Cookie-Cutter Reading Programs Across the U.S.
Researchers and policymakers may be continuing to debate solutions to the nation's reading woes, but many struggling schools appear to have reached a consensus on the subject, even if not by choice.
As President Bush's flagship reading initiative hits full stride, it is yielding a more uniform approach to teaching the essential skill to children deemed at risk of failing the subject. Those schools receiving their share of the $900 million Reading First measure have turned to many of the same core reading programs, assessments, professional-development materials, and consultants—a situation some prominent scholars lament.
"There are similarities from coast to coast," said Richard A. Allington, the author of Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence. "This is an amazing one-size-fits-all approach."
When they began rolling out the much-touted reading plan under the No Child Left Behind Act, federal education officials assured states they would be given latitude in determining the best way to transform reading instruction in their schools, provided they took an approach grounded in scientific research. Now that all the state grants have been approved, and some 2,000 schools have received funding, there appear to be close connections in the way many districts and schools are implementing the program.
In fact, schools from Atlanta to Seattle are applying their Reading First grants to take remarkably similar approaches to the subject, according to recent interviews with state Reading First coordinators and descriptions of the state plans available on the Internet.
"More and more districts are doing the right thing as narrowly defined," said Susan B. Neuman, a University of Michigan researcher. As the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Bush administration until a year ago, she oversaw the Reading First program. "It's like playing 'telephone,' where we hear one state's doing this, so we'll do it too. ... When I saw one local proposal, it was nothing but a cut-and-paste job from various others."
The local grantees appear to be copying strategies, in part because many may have had or at least perceived few options in choosing curricula, teacher-training programs, or assessments.
The law's strict requirements, confusion over how to meet them, and pressure to appease federal reviewers after they sent the applications back to states for numerous revisions compelled many of their grant-proposal writers to be more prescriptive, according to Charlotte Postelwaite, the chief education policy analyst for the Council of State Governments, located in Lexington, Ky.
Some states reasoned that they could speed the grant process by simply following the lead of others that had gained early approval of their Reading First plans. Still other states gave up their original designs to meet the September 2003 deadline for getting applications approved. Instead, they went with the assessments and professional-development plans they believed would be viewed more favorably on their applications, said Ms. Postelwaite, who sent extensive questionnaires to state Reading First directors last year.
Most states, though, did not initially see the need to specify which commercial reading programs would be accepted, particularly after federal officials refuted criticism that there was a preferred "list." But nearly all states outlined in their plans that local grant recipients would use the same framework—"A Consumer's Guide to Evaluating a Core Reading Program," produced by researchers at the University of Oregon—for evaluating whether a commercial product has the research base required under the federal law. Only a few brand- name products can meet the criteria outlined in the guide, some observers say.
Moreover, to reduce the burden on district personnel, some states have carried out their own reviews of reading programs on the market using the guide, and issued preferred or required lists for grantees to choose from. In some cases, states collaborated on such reviews, as did Alabama, Idaho, Montana, and Washington, for instance. Several states, including Alaska, have simply borrowed the analyses conducted by those further along in the process.
In most states, districts are permitted to stray from the list if they can show evidence that their own approaches are effective, though those plans are less likely to gain approval, state officials say.
Lastly, many states have turned to the same corps of experts for professional development and technical assistance—some of them the same consultants to the U.S. Department of Education who helped develop Reading First. Those same consultants—including Edward Kameenui and other researchers at the University of Oregon, and SoprisWest consultant Louisa Moats—also led the reading "academies" that served as a primer for state education officials on what the law required.
Several state directors said they tapped those advisers because of their deep understanding of the research and reputations for implementing effective practices. Others, however, acknowledged that they felt compelled to hire those who had been recognized by federal officials as experts.
"We did feel that there was a very select number of professional-development providers we had an option to work with," said Faith Stevens, Michigan's Reading First director.
After three unsuccessful attempts at winning grant money under the previous federal initiative, the Reading Excellence Act, Michigan officials decided to dictate their approach to Reading First. The state requires districts that receive the federal grants to choose from an approved list of commercial reading programs.
That list is limited to five core reading programs: Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, Open Court, Macmillan/McGraw- Hill, and Scott Foresman. Many of the same titles have been identified by other states as meeting Reading First's criteria for "research based" materials and instruction.
For many supporters of Reading First and those who have pushed for a more standardized, explicit, and systematic approach to teaching reading to students at risk of reading failure, the changes are welcome relief from the hodgepodge of methods and materials they say have characterized instruction for more than a decade.
"One of the things you can't miss when you look at these schools is that many of them are the worst prepared to do anything with respect to school reform," said G. Michael Pressley, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who has been an author for McGraw-Hill's Open Court Reading series. "For the weakest schools, it's not a bad thing for them to get a good program and learn how to teach it."
Some school leaders are not convinced that the research prescribes such limited choices. In Massachusetts, Michigan, and Virginia, for instance, a number of districts eligible for the federal money—which is targeted to the schools with the lowest performance in the subject and/or the largest proportions of needy students—have chosen not even to apply, citing their unwillingness to adopt prescribed texts or abandon their current literacy initiatives.
Other districts that felt confident that more holistic literacy initiatives would meet the federal requirements have met considerable resistance in many states. After months of defending a more progressive citywide literacy curriculum, for example, New York City officials did an about-face last month and promised to require a more structured program for Reading First schools. ("N.Y.C. Shifts Reading Plan in 49 Needy Schools," Jan. 14, 2004.)
Boston educators have so far been less willing to budge from the literacy plan they adopted four years ago. It incorporates children's literature and writing workshops, in addition to basic- skills instruction and group-reading activities. Officials there were surprised, though, when the district's request for its share of the state's $15 million Reading First grant was rejected last year.
"What we were trying to do was meet the state's requirement without jettisoning our work of the last four or five years," said Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant. "We thought we had found a middle ground where we would strengthen our phonics program and address some of the other areas of a balanced literacy program, but we were going to stop short of adopting a whole new program from the state list."
The Boston district is again working with state officials to tweak its proposal, but Mr. Payzant said he would not abandon the district's current effort, which he says has been yielding higher test scores in several struggling schools.
Critics have pointed to the experiences of Boston and New York City as examples of how the No Child Left Behind law has unfairly limited the choices of local decisionmakers.
"If you have a school system that feels the need for [a] scripted program, then let them get the money for it," said Gerald Coles, an educational psychologist and author who has been a prominent critic of the federal law. "But for other school systems that feel [another approach] is in order, there should be a pro- choice policy. Reading First is substituting as a magic bullet a single instructional approach."
Federal officials continue to deny the program is inflexible.
"Taking the nation as a whole, those [criticisms] are in the minority," said Christopher Doherty, the director of Reading First for the Department of Education. "Rigorous is not the same as inflexible, ... and I am absolutely unapologetic in acknowledging that Reading First is rigorous."
For state directors, many of whom say they are optimistic the changes will lead to positive results, there is little time for such debates. They are caught in the scramble to implement the program, which requires recipients to show improvement in students' test scores within two years or risk losing the money.
In states that were approved late last year, that has meant reviewing local applications and organizing professional-development workshops.
In Alabama and Michigan, where local recipients have had a full school year to employ their new programs, state and federal representatives are traveling to schools to review testing data and monitor how well they are sticking to the program's tenets.
Both those states have gotten the word out that they will be tough on grant recipients that do not meet the challenge. In Michigan, for example, two schools have already lost their funding, according to Ms. Stevens, the state Reading First director.
Months after the texts were received, "one school still had the comprehensive reading program boxed in the front office," she said. "In the other, the literacy coach was also the acting principal. They were clearly not ready."
Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
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