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NCLB Outrages

'Reading First' is a costly failure

Ohanian Comment: Yes,
this is a message familiar to many of us. But
we must keep repeating it in the local media--
until the public understands. Bringing Reading
First expenditures home to Gerald Coles' point
about how that money could (and should)
be spent is especially important. Take the
argument out of the realm of reading wars into
the practical area of what children need.

By Derek Boucher

In 2001, the federal government embarked on a
crusade to determine the most effective
approach to reading instruction in our schools.
Once realized, this approach would rescue
America from the literacy crisis gripping our
nation, or so the experts claimed. A National
Reading Panel was assembled under the watchful
eye of a conservative administration.

This group of scholars in various fields (not
reading experts, mind you, but that's another
story) decided that the research available
indicated our children needed, not better
equipped libraries or more compelling materials
to read, but phonemic awareness drills
(matching sounds to letters) and intensive
phonics instruction, especially in the
classrooms of our poorest children. This
mandate downplayed and minimized the
overwhelming evidence that interesting,
comprehensible and accessible reading materials
have powerful effects on the literacy levels of

Publishing companies like McGraw-Hill and
others began making money hand over fist by
selling their phonics-based "literacy" programs
to school districts, where school officials
quickly got in line and embraced this
government mandate largely without question.
Recognized national experts in the field of
literacy who dared criticize this narrow
approach to reading instruction were muted and
disparaged by the overwhelming force of the
federal government's public relations

Like a prophet without honor, California State
University, Fresno, education professor Dr.
Elaine Garan's exposure of the problems with
Reading First (as the funding bill came to be
called) and the conflicts of interest among
well-connected individuals were largely ignored
in the Valley, where many schools eagerly
accepted Reading First funding.

Six billion dollars and six years later, what
is the legacy of Reading First?

The Reading First program has been ineffective,
based on the federal government's own
assessment. In a report released in April
(Reading First Impact Study), the data showed
that children under Reading First instruction
did no better than children in comparison
groups on tests where students had to
comprehend what they read. In another study,
American fourth graders showed no improvement
from 2001 to 2006 (the Reading First era) on
the Progress in International Reading Literacy
Study (PIRLS).

Dr. Garan's seminal work back in 2002
demonstrated how contributing scholars to the
National Reading Panel (who would help decide
national reading policy) frequently had their
own commercial literacy programs to peddle.
More recently, USA Today's Greg Toppo
reported that the federal government held
hearings to investigate top advisers and "gate-
keepers" of Reading First who improperly
benefited from government contracts for
textbooks and materials they designed. Rep.
George Miller, D-Richmond, chaired these
hearings. Reading First director Chris Doherty
has since resigned in disgrace.

In Dissent magazine (September 2008),
Dr. Gerald Coles speculates that Reading
First's prepackaged "one-size-fits-all"
commercial programs were easier and cheaper to
implement than developing well skilled
teachers, creating smaller student-teacher
ratios, or adequately funding school and
classroom libraries.

Various literacy scholars and experts have
wondered if the lock-step, linear teaching
methodology present in Reading First approved
literacy programs is grounded in ideology by
serving as a way to create uniformity and
conformity among our nation's poorest children.
Don't worry about getting children to think
critically. Get them to obey!

During the era of Reading First, Dr. Coles
notes how state and federal governments have
slashed hunger programs, Head Start, and
children's health insurance programs. The
National Center for Children in Poverty finds
that 35% of African American children and 28%
of Latino children live in poverty. Coles
chides the federal government for its chest-
beating claims that it is spending billions of
dollars on Reading First to help poor kids
learn to read.

Maybe no one has told the bureaucrats how tough
it is to learn to read when you are hungry and
can't go to the doctor when you are sick. Past
studies have shown that frequently few or no
literacy materials (books, newspapers, etc.)
exist in the homes of many of America's poorest

If the government and school districts are
serious about helping the children in our
country develop strong literacy skills, let's
invite national experts like Dr. Garan of
Fresno State and others to the table. It's time
to leave behind the era of politics, cronyism
and ineffectiveness so pervasive in Reading

Derek Boucher teaches social science at
Roosevelt High School in Fresno.

— Derek Boucher
Fresno Bee


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