Reading First's Christmas massacre

Reading First, funded at $1 billion per year, is among the most promising federal efforts to help the poor. Title I, funded at $12 billion per year, is not nearly so effective. That President Bush has just signed into law a 2008 budget that gives the latter an 8.6 percent increase in funding and the former a 64 percent decrease confirms the wisdom of Lincoln, who observed, "In republican democracies, public sentiment is everything. With it nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed." Notwithstanding Reading First's success increasing early literacy rates among the poor, public sentiment for the program remains weaker than that of its enemies, who have proved more influential in Congress and more determined than Reading First's stewards in the administration.

Launched in 2002 as part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Reading First helps states help their districts improve reading instruction for poor students in low-performing elementary schools. Evaluations by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Congress's Government Accountability Office, the Center on Education Policy, and several states (e.g., Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, and Washington) have corroborated the U.S. Department of Education's (ED's) findings that the program is popular among educators and is improving student achievement. Indeed OMB singles out Reading First as the only component of NCLB with enough evidence to be judged "effective."

Unlike Title I, an entrenched entitlement that gives districts too much freedom to spend taxpayers' money, Reading First is controversial because it is prescriptive. The law requires ED to ensure that states and districts use curricula and practices that are based on "scientifically-based reading research." It requires educators to administer timely assessments for every child in grades k-3 and adjust instruction as needed based on the results. It funds close monitoring of states and districts and authorizes meaningful intervention when they fail to follow their approved plans. Such practices amount to a sea change for teachers, principals, district coordinators, colleges, publishers, state agencies--everyone in the field of reading education.

Implementation has not been easy. Pressure from a few vendors who felt unfairly shut out of the program led to an investigation and a series of unfavorable--and largely uncomprehending--reports by ED's Office of the Inspector General citing potential conflicts of interest and mismanagement. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings--perhaps unaware of Reading First's unique popularity among educators who were attacking her on the rest of NCLB--forced its able director to resign rather than court controversy by defending his scrupulous adherence to the law's intent. A congressional hearing presented the frustrating spectacle of Democrats attacking a program their own Democratic constituents have grown to love. "I want to scream!" a dismayed Los Angeles school district administrator emailed me while watching the hearings.

But not enough people did scream. Reading First reaches 10 percent of public elementary schools--not just any schools but historically the nation's worst. Bottled up in their respective bureaucracies, educators in these districts and the state agencies who support them have been no match for the well-connected vendors who have complained to Congress about the program. Principal among these are Robert Slavin of the Success for All Foundation (whose allies include Representative Dave Obey, chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee) and the still more powerful Reading Recovery Council of North America (whose supporters include Senators Hillary Clinton and Susan Collins). Slavin and Reading Recovery understandably want for their programs a bigger slice of the federal poverty program pie. One way to get it is to starve or otherwise discredit Reading First, under which their own programs, due in large part to their own limitations, have fared poorly.

How likely are Democrats in Congress to defend a program identified with President Bush, their poison, at the expense of Title I, their catnip? Not very likely so long as their constituents don't prod them to.

"My district does not want to take this on because they fear that if RF is not cut then Title I will be," the L.A. official emails, adding, plaintively, "Advice?" There isn't much advice to give, so long as districts care more about getting money than about whether the money they get is actually spent to improve student learning. Reading First's administrators could try to insinuate their program's virtues like a friendly virus into Title I, but that is a quixotic task, particularly if the accountability loopholes in NCLB are widened instead of closed.

The cut to Reading First's budget comes just as states are reporting more interest in the program than ever before. "Three years ago they had to convince people to apply--now they don't have enough money for all the people that want to apply," says Stu Greenberg, who trains state and district leaders for the Eastern Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center, one of three university-based centers set up to help states implement the program.

"We could add 300 schools tomorrow if we had the money," a staffer at the New York State Education Department says. That's 300 schools ready to volunteer for the most exacting regimen the feds have ever dared to impose on educators accustomed to teaching their own way--added to more than 6,000 schools who've already successfully competed to get into the program. So much for the conservative mantra of local control. So much for the liberal cry that more money is all we need. Reading First, with its disdain for fantasies and its seriousness about the details, is making our politicians (and a lot of others) look outmoded and slight. No wonder it has become a policy orphan, like the children it serves. One can only hope that the next administration will preserve the program for what it is and what it might become: a boon to the nation's poor and to anyone who struggles to read.

More By Author

March 21, 2007