Reading First program expected to die out of classrooms
by Pat Kossan - Jul. 13, 2008
The Arizona Republic
The Bush administration's $6 billion Reading First program is expected to die out of American classrooms, including those in Arizona, by the end of the decade.
The generous program was born in 2002 and provided $130 million to 136 schools in Arizona's neediest communities. The money helped each school buy a uniform reading program, a reading coach, extensive teacher training and tools for teachers. Those tools allowed teachers to measure a student's reading progress weekly or monthly, but always in time to catch those students who were falling behind.
Many state education leaders, including those in Arizona, said Reading First refocused their scattered reading programs and helped their state's poorest kids learn to read more quickly. Detractors called the program too prescribed, with an emphasis on teaching students to decode words at the expense of comprehending sentences.
Curriculum director Barbara Wright of the Casa Grande Elementary District is among the mourners. "How sad," she said of Reading First's demise. Wright was a Reading First fan and implemented the program at every school in the district.
"This was good, solid, research-based information, and we implemented it in all our schools at the time, even though only two schools were funded," she said.
Eventually, seven of the district's nine schools were given Reading First grants. The district's third-grade AIMS reading scores have climbed every year since.
Wright said its mandates will continue to guide the district's reading program, even though the massive federal grant program has taken a beating it is not expected to survive.
The blows included reports of mismanagement at the highest levels and a pending Department of Justice investigation. That led an angry Congress to cut its funding by 60 percent. In May, a U.S. Department of Education study concluded Reading First - its own program - had little positive impact on reading skills. Arizona schools were not included in the study. In June, the U.S. Senate and House appropriations committees stripped Reading First of its remaining money, which is expected to lead to its death in 2010.
Although Reading First is fading, its legacy will live on. Arizona lawmakers were so enamored with the program they created a state law requiring all schools to create reading programs that mimic it. The state law did not provide extra money to implement the reading programs, so its impact is uncertain.
"The essence of Reading First is the method of teaching that is independent of appropriation of funds," said Tom Horne, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction. Horne said Reading First combines the best of all reading methods tried before it, emphasizing phonics, as well as comprehension, fluency and vocabulary. "Schools will continue to use it because it has proven itself," he said.
COMMENTS on website as of 4:00 pm CDT 7/14:
Jul-13 @ 8:40 AM
Children are, and will be hurt in the political theater surrounding Reading First. Some facts: First, The Office of the Inspector General found no actual conflicts of interest in the management of Reading First (see OIG Reports) Second, Sen. Ted Kennedy had concerns that directors of Reading First technical assistance centers were receiving royalties from publishers while working for the program. But in most cases, these royalties were for books published before they worked for Reading First, or for books not connected to Reading First. In any case, Reading First technical assistance centers did not recommend specific textbooks or reading materials. Third, a Department of Education study recently published and showing that Reading First funding did not result in significant gains in achievement when compared to schools that did not receive the funding has been widely criticized for not paying attention to a well known fact – Both Reading First and non-Reading First schools within the same district were typically using the same reading programs. Non-Reading First schools did not want their kids to fail so they adopted Reading First programs and paid for them with state or district funds. For example, The Reading First evaluator for Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Washington and Wyoming reported gains in all five states in the percent of students meeting third grade benchmarks. She also reported that 65 percent to 95 percent of non-Reading First schools in districts receiving Reading First funds used the same assessments, purchased the same reading materials, provided similar assistance to struggling students and hired similar reading coaches. Alabama was found by independent evaluations to increase kindergarten reading development such that a remarkable 89 percent of students met literacy benchmarks at the end of kindergarten, with almost no racial gap. State wide evaluations of Reading First programs in California, Ohio, Idaho and many others demonstrated significant improvement in reading capabilities on state reading tests. If Reading First is on the chopping block it is not because it lacks effectiveness and is helping millions of struggling readers. It is because of political malpractice.
Jul-14 @ 12:47 AM
In response to Reid Lyon: In the Dept of Education study, Reading First children were getting more of the elements of reading that the National Reading Panel considered to be crucial. Thus, as Tim Shanahan pointed out, it was really a comparison of more Reading First versus less. And it wasn't just a little more, it amounted to an extra six weeks per year.
Concerning the state data: Alabama looks good in kindergarten but the percent reaches proficiency drops as the children move up the grades. Ohio also drops. Idaho is one of the few that doesn't.
See earlier posts on Bush Administration malfeasance with Reading First funds. Particularly the role of Reid Lyons.