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The politics of reading first.

Reading First is a part of the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law on January 8, 2002. Reading First was

designed to help states, school districts, and schools ... to ensure that every child can read at grade level or above by the end of third grade through the implementation of instructional programs and materials, assessments, and professional development grounded in scientifically based reading research. (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, p. 23)

While some of the test results surrounding Reading First have been impressive, the program has been criticized--specifically the grant-application process (Manzo, 2006). This also appears to be the conclusion of the U.S. Department of Education's Inspector General after an audit of Reading First. The following article reviews are about this and related controversies. Kelly A. Russell, a doctoral student in early childhood education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, reviewed the first three. The rest are reviewed by me.--J.A.

"READING FIRST" APPEARS TO PROMPT IMPROVEMENT. Manzo, K. K., Education Week, 2006, 26(5), 12-13. The Reading First initiative has improved reading instruction, student achievement, and the quality of reading assessment. The $1 billion federal grant money has benefited more than 5,600 participating schools. Non-participating schools in districts with Reading First schools also have seen a boost in reading scores, because the administrators and teachers at those schools have attempted to emulate the success of the Reading First schools.

This article reports on the findings of a research and advocacy group that surveyed 300 school districts participating in Reading First in 2005. Of the 19 states that reported success in reading, all of them cited Reading First as a major factor in their students' reading growth. This article also reports on other studies that have shown positive results and attitudes about Reading First. However, the article ends with words of caution from Maryann Manning, an International Reading Association board member and a long-time member of ACEI. She questions what she considers the narrow approach to reading instruction advocated by Reading First. She says, "We have every terrible reading program published in use in our Reading First Schools" (p. 13).

THE 16th BRACEY REPORT ON THE CONDITION OF PUBLIC EDUCATION. Bracey, G. W., Phi Delta Kappan, 2006, 88(2), 151-166. Gerald Bracey discusses many aspects of public education, especially issues related to No Child Left Behind and Reading First. He is especially concerned with standardized testing. The emphasis on standardized testing, he says, is creating an atmosphere where teachers teach discrete skills and ask questions seeking one specific "correct" answer. According to Bracey, "We cannot use tests to measure creativity, ambition, or the willingness of students to question conventional wisdom" (p. 153).

In the section of the article titled "Reading First Fumbles--Maybe Breaks the Law" (p. 157), Bracey discusses the fact that states that did not use certain scripted programs in their proposals did not receive Reading First grant money. For example, the first proposal from Rhode Island stab ed they they would use scientifically based programs, yet the proposal was not funded. Rhode Island educators resubmitted, and were rejected again. Their third proposal included some specific programs similar to those in Michigan's proposal but this draft also allowed districts to purchase other programs as long as administrators could justify the scientific research behind their program of choice. Again, this proposal was rejected. It was not until the choices had been restricted to a narrow list of "approved" programs that Rhode Island educators received a Reading First grant.

This article ends with a report of "Misleading Metrics." Bracey suggests that by twisting data, some school districts can report great gains in achievement that may not actually exist. Readers are left to ponder the actual truth concerning reading achievement.

KEEPING PUBLIC SCHOOLS PUBLIC: Testing Companies Mine for Gold. Miner, B., Rethinking Schools, 2005, (19)2, 28-37. No Child Left Behind has greatly increased the number of standardized tests that students in the United States and its territories have to take. Not coincidentally, companies that produce these tests are getting rich. There is money to be made not only in designing and distributing the tests, but also in scoring the tests and in helping school districts to keep records of the scores. When these costs are considered (along with the cost of the class time used to prepare for and take these tests), the final bill for taxpayers is astronomical.

Despite the enormous amounts of money taxpayers spend on the standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind, one can barely detect public outcry over the lack of regulation for the testing companies and their methods of designing the tests. Parents and teachers, the author states, should be demanding quality and accountability from the test makers. These tests are used to determine which schools and students are making adequate yearly progress. However, who is making sure that the tests measure what they are reported to measure?

No Child Left Behind was introduced just two days after George W. Bush took office, and was signed into law one year later. This legislation soon led to an increase in standardized testing as lobbyists for publishing companies descended on Washington, D.C., in order to push their own agendas. Many of these companies are showing astronomical profits. Miner points out that profit margins--and not student learning--are what motivates these publishers.

The cost of standardized tests, including some used to assess the results of Reading First, has become a burden to most states, yet only limited federal funds have been allocated to cover the cost of these tests. Publishers are becoming richer and richer at the expense of taxpayers; even more tragically, they are becoming increasingly wealthy to the detriment of our children. Miner asserts that it is time for change.

IRA RESPONDS TO REPORT ON READING FIRST. Reading Today, 2006, 24(2), 1, 8. The International Reading Association (IRA) publishes a news periodical concerned with information about professional literacy. The article reported here was one of the lead stories for the October/November 2006 issue. The purpose of this piece was to describe the press release issued by IRA immediately after the news broke concerning the findings of the U.S. Department of Education's Inspector General concerning the Reading First audit.

The article discusses the "scathing review of the Bush administration's billion-dollar-a-year Reading First program, released on September 22 by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General (IG)" (p. 1). Shortly after the Inspector General's report was released, IRA sent a letter to Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. Attorney General. The letter indicated that the Inspector General's investigation may not have gone far enough, and went on to point out that those in charge of allocating funds for Reading First may have been guilty of a conflict of interest. According to the letter, "A select group who were directing funds to specific programs and products ... may have had financial interests in the products and programs recommended" (p. 8). The letter concluded with the importance of administering fairly the Reading First initiative and all other programs under No Child Left Behind.

SCATHING REPORT CASTS CLOUD OVER "READING FIRST"--FEDERAL OFFICIALS ENCOURAGED USE OF SPECIFIC PROGRAMS, INSPECTOR GENERAL FINDS. Manzo, K. K., Education Week, 2006, 26(6), 1, 24-25. Both supportive and critical comments of the Inspector General's report on Reading First are described in this article. Manzo suggests that many professionals who agreed with the report had been concerned for a long time that particular reading programs were being emphasized over others. These programs are tied to big-name publishers that, coincidentally (or not), had ties to federal officials overseeing Reading First. However, many who believed the Inspector General's report was overblown were concerned that the publicity might hurt a program that has shown great promise for improving reading instruction in grades K-3.

This article is one of the most comprehensive in explaining the history of Reading First and the specifics of the Inspector General's report. Potential conflicts in the implementation of Reading First are described in detail, as are questions concerning Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' knowledge of the issues and oversight of the program. Perhaps the most interesting section is the one titled "E-Mail Exchanges." "Several e-mail messages, exchanged early in the Reading First implementation, provide an inside look into how federal employees negotiated, in sometimes forceful and foul terms, their plan for ensuring the requirements were rigorous" (p. 25). Anyone interested in the Reading First controversy would find these e-mails a "must read."

VOYAGER SAILS INTO MARKET FOR READING--BUT QUESTIONS ABOUND OVER SECRETS OF SUCCESS. Manzo, K. K., Education Week, 2006, 26(9), 1, 20. While this article is not directly related to the U.S. Inspector General's review of Reading First, it does concern a reading program used by some Reading First schools. The success of Randy Best and his Voyager Universal Literacy core reading program is chronicled in this article. The beginnings of Voyager go back to "The Texas Reading Initiative under then-Gov. George W. Bush" (p. 20). While less than 5 percent of Reading First programs use Voyager, the program "has snagged federal funding through the controversial practice of congressional earmarks" (p. 20).

The program has shown impressive gains in several cities, including Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia, and New York. However, many teachers have found the program to be too skills-based and boring and have complained about the strict enforcement built into this scripted program. The program was extremely profitable for Randy Best, who sold the company "for $360 million to the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based ProQuest Co." (p. 20).

The article concludes by stating that Best has now started a teacher education program and has hired some of the biggest names from the Washington bureaucracy, including G. Reid Lyon, Mike Moses, and former Education Secretary Rod Paige. While few could dispute Best's financial success, many education professionals, such as Richard Allington, claim that "Voyager's success is more about gamesmanship in getting a share of the market than in finding a solution to reading problems" (p. 20).

"READING FIRST" DETAILS SOUGHT BY LAWMAKERS: Democrats Seek Wider Inquiries on "Reading First" Issues. Hoff, D. J., Education Week, 2006, 26(7), 1, 27. The controversy of the administration of Reading First continues. "Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa have asked the Bush administration to provide additional information about how the $1 billion-a-year program has been carried out" (p. 1). Miller has gone further and asked for a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice. Senator Harkin has requested that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings explain what she knows about the inappropriate handling of Reading First grants. A Department of Education official (Eugene Hickok) suggested, "I would be surprised if Margaret didn't have a pretty good sense of what was going on in Reading First" (p. 27).

A variety of measures are being planned by the House Education Committee to discuss the findings of the Inspector General concerning Reading First. All of this is taking place while No Child Left Behind is being prepared for reauthorization. While the field of reading instruction has been a political powder keg in the United States since its beginning, it appears the Reading First controversy has exacerbated the politics to an explosive level.

WASHINGTON SCENE--NCLB: High Anxiety. Lewis, A. C., Education Digest, 72(1), 70-71. Lewis reports on the "high anxiety" concerning No Child Left Behind throughout the United States. While Margaret Spellings had earlier reported more flexibility in implementing No Child Left Behind, Lewis says, "Spellings has reversed course and, instead of showing greater flexibility on the implementation of NCLB, tightened the oversight" (p. 70). As many as 10 states have lost some funding under Title I, with some losing as much as one-fourth of their funding. Further, some states, such as Nebraska and Maine, did not meet the testing requirements.

To add to the doubts related to No Child Left Behind and Reading First, two groups have reported slow progress in reading since the implementation of the act. Specifically, both the Harvard University's Civil Rights Project and the Policy Analysis for California Education found that "the pace of improvement in reading scores has slowed down since NCLB was enacted" (p. 71).

GENERAL CONCLUSIONS

All of these articles remind us that the reading wars are far from over. No doubt some ACEI members applaud Reading First and how it has been implemented, while others are appalled by the findings of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General. Hopefully, we can all agree to monitor carefully federal, state, and local reading mandates and work as responsible citizens to ensure that our voices are heard, that regulations are administered fairly, and that we will make sure government is held accountable. Nothing short of our children's future is at stake.

References

Manzo, K. K. (2006). Scathing report casts cloud over "Reading First"--Federal officials encouraged use of specific programs, Inspector General finds. Education Week, 26(6), 1, 24-25.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2002). No Child Left Behind: A desktop reference. Washington, DC: Author.
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Title Annotation:Among the Periodicals
Author:Aldridge, Jerry
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Law overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:2192
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