Reading last

The brouhaha over the federal Reading First program illustrates everything that's wrong with government today--not the alleged improprieties, but a twisted government culture that prioritizes "proper procedures" over actual results and that looks for scapegoats and fall-guys when the going gets tough.

 

Let's recap what happened. On Friday, the Department of Education's Inspector General issued a scathing report that accused Reading First officials of steering dollars toward preferred programs such as Direct Instruction (DI)--a reading strategy with massive evidence of effectiveness--by putting fans of the program on the review panels that decided which state applications would be funded.

As Chris Doherty, Reading First's director, said in a now infamous email: "You know the line from Casablanca, ‘I am shocked that there is gambling going on in this establishment!' Well, ‘I am shocked that there are pro-DI people on this panel!'"

After all, his direct orders from Congress and the President were to ensure that Reading First dollars went only to certain reading curricula--those that had been proven to work.

In 2001, when Congress created Reading First as part of the No Child Left Behind act, it represented a sharp break from past policy. Rather than being agnostic to the specifics of teaching and learning, with monies from this program Uncle Sam would fund only reading programs that are based on "scientifically-based reading research." In other words, instead of letting a thousand flowers bloom, the feds would hand-pick a few roses and daffodils and weed out the rest of the garden.

This was a reasonable strategy. After all, the nation's education system has been captured for decades by educators and publishers enamored of "whole language reading"--the notion that children learn how to read naturally, as they learn how to speak. It's a charming theory, but it's patently untrue. Thirty years of rigorous studies all reach the same conclusion: children must be taught to read systematically. Primary reading is perhaps the one domain of the elementary-secondary curriculum where there is clear, definitive scientific evidence of what works and what does not. Congress agreed with the Bush team that only the former should get federal funding.

So it drafted the most heavy-handed program in the history of federal education policy. The statute spends 17 pages spelling out the program's requirements, including five paragraphs that define "scientifically-based reading research" and six that define "reading" itself.  

President Bush embraced this aggressive approach. On September 10, 2001, urging Congress to approve the program, he explained the challenge: "One of the unfortunate aspects that we find in many states is that there are great teachers who have got wonderful hearts who don't know how to teach reading; that don't know the science of reading....What we find is a good curriculum based upon the science of reading is necessary to make sure no child gets left behind."

So Doherty did precisely what Congress and the president expected him to do: he implemented the program aggressively. He selected panelists whose views were supportive of scientifically-based reading research. (Though, importantly, he ensured that none of these panelists would benefit financially from their own decisions.) And he raised concerns when school districts wanted to use Reading First funds for unproven whole-language programs.

What was the result of this assertive approach? If you read the Inspector General report, you won't find out, because its authors don't consider this an important question. They're not interested in whether children learn to read. But two recent studies--one from the government and one from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) (see below), a think tank led by a former democratic Congressional aide--reach the same conclusion: Reading First is working. Here's the headline from the CEP report: "Majority of participating states & districts credit Reading First for achievement gains in early grades...billion-dollar federal program is driving significant changes in instruction, curriculum, assessment." State Reading First directors give much of the credit to Doherty and his team for their forceful leadership.

Did Doherty push the bureaucratic and procedural envelope? Absolutely. Did he do what his bosses in Congress and the White House expected him to do? Absolutely. Did his actions help millions of children in classrooms nationwide? Absolutely.

So why, then, have leaders in the Administration and Congress raced to hang him out to dry? Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told the auditors, "I acknowledge that some of the actions taken by Department officials as described by the draft report reflect individual mistakes." Democrat George Miller, ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said, "They should fire everyone who was involved in this...This was not an accident, this was not an oversight. This was an intentional effort to corrupt the process." He has since called for a criminal investigation.

Perhaps Miller's comments can be chalked up to election-year politics. If the Democrats win back the House, he will win the coveted chairmanship of the education committee. But Spellings? As the President's first-term domestic policy advisor, she micromanaged the implementation of Reading First from her West Wing office. She put one of her most trusted friends inside the Department of Education to make sure Doherty and his colleagues didn't go soft and allow just any reading program to receive funds. She was the leading cheerleader for an aggressive approach. And now she bobs and weaves: "Although these events occurred before I became secretary of education, I am concerned about these actions and committed to addressing and resolving them." (Regrettably, much of the media bought this spin--hook, line, and sinker. See here, for instance.)

Shame on Spellings for not backing a loyal, selfless, and truly capable lieutenant. Shame on the auditors for missing the forest for the trees. But mostly shame on all of us if we allow "gotcha" politics and adult power struggles to distract us from the first duty of education: making sure all of our children learn to read so that they can go on to become productive members of our society.

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