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NCLB Outrages

"Reading First” dodges NCLB law, picks pet programs

By Daniel Pryzbyla

Sidetracked by initial debates between phonics and whole language reading theory, details executing the $1 billion federal Reading First grant remained under the public radar screen – for good reason. It blatantly circumvented Title 1 education law and had already selected its private benefactors.

Education “reformers” now in control of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) have proclaimed endlessly the need for a “competitive education marketplace.” Their Reading First road show aimed at K-3 students fell far short of that sugarcoated economic folly. Two non-profits operating at University of Oregon – that also received sponsorship and funding from DOE – were selected to override any other reading programs already in place in public school districts throughout the country. What if the district reading programs and evaluations had already been approved by their state superintendents? Toss ‘em out. If a state expected to receive its Reading First grant, it would have to use “Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literary Skills” (DIBELS) and “Consumers Guide for Evaluating a Core Reading Program Grades K-3; A Critical Elements Analysis” – referred to as “Consumers Guide.” These, in turn, lead you to the promised land of software programs associated with DIBELS. Designed for schools and/or districts, they are available in various price packages, in addition to individual student evaluation costs that range from $1 to $4 for one school year. Of course, to decipher these assorted computer reading evaluations, it’s highly recommended schools send 3 members to attend DIBELS 2-day workshops ($325 per person), and the accompanying 1-day “response to intervention” (RTI) workshop ($135 per person). The next workshop is being held Sept. 27-29, 2005 in Seattle. Not to worry about costs. DOE made certain grant money would be recycled to BEST Workshops in Eugene, OR, run by doctoral candidates at University of Oregon. States can retain up to 20% of their grant for state-level activities such as “professional development for teachers, technical assistance to districts and general administration of the grant.”

By the end of October 2003, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had received Reading First grants, said the Center on Education Policy (CEP) June 2005 Report. The grants continue for 6 years, pending a mid-grant evaluation. The Reading First database maintained by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory said 1,415 districts and 4,774 schools in those districts participate in the program. States distribute funding through competitive grants to local school districts with high poverty and high concentrations of children in grades K-3 who read below grade level.

Within guidelines of state education departments, public school districts previously spent endless hours and days in committee meetings to select K-3 reading books and programs to best help Tasha and Johnny learn to read. The variables of reading curriculum and assessments from large and small private publishers available for public school districts throughout the country have been going on for decades. Since the advent of computer technology, various testing and accountability programs have become available. Parents, too, want to encourage their children to read, supplementing their efforts in school with all sorts of fun reading books, magazines, videos, DVDs and computer programs that have flooded the reading market for our young reading neophytes. Novice authors in small publishing venues throughout the country added to the creative and exciting new reading adventures offered to K-3 educators.

The K-3 phonics driven Reading First program was enacted in 2002 in Title 1, Part B, subpart 1 of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education act. “Federal statutes have routinely contained provisions barring a federal role in curriculum or instruction,” the CEP Report stated. “This prohibition is continued in NCLB.” Thereafter, it quoted NCLB, Section 6301: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or programs of instruction, as a condition of eligibility to receive funds under the act.” (emphasis added)

Is there something confusing about this section in the law? Not only is Reading First in violation of this law, the entire “in-your-face” implementation of NCLB’s arm-twisting to undermine Section 6301 since its onset is in violation of the law. How soon it’s forgotten during that first year when former Secretary of Education Roderick Paige sent intimidating letters to state public school superintendents to “get in line” or else. Those who rightfully balked and stood their ground in defense of Section 6301 found an NCLB thug waiting at their office within days. Show the section to high school Civics classes and have them write their interpretations of the law, and see what answers are received. They know, and Congress knows too. Instead, they left it up to state superintendents and districts, daring them to file lawsuits. None did, fearing retribution. After all, no elected Congresspersons were taking DOE to task either. The only thing that has come close is Connecticut’s recent case – but that’s challenging a “funding” clause in NCLB Title 1. In the meantime, Readers First continues to subvert NCLB. Is all this surprising? Not really. According to the CEP Report, national coverage of NCLB during the past year has rarely focused on Reading First. “For example, the Education Commission of the States has been tracking state policy activity on NCLB since 2002. Reading First is not one of the 40 elements tracked.”

“State grant reviewers gave Dr. Cupp’s Readers a big, fat zero rating on one Georgia school’s Reading First application.,” wrote Kathleen Kennedy Manzo in the September 2, 2005 edition of Education Week. “Only later did its publisher find out that at least one of those reviewers had never laid eyes on the program.” Georgia’s Inspector General found cause of complaints by the book’s publisher Cindy Cupp on the matter and sent them to federal authorities. The Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers has complained to the U.S. Department of Education several times that a few commercial programs “appear to be favored” for use in the Reading First schools, wrote Manzo. In a letter this past March to the University of Oregon, the publishers’ organization raised questions about the university’s evaluations of a select group of “core reading programs and intervention products.” Those reviews, wrote the Ed Week reporter, “were widely distributed to states as a guide for selecting the kinds of research-based tests the federal law requires grantees to purchase under Reading First.” The university, she wrote, did not respond to the letter “but has suspended the reviews.”

“We understood pretty early on that we had to be pretty prescriptive, and we had to tell districts if you want this money, this is what you have to do,” said Mike Fry, who has retired as the North Carolina education department’s chief consultant for language arts. Writing the front page feature story in the same Ed Week issue, “States pressed to refashion Reading First grant designs,” Manzo also noted North Carolina officials had to ask the legislature “for a waiver from the state’s assessment law – which allows only oral testing of K-2 children – in order to meet Reading First’s testing mandates.” Gee, what a coincidence, eh? Are you beginning to hear the identical formulas of testing mandates that the NCLB Wizards of Oz had already set in motion for the toddlers’ older brothers and sisters? Who’s next? Following orders, the NCLB lieutenant walks into the delivery room at the hospital. “Excuse me, ‘mam.”

When you think you’ve had your fill of Reading First hypocrisy dismissing the essence of the law, there’s more in its tank. Reading First requires “activities it supports” contain all of the essential reading components – even defining each one, according the CEP Report. Of course, all teachers, principals and parents know the 5 by now, but here’s a refresher (without the aid of DIBELS): Phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency – including oral reading skills, and reading comprehension strategies. “The Education Department guidance for Reading First contains definitions of these terms and specifies the ‘explicit and systematic instruction’ be provided in all 5 components,” the CEP Report stated. “This requirement reaches beyond new activities instituted in response to Reading First to affect existing state and local reading efforts. Specifically, Section H-12 of the guidance requires local districts to demonstrate that the Reading First activities ‘will not be layered on top of non-research based programs already in use.’” The intent becomes obvious. “Reading First will be the reading program for children benefiting from Reading First funding.”

Now all that’s left to be done is print out a copy of NCLB, Section 6301 from this commentary and send it to your local, state and federal elected representatives. It might be the first time they’ve seen it

— Daniel Pryzbyla
Education News


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