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Reading First and its Impact on Poor Children

Here is another in the fine
series of articles appearing in Dissent
series on education--online and in the

Gerald Coles

BY NOW the failures of prepackaged, lockstep,
skills-heavy Reading First instruction are as
apparent as the href="http://www.skirsch.com/politics/education

[pdf file] of its homunculus version when it
was proclaimed as George W. Bush’s “Texas
Miracle.” During the time of the “Texas
Miracle,” independent national testing (i.e.,
tests not devised in Texas) revealed that the
instruction not only did not produce superior
reading comprehension or academic achievement,
it widened the black-white reading achievement
gap. Nor did the purported gold standard
document supporting Reading First instruction —
the report of the National Reading Panel —
muster evidence to justify making this pedagogy
the instructional core of No Child Left Behind.
Not surprisingly, this failure to find
supporting evidence has continued in recent
assessments, further underscoring — sadly for
the academic futures of children who have been
force-fed this instruction — Reading First’s

Given the continued lack of evidence, the
question must be asked: Why was Reading First
mandated and why had other forms of reading
instruction been rejected? Why did it take the
recent uncovering of the Education Department’s
managerial bias in awarding Reading First
grants for Congress to cut the program’s funds?
A charitable answer might be that a single kind
of instruction was approved under Reading First
because people with good intentions,
particularly President Bush and his educational
policy Praetorian Guard, had unintentionally
misconstrued the evidence. That answer would
be too charitable, however, given the
deliberate, consistent lock out of alternative
viewpoints in Congressional hearings, the
management of Reading First funding, the href="http://www.rethinkingschools.org/special_
reports/Bushplan/read.shtml"> research
employed to justify Reading First,
and, not surprisingly, Bush’s speeches (if rote
gets the job done, then rote is right). Like
the attack on Iraq, the desired policy goal has
determined the concoction of evidence.

If Reading First was not about spreading
educational democracy, particularly among poor
children, what was its real purposes? There
are several. It was literacy education on the
cheap. Teacher-proof, one-size-fits-all,
prepackaged instructional programs cost much
less than instruction addressing children’s
individual needs, which requires well-skilled
teachers, small teacher-student ratio, multiple
instructional materials, and extensive
classroom libraries. Another purpose was
ideological: Lockstep Reading First pedagogy
fosters student uniformity and conformity,
characteristics that the political right
regards as perfect citizenship qualities.

Important as these purposes are for explaining
this pedagogy, I will focus on one embedded in
the politics of domestic social-spending
decisions: Reading First instruction has been a
policy concoction that, on the one hand,
insists sound reading instruction—especially
for poor children—is the panacea for their
education and future. On the other hand, it
has also been used to cloak an assault on
children, especially poor children, grounded in
(a) workforce requirements as seen from the
profits and (b) a goal of shrinking domestic
social spending to a minimum. Since the policy
insists that everything needing to be done for
poor children’s education is being done, it
also serves to justify doing as little as
possible for poor children in every area of
their lives that influences educational
outcome. Structurally it is a realpolitik
policy grounded in the question, “What’s the
payoff for wealth accumulation if poor children
are educated?” And since the corporate answer
boils down to, “Not much,” Reading First served
as a political tool to divert attention from an
indifference to poor children.

Texas: The Template
Despite endless photos of Governor Bush among
poor children, there persisted, behind his
insistence that reading building blocks,
basics, and drills would get the job done, a
callous disregard for these children. It
mattered not, for example, that Texas ranked
third among states in malnourished children and
that research had long linked hunger to
literacy underachievement. He not only vetoed
a bill to coordinate the state’s hunger
program, he slashed state payments for food

Equally unconcerned about research connecting
children’s health and learning, he chose the
financial health of his oil friends when able
to change the state’s near bottom ranking in
the percentage of poor children lacking health
insurance. Flush with a budget surplus that
could have funded affordable health care for
about 250,000 children, he pushed through a $45
million tax break for oil well owners.

The Strategy Writ Large
As president, Bush amplified the strategy:
While insisting that the nation focus on
reading as the instructional cure for poor
children, he disregarded all else in their
lives that influences reading achievement—
especially poverty, which increased markedly
under his administration. Currently, according
to government estimates, 18 percent of children
nationwide —13 million children—are living in
poor families, but for African American and
Latino children, the respective percentages are
35 percent and 28 percent. Horrific as these
numbers are, the National Center for Children
in Poverty (NCCP), using realistic criteria,
finds that about 39 percent of the nation’s
children—29 million in 2006—live in poor
families. The National Academy of Science has
made similar estimates.

Head Start
A graphic example of Bush’s assault on poor
children is his effort to destroy Head Start.
Based on the research-supported premise that a
comprehensive approach is required for
children’s early learning and school
preparedness, it includes not only education,
but basic medical, nutritional, and emotional
assistance, as well as parenting support. More
than what is necessary, according to Bush.

His School Readiness Act would have eliminated
Head Start’s mandatory comprehensive approach
and put teaching and testing of initial reading
skills—Reading First on training wheels—in the
forefront to lay “the foundation for children
to become good readers.” He attempted to
transfer Head Start to states in block grants
that would mention performance standards for
the various key areas, but would not require
the states to employ them. Head Start
advocates had good reason to worry because
among state preschool programs only three
states had duplicated the range of
comprehensive services in the federal program.
Fortunately, Head Start advocates were able to
muster sufficient nationwide support to
pressure Congress to reject the proposal.
Nevertheless, under Bush, Head Start funding
has been cut, forcing reductions in programs,
staff, and student enrollment, and allowing
space for fewer than half of the nation’s
eligible children. Hence, even after Bush
leaves office the damage done to poor children
will be hard, if not impossible, to undo.

Cutting Into Poor Children’s Lives
Indifference to poor children’s lives has been
evident throughout Bush’s domestic budget. For
example, although unhealthy children are more
likely to miss school days, have cognitive
problems, and fall behind grade level
achievement, his budget cuts children’s health
programs. Currently providing health care to
28 million low-income children, Medicaid is
scheduled to see billions cut over ten years
through a combination of budget reductions and
regulatory changes. Similarly, because of
Bush’s opposition, the State Children’s Health
Insurance Program provides health insurance to
only about 40 percent of the children in need
of it.

Another literacy concern should be the
relationship between hunger or “food
insecurity” (not enough food to meet basic
needs), and children’s poor school achievement
(see Gerald Coles, “Hunger, Academic Success
and the Hard Bigotry of Indifference,”
Rethinking Schools, forthcoming Fall
issue). Yet a minimum of 3.5 million children
go hungry and 14 million live in “food-
insecure” homes. The food-stamp program would
provide nourishment for these children, but the
Bush budget proposes cutting food stamp
spending by $63 million in 2008 and billions
more in the decade ahead. Also targeted for
elimination are the Commodity Supplement Food
Program, which is for nutritionally vulnerable
pregnant women and their children, and the
Community Food and Nutrition Program, which
supports local efforts to help needy families
obtain food.

These examples are mere highlights of an
assault on children stretching from cuts in
lead abatement programs (designed to eliminate
children’s exposure to lead toxicity), to the
elimination of 42 education programs, including
the Early Learning Fund, focuses on cognitive,
social and language skills necessary for early
school readiness. The far-reaching meaning of
this assault helps explains why a href="http://www.unicef=irc.org/publications/pd
f/rc7_eng.pdf"> UN survey
of child well-
being in 21 wealthy countries found that the
U.S. ranked 20th.

Reading First and the Bottom Line
Reading First politics insist that the key
policy question must be, What is the best
instruction for teaching children to read?
Seemingly sensible for guiding literacy policy,
it is the wrong policy question because it is
limited, misleading, and ultimately yields
damaging educational consequences, especially
for poor children. Instead, the question
should be, What needs to be done to ensure that
all children learn to read? When we ask this
question, we include instruction as well as all
else that contributes to literacy success.
Eliminating the second question as the guide
for national policy helps put the assault on
poor children under the radar screen.

The indifference to poor children is part of a
larger framework of the increasingly divided
world between rich and poor, with its decline
in wages and increase in poverty; the
borderless class system, as Jeff Faux has put
it. Employment projections over the next
decade help contextualize what is behind this
indifference: from the viewpoint of wealth and
power, there is no profit in using the nation’s
resources to ensure that all children are
educated. According to the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, most new jobs in the next decade
will be low-paying, minimally skilled ones,
requiring little education and only short- or
moderate-term, on-the-job training: jobs such
as home care aides, retail salespersons, food
preparation workers, janitors and cleaners,
waiters and waitresses, child care workers,
maids and housekeeping cleaners. Attesting to
the minimal education most of these jobs
require is the competition for this work
between the U.S.-born, undereducated poor and
the even less educated immigrants. Surely
providing more than minimal education for a
large portion of young Americans whose lives
are going nowhere is, from the viewpoint of
wealth and power, a waste of money. That
assessment cannot, of course, be openly stated.
Hence, they concoct a dazzling answer: reading
education! This is a bootstrap solution that
will propel poor children to later academic
success but make policy that always accords
with the bottom line.

Add to this the right’s effort to shrink social
domestic spending: starve the beast. Greatly
aiding the justification for this shrinkage are
tax cuts (mostly for the rich) and increased
budget deficits. Of course spending on poor
children would not be squeezed if the spending
led to increased business profits, but since it
does not, the spending is considered to be
wasteful. And ever ready for those who
advocate for spending on poor children because
it would promote their academic success, right-
wing ideologues (such as those from the
Heritage Foundation) maintain that making such
connections is simply making excuses for these
children not helping them do better in school.
Or, as Bush has endlessly proclaimed, making
such connections reveals the soft bigotry of
low expectations.

The Near Future
What does the near future hold? Will there be a
reprise of Reading First? With John McCain as
president, Reading First instruction is likely
to assume an altered façade but be pushed in
its essentials. Surely the assault on children
will continue.

With Barack Obama as president and a Democrat-
controlled Congress, perhaps Republican efforts
to reprise Reading First instruction will fail,
but that’s not clear. Unfortunately, in
contrast to the Republican’s decades of zealous
advocacy for their brand of literacy
instruction, the Democrats have not shown a
comparable enthusiasm that would grasp the
educational and developmental issues embedded
in contrasting forms of literacy education. In
1998, they supported the Republican-created
Reading Excellence Act, the precursor of
Reading First and, of course, in 2001 supported
Reading First in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Hopefully they have learned a lesson.

Surely an Obama administration will reduce the
assault on children, but it is uncertain to
what extent. Unfortunately, concerns continue
about the degree to which Obama will focus on
and href="http://www.counterpunch.com/yates08262008
.html"> the poor
. Without a popular
groundswell on behalf of the poor, as well as
of working America in general, the chances are
good that Obama—in striving to reduce the huge
deficit he has inherited and failing to enact a
truly progressive income tax—will not eliminate
the assault (recall that Clinton chose deficit
reduction over social programs).

In his book, Superclass, David Rothkopf
writes that the divide between rich and poor
around the world offers accelerating benefits
to some while others are told to wait, wait for
the process to benefit their children or their
children’s children. Like those ÊmigrÊs in the
opening scene of Casablanca waiting for the
plane that will take them to Lisbon and safety,
poor children here are also likely to wait and
wait and wait. With Reading First having failed
them and Reading First Redux and its
accompanying assault a possibility, these
children will only be waiting for what Richard
DeLone described as small futures.

Gerald Coles is an educational psychologist
who has written extensively on literacy and
learning disabilities. His books include
Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation
and Lies (Heinemann); Misreading Reading: The
Bad Science That Hurts Children (Heinemann);
and Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy
(Hill & Wang). He is the chair of the social
action committee of Congregation Tikkun v’Or.
He lives in Ithaca, NY.

— Gerald Coles
Dissent online


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