his desk. “What does it mean?”
While he now considers it a seminal moment in federal education policy, Sanchez saw no clear policy applications at the time.
The political ‘reading wars’ frame
Indeed, some journalists viewed the report as yet another salvo in the decades-long reading wars, whose ideological bent placed a limit on the energy and imagination of reporters.
“If we had covered the NRP in really fine, minute detail … I think we would be better off,” Sanchez said. “We would know more about what works and what doesn’t work.”
However, “the report preceded what many viewed as a very clear political agenda by the Bush administration,” said Sanchez in a recent phone interview.
“My marching orders were, ‘OK, forget the NRP and its results or its implications. … Let’s focus on the politics,’” Sanchez said.
A day after the report was released, the Associated Press conveyed hopeful tidings: “Education Secretary Richard Riley said the report’s findings provide ‘further evidence that the reading wars are over.’”
Within a month, however, the Gannett News Service was claiming the opposite: The NRP “is threatening to reignite the ‘reading wars.’”
Both articles made one thing clear: Nothing about the underlying story had changed.
A failure to integrate the report into subsequent coverage
And so, while coverage of the NRP report might have taken readers into elementary school classrooms and shown them how instruction did or did not reflect the research, that’s not the direction most education reporters headed.
“I don’t think reporters saw the research as a story,” said Timothy Shanahan, one of the panel members and an expert in literacy education. “They saw the arguments, the tensions, the political conflicts.”
And when he reported on classroom instruction — as in this 2001 piece about Reading Recovery, an intervention for struggling readers that research suggests may ultimately hinder student progress — he didn’t connect it to the enormous body of research looming in the background.
Sanchez wasn’t alone in failing to cite the research.
One of his colleagues at NPR produced a piece in 2001 that considered both sides of the debate over reading instruction: One classroom the reporter visited used explicit phonics instruction, while the other was steeped in whole language. That story didn’t mention the research either.
And in a series of revealing, character-driven dispatches from classrooms, Duke Helfand of the LA Times wrote attentively about Los Angeles Unified’s use of explicit phonics, both before and after the NRP report came out.
But again, the research got no callout.
Reading First: Money, federal policy, and controversy
Coverage of the NRP report picked up with the December 2001 passage of NCLB and subsequent implementation of Reading First — and later, the controversy surrounding that program and its eventual demise.
The $1 billion–a-year Reading First program would grant money to state education agencies that could prove their Title I schools’ literacy initiatives were based on “scientifically-based reading research,” or SBRR. The NRP report helped justify the policy.
It would take years of achievement data before reporters, not to mention researchers, might glimpse the effects of Reading First. In the meantime, other aspects of the policy demanded coverage.
Longtime education journalist Andrew Brownstein, then editor of the policy-focused Title I Monitor, says he saw Reading First as “an investigative story about big money, science and the limitations of federal policy.”
In 2005 he and reporter Travis Hicks pursued an investigative series about conflicts of interest in the administration of the Reading First program and the publishing industry’s profit-driven embrace of SBRR.
Some of their findings were later repeated in a 2006 report released by the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General — and that’s when the mainstream attention really picked up.
While Brownstein’s series explored the transformation of reading science into a “tool of power” wielded by the Bush administration, coverage following the OIG report focused almost exclusively on the charges of corruption.
Brownstein says he’s proud of his work, but that, if given another shot at it, he would spend more time observing the policy’s direct impact.
“I made a really, really good attempt to tell an extremely complicated story fairly,” said Brownstein, who’s now executive editor of The 74. “What I didn’t do … is spend a lot of time in the classroom, and really talk to teachers about what was working, what wasn’t, what did they get out of education schools, and what understanding they had of what was then established science.”
Cynicism and ‘dueling experts‘
The relative ease of recognizing political conflict over paradigm shifts affecting classroom instruction defined and limited coverage of reading over this entire period. But just as often, the political coloration inclined reporters to not cover the story at all.
“The term [the Bush administration] loved to use was ‘evidence-based decision making,’” said Greg Toppo, the national education writer for the AP from 2001–2002 and USA Today from 2002–2018.
But overuse by Bush administration officials quickly discredited the term in his and other reporters’ eyes. “Everywhere they went, they said, ‘We’re going to use evidence-based decision-making,’” Toppo said. But that wasn’t always the case, as when Bush officials announced that single-sex classrooms improved student performance despite lack of conclusive evidence.
“Basically, they just stood up and did the opposite of what they said they were doing,” said Toppo. “To me, that was the context in which a lot of this stuff [like the NRP] took place.”
Aside from that, the work of reporting on these complex research findings was a difficult task: Journalists who had no ability “to pick apart the strands” on their own found themselves at the mercy of competing research claims, said Toppo.
“Dueling experts have got to be the most debilitating thing on earth,” Toppo said in a recent phone interview. “On the one side, you’ve got experts with Ph.D.s saying the sky is blue, and on the other side you’ve got experts with Ph.D.s saying the sky is red.”
In the end, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the NRP didn’t fit into many national reporters’ schedules.
Teach yourself how to understand the research. Dive not only into instructional science, but brain science. Observe how all that research is or isn’t applied in classrooms. Now go and explain it to the public.
“If the question is, why didn’t more reporters do that work, it’s because it was hard,” said Brownstein.
In 2001, Sanchez, the former NPR correspondent, reported on remedial writing programs for high school graduates in Tennessee.
In retrospect, he sees it as the kind of story that might have gotten to the heart of the U.S.’s struggles with reading and writing instruction.
“I remember a student not knowing how to use the word ‘is,’” he says. “I was flabbergasted.”
Trying to understand how these 19- and 20-year-olds had been allowed to graduate, Sanchez followed his reporting to a public high school. There, a vice principal told him, “Having a high school diploma does not mean that you can read and write.”
With more time, he might have drilled deeper, to elementary school, where these students first received reading instruction. And he wanted to. But other stories called.
Will Callan is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. After freelancing as a print journalist in the Bay Area, he moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., and covered the first year of the pandemic at Michigan Radio. He’s since worked on podcasts, radio documentaries, and investigations at APM Reports, most recently on Sold a Story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been updated to reflect that Washington Post columnist Karin Chenoweth later wrote about the NRP report in detail.