Education Letter to the Editor

‘Reading First’ History

January 09, 2007 3 min read

To the Editor:

I appreciate Richard Allington’s Dec. 13, 2006, letter to the editor asking for a clarification of the change in intent of the Reading First legislation from funding only programs that demonstrated program-specific effectiveness to the funding of programs that were “based on scientifically based evidence.” In a previous interview, given a year ago, I indicated that the U.S. Department of Education made the decision to make the criteria more general. This was an error on my part, and I can see how Mr. Allington became confused.

I apologize for the confusion. As I was not involved in the negotiation process, I should have checked with congressional staffers who were intimately involved in the negotiating phases. I made an assumption that the Education Department was involved in the process, and I was incorrect. In point of fact, the Education Department accepted the language passed in the legislation.

In drafting the initial language for congressional review, Robert W. Sweet Jr. and I recommended that federal funding should be contingent on program-specific evidence of effectiveness derived from studies employing appropriate research designs and methods. This criterion was revised through congressional member and staff review and the negotiation process, which resulted in the less-specific language in the current law.

I believe this lack of specificity has had unintended consequences. For example, some vendors of reading programs simply changed the language in their promotional materials to embody the critical elements of scientifically based reading research without providing a comprehensive program whereby instruction was provided directly and systematically. It is also the case that substantial lobbying of congressional members and staff by publishers and vendors of reading programs occurred. Thus, in implementing Reading First, a major responsibility of, and challenge to, the Reading First staff was to determine whether a program’s claims made against even the weaker criteria were accurate. In some cases, they were not.

In hindsight, one can only speculate what would have occurred if the original, program-specific effectiveness criterion had been accepted. To be sure, there were few reading programs that would have met the criteria. On the other hand, we predicted that by setting the higher standard, vendors would have a clear effectiveness goal to achieve in order to be competitive. One could also predict that the publishing industry and the reading community writ large would resist the need to test programs for effectiveness and identify the conditions under which effectiveness was achieved (implementation factors, learning characteristics, and teacher characteristics, for example).

In summary, the Education Department was not involved in developing the Reading First language relevant to research and funding criteria.

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.

To the Editor:

In his letter to the editor, Richard Allington asked a question concerning the modification of Reading First legislative language from initial drafting to its final form. G. Reid Lyon was correct in noting in his original letter (Nov. 15, 2006) that the initial funding criteria we developed recommended that federal support for reading programs be contingent on evidence of effectiveness.

As with any type of legislation, the original proposed language went through many reviews by different congressional members and their staffers, who brought to bear their own interests in the final legislation. Differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions were then worked out in conference until there was agreement.

Mr. Lyon and I both felt that, while our initial language was modified, a significant step forward was achieved by ensuring that children in Reading First programs learn to read by receiving instruction through programs that are comprehensive in design, that include reading components based on an extraordinary amount of scientific research indicating they are essential to reading development, and that are taught using explicit and systematic instructional principles. The crafting and approval of the Reading First legislative language took place in the Congress, not in the U.S. Department of Education.

Robert W. Sweet Jr.

Strasburg, Va.

The writer, a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Education and a domestic-policy adviser to President Reagan, helped write the Reading First legislation as a staff member for the Education and Workforce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Reading First’ History