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Published in Print: November 30, 2005, as Puerto Rico Still Has No Reading First Funds

Puerto Rico Still Has No Reading First Funds

Commonwealth aims for deal with federal Education Department.

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Nearly four years after Reading First was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, federal officials are renegotiating with Puerto Rico—one of the nation’s neediest jurisdictions—on a revised plan for satisfying the program’s criteria.

Still, the self-governing U.S. commonwealth, the only jurisdiction that has yet to receive money from the $1 billion-a-year initiative, will not receive some $60 million from the first two years of the six-year grant, after failing to spend the money allocated in fiscal 2003, and declining another payment for fiscal 2004.

Puerto Rico officials disagree with the instructional model outlined in the approved plan and the methods for teaching reading in English in the early grades.

Several officials were in Washington this month trying to salvage part of the commonwealth’s $150 million share of federal Reading First money, several weeks after dropping out of the program, when they determined that a 2-year-old plan for meeting the program’s strict requirements was unacceptable.

The U.S. Department of Education describes the commonwealth’s new proposal as “under development.” Puerto Rico officials have until next September to reapply, which federal officials say they hope will finally put programs in place to improve reading instruction there.

“They have indicated their intent to reapply for fiscal year 2005 funding,” said Sandi Jacobs, who helps oversee Reading First. “We want the children of Puerto Rico to benefit from Reading First.”

The Education Department is providing technical assistance to the Puerto Rico department of education.

Changes in the leadership of Puerto Rico’s school system, as well as disagreements over how reading should be taught on the island—where Spanish is the official language—have led to delays in implementing the program.

Turnover in Leadership

The commonwealth’s Reading First proposal was one of the last among states and other jurisdictions to get the green light, getting conditional approval in early 2004. Elections later that year led to turnover at the education department in San Juan. After the new administration’s nominee for the education secretary’s post could not win confirmation, an interim secretary was appointed. Rafael Aragunde took office this past summer.

With some 1,600 schools, and nearly 600,000 students—80 percent of them living in poverty—and a lower per-pupil expenditure than that of any state, Puerto Rico could benefit from the infusion of cash, officials there say. But concern over several of the original plan's criteria led to an impasse this fall between them and the federal Education Department.

“When the new secretary [in Puerto Rico] came in, we looked at the proposal, and it didn’t meet our needs,” said Yolanda Vilches, the assistant to Puerto Rico’s deputy secretary for academic services. The proposal did not, Ms. Vilches said, reflect the island’s unique status and culture.

Puerto Rico officials, for example, opposed a reference to students’ being taught to read in both Spanish and English by grade 3. Although the commonwealth’s students begin learning English in kindergarten, they are not expected to read in the language until the later grades. The plan also suggested that teachers could be effective only if they were fluent in English, Ms. Vilches said, a concept that many teachers find insulting, given the historic fight in Puerto Rico to maintain Spanish as the native language.

“We don’t need to be bilingual,” said Ms. Vilches, a former kindergarten teacher. “We need to be very good Spanish teachers.”

The assessment guidelines for Reading First proved another sticking point, she said, given that no Spanish-language tests have been validated for measuring proficiency for Puerto Rico’s students.

Ms. Jacobs of the federal department said that the Reading First statute does not specify the language of instruction, and that Puerto Rico’s plan clearly indicated that Spanish would be primary. Federal officials did, however, reject Puerto Rico’s request to use Reading First money to craft an assessment specifically for the island. There is no provision in Reading First, Ms. Jacobs said, for such funding.

The problems reflect the continuing political tug of war between the commonwealth, which is fiercely protective of its own authority, and the federal government, which provides much of Puerto Rico’s education funding, said Hector R. Cordero-Guzman, a professor of black and Hispanic studies at Bernard M. Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. Federal officials are pushing strict mandates on an education system that has been marked in recent years by charges of corruption, waste, and cronyism, he said. And commonwealth and local leaders are struggling to maintain sovereignty and preserve their culture.

Tug of War

“Washington officials have to get very serious about accountability. … But more consistency and understanding of the Puerto Rico education system are needed,” said Mr. Cordero, who has studied schools in Puerto Rico. “Then, Puerto Rico needs to get very serious about goals and processes, and applying measures of progress toward achieving educational goals.”

That tug of war was apparent early in the process, according to Ruth Saez-Vega, a professor of education at the University of Puerto Rico. She and her colleagues were dismayed when the previous government there hired researchers from Utah to write Puerto Rico’s grant proposal for Reading First. Researchers in Puerto Rico complained that experts on the island and others with knowledge of the language and culture were not included in the planning or implementation of the program.

But a reading expert who is familiar with Puerto Rico’s application process said the contractors from Utah State University wrote the Reading First grant to align closely with federal requirements, and then felt pressured to incorporate changes suggested by expert reviewers hired by the Education Department to evaluate it. The expert, who works on several federal grant programs, asked not to be identified for fear of being shut out of other grant competitions.

Ms. Vilches said Puerto Rico’s current administration supports strong skills instruction and is willing to follow the Reading First guidelines, but not at the expense of other instructional methods it deems essential.

“Reading First is a very skills-based model, and we say that’s completely fine, but that’s not enough for us,” she said. “We teach phonics, phonemic awareness, and all the five components [required under the federal initiative], but we also include writing skills and content meaning.”

Like most of its state counterparts, Puerto Rico had its Reading First proposal returned several times by federal reviewers, who deemed that it failed to show adequately how all the requirements would be met.

‘When Do They Read?’

Reading First requires that states impose strict guidelines on local grantees to use instructional strategies, materials, and assessments that have been proved effective through research.

Ms. Saez-Vega, who reviewed the Reading First plan with her colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico, said it reflected the program’s demand for strong skills instruction, but gave short shrift to using literature in classrooms.

“It’s filled with systematic phonics, spelling patterns, 10 minutes of this, 15 minutes of that,” she said. “When do they read? Where is the local control? Where is the flexibility?”

State officials have expressed similar concerns, and some have charged that they felt pressured to abandon their own approaches to improving reading instruction in favor of a handful of commercial reading programs and tests. ("States Pressed to Refashion Reading First Grant Designs," Sept. 7, 2005.)

Critics of the program say it focuses too much on skills instruction at the expense of reading comprehension and writing activities.

Ms. Vilches believes Puerto Rico’s new proposal, which will be resubmitted to the Education Department in the coming months, should satisfy both federal officials and educators on the island.

“We came up with what we think is a very good proposal,” she said. “It’s homemade by us. … We’re very hopeful.”

Vol. 25, Issue 13, Pages 3,18

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