by Joseph K. Torgesen (2012)
This history of the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) is being written a little more than 10 years after the center was authorized by the Florida Board of Education in February, 2002. Ten years after its official opening in June of 2002, FCRR occupies approximately 6,500 square feet of space in the Psychology Building, 20,000 square feet in the Innovation Park Research area, and an additional 10,000 square feet on the FSU Panama City Campus. It has an annual budget of approximately 31 million dollars and active research, training, and technical assistance grants totaling over 97 million dollars. It employs, on a full or part-time basis, over 350 faculty and staff. Its website averages over 300,000 visits per month, and it maintains reading assessment data on approximately 2 million students attending 4,205 Florida elementary, middle, and high schools. In the year of its 10th anniversary, it is widely acknowledged as the premier center for research on reading in the world.
Historical background for the establishment of FCRR at FSU
Although FCRR is clearly an interdisciplinary center that draws its research faculty from both the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education and other disciplines, faculty from the Department of Psychology played a critical role in its founding and early development. In addition, FCRR’s primary academic offices are currently housed in the Psychology Department on campus. Since the study of reading and the training of reading teachers has traditionally been the province of Schools of Education, any history of FCRR needs to account for the prominent role that psychologists at FSU have played in its establishment and development.
Two broad sets of factors that have led to the Psychology Department’s past and current role in the development of FCRR. One set of factors are related to the history of FSU’s Psychology department, and the other factors relate to the larger scientific context in which research on reading developed during the latter half of the 20th century.
For many years (from 1958 to 1991) one of the programs in the Department of Psychology at FSU was School Psychology (see history on this website). School Psychology, as a discipline, focuses on the application of knowledge from psychology to solve problems of learning and behavior in the classroom. It is an applied discipline similar to Clinical Psychology, although it is focused primarily on issues of human behavior in educational settings. FSU’s program in School Psychology was always somewhat unusual, as most similar programs were housed in an education department rather than in a College of Arts and Sciences.
In 1976, in an effort to broaden the base of expertise in its faculty, the program recruited Dr. Joseph Torgesen who had just completed his Ph.D. in Developmental and Clinical Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Torgesen’s research interests focused on children with learning disabilities, and he later became the founding director of FCRR. Shortly after arriving at FSU, Dr. Torgesen became the director of the School Psychology Program, and in 1984, the program recruited Dr. Richard Wagner. Dr. Wagner had finished his graduate work in Cognitive Psychology at Yale University, and his master’s thesis there had focused on metacognitive issues in the development of reading comprehension. Dr. Wagner later became an Associate Director of FCRR at the time of its establishment.
The school psychology program successfully achieved accreditation from the American Psychological Association in 1983, but several years after that event, faculty within the program requested that the program be shifted to the School of Education so that a program that more accurately reflected their research interests could be established within the Department of Psychology. The fundamental problem was that the faculty of the School Psychology program had been recruited primarily for their research interests and potential, and they were much more interested in their own research areas than they were in the professional practice of School Psychology. Maintaining APA accreditation would have required much more attention to matters related to training in the profession of School Psychology than the core faculty wanted to provide. Thus, the faculty of the School Psychology program joined with faculty in Experimental and Social Psychology to establish the Cognitive and Behavioral Science program at FSU in 1987, and the School Psychology program in the Psychology Department was officially dissolved in 1991.
At least partly because of the visibility of Dr. Torgesen and Dr. Wagner’s research on reading and reading disabilities in young children, Dr. Chris Lonigan, who was establishing a program of research on literacy related development in pre-school children, applied for a position in the Clinical Psychology program at FSU in 1993. At the time FCRR was founded, Dr. Lonigan became one of its Associate Directors.
Thus, two of FCRR’s first leaders were recruited to be faculty members in the School Psychology Program at FSU. They had been specifically recruited because of their research interests in learning and performance issues in the classroom, and it seems highly unlikely that either of these individuals would have come to FSU if the School Psychology program had not been in place at the time.
The second set of factors that set the stage for the role of psychologists in the establishment of FCRR involves both scientific and funding issues surrounding the growth of research on reading in the latter half of the 20th Century. The emergence of information processing models of cognition in the 1960’s and 70’s was one factor that drew psychologists to the study of complex cognitive tasks like reading. The information processing approach to the study of complex tasks was developed in the aftermath of successful simulation of human cognitive achievements (i.e. chess playing, numerical calculations) by computers. The availability of clear descriptions of the different processes by which computers solve human-like intellectual problems led researchers to the hope that similar descriptions of internal psychological events intervening between receipt of a stimulus and emission of a response might also be developed for humans. As the information processing approach matured, it contributed important methodologies and theoretical constructs that psychologists began to apply to study the way that children learn to read as well as processes and knowledge required for skilled reading itself. This made the scientific study of reading, reading assessment, and reading instruction attractive to psychologists who were interested in improving understanding of this critical academic and life skill.
As information processing methodologies and concepts were applied to the study of reading, they allowed cognitive psychologists and psycho-linguists to compete more successfully for funding of their research from such organizations as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. When Dr. Reid Lyon was appointed head of the Child Learning Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the availability of research funding for the study of reading and reading difficulties accelerated enormously. In 1988, Drs. Wagner and Torgesen received a four year grant to study the development of early reading skills in a large and diverse sample of children, and in 1993, Drs. Torgesen and Wagner received one of the two initial grants awarded by NICHD to study methods of instruction for students with reading difficulties. Psychologists were particularly successful in competing for the substantial, multi-year grants awarded by NIH because their graduate training in research and statistical methodologies tended to be stronger than many faculty working in Colleges of Education at the time.
In sum, the development of the information processing methodologies and theories used by cognitive psychologists in the 1960’s and 1970’s made the study of reading attractive to many psychologists looking for an interesting and challenging area of study, and the availability of more extensive research funding, particularly from NICHD, allowed scientists to plan and carry out the kind of rigorous research valued in most Psychology Departments. Certainly, these factors were of critical importance to the success of the efforts in reading research conducted by Drs. Torgesen, Wagner, and Lonigan within the Psychology Department at FSU.
Political factors leading to the establishment of FCRR in 2002.
The seeds for the establishment of FCRR in 2002 were sown in the election of George W. Bush to the presidency of the United States in the year 2000. During Mr. Bush’s earlier tenure as Governor of Texas, he had been instrumental in creating the Texas Reading Initiative, which was focused on improving the quality of reading instruction in Texas schools. Dr. Torgesen was invited to participate as a consultant to this initiative, and thus became known as a reading expert to Mr. Bush.
When he was elected President, Mr. Bush encouraged the funding of a national reading initiative similar to the one he had been involved with in Texas. This 5 billion dollar (over five years) initiative was known as Reading First, and it was launched early in 2002. President Bush visited Justina Elementary School in Jacksonville on September 10, 2001 to describe this proposed national reading initiative, and Drs. Torgesen, Wagner, and Lonigan were invited to participate in the meeting. Drs. Torgesen and Lonigan were able to attend, and Dr. Torgesen was invited by the President to address the group as an expert in the “science of reading.” (To see a video of part of this meeting click here 40mb .avi file). The Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, was present at the meeting, as were several important members off Florida’s legislature. Governor Bush was also publicly committed to working to improve reading instruction in Florida, and had been working toward this end since his election several years earlier.
When the Reading First program became law, it specified that Reading First awards would be made to the states on condition that they were able to describe state level initiatives that were based on current scientific understanding of reading development, assessment, and instruction. The states were instructed that if they did not incorporate current scientific understanding of reading and reading instruction in their initiatives, they would not be funded. As part of planning the Florida Reading First application, Mary Laura Openshaw, who was the newly appointed director of the State’s reading office (Just Read, Florida!), approached Dr. Torgesen about helping to write Florida’s application and offered to fund a Reading Research Center at Florida State with a budget of 2.5 million dollars for the first year. She had been instructed to do this by Governor Bush. Dr. Torgesen agreed to help write Florida’s Reading First application and to establish a center for Reading Research that could help administer Florida’s Reading First initiative on the condition that the Governor would work with the legislature to provide permanent funding for the center from recurring state funds. Permanent funding was required in order to enable FCRR to recruit additional research faculty to tenure earning faculty lines within academic departments at FSU.
In February of 2002, Governor Bush argued to the Florida School Board that they should authorize the establishment of a center for the study of reading at Florida State University to help with the State’s new reading initiative. In his argument, he specifically mentioned the expertise in reading of faculty members in the Department of Psychology. (To see video of newscasts about the center proposal, click here 17mb .avi file).
In discussions with Dr. Larry Abele, FSU’s Provost, it was decided that FCRR would be jointly administered by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Learning Systems Institute (LSI). In meetings with Dr. Donald Foss, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Laura Hassler, Director of LSI, it was decided that FCRR would receive its primary administrative support within the University through LSI. Although FCRR is officially designated as a center within LSI, the initial understanding between Drs. Foss, Hassler, and Torgesen was that this was primarily for administrative purposes. With the support of both Drs. Foss and Hassler, Dr. Torgesen was given authority to hire staff and make decisions about program direction. Particularly during its early years of operation, Dr. Hassler and the administrative staff at LSI were extremely helpful in dealing with the administrative challenges of setting up and operating a complex center that quickly developed many different kinds of program initiatives. Dr. Hassler was also very helpful in dealing with the Florida Legislature concerning the issue of permanent state funding for FCRR.
Dr. Torgesen contributed the scientific content related to reading assessment and reading instruction to Florida’s Reading First application and also designed the procedures by which the Florida Department of Education would ensure that schools receiving Reading First grants within Florida would base their assessment and instructional practices on current scientific understanding of reading development. Florida was one of the first two states to be awarded a Reading First grant, which amounted to approximately 50 million dollars a year for five years. A significant part of FCRR’s operating budget during its first five years of operation came from Reading First dollars in support of the assessment, curriculum support, data collection, and program evaluation efforts for the state-wide initiative that were based at FCRR.
Establishment and first year of operation (2002-2003)
In June of 2002, FCRR moved into offices in the City Centre Building on North Bronough Street in Tallahassee. FCRR initially occupied approximately 8,000 square feet of working space on the top floor of the building, but within the first five years, it expanded to occupy approximately 30,000 square feet on three floors. Important early additions to FSU professional staff included:
The mission statement for FCRR was developed during its first year of operation and remains the same 10 years later. FCRR has a four part mission:
Important activities during the first year of operation that contributed to the long-term development of FCRR as a center for basic and applied research and technical assistance included:
In addition to these accomplishments that have had a long-term impact on FCRR’s development, Center staff was engaged during the first year in a complex range of activities in support of Florida’s Reading First initiative. The center also conducted a major research project focusing on the reading subskills that contributed to individual variability in performance on the state reading assessment (FCAT) at three different ages. The center also began to develop both technical and administrative supports for faculty members engaged in independent grant supported research.
FCRR’s Executive Committee provided overall supervision of its activities. The committee consists of: 1) Director of FCRR; 2) FCRR Associate directors; 3)Director, LSI; 4) Dean, College of Arts and Sciences; and 5) Dean, College of Education
Subsequent early years (2004-2007)
Throughout the years described in this section, the Center continued to grow, and at one point reached a total staff of over 400, including part time students used for various purposes on research and technical assistance projects. Major accomplishments during this period included:
Joe Torgesen, Jack Brown, Chris Lonigan, Barbara Foorman, Rick Wagner
Participants in Conference on Vocabulary Development and Reading at Captiva Island
Conference on the Neurobiology of Reading Comprehension held at Clearwater Beach
Later Years 2008 to 2012
In June of 2007, Dr. Foorman became the Director of FCRR in order to insure a smooth transition of leadership before Dr. Torgesen retired. Dr. Torgesen became Director Emeritus, and retained his membership on the FCRR executive committee. He also continued to work as Director of the Reading Center for the National Center for Instruction in K-12 Reading, Math, and Science. Dr. Torgesen retired from FSU in June, 2008. To see the FCRR Brochure published in the fall of 2007, click here.
In the summer of 2008, FCRR moved part of its operations, primarily faculty and graduate student offices, to space in the newly completed Psychology Building. In 2009, FCRR vacated its project space in the City Centre Building and moved to newly created space at FSU’s Innovation Park. The picture below shows Tom Cordi, Joe Torgesen, Barbara Foorman, and Rick Wagner on a visit to the site of the new Psychology Building to review progress in construction of FCRR’s space in the building.