Education Letter to the Editor

Two Va. Districts Show ‘Reading First’ Benefit

February 20, 2007 2 min read

To the Editor:

Kenneth S. Goodman, citing problems with the federal Reading First program, contends in a Dec. 6, 2006, letter to the editor that the No Child Left Behind Act “must be stopped.” Consider the facts from my state:

In Virginia, the Richmond city schools are 90 percent African-American and 90 percent high-poverty, while the suburban Fairfax County public schools serve one of the nation’s wealthiest jurisdictions.

Starting in 2002, Richmond implemented the type of science-based reading programs endorsed by Reading First. Fairfax school officials, in contrast, continued their long-standing opposition to programs that include systemic phonics, and refused to apply for Reading First funding.

The results? In 2005, 74 percent of black students in Richmond passed the 3rd grade state reading test; only 59 percent passed in Fairfax County. Third grade reading scores in Richmond rose from the bottom 5 percent of the state in 2001 to the top 40 percent in 2005, a perhaps-unprecedented accomplishment for a large urban district.

On every elementary-level state test given in 2005, in reading, math, science, and history, black children scored higher in Richmond than in Fairfax County. Among the 10 Virginia districts with the largest black student enrollments, Fairfax’s black students’ scores ranked 10th on seven of eight state tests.

In 2005, for all students, not just minority students, 76 percent passed the 3rd grade reading test in Richmond, close to the 79 percent pass rate in Fairfax, where only 20 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

The No Child Left Behind Act’s disaggregated test scores have empowered parents in Fairfax County to pressure for change. In 3rd grade reading, the Fairfax black-student pass rate went from 15 percentage points behind Richmond’s in 2005 to 6 percentage points behind in 2006, as more principals adopted science-based programs.

Most Fairfax officials, however, still favor their economic self-interest, choosing locally developed reading programs that provide administrative jobs over the commercial science-based programs supported by Reading First. Altering that reality in school districts requires strong external pressure.

Mr. Goodman correctly contends that the federal law is wrong to label schools as “in need of improvement.” Tests with consequences for children who are the victims of school failure are equally misguided. Virginia’s results show that it is the decisions of district-level officials that primarily determine school success. Accountability must be proportional to authority and responsibility in schools.

Judged by its benefit to children, Reading First’s funding of effective programs is a model for what federal aid to education needs to be.

Rick Nelson

Falls Church, Va.

The writer is a former president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Two Va. Districts Show ‘Reading First’ Benefit