Reading Recovery Asks Inspector General for Investigation
Ohanian Comment: I understand the slippery slope of politics but I'm disappointed that Reading Recovery would insist on praising Congressional "intent." Never mind that I think it's outrageous that Reading Recovery has been excluded from federal approval, this letter makes it sounds like Reading Recovery folk only dislike NCLB because they were excluded from collecting big bucks.
That said, it is a strong letter, presenting damning evidence of U. S. Department of Education bias, favoritism, and assorted chicanery.
Reading Recovery of North America
400 West Wilson Bridge Road, Suite 250 Phone: 614-310-READ (7323)
Worthington, Ohio 43085 Fax: 614-310-7345
August 04, 2005
John P. Higgins, Jr.
U.S. Department of Education
550 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20202-1500
Dear Mr. Higgins:
This letter is written to request a formal investigation of the U.S. Department of Education’s (the Department) implementation of Reading First (Title I, Part B of the No Child Left Behind Act), a program spending $1 billion annually to improve reading results for children
at risk of reading failure. Like others in the education community, we applaud the
bipartisan congressional effort that passed this law with its emphasis on research-based
reading instruction, but in this request we join a growing number of educators and scholars
who are calling for investigation of the law’s implementation.
This investigation is critical to the future of the nation’s most vulnerable students because
the impact of implementing Reading First extends to other federally funded programs such
as Title I, Part A, and special education. We believe that the Department has not
implemented Reading First in good faith and has not honored congressional intent. Our
concerns are based in the following four areas:
1. State and local control. The implementation of Reading First has restricted state and
local control in the selection of scientifically based reading programs.
2. One-to-one instruction. The Department has excluded one-to-one instruction in the
Reading First program, contradicting the authorizing statute, congressional intent, and
scientific research findings of effectiveness for the lowest-achieving children.
3. Selective application of scientifically based research criteria. In the implementation
of Reading First, the Department has systematically favored some programs while
excluding other programs with a scientific research base.
4. Misinformation about Reading Recovery. The Department has supported a quiet yet
pervasive misinformation campaign against Reading Recovery despite a large body of
research demonstrating Reading Recovery’s effectiveness and long-term results.
Who We Are
We are the Reading Recovery Council of North America, Inc., a not-for-profit professional
association of Reading Recovery teachers, school administrators, teacher educators, parents, and
partners who work to make this early intervention available to every child who needs its support.
Our membership extends to all 50 states, Canada and Department of Defense schools around the
world. Our membership also represents Descubriendo la Lectura, the Spanish version of
Reading Recovery for students learning to read in classrooms where the instructional language is Spanish. All content in this letter applies to both Reading Recovery and Descubriendo la
Reading Recovery students are first graders having extreme difficulty learning to read and write – usually the bottom 10% to 20% in their class. Reading Recovery is the early intervention
component in a school’s comprehensive literacy program. Students work one-to-one with a
highly trained Reading Recovery teacher in 30-minute daily lessons. It is a supplement to good
classroom literacy instruction. After a full series of lessons (12 to 20-weeks), 8 of 10 students
reach grade level expectations.
For students who do not reach grade level expectations, Reading Recovery serves as a period of
intense diagnostic teaching. In these cases, teachers know much more about the child and can
make good decisions about future services. By preventing reading failure early, Reading
Recovery saves on unnecessary testing and referral to long-term remediation. A first-grade
intervention is critical because "research shows that if a child is a poor reader at the end of first
grade there is a .88 probability that he will remain a poor reader at the end of fourth grade."
The high student success rate in Reading Recovery is achieved through an intense professional
development program that includes a three-tiered network of more than 20 universities, 470
teacher training sites, and 8,100 schools. In Reading Recovery, teachers receive graduate credit
for a full year of on-the-job training combining both theory and practice. After the first year, all
Reading Recovery teachers continue to receive professional development at least six times
annually at their training site. All training sessions include the opportunity to observe and
discuss lessons taught behind a one-way mirror. This professional development program creates
expert Reading Recovery teachers who achieve high-level results with the most at-risk students.
In addition to working with Reading Recovery students for half a day, the typical Reading
Recovery teacher works the other half day as a K-2 classroom teacher or in reading specialist
positions funded through formula driven federal programs like Title I of the No Child Left
Behind Act (NCLB). This means that Reading Recovery teachers’ literacy expertise reaches
many more children than just their Reading Recovery students. The importance of a
knowledgeable and expert teacher has been demonstrated to have more effect on student learning
than any program or program materials (Darling-Hammond, 1996).
Today, about 14,000 certified Reading Recovery teachers offer expert tutoring to children most
at risk of reading failure. Reading Recovery is the highest quality intervention for the nation’s
most vulnerable children and is documented by more than 20 years of research and evaluation
evidence. The Department's implementation of Reading First has restricted state, district, and local options to bring this service to children who need its support. On behalf of the students,
teachers, schools, and teacher educators in Reading Recovery, we provide the following detail to
support our request for investigation.
1. Restricted State and Local Control
The Department’s implementation and administration of the Reading First program has
systematically undermined state and local control of educational decisions. This is in spite of the
prohibition in Section 9526 of NCLB against mandating, directing, reviewing or controlling a
state, local education agency or school’s instructional content, curriculum or related activities.
This abrogates the historical role of appointed and elected officials to make decisions based on
their own examination of the evidence.
In spite of the Department’s denial that there is an approved list of reading programs, names of
specific programs were provided as examples of acceptable programs during Reading First
Leadership Academies for state agency officials. Slides from the PowerPoint presentations name
specific publishers in three categories: comprehensive, supplemental, and intervention reading
programs (Attachment 1).
The Department undermined the SEA/LEA role in assuring scientifically based research.
In 2002 the Department began to chip away at the role of state and local educational agencies in
the Reading First program by undermining their authority to assure that subgrants are
scientifically research based. Guidance for the Reading First program grants state and local
educational agencies authority to review research findings to determine whether they meet the
criteria for scientifically based research. Nevertheless, the department created and disseminated
a “hierarchy of evidence” that narrowed the NCLB definition of scientifically based reading
research. Application of the hierarchy of evidence was conducted without negotiated rulemaking
or public input and weakened SEA and LEA authority to make these determinations.
The Department limited state and local access to instructional options. The Department
further attempted to weaken local control by limiting the number and type of assessments,
materials, instructional strategies, and technical assistance options approved in state grant
applications. Extensive documentation is published in Success for All’s letter to the Inspector
General, and in “Ensuring Academic Rigor or Inducing Rigor Mortis? Issues to Watch in
Reading First” published by the Center for Education Policy, July 2005.
A specific example of the federal influence is described in "Reading Programs Bear Similarities
Across States," Education Week, February 4, 2004.
Several state directors said they tapped those advisers because of their deep
understanding of the research and reputations for implementing effective practices.
Others, however, acknowledged that they felt compelled to hire those who had been
recognized by federal officials as experts. “We did feel that there was a very select
number of professional-development providers we had an option to work with,” said
Faith Stevens, Michigan's Reading First director.
The Department’s monitoring process further weakens state and local control. The
Department’s impact extends beyond initial approval to the annual monitoring process. Of the
seven states able to provide funding for Reading Recovery under Reading First, three have
reported receiving pressure during the monitoring process to eliminate it. In addition, other
states report receiving pressure to eliminate Reading Recovery from any Reading First school,
regardless of whether the intervention is supported with Reading First funds.
Congress shares concern about Reading First implementation. The U.S. Senate
Appropriations Committee inserted language in Report 109-103 (2006 Labor-HHS-Education
appropriations bill) in July 2005 expressing concern that “certain practices under the Reading
First program may unduly interfere with local control of curriculum,” and that “The Committee
notes that Reading First materials decisions are to be made at the school level, subject to the
approval of the State” (p. 244).
The impact of this attempt to uproot effective, well-researched programs like Reading Recovery
is unfortunately not limited to the Reading First program. It broadens to other federal programs
providing support for disadvantaged students, including Title I, Part A, and special education
because of a perception at the state level that Reading Recovery is not “approved” by the
2. Exclusion of One-to-One Instruction Under Reading First
The Department excluded one-to-one instruction in the Reading First program, contradicting the
authorizing statute, congressional intent, and scientific research findings of effectiveness for the
NCLB permits one-to-one instruction. Both state and local educational agencies are required
to demonstrate how they will provide professional development that includes information on
“instructional materials, programs, strategies, and approaches based on scientifically based
reading research, including early intervention, classroom reading materials, and remedial
programs and approaches.” (emphasis added)
Early intervention has been interpreted by the Department as small group instruction for 3-5
children. This interpretation differs substantially from congressional intent that one-to-one
instruction is an eligible use for funds.
Congressional intent clearly includes one-to-one instruction. Congressional intent to include
one-to-one instruction under Reading First is clarified in Conference Report 107-334 which
states “The Conferees intend State educational agencies and local educational agencies to be able
to select from a wide variety of quality programs and interventions to fund under Reading First
and Early Reading First, including small group and one to one instruction, so long as those
programs are based in research meeting the criteria in the definition of scientifically based
reading research.” (Emphasis added) (p. 768).
Additionally, a Dear Colleague Letter issued in 2002 by U.S. Senators Collins and Kennedy,
both members of the conference committee for the NCLB Act, further clarifies congressional
intent. It states that Reading Recovery is “exactly the kind of program that the new law is
intended to support. Reading Recovery works to prevent reading difficulties among students and
helps children at risk of reading failure catch up to their grade level.” (Attachment 2).
The Department affirms the effectiveness of one-to-one instruction. The Department’s
publication in 2003 of Identifying and Implementing Educational Practices Supported By
Rigorous Evidence: A User Friendly Guide unequivocally establishes one-to-one tutoring by
qualified tutors to be effective in randomized controlled trials and further, references research
based on Reading Recovery to back up its conclusion. The Executive Summary states “As
illustrative examples of the potential impact of evidence-based interventions on educational
outcomes, the following have been found to be effective in randomized controlled trials —
research's "gold standard" for establishing what works:
One-on-one tutoring by qualified tutors for at-risk readers in grades 1-3 (the average
tutored student reads more proficiently than approximately 75% of the untutored
students in the control group).
The Department excludes funding of one-to-one instruction under Reading First. In spite of
this evidence, the Department issued draft and final Guidance for state Reading First grants that
inappropriately narrowed the focus of Reading First to classroom interventions and excluded
one-to-one instruction. For example:
• In Draft Guidance for the Reading First Program, Section A-2 stated: “Reading First
does not aim to remediate small sub-groups of children in pull-out programs, or to
provide instruction in any setting outside the main classroom environment.” While this
statement was eventually deleted from the final Guidance, it appeared in more than one
state application, including Michigan’s, which was the first application approved by the
• The final Guidance stipulates that it is the Department rather than the law that is limiting
interventions to the classroom. Section A-2 states “it is the Department’s view that the
classroom provides the most important teaching venues for these early readers.” The
final Guidance contains additional and exclusive references to classroom instruction
including sections on Purpose (A), Developing an Effective Reading First Program (C),
State Application Requirements (E), and State Awards to LEAs (H).
The implementation and administration of Reading First by the Department contradicts the
authorizing statute, congressional intent, and scientific research. By doing so, the most
vulnerable first graders are unable to receive the most effective early intervention, one-to-one
instruction by a qualified teacher.
3. Selective Application of Scientifically Based Research Criteria
Early in the implementation of Reading First, biased selection of qualified programs raised
enough concern to merit media attention. In September 2002, Title I Monitor reported that the
Reading First program was provoking controversy in two areas: “first, by suggesting that only a
limited list of curricula would make the grade as ‘scientifically-based reading research,’ and
second, by seeming to preclude supplemental programs, most notably Reading Recovery.”
Concerns about favoritism and the Department’s biased view of reading programs escalated as
implementation rolled out to states and local schools. More recently, Education Week reported
on this bias in the following stories:
• “Reading Programs Bear Similarities Across States,” Education Week. February 4, 2004,
• “Select Group Ushers in Reading Policy” and “In-Crowd Gets Large Share of
Contracting Work,” Education Week. September 8, 2004, and
• “Complaint Filed Against Reading Initiative,” Education Week. June 22, 2005.
The June 22 story reviews a complaint filed with the Inspector General from Dr. Robert Slavin
of Success for All, a classroom literacy program with a substantial research base on its
effectiveness. In the complaint, Slavin charges, “the Federal government enabled a small group
of individuals to direct significant federal resources to a small group of companies, thus
restricting our ability to trade and subverting the explicit intent and language of the Reading First
Like Success for All, Reading Recovery has a strong scientific research base yet has seldom been
approved in Reading First grants. When Reading First implementation began in 2002, schools in
49 states used Reading Recovery. In 2004, the same number of states implement Reading
Recovery, yet just seven reported schools using Reading First dollars to fund Reading
Recovery’s scientifically based early intervention.
Reading Recovery’s strong scientific research base
Reading Recovery has a strong scientific
research base. Its theoretical framework comes from decades of research by Dr. Marie Clay as
well as 20 years of peer-reviewed research evidence in the United States. Evidence of its
effectiveness rests on high quality experimental studies as well as quasi-experimental and
qualitative studies (Center, Wheldall, Freeman, Outhred, & McNaught, 1995; Iversen &
Tunmer, 1993; Pinnell, 1989; Pinnell, Lyons, DeFord, Bryk, & Seltzer, 1994; Quay, Steele,
Johnson, & Hortman, 2001; Schwartz, 2005).
Reading Recovery’s evidence of replicability has been annually analyzed and reported by
researchers at the National Data Evaluation Center, housed at The Ohio State University.
evidence includes data for every child served — more than 1.5 million children — over its 20
years of Reading Recovery implementation in the United States. (Gomez-Bellenge, Rogers, &
Schulz, 2005.) In addition, Reading Recovery has evidence that the majority of children continue
to perform well in subsequent years. Evidence of continued performance was measured by
widely accepted standardized measures, state assessments, or both (Askew & Frasier, 1994;
Askew, Kaye, Frasier, Mobasher, & Anderson, 2002; Briggs & Young, 2003; Brown, Denton,
Kelly, & Neal, 1999; Escamilla, Loera, Ruiz, & Rodriguez, 1998; Pinnell, 1989; Rowe, 1995;
Ruhe & Moore, 2005; Schmitt & Gregory, in press; Sylva & Hurry, 1995).
Closing the literacy achievement gap for low income and minority students is among the
documented accomplishments of Reading Recovery's first 20 years in the U.S. A meta-analysis
published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal as well as other studies and
presentations report findings that Reading Recovery closes the gap for children of various socioeconomic,
racial, and ethnic groups (D’Agostino & Murphy, 2004). We know of no other early
literacy intervention in the world with the volume of published research and evaluation studies.
While schools have been restricted in their use of Reading Recovery as an early intervention,
they are encouraged to use commercially published interventions with lesser or no scientific
base. Richard Allington, president of the International Reading Association recently wrote, “It is
wholly unclear to me, as a Reading Recovery outsider, how so many current state Reading First
designs support the use of completely unproven interventions – Voyager or Waterford Early
Reading for instance – while failing to encourage the use of federal funds to support Reading
Recovery…If evidence – scientific research evidence – was the true standard for decisions, then
Reading Recovery and other tutoring interventions would be available for every child who could
benefit from them.” (Allington, 2005.)
4. Misinformation About Reading Recovery
The facts are clear that intention was set early and continues to exclude Reading Recovery. From
the earliest months of Reading First implementation, Department officials and consultants spread
doubt about Reading Recovery’s scientific base and its ability to be funded under Reading First.
This bias was reported earliest in Title I Monitor:
Several congressional hearings have focused on these issues [supplemental
programs]. Department officials testifying at those hearings dismissed the idea that
ED would mandate particular curricula, but they sidestepped the issue of whether
Reading Recovery – a popular ‘pull out’ program – would be a fundable activity
(Title I Monitor. September 2002, p.14).
In print, Department officials denied there was an approved list of programs, but verbally, at the
Leadership Academies where state guidance for Reading First was given, the Department used
examples of commercially published programs in their PowerPoint presentations (Attachment 1).
Informally, technical assistance centers and consultants made it clear that Reading Recovery was
not an acceptable intervention for Reading First funding.
For example, the Central Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center, housed at the
University of Texas at Austin, is directed by Dr. Sharon Vaughn, a critic of Reading Recovery.
Dr. Vaughn signed an Internet letter that was widely distributed to Congress and members of the
education community in May 2002. The letter was released just as states and local school
districts were developing federal grant applications. The letter built a distorted case based on
flawed research and selective reporting of Reading Recovery studies. In response, 220
academics signed a letter of response urging a broader view of evidence and supporting early
intervention, like Reading Recovery, as an important part of a comprehensive literacy effort.
In addition, as part of the Reading First grant-monitoring process, Reading Recovery
professionals recently reported pressure to drop Reading Recovery using the Department criteria
saying that Reading First activities “will not be layered on top of non-researched based programs
already in use.” The clear implication of this language is that Reading Recovery is not
This climate of innuendo has had a chilling effect on the number of students who have access to
Reading Recovery lessons — from 150,000 children in 2001-2002 to an estimated 117,000 in the
2004-2005 school year. The annual decrease means that over the past three years, about 70,000
of the lowest-achieving first graders lost the opportunity to have school-based individual
tutoring, even though one-to-one tutoring by a qualified teacher has been found effective in
randomized controlled trials, the Department’s “gold standard” for research evidence.
In the face of this sobering news, it is heartening that more than 2,600 school districts have found
a way to continue Reading Recovery for their most vulnerable first graders. Despite the
Department’s quiet but steady denigration of Reading Recovery, administrators in these districts
understand that no other early intervention will develop such high quality teachers with the
knowledge to consistently bring 8 of 10 students up to grade level standards after a full 12 to 20-week series of lessons.
The evidence presented here points to a deliberate strategy by officials at the U.S. Department of
Education to impose a narrow implementation of reading policy for the nation’s most vulnerable
children. Citing scientifically based research, officials have limited state and local control,
excluded one-to-one instruction, selectively applied standards of research-based evidence, and
spread misinformation about Reading Recovery. This approach has made it extremely difficult
for schools to use Reading First funding to best serve the needs of at-risk children. These
children need and deserve your thorough investigation of the Reading First program.
Connie Briggs, Ph.D.
President Executive Director
cc: Margaret Spellings, Secretary
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INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES