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Education Letter to the Editor

How Reading First’s Criteria Were Changed

November 14, 2006 2 min read
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To the Editor:

I applaud Robert E. Slavin’s proposal to continue the search for solutions that ensure instructional practices, programs, and approaches have a high probability of success in improving student learning and achievement (“Research and Effectiveness,” Commentary, Oct. 18, 2006.)

He was incorrect, however, in attributing to the U.S. Department of Education the change in the intent of the Reading First legislation from funding only programs with demonstrated effectiveness to the funding of programs that were “based on scientifically based evidence.”

As one who worked in partnership with Robert W. Sweet in conceptualizing and drafting the Reading First legislation, I feel it is important to clarify this misconception. In our initial drafts, we submitted language for congressional review that stated explicitly that federal funding should be contingent on program-specific evidence of effectiveness derived from studies employing appropriate research designs and methods. The effectiveness criteria were changed to the lower standard through the process of congressional negotiation and compromise, not by the Education Department.

The department was responsible for implementing the language that was ultimately approved by Congress. The reasons for lowering the standard were many, including the lack of proven programs. As with any legislation, however, particularly in education, political forces had the major impact on the language. It became clear that the reading community, the publishing industry, and members of Congress lobbied by these entities were not ready to implement legislation that allocated funding only to those reading programs found to be effective through rigorous research. But even with the lower standard, a new vision and process of increasing accountability for outcomes was launched.

That said, by lowering the standard, many reading programs were able to advertise that they were based on scientifically based reading research simply by changing the language in their marketing materials. It was left up to those administering the Reading First program within the department to ensure that marketing did not trump even the lower “based on scientifically based reading research” standard. That has proven to be a thankless job.

G. Reid Lyon

Dallas, Texas

The writer was the chief of the child-development and -behavior branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development from 1996 to 2005. In that post, he played a leading role in developing federal policy on reading education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as How Reading First’s Criteria Were Changed


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