28 April 2005
Reading Recovery Needs Recovery
Comments on National's reading voucher policy revealed that opinion leaders in education aren't aware of the facts about
reading recovery (RR).
RR does not pick up all 6 year olds who are finding it hard to read. Comprehensive testing of 6 year olds directly
followed by remedial action is a figment of the imagination. One third of all schools do not offer reading recovery.
Just under half of Decile 1-3 schools don't offer reading recovery. Higher decile schools are more likely to offer it.
Schools tell me they don't offer it because it doesn't work, or because they can't afford it, or because they don't have
the teaching expertise or because classroom management is a higher priority. Whatever the reasons, good and bad, there
is no safety net that ensures every 6 year old gets a chance to learn to read. Perpetual talk about the long tail of
underachievement provides comfort to worried souls, but much more must be done to help schools with the 20% of 6 year
olds who miss the safety net.
Nothing new is good
Wild generalisations delivered with emotional fervour are a time-honoured tradition in the politics of education. Let's
knock one over now. Apparently reading vouchers have been tried all over the world and failed. This is simply not true.
Out of school tuition has been tried all over the world as it has for many years in New Zealand. People who can afford
it get it. What hasn't been tried is the government providing funding to people who couldn't otherwise afford the extra
The voucher idea popped up last week in the British election campaign, from one of Blair's former chief advisers, and is
gaining momentum on the back of a new study that finds phonic methods work well for some children.
Right next door in Australia, a reading voucher pilot is underway, details of which can be found here. The pilot allowed
for 2000 students to take up the voucher, and 22,000 parents applied. The biggest issue with the voucher will be
rationing access in the face of overwhelming parent demand.
Rationing will promote an open and healthy debate about what we can expect seven year olds to read, how to handle
reading disabilities, and children with English as a second language.
Is the Competent Child Study competent?
In an earlier edition I promised to trawl through the Competent Child research to understand how it can lead to such
definite and compelling conclusions other research has never reached.
Let's start with the sample. I am a layman trying to do a job a professional ought to do, but I have found some aspects
of the study so odd that there must be explanations.
I like to start with the sample of about 500 children. It looks a bit shonky to me. About 268 of the 500 children were
recruited from mainly middle-class Wellington preschools. So only half of the sample have been tracked with detailed
information of their early childhood education.
The rest of the 500 were recruited at the age of 8 and their early childhood history was taken from their parents over
the phone. 70% of the composite sample of 500 attended an early childhood service in addition to the one they were
classified as attending. The sample looks too small and unrepresentative.
Here's another one that can't be as good as it looks. The study is quoted as the basis for the drive for more qualified
teachers. While there may be good reasons for this policy, it's certainly not in the Competent Child study that I can
find. In fact, here is a quote describing how they looked at staff qualifications. "We had to push our exploration of
the effects of ECE training on ECS quality to the limits of our sample by focusing only on playcentres, which had
sufficient cell sizes of different children to staff ratios"
What?? Can it be correct that the robust research behind the staff qualifications policy is based on a sample of play
centres? Surely not! - explanations please. If the Minister of Education wants to drive a wedge through the heart of the
early childhood sector with his policy of 20 hours free childcare in community owned centres, then he will need to show
the discrimination is based on more than personal prejudice. The Competent Child study may not help him.