The Shaggy Dog Story: Has 'Reading First' Flopped?

Ashley Thorne

“Mop was a big dog.
Mop was a floppy dog.
Mop was Tom’s pal.
‘Come, Mop,’ said Tom.
Tom sat on Mop.”

That’s from a reading primer offered by a mom-and-pop writing team (Bobby Lynn and John Maslen) that cater to parents who want their children to get a jump on kindergarten.  Chances are, the little Jacobs and Emilys who encounter big dog Mop do excel other three and four-year olds. 

But what happens to the little Ethans and Emmas whose less attentive parents left them in front the TV watching Sponge Bob Squarepants for their entire infancy?  Can they be saved?

President Bush came to office seemingly with this challenge in mind, which led to his first-year initiative, “Reading First.”  But before we get to that, let’s go back, way back…

Once upon a time, dear reader, you learned to read. It’s hard to imagine a time before then, when you passed your eyes over a page without that light of knowing what it meant. And when today you hear a young child laboring to pronounce, “ff…l…o…pp…ppy,” you might even think, “Why is that so hard?” But the world of written words does not come naturally to us at first; it is a struggle to tease sense from the inky birds of print flying across the page.  If we are ever to find out that Tom’s pal was floppy Mop, we need help.  

Many children falter. The inky birds fly on and the page yields no sense. In 1997, Robert W. Sweet, Jr., president of the National Right to Read Foundation, wrote in “Don’t Read, Don’t Tell” that 40% of American eight-year-olds could not read on their own. In 2000, John Doerr, legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist, echoed that statistic (provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress) in a message at Harvard Business School: “Forty percent of eight-year-olds can't read at their grade level.”

What was to be done?  Robert Sweet criticized Bill Clinton’s “America Reads Challenge,” which called for a million volunteers to drop by school and teach the children what the professionally trained teachers couldn’t.  As an approach to reforming reading education it had the advantage of being cheap, but that’s about all.  Sweet observed that America Reads “diverts accountability from the colossal failure of the public-education system to achieve perhaps its single most important mission.”

In 2001, President Bush bundled Reading First into his No Child Left Behind initiative.  “Reading First” was meant to supersede “America Reads” by attempting to ensure that children could read well by the end of third grade.  Robert Sweet drafted much of what became the program’s authorizing legislation.

Reading First allocated funds to schools below the poverty line, and by April 2007, 5,880 schools received program grants totaling $6 billion (about $1 billion was budgeted for each year). Reading First boasts on its website a “solid foundation of scientifically based research,” conducted by the fifteen individuals who composed the National Reading Panel. The panel, assembled by the Department of Education, “found five components essential to a child's learning to read”:

o Phonemic awareness - the ability to hear, identify, and play with individual sounds - or phonemes - in spoken words.
o Phonics - the relationship between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.
o Fluency - the capacity to read text accurately and quickly.
o Vocabulary - the words students must know to communicate effectively.
o Comprehension - the ability to understand and gain meaning from what has been read.
Reading First: Student Achievement, Teacher Empowerment, National Success

Spotlighting these five target areas, the program has focused on equipping teachers to be more effective in the classroom. According to its website, Reading First provides funds to teach the teachers better techniques.  It also supports “diagnostic tools” and measures to assess student progress.  

With a blueprint of objectives, a budget of $1 billion per year, and progress assessments, Reading First should have been an overwhelming success. Surely only good things could come of a program that improves reading instruction?  

But those good things have yet to be seen. Last week, the Institute of Educational Science released a study assessing the effectiveness of Reading First for the school years 2004-05 and 2005-06. The study, part of the program’s plan for self-evaluation, showed that students in schools funded by the program have no better reading comprehension than those in un-funded schools.

According to that study, those who are Reading First appear to be Reading Fair to Middling. 

That not entirely bad.  At least they are reading. (“Come, Mop,” said Robert W. Sweet, Jr., dangling a toothsome morsel before his maw.)  But it isn’t much to show for a cumulative $6 billion either.  (Robert sat on Mop, who thereupon eructated a belch born of six billion biscuits.  “No Mop, we won’t dis-tutor you yet.  A billion more will make you bark.”) 

The release of the report unleashed waves of criticism. Critics pointed to federal mismanagement. From its inception, Reading First was hounded by accusations of corruption, conflicts of interest, and political hackery. An inspection by the office of the Inspector General in 2006 concluded that the  Department of Education “program officials failed to maintain a control environment that exemplifies management integrity and accountability.”

As scandal wailed, Congress cut Reading First’s funding for 2008 by 61 percent. Margaret Spellings and others in the DOE now are pushing to have the $1 billion budget renewed for 2009.

The Los Angeles Times (9 May 2008, p. 28) called for “accountability,” observing that “An expensive, poorly run program that doesn't get results should be axed, yet Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings are fighting against congressional cuts.”

Reading First’s supporters came to its defense, citing flaws in the survey methods as the explanation for its disheartening results. They also said it’s too soon now to tell whether the program is effective.  A final study, which will measure the relationship between research-based reading instruction and improvements in reading comprehension, is due for release at the beginning of 2009.

Does the study represent a fair assessment of Reading First? Hard to say. The DOE’s Institute of Educational Science issued the report, but that’s no guarantee of good will.  The Washington bureaucracy has provided a long list of instances in which it has tried to thwart Bush’s initiatives.  Yet IES’s finding isn’t much of a surprise.  A reform program that consists of an attempt to retrofit teachers whose training in schools of education generally ran solidly against the five principles of Reading First. Thus Reading First wasn’t aimed at filling in some missing ideas, but at persuading teachers to repudiate what their ed school profs had told them was the right approach.  The teachers, raised on pedagogies such as “whole language,” which derogates attempts to teach reading systematically, were now told that systematic inculcation of skills in their students is the path to success. 

Did the teachers really convert to the new approach? Or did they pocket the extra pay and go right on teaching according to their wooly dog constructivist theories? Or, perhaps most likely, did they make some patchwork combination of their old ed school nostrums and the new Teaching First fix-its?  We don’t know.   But when we hear of the indifferent results of Teaching First, we have to wonder.

Perhaps another component of the story is that we just expect too much. Charles Murray, for example, continues to write about the limits of educability. He proposes in a recent article in The New Criterion that programs like No Child Left Behind are born from what he calls educational romanticism: “the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better.” Educational romantics dream that, given the right opportunities, everyone can succeed in learning up to a minimum standard. This romantic myth, says Murray, has produced “an educational system that cannot make itself talk openly about the implications of diverse educational limits.”

Even if Murray is right, however, we might reasonably expect to do better than a 40 percent illiteracy rate among eight-year-olds. 

The National Association of Scholars doesn’t directly have a dog in this fight, but we are of course concerned with the quality of teaching in the nation’s schools.  We would like to see more students who can read proficiently, as this is indeed the foundational skill for further education.  But we also like to see more students move beyond reading proficiently to reading with a combustible intellect and imagination.  That begins with getting the ABCs right, and usually requires that a child encounter at least one teacher who knows how to kindle a flame. 

Can the federal government play a worthwhile role in this?  The desultory results of Clinton’s America Reads and Bush’s Reading First give us pause.  Perhaps some of those students should be learning their Longfellow:

The little waves, with their soft, white hands
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The rises and falls of federal interventions are not too encouraging, but we don’t rule out the possibility that the Department of Education will one day create an effective office of footprint preservation.  In the meantime, we invest slightly more hope in floppy dogs and other earnest, parent-propounded efforts to seduce pre-schoolers into the love of books.  

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