Confusion clouds reading program
By Alis Headlam
Confusion and complaints swirl like the winds of a tornado around the Reading First grant process under No Child Left Behind. No one knows exactly where the controversy will strike next, but the damage in its path is great. I've come to find out that what many of the leading reading experts have been saying about bias in the distribution of Reading First funds is true. The panel used to determine who gets funds and for what purpose has been stacked with individuals who have big business interests at stake. Millions of dollars depend on how these grants are given out. Not only are there the millions that the government distributes to schools, but millions in profits for publishing companies whose materials are recommended for adoption.
As the tornado of Reading First spins out of control, it picks up debris and destroys everything in its path. It should not come to anyone's surprise that connections to major political personalities are abundant, with a direct line to the White House. McGraw Hill, the company that published systematic phonics programs in Reading Mastery and Open Court, is the largest beneficiary of Reading First money. McGraw-Hill thrives while the Wright Group and Rigby Literacy, who are publishers of literature text sets for children, have been systematically blown out of the market.
What it means to education is that legislation intended to create a fair and equitable system based on the best, newest and most scientific investigations into how children learn to read, has gone amuck with corporate greed and political insider connections. It has created a storm so focused that it pushes ahead with specific recommendations disregarding anything that might divert its path.
Former director of Reading First Chris Doherty is quoted repeatedly in an Office of Inspector General report as saying that he disapproves of programs like Reading Recovery and whole language that incorporate literature in instruction because they focus on meaning and de-emphasize the teaching of systematic phonics for children. He explicitly states those districts that seek grants to sponsor those programs should be refused. Although he now denies his own bias, his e-mails tell another story. This was all uncovered in the September 2006 report by the Inspector General. Doherty has since resigned his position.
At the vortex of this tornado is the University of Oregon where the DIBELS assessment was created. Four of the eight panelists who reviewed assessments for Reading First came from the University of Oregon program. No surprise that their findings supported a program with such deep ties. Tornadoes may appear transparent until dust and debris are examined.
The tornado continues to spin out of control picking up more school districts in its path as some grants are rewritten to spew the acceptable rhetoric. New York, Kansas, Wisconsin, any state or district who intends to use a literature-based approach to the teaching of reading is summarily refused support while recommendations for revisions of the grant are specific enough to require a selection from a list of programs that equates to the ones recommended by the University of Oregon's DIBELS makers. All of this is occurring even while NCLB legislation states that the government may not interfere with choices of curriculum. There is no stopping the velocity of the tornado once it has begun on its devastating path.
The tornado captures its victims one by one as they fall prey to the vices of annual testing. Any year that a school does not improve in its annual testing it receives a check mark from the government, and this brings them closer to the dreaded "in need of improvement" designation. Once they have received two check marks they have landed in this zone and are easy targets for the systematic mandates of Reading First grants. School district after school district is toppling as the tornado makes a direct hit.
Weather experts say that you shouldn't try to outrun a tornado. Instead you must find a safe spot out of its reach and wait it out. Then the cleanup must begin.
We can only hope that this storm is nearly over and that the major report done by the Inspector General will help to start the cleansing process that is so desperately needed to clean up the wreckage left in the tornado's wake. Our senses must be alert to the possible spin-off of other smaller tornadoes that will make the cleanup difficult but we must forge ahead with our efforts to put things back in order once again. Reading First under No Child Left Behind needs to be completely rebuilt, for the tornado has caused irreparable damage.
Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.
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