As a parent of a child with reading problems, what would you think if a nearby college or university offered a special summer reading program that sounded especially promising? What if you went to a Web site branded with the university’s trademark “logo” and saw well-produced videos with testimonials from parents and phrases such as these: “Your child will get excited about learning to read, and the program will lay the foundation for a strong start in reading and school?” And, your child can benefit in as few as 10 hours!
Would you be tempted? Over on Reading and Other Learning Disabilities, Professors Howard Margolis and Gary Brannigan are skeptical about the possibilities. They explain in their post, “Rutgers University’s 10-Hour Summer Reading Program: Serious Concerns.” Writing for the team blog, Professor Margolis, reported his skepticism about the claims after reading a mailer describing “a summer reading programs [that] would quickly ‘turn poor readers into good readers.'”
As someone with a doctorate in reading, state certification as a reading specialist, learning consultant, and special education teacher, a long history of teaching graduate courses in reading disabilities and special education, a long history of publishing and reviewing journal manuscripts, a long history of working with poor readers, I knew of no program that could transform poor readers into good ones in part of a summer. And I wondered about the ethics of promising. I knew of no program with a 100% success rate. The more I thought about this, the more I worried about the children.
What’s the Problem?
Professor Margolis sagely followed his instincts and checked on the program. He learned that the program was not actually provided by Rutgers University, but by a private company (the Institute of Reading Development; more about that in a few paragraphs) and “that children would attend classes for a total of 10-hours, that classes could have up to 20 children, that classes cost parents $329, and teachers did not need graduate degrees in reading.” He noted that the Rutgers University reading education program is not affiliated with the advertised summer reading program, and he reported that the senior leadership at Rutgers did not reply to inquiries about the summer reading program.
So, what is going on here? There are two forks to this story, as I see it. One is the commercialization of educational services (viz. Lindamood-Bell, Sylvan Learning Centers, Institute of Reading Development, among others) and the other is the commercial arms of institutions of higher education (i.e., schools of continuing education). It appears that the Institute of Reading Development has a business model that crosses those two commercial interests effectively.
It leads one to wonder whether the Institute of Reading Development is a legitimate reading provider or just a shell that found a niche. And, as Professor Margolis’ inquiries of Rutgers’ indicate, it makes one wonder about the institutional oversight of continuing education programs. First, here’s some background on the Institute of Reading Development.
What is the Institute of Reading Development and Who is Behind it?
Led by Paul Copperman, the Institute of Reading Development has existed since the 1970s (then the National Institute for Reading Development, I think; it apparently has also done business as the Institute for Reading Development). For a while Mr. Copperman contributed to the literature by writing books about literacy such as The Literacy Hoax: The Decline of Reading, Writing, and Learning in the Public Schools and What We Can Do About it (Copperman, 1978), and Taking Books to Heart: How to Develop a Love of Reading in Your Child (Copperman, 1986). These were not academic books with detailed plans for changing education, but primarily Mr. Copperman’s analysis of the situation at that time (as I recall, some of his arguments seemed accurate to me, some of them I remember finding questionable) with parent-friendly recommendations for activities primarily aimed at promoting motivation to read.
That’s about as far as the academic underpinnings of the Institute of Reading Development go, though. The Web site offers testimonials, but no data—not even un-controlled pre-post studies that one finds so frequently on commercial sites. Based on my brief searches, neither Mr. Copperman nor the members of the staff at the Institute of Reading Development appear to be publishing in psychological or educational journals. For example, I found two possibly relevant papers by John Boyd (1974, 1981), but it’s not clear that they are by the same person who is listed as the director of instruction for the Institute of Reading Development; it seems unlikely, given their vintage. (I found some other intriguing entries by John Boyd, e.g., one about poems by Kenneth Roethke, who is one of my faves, so I’m proud to say that I resisted getting distracted by it!)
As I understand it, the Institute of Reading Development hires a lot of young people as teachers, engages them in intensive training programs where they learn the methods to be used (or are dismissed), and then deploys those it retains to sites around the country. At the sites teachers deliver programs across the different levels, from primary to secondary, according to scripts provided by the Institute of Reading Development.
What are the programs? The reading programs promoted by the Institute of Reading Development may have adopted some features of evidence-based reading education, but it’s not clear to what extent they include the right ingredients in the proper proportions, added at appropriate times, practiced for sufficient (but not excessive) repetitions, and so forth. Understandably, the company has a proprietary interest in its recipe.
Reading between the lines of the descriptions on the Web site, there is a heavy emphasis on (a) motivation and (b) books. There is no clear indication that students are systematically and explicitly taught how to do things such as decode. Judging from the limited examples available on line, “phonics” work apparently is embedded or presented in workbooks where children mark pictures of objects the names of which begin with the sound shown at the top of a page (not that this is bad, but is it sufficient, and if your program is better, why not show you know better?).
What About These Continuing Education Operations?
Many institutions of higher education have quasi-independent branches that operate to provide courses and other services to people who are not regular students at the “big” college or university. These are called schools, divisions, or colleges of continuing education. They have quite diverse offerings, ranging from introductory courses in personal development (e.g., alternative spirituality or landscape design) to advanced studies (e.g., computer programming) and even degree programs. They often deliver courses on-line or in geographical locations remote from the main campus of the parent college or university.
And they are usually tubs on their own bottoms financially. At public universities and colleges, they do not get funds from state legislatures, research, or other sources. They have to make it on their own. Not only that, but as David Breneman, an expert in higher education finance noted in a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, they are “pressed to earn financial surpluses for their campuses” (2002, p. B7). As I understand higher ed administration, continuing education programs often report directly to—and kick their $$ directly into the coffers of—the upper echelon of colleges and universities’ administrative structures: the offices of presidents and provosts.
So, if a vendor approached an administrator for a college of continuing education and offered a reasonable cut of a program that generated passable income, wouldn’t it sound inviting? And it would probably be even more inviting if all the continuing education program had to do was lend its trademark to the advertising, if the company agreed to handle all the financial transactions; hiring, training, paying, and so forth for the teachers; advertising and Web management; and so forth. The continuing ed program would just provide the “logo” and, maybe, the space to run the sessions. Nice arrangement.
Box 1: Some continuing ed connections for the Institute of Reading Development:
Well, that’s a surmise on my part about how it might go down. But, that might be how many others (see the Box 1 at the right) found themselves working with the Institute of Reading Development. (There are also other agencies such as community colleges, local education agencies, and even a parks department; catch the link at the end of the box.)
When one goes through the sites for the products, they are remarkably alike. Of course they are! Institute of Reading Development staff members create the content for them (right down to the same 1-800 phone number). Everything—perhaps I exaggerate, but the structure of the program, the age groups, the stages of reading, and so forth on many of the sites—refers back to the base pages for the Institute of Reading Development. (Technically, I was a tad surprised that the content wasn’t just a frame embedded within the continuing ed sites; they have coders who can hack the HTML to get the content into the continuing ed sites.)
What’re My Conclusions?
O.K. Before I return to the initial questions, let me recap some of the basics:
- There’s a for-profit company named the Institute of Reading Development that’s offering reading programs.
- The for-profit arms of colleges and universities are fronting the programs of the Institute of Reading Development.
- The advertising for these clinic-like programs at least hints at or approximates un-realistic promises of reading outcomes for children (this is the “your child will” part to which Professor Margolis reacted).
- One can’t prove a negative, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence beyond testimonials that the programs of the Institute of Reading Development produce reliable benefits for children.
If I was a parent of a child with reading problems who saw the hype Professor Margolis reported (and is published on other continuing ed Web sites, as well), I would be tempted to enroll my child. I would almost certainly not know that the connection to Respected University In My Neighborhood was probably little more than a business deal. I would probably not know that great gains in a few weeks were improbable.
I’d be very interested. I’d want my child to love reading, to be motivated to read, to have joy in reading books, to succeed in the future. I’d suck it up, work an extra shift, scrimp on something else.
But, I share Professor Margolis’ skepticism. The claims remind me of the warnings about offers that sound too good to be true. If the Institute for Reading Development would provide data, that would help allay my fears. When I don my pointy hat and my data-biased eyeshade, I see no clothing on this emperor.
Reviewing my restatement of the situation, I do not see any nefarious doings. Until and unless the Institute for Reading Development provides independently verifiable research about the benefits of its reading programs, I shan’t recommend it. I agree that those of us who know about the difficulty in remediating reading problems should warn consumers that anyone who enrolls a child in a program sponsored by the Institute for Reading Development should do so fully aware that, as best a reasonable person can learn, it is scientifically not validated.
Until institutions of higher education put quality control on their continuing education programs, I doubt much will change with the proliferation of these programs. Of course, few exercise quality control on their reading education programs now. Maybe they are not proliferating, but I suspect they are. And I suspect other reading-related groups will be emulating the Institute for Reading Development’s success. Mayhaps Reading Recovery is already in that market. Others? Hey, it’s the American way. There’s a profit to be made. Who’s to stop one from trying to to do good and making a buck along the way, hunh?
Well, from my perspective, if there are companies that are trying to do good and can show they are doing good, then I’ll recommend them. Show me the data. Give me the opportunity to scrutinize those data and report to consumers my independent evaluation of whether those data indicate that the companies actually are doing good. Then we can talk. And, if you’re making a buck, good for you.
Boyd, J. E. (1974). Use of the Slosson Intelligence Test in reading diagnosis. Academic Therapy, 9, 441-444.
Boyd, J. (1981). Contests stimulate reader interest. Scholastic Editor, 60(3), 24-25.
Breneman, D. W. (2002). For colleges, this is not just another recession. Chronicle of Higher Education, 48(40; 14 June), B7. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v48/i40/40b00701.htm.
Copperman, P. (1986). Taking books to heart. How to develop a love of reading in your child. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Copperman, P. (1978). The literacy hoax: The decline of reading, writing, and learning in the public schools and what we can do about it. New York: Morrow.
Fiedler, D. J. (2003). Achievement now: How to assure no child is left behind. Larchmon, NY: Eye on Education.