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Published in Print: August 8, 2008, as ‘Reading First’ Conference Draws 6,000

‘Reading First’ Event Draws 6,000, Despite Woes

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Even with the prospect that the federal reading program could lose all its funding, some 6,000 teachers, principals, reading coaches, and district administrators attended the fifth annual National Reading First Conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

They crowded into dozens of sessions here to learn how to sustain changes they’ve made to instruction, assessment, and professional development to improve student achievement in the subject.

In many of the sessions, conducted by consultants and researchers in the field, deeper implementation of and adherence to the tenets of the 6 1/2- year-old program, with or without federal money, consumed much of the discussion.

“We are going to figure out how to keep it going,” said Michael Johnson, the principal of Logan Elementary School in Logan, W.Va., which serves 350 students in a rural community. “In the beginning, my teachers wanted to hang me [for agreeing to the strict requirements of Reading First], ... but now if you tried to take it away, they’d fight you.”

Mr. Johnson and several hundred other educators attended a three-hour workshop for sustaining Reading First that was repeated each day of the conference, held July 28-30.

Reading coach Debbie Meyer and a cadre of colleagues from the Memphis, Tenn., school district listened attentively throughout the session. Ms. Meyer, a 30-year veteran teacher, said she will postpone retirement if the district figures out how to keep the program going.

Elements of Downfall

House and Senate panels voted last month to zero out funding for Reading First in the federal budget for fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. (“ ‘Reading First’ Funds Headed for Extinction”, July 16, 2008.)

­­The program, which was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, had received $1 billion a year from 2002 to 2007 before getting hit with a 61 percent cut in fiscal 2008.

In his subsequent push to eliminate its funding, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, cited management problems within the program and disappointing results of a preliminary federal evaluation.

Reports released by the Education Department's inspector general in 2006 and 2007 suggested some federal officials and contractors involved in implementing the program had conflicts of interest and appeared to favor some commercial products over others.

In addition, an interim impact studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, released May 1 by the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, concluded that the $1 billion in annual funding had had no effect on students’ reading comprehension. The study did not evaluate the effect on overall reading achievement in participating schools. The final report, due this fall, is expected to have additional data comparing Reading First schools with nonparticipating ones in the same districts.

Maintaining the Momentum

Conference attendees generally described the looming federal budget cut as misguided and unfair.

Many state and district leaders shared their own data and anecdotes, which they say show the program is effective.

“Last year, our school became an average school in our state,” said Wanda Clark, the principal of Kemp Elementary School in Commerce City, Colo., outside Denver. Average is quite a feat for her school, she said, where nearly all the 440 students are considered poor, and more than 70 percent are English-language learners.

The school had the lowest 3rd grade test scores in the state in reading several years ago, Ms. Clark said. “At first, our teachers weren’t sure they could get the kind of improvement that was expected,” she said. “But now, we’ve raised our expectations.”

Colorado is continuing to pay for 46 of its 49 Reading First schools, including Kemp Elementary, through the next school year with surplus grant money that was rolled over from previous years, according to Debora Scheffel, who directs the program for the state. Colorado has received some $60 million since the program began.

Ms. Scheffel and other state directors are hoping to mobilize educators in the program to promote inclusion of Reading First principles in the upcoming reauthorization of the NCLB law, such as teaching explicit skills, assessing student progress, and using proven intervention programs for struggling readers.

The state officials also hope to disseminate information on research-based instruction and intervention. They launched the National Association for Reading First recently and signed up more than 500 attendees at the conference as potential members.

“Yes, there are challenges” to keeping the program going and continuing to improve student achievement, Ms. Scheffel said at a state-planning meeting at the conference. “But we need to celebrate the gains and feel like we need to keep the momentum going.”

For many of the participants, that means finding other sources of federal, state, or local money.

It also means following the Reading First framework­ once the program has ended, said Joseph Conaty, the Reading First director at the federal Education Department. “My hope,” he said at the closing session, “is that you will continue to do what we all know works.”

Vol. 27, Issue 45, Pages 17-18

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