Reading First: The Naked Truth
by Ken Goodman
A strange new study evaluating the billion dollar a year Reading First
component of NCLB has revealed what teachers and administrators have
known all along: Reading First has failed to promote reading
comprehension in the children it has been inflicted on. The program
Reading First mandated has been repeatedly referred to, even in this
report, as "Scientifically Based Reading Instruction". Now the Bush
administration's Institute of Educational Sciences own report shows that
no matter how extravagantly Reading First is dressed up, the naked truth
is it has failed to produce any positive benefits.
Even after the Education Department's Inspector General revealed that
huge conflicts of interest were involved in the approval of state
proposals under Reading First, and Congressional hearings showed that
key individuals had made fortunes while forcing states and LEA's to
include their own texts and tests in their proposals, the Department of
Education insisted that the mandated Reading First program had produced
impressive results. The Thomas B Fordham Foundation and other neo-con
groups went so far as saying that there was a conspiracy to keep this
"excellent" program from helping children learn to read.
Several things are strange about this study.
1. It was contracted to outside groups who used as External Advisors a
number of people who are heavily involved in the Reading First mandate.
The study's Technical Work Group included Jack Fletcher, Tim Shanahan
and Sharon Vaughn all of whom have been active supporters of Reading
First. None of the numerous critics of Reading First were among the
2. The design of the study including how reading and reading instruction
were defined should have favored the Reading First program.
3. The release of the study at this time is sure to make it an issue in
the election. The Department of Education could have delayed its release
until after the November election. They've used similar delays in the
past on unfavorable reports.
Most of the claims of success for Reading First have been based on
DIBELS scores which purported to test all five components of
"Scientifically Based Reading Instruction". Actually DIBELS is a series
of one minute tests of speed and accuracy on reduced factors such as
letter identification, sounding out nonsense, and word naming. It
includes no qualitative measure of reading comprehension. So the current
study is the first attempt to look at the effect of the Reading First
mandate on comprehension. It used the Stanford Achievement Test as its
measure. And it is clear even from this flawed study that Reading First
has failed to improve reading comprehension.
Here, from the executive summary are the studies results:
On average, across the 18 participating sites, estimated impacts on
student reading comprehension test scores were not statistically
On average, Reading First increased instructional time spent on the five
essential components of reading instruction promoted by the program
(phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension).
Average impacts on reading comprehension and classroom instruction did
systematically over time as sites gained experience with Reading First.
Study sites that received their Reading First grants later in the
federal funding process
(between January and August 2004) experienced positive and statistically
significant impacts both on the time first and second grade teachers
spent on the five essential components of reading instruction and on
first and second grade reading comprehension.
School administrators have suggested that this last finding may reflect
that those states funded late had held out for including more in their
instructional programs than the five components Reading First
implementers were demanding.
Both George Miller and Ted Kennedy have responded strongly to the new
report, attributing the results to the cronyism so common in the Bush
administration. And the press is focusing on the report as one more
failed Bush program. What hasn't yet been recognized is that writing
tests, methods and materials into law was bound to produce failure. The
Democrats were as much a part of this as the Republicans. We need to
recognize that curriculum and science can not be determined by
politicians. Writing a law that labels a narrow methodology scientific
does not make it so.
The Reading First program failed because it is an incredibly bad program
that had no chance of success. It reduces reading to word
identification. It imposes an archaic and poorly designed program of
direct instruction in assumed skills while restricting learners
experience with meaningful written text. It is deficit oriented,
punishing and drilling on weaknesses rather than building on strengths.
And it has constrained teachers from using their professional knowledge
to fit reading instruction to the needs and strengths of the learners.
It has made failures out of five- year-olds in the first week of
No tinkering with this sow's ear can turn it into a silk purse. In fact
it is a tribute to teachers and learners that it has not done even more
harm. It's long been recognized that even the worst programs can't keep
most children from learning to read.
Getting rid of Reading First can only be a first necessary step. The law
must be rescinded, but we must also undertake the hard job of reversing
the damage it has done. That involves taking the restrictions off
teachers and learners. It involves shifting the focus on reading
instruction to meaning construction. It involves putting authentic books
into the hands of young readers. It involves helping a generation of
pupils to revalue themselves as learners.
Reading First and the rest of NCLB never was about improving reading
achievement. The only way to understand the imposition of such a
ridiculous reading program on schools is that It is part of a broad
attack on public education. The goal of the movement conservatives who
continue to defend Reading First is to privatize education. They chose
to focus on reading as a means of making parents view public education
as so flawed it can't even teach their children to read and write.
Unfortunately the politicians are likely to use this fiasco to argue
that "throwing money" at education does solve its problems. Yet
educators know that much could have been accomplished for a lot less
than $6 billion if the money had been wisely spent on supporting
effective teachers and providing them with the resources they need to
help their pupils become literate.
Perhaps, with this report, education in the United States will have
turned a corner and we will move away from looking for simplistic
phonics hooks to produce effective literacy.
The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES