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
Stef Fuhr says
You blog is spot on and thank you for being brave enough to stand up to the misinformation out there.
I can’t believe anyone could be against the cueing systems….makes me very suspicious of the why behind those attacking them.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Stef. Reading has become a heated topic with the Reading Wars revving up again. The high reading expectations of young children is especially worrisome.
Michael P Goldenberg says
I recommend an article I read yesterday, “WHOLE LANGUAGE OR PHONICS:
IMPROVING LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION THROUGH GENERAL SEMANTICS
by MELANIE C . BROOKS AND JEFFREY S. BROOKS
Nancy Bailey says
Michael! Good to hear from you. Hope all is well. Thank you for sharing this. I like it and agree. I think when it comes to reading you shouldn’t rule out one practice over another. I also wish there would be time to better learn about each individual child. Smaller class sizes would help teachers to do this.
Michael Paul Goldenberg says
I found the perspective in the piece I shared worth “promoting.” But of course we know from the last thirty years of so that any sort of balanced approach to literacy (or mathematics, or science, or history/social studies) education is lost on the extremists who insist that there’s one right way to teach each subject (and one right set of content to teach) and that – shockingly! – that just happens to be their way and their content.
General semantics seems to me to be one way to get perspective on two-valued logic and our propensity for evaluating everything in extreme terms.
Nancy Bailey says
Agreed! I hope those interested in this topic read it! Thanks again!
jim horn says
From Schools Matter, August 16, 2007:
Six years ago when Margaret LaMontagne (Spellings), Reid Lyon, and Doug Carnine loaded the Reading First review panels with their direct instruction stooges and cronies, they set back reading instruction by decades, who knows how many. As ED’s own Inspector General’s reports have shown, states that applied for Reading First grants were manhandled into choosing reading programs aligned with the Lyon and Carnine back-to-brutality phonics orthodoxy. And if grantees ended up off the direct instruction reservation, Reid Lyon’s Reading First Director, Chris Doherty, could simply pull the plug, as he did in Rockford, Illinois:
Mr. Doherty then directed the state to freeze the district’s funding, and ultimately to withdraw the grant. Those actions prompted another e-mail from Mr. Lyon: “wow – Talk about a guy with smarts, integrity AND balls,” he wrote. “I am talking about you Chris.”
The Lyon and Carnine Cabal’s most hated reading program was the balanced literacy methodology of Reading Recovery, a holistic and humane literacy approach grounded by empirical research. It is suitably ironic, then, that Ed Week reports that Reading Recovery has emerged in the latest federal research from Spellings’s own shop as the only program “found to have positive effects or potentially positive effects across all four of the domains in the review—alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement:”
. . . .That program, Reading Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program, has drawn criticism over the past few years from prominent researchers and federal officials who claimed it was not scientifically based.
Federal officials and contractors tried to discourage states and districts from using Reading Recovery in schools participating in the federal Reading First program, citing a lack of evidence that it helps struggling readers. . . .
How sweet it is!! It’s just too bad that so many states are now stuck with the McGraw-Hill Open Court parrot reading system that they were force fed by hacks and crooks in order to get Reading First grants.
Nancy Bailey says
You captured some of the corruption. Thanks, Jim Horn. I appreciate that you mentioned Reading Recovery.
Stephen Krashen says
More evidence that as usual Nancy Bailey has it right:: Did Reading First Work?
By Stephen Krashen, October 2006
Nancy Bailey says
I appreciate this Stephen Krashen! I hope parents and educators read the link you provide. There’s important information there that deserves review and serious study. Thank you.
richard allington says
In what seems ‘a long time ago, I wrote about the corruption that undergirded NCLB (in Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum, Heinemann Publishers,) Nancy Bailey returns to the episode that led Congress to defund NCLB and Reading First. It wasn’t just the corruption but also the fact that the federal evaluation of NCLB found no positive effects on reading achievement in schools using NCLB funds. Today the same folks who loved NCLB are now arguing that ‘phonics is the answer.’ NCLB gave us phonics up the wazoo and produced no positive effects on reading achievement. Perhaps the best argument against an emphasis on phonics can be found in Scanlon and Anderson’s recent article on the incredibly positive effects of teaching children both to decode and to pay attention to context if learning new words is a goal. This paper appears in a supplementary issue of Reading Research Quarterly (2020). I suggest that all ‘phonicators’ should read their paper and then be able to write a short essay on what Scanlon and Anderson have found how their findings undermine almost everything ‘phonicators’ promote.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Dr. Allington! I appreciate your comment.
Here’s the link to the Scanlon and Anderson article.
Thanks for mentioning Scanlon and Anderson, helped me also find Maren Aukerman’s Critical Conversations series which is a thorough look at how the media handles reporting on the field of reading, especially in regards to Hanford and Goldstein
Jeannette Appleton says
I will say as a parent with multiple children, my oldest son received explicit instruction in phonics and the other 2 receiving a whole language approach to reading that included the queuing technique. My son & daughter who received the latter instruction took much longer to read. My second oldest son eventually received some decoding instruction via intervention and began to thrive. Although he has a very good memory and we later found a high ability to memorize. Finally my last child, my daughter never really grew a love to read despite growing up in a home where books abound, with parents (both my husband & I are avid readers) who read aloud to the kids and quietly as well. I say all this to let you know from a first hand perspective, I believe those initial years are crucial and children set off on the wrong foundation are able to recover but unfortunately the love is lost, it becomes a task. After 4 years in public school being told my daughter was a great student although, she couldn’t spell and barely read on grade level, I removed her and started homeschooling.. During my time homeschooling I took my daughter back to the foundations of letters, their sounds, and decoding. She reads, she comprehends, she does well in school. The love is lost. You may say that teaching phonics and decoding is old fashion and boring but in my experience my children who learned and learned early the foundations ultimately not only perform better for longer but ultimately enjoy learning and enjoy reading to learn which is where our focus should be as parents and educators. What I find sad in all of this is that money and politics is what drives what teachers and schools do when truly it should be about raising students who have the skills to make decisions for themselves. And what Emily Hanford did with her journalism on this topic was uncover what the real focus is, money! Money for the authors, publishers, and ultimately politicians supported by those companies and foundations.
Nancy Bailey says
You really need to read about Reading First. I don’t think you read the blog post. Emily Hanford’s podcast about it left out much. Also, check out the results.
Never did I say phonics isn’t useful, but children need a variety of reading approaches some more than others.
But thank you for your comment, Jeannette, and I’m glad you’re children are reading well now. Maybe your daughter needs to find the right books that stir her interest.