Has Reading First Helped?
USA Today (“Textbook scandal reaches Congress,” April
16 ) notes that a Center for Education Policy report
found that Reading First has helped schools. This
report only asked officials in states and districts
that improved in reading whether they thought Reading
First had helped. There was no discussion of cases in
which Reading First was used and there was no
Reports from Harvard and Berkeley have found that
Reading First has not resulted in gains on national
tests. Also, the achievement gap between high- and
low-income students is the same as it was before
The President and the Secretary of Education continue
to insist that reading scores on national tests have
increased, but recent gains all occurred before
Reading First went into effect.
The Reading First hearings, in addition to
investigating potential conflicts of interests, should
also probe the unsupported claims that the program has
been a success.
Analysis of Center for Education Report
Krashen, Stephen. 2006, Did reading first work?
No improvement in national test scores:
1. Fuller, Bruce, Gesicki, Kathryn, Kang, Erin, and
Wright, Joseph. (2006). Is the No Child Left Behind
Act Working? The Reliability of How States Track
Achievement. University of California, Berkeley:
Policy Analysis for California Education
2. Lee, Jaekyung. 2006. Tracking achievement gaps and
assessing the impact of NCLB on the gaps: An in-depth
look into national and state reading and math outcome
Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard
Textbook scandal reaches Congress
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
A slow-motion scandal surrounding a federal
multibillion-dollar reading program has its first
congressional hearing this week, but it remains to be
seen whether the scrutiny will shed any new light on a
complex, contradictory tale of textbooks, tests and
allegations of federal arm-twisting.
A key part of President Bush's efforts to remake
public education, Reading First was launched in 2002,
giving schools $1 billion a year to improve reading in
early elementary grades. Five years later, early
evidence suggests that it may be helping. But
investigators say a handful of advisers have
railroaded schools into buying textbooks and other
materials that they and associates developed.
The result: a conflict-of-interest case that took two
years to jell as investigators in the Education
Department connected the dots. To date, no criminal
charges have been filed, but Democrats, now in control
of Congress, promise to give the case a full airing.
"The purpose of Reading First is to help
schoolchildren learn to read, not feather the nests of
a select group of well-connected individuals and
organizations," says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who
chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Miller and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are
conducting probes. Kennedy plans hearings later this
Miller will preside at the first hearing Friday, which
brings together Chris Doherty, the program's former
director, and three top advisers.
Atop the witness list: John Higgins, the Education
Department's inspector general, who has issued six
reports detailing how Reading First leaders and
contractors looked the other way at possible conflicts
of interest among advisers and others — several of
whom authored textbooks. He also found that Doherty
and others strong-armed states and school districts
into choosing from a small selection of materials that
In one e-mail Higgins cited, Doherty said of a
publisher whose books downplayed phonics, "They are
trying to crash our party, and we need to beat the
(expletive) out of them in front of all the other
would-be party crashers who are standing on the front
lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags."
Doherty quit in September after the report's release.
Higgins also found that a 2002 conference for
educators focused too exclusively on a few programs,
creating what investigators said was a perception that
there was an "approved list" of texts.
A related probe last month by the Government
Accountability Office found that officials from 10
states complained that the Education Department told
them to eliminate reading programs or tests that they
didn't endorse. Federal rules prohibit the department
from endorsing any curriculum.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who until 2005
was a White House domestic policy adviser, says the
troubles occurred before her move to the Education
Department. But Mike Petrilli, a former associate
deputy secretary under Spellings' predecessor, Rod
Paige, says Spellings "micromanaged the implementation
of Reading First from her West Wing office." She
already has told lawmakers she is beefing up oversight
of the program.
But even a few critics cautiously concede that the
program has been a boon to schools. The Center on
Education Policy, a Washington think tank that has
criticized Bush's education programs, in September
said Reading First is having "a significant impact" in
A five-year, $30.5 million evaluation, begun in 2003,
should produce complete results next year.
Cindy Cupp, a Savannah, Ga., educator, was among the
first to complain in 2005, after Reading First schools
in Georgia passed over her homegrown phonics program.
Cupp compiled a huge dossier outlining the links
between publishers, federal advisers, universities and
the Bush administration. In findings issued last
January, Higgins largely upheld her complaint.
She says it's irrelevant whether Reading First works:
"To rationalize breaking the law by saying the program
has been effective is just that — a rationalization."
She also notes that part of the evaluation bid went to
RMC Research Corp., which Higgins cited for turning a
blind eye to conflicts of interest among three top
advisers it hired. All three are scheduled to testify
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