Reading First was President George W. Bush’s signature reading program, the cornerstone of No Child Left Behind. With a $6 billion price tag (a billion per year for six years), it promised “scientific proof” it would have every child reading by third grade. States had to apply for federal grants. Reading First centered around phonics.
When the President spoke at a Leadership Forum in Jacksonville, Florida on September 10, 2001, a day before the worst attack on America’s soil, he said, 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. He was introducing Reading First.
That was almost twenty years ago. Several reporters are once again criticizing teachers and their education schools for not teaching teachers to teach reading the “right” way, with scientific proof. Their arguments are eerily reminiscent of Reading First.
That’s not to say education schools shouldn’t reexamine their programs. But it’s disconcerting to repeatedly read criticism focusing solely on teachers and how they teach reading. There’s a teacher shortage and parents also complain that more students face screens with unproven reading programs like iReady.
Natalie Wexler, a writer who reports in Forbes and has an education book out, just wrote a Forbes article backing teacher-critic reporter Emily Hanford, who repeatedly writes about teachers not teaching the right stuff, namely phonics.
Hanford realized most teachers do teach phonics, so now her criticism centers around their use of the 3-cueing system. This has been around a long time. It can be helpful for children learning to read. We can debate this, but the point here is that Wexler, in the Forbes article, slips praise for Reading First into her essay.
…about fifteen years ago: a program called Reading First, which made some $4 billion in federal education grants conditional on the adoption of reading programs that had solid evidence behind them. It seemed to work, especially among the disadvantaged populations that have a disproportionate share of struggling readers. In Alabama, African-American 4th graders at Reading First schools made more than twice as much progress on a standardized reading test as African-American students at other schools, and some other states saw similar results.
But the program encountered fierce opposition, and it was terminated after a few years. Perhaps Hanford’s documentaries can spark a renewed and widespread recognition of the importance of systematic instruction in phonics—along with a recognition of the damage caused by teaching beginning readers to guess at words.
She ignores the controversy that surrounded Reading First. It’s also a stretch to say there’s solid evidence behind the Reading First programs.
Reading First led to an attempt to steer lucrative reading contracts to individuals who controlled the program. This led to conflict of interest charges, and the eventual collapse of Reading First. It was a huge education scandal with tentacles to a lot of politicians and reading researchers.
Beyond the corruption, Reading First didn’t show great results. Teachers might have liked it because they were provided resources to work with students. Some districts reported gains in test scores, but in general the program didn’t lead to better reading comprehension.
Most studies showed Reading First was not as successful as promised. …the Department of Education’s research arm found that students in schools that use Reading First, which provides grants to improve elementary school reading, scored no better on comprehension tests than their peers who attended schools that did not receive program money.
Reading First’s controversy is displayed by all the Education Week reports about it.
The Alabama Miracle
Wexler in her article also links to an Education Next article praising Reading First and making light of the controversy. Education Next is a conservative publication often critical of teachers and public schools.
One of the states mentioned involves Alabama. Alabama has used Reading First since its inception, claiming success. They still praise NCLB!
But other reports indicate that students in Alabama are on trial the next two years for the big test. They say, …in 2018, less than half of the students in 81 of Alabama’s 137 school districts were proficient in third-grade reading on the state’s annual test. That means in most districts more than half the third-graders could be held back under the new law.
That’s too bad because we know retention is wrong for students, but how can Reading First be working well when so many students are in danger of failing the test?
Teachers need a broad understanding about reading instruction and how to assess the reading needs of each student, especially when students are young and learning to read.
This includes decoding for children who have reading disabilities. But a variety of teaching tools and methods help children learn to read. The conditions in their schools and classrooms should be conducive for this to happen.
It would be helpful to read more about lowering class sizes, a way to better teach children in earlier grades.
Problems relating to the loss of librarians and libraries is also currently of grave concern. And with so many alternative education programs like Teach for America it’s important to determine who is teaching children reading in their classrooms.
The Reading First scandal was noxious, and I have not done justice describing it in this post. Today, most understand that NCLB was not about improving public education but about demeaning educators and closing public schools. Reading First fit into this privatization plan. It was about making a profit on reading programs. It turned out not to be a magic elixir to help students learn how to read better.
It should be left in the past.
Reading First Implementation Study 2008-09: Final Report. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service. 2011.
Mismanagement and conflicts of interest in the Reading First Program : hearing before the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Tenth Congress, first session, hearing held in Washington, DC, April 20, 2007.
The Chairman’s Report on the Conflicts of Interest Found in the Implementation of the Reading First Program at the Three Regional Technical Assistance Centers. United States Senate. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Edward M. Kennedy, Chairman. April 20, 2007