National Institute for Literacy to Get Ax

May 08, 2009 3 min read

Eduflack highlights a small but notable cut in President Obama’s education budget in this post about the potential demise of the National Institute for Literacy.

He’s right when he describes the quasi-federal agency as struggling, both to tackle its ambitious mission to address literacy from birth through adulthood, and to be a leader in promoting research and innovation in the field. I’ve written a number of times about the institute’s misadventures in trying to launch the Commission on Reading Research, to take on the much-needed task of following up on the work of the National Reading Panel.

Several other efforts by the institute in recruiting and overseeing review panels, as it was told to do by the Education Department, went awry in one way or another. Take these:

— As the federal Reading First program was being rolled out, the institute brought together a group of literacy assessment experts to review the products on the market for gauging reading skills in the early grades. The resulting report came under scrutiny in later investigations of conflict of interest in the $1 billion-a-year program because several of the reviewers had a hand in developing one or more of the tests that received high marks from the panel.

—The institute put out an RFP for a review of commercial reading series that would fit the “research-based” requirement of the Reading First program. But the contract was never awarded after the department came under fire for what were perceived as endorsements of particular products and services.

—The institute funded the initial literature review that supported the work of National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. The Institute of Education Sciences, however, did not publish the report, saying it did not pass peer review. Experts in the field, however, surmised that the findings did not jibe with the Bush Administration’s philosophy for teaching English learners. It was eventually published by the Center for Applied Linguistics.

—The work of the National Early Literacy Panel stretched on for years before its report came out this past January. As I wrote here, the report drew some criticism for what some experts described as its narrow focus on skill development in very young children.

Eduflack describes NIFL’s confusion over its direction, particularly after it was enlisted to promote the kind of scientifically based reading instruction prescribed in Reading First, work that was viewed as distracting the institute from its adult-ed projects.

But Eduflack, who worked on the institute’s Partnership for Reading initiative, takes the institute to task for its “inability to capitalize on that potential.”

He goes on to say that the institute was “almost afraid to take a leadership position in a field where it had every right and responsibility to lead” and “favored inaction over action.”

I’m not so sure the institute is to blame for those failures. In speaking with board members and staff over the past several years, and the federal officials at the time, it seemed like the Education Department threw its weight at NIFL at every turn and insisted on micromanaging its every move. When the institute was set to announce the members of the Commission on Reading Research, for example, the Ed Dept. stopped it in its tracks. It’s hard to figure out why, particularly if the administration was sincere in promoting instruction based on research. An open record request I filed related to the commission may have shed light on the Ed. Dept.'s reasoning, but, alas, I received 85 blank pages when the request was fulfilled last year. ALL of the info in those documents was redacted by the department.

Some credible professionals in the field who know the story of NIFL have claimed that the Ed Dept. was setting the institute up for failure. There were others, though, who simply saw the NIFL staff as ineffective.

The institute seemed to be walking a fine line, trying to stay apolitical in an increasingly political debate over reading instruction. And it was answering to a board and several federal agencies, not the least of which was the Ed Dept., at times when there wasn’t always agreement.

Whether NIFL, and its $6 million budget, will be missed is left to see. I’m sure there are fans out there, particularly among those who’ve benefited from some of its worthy projects in promoting family literacy and parent involvement in disadvantaged communities.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.