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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Reading First Should Have Taught Us

By Peter DeWitt — April 02, 2013 6 min read
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Reading First was supposed to be help close the achievement gap. It began as a part of the NCLB legislation. Poor urban and rural schools that qualified to apply for the grant had the potential to bring in millions of dollars. As I look back now it offered us valuable insight into what was to come.

In 2002, I was asked to be a part of a six-member team to complete the Reading First Grant application for our school. It was completely out of my realm of understanding because I was a classroom teacher, as were most of the people sitting around the table. Reading First was also out of our realm of understanding because it was the first year it was offered in our home state of New York.

Money is a powerful aphrodisiac, and being relatively naïve, I was impressed that the government would be offering our poor school some much needed money. Perhaps it was my city school thinking, but I thought policymakers were finally beginning to see that some schools needed more. Maybe they all read Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol?

Our team was sequestered to a local hotel banquet room with several other districts. As we sat around the table trying to get information, we saw teams that had laptops and other teams that had nothing at all. We struggled to get information and the representatives for the Reading First Committee were not very helpful. They were there to give minimal information and make sure no one had an unfair advantage. It all seems so strange and unreal that it happened that way, but it did.

The Competition
We were not sure if we were in competition with the other teams in the room or if we were all in competition with teams around the state. As we sat in the room, not talking with anyone else, we tried to decide if we could fill out the mammoth paperwork and discussed whether we should go for the grant at all. There were no building administrators among us.

And then our superintendent appeared...

She didn’t usually attend these types of events. She sat with us and asked what we thought. I’m not sure if she listened. After twenty minutes, she stood up and left. We all knew that we were expected to go for the grant. There was no other reason for her presence. Why wouldn’t we go for it? It would bring millions to our district.

The application required district information like test scores, community and school demographics, graduation percentages and poverty rates. As a teacher with about seven years of experience in a city school system, I thought it was an incredible opportunity to bring in money to the district, and the team I worked with felt the same. However, it required some of us to be out of our classrooms for six days in a row or longer. For students who needed stability, it was not the best case scenario.

The Seedier Side of Grants
The grant also required some other choices, which is when we all began to see the seedier side of grant funding. We had to choose a textbook publisher from an approved list of vendors. Three were from Texas and two were from Florida. Many of us felt honored because we narrowed the search down to two companies, both of whom sent in representatives who told us everything we would get for our money...and it was a lot of money.

Years later, in 2006, Reading First came under scrutiny because of a conflict of interest with those behind the legislation. Andrew Coulsen wrote, “Reading First will probably be best remembered for its conflict-of-interest scandal, in which paid advisors to the Department of Education profited from the policies they recommended” (CATO Institute).

The vendors, who were also profiting greatly, offered professional development and shiny new resources. There were computer discs, leveled readers and teacher manuals. We were offered Palm Pilots and school subscriptions to data companies that would help us track the progress of all of our K-3 students. I felt like we were shopping and given that we never had big money to spend before, it was all very alluring.

By the 6th day we were all pretty fried and our principal was beyond his limit of understanding. At the time I couldn’t figure out what made him so angry, but looking back now I do understand. He had a philosophical issue with taking teachers out of their classrooms for 6 days. He also knew that government money comes with hoops.

Fortunately, after a month of waiting we heard that we were getting 2.1 million dollars. Huge money for a poor district! Governor Pataki’s office put in an announcement in the papers stating what districts were getting the money and made sure to announce how much they were getting. There was one problem...we didn’t end up with that much. We were underfunded what was promised. This, of course, is something that schools know all too well these days.

A few weeks later we received notice that we were getting $880,000. That was still huge money but not comparable to the 2.1 million we thought we were getting. The governor’s office did not put in an addendum to their original announcement.

The Precursor to What Was Coming
Our district ended up with a reading coordinator and reading coach. The coordinator was a very experienced educator from the outside who offered a great deal of knowledge about literacy. The coach was from the inside and he did the job with integrity. It was our first experience with an instructional coach. That year was a very educational year for us because we learned a great deal about literacy. We learned best practices and stretched our thinking.

That educational experience did not just happen because of the resources. It happened because of the people who were involved. We were able to use leveled readers and began to see the importance of embedding non-fiction into our everyday practices. In addition, we progress monitored students and learned how to better use data to drive instruction. The implementation of Reading First mattered because of the collective thoughts of the group and we lacked the pressure of false accountability.

As I look to our present situation in education I can see that Reading First was really a precursor to what was coming. Leveled readers, non-fiction, data driven instruction, textbook companies and competitive grants are a part of our everyday conversations.

However, all of the competition has taken a turn for the worse because of the accountability involved. Those textbook companies have multi-million dollar contracts with states to create high stakes tests, which is now tied to teacher and administrator evaluation. Too often schools are forced into a position to get it done and not get it done right. You can’t implement things correctly when you are spinning too many plates at the same time.

What began as a good idea has now been put on steroids. It has become Race to the Top which is considered a Race to Nowhere. Without time, money, resources and the proper implementation, none of these grants will work effectively.

Coulson offered us all a warning in his 2009 piece. “The rise and fall of Reading First should stand as a cautionary tale for would-be education reformers of all political stripes. Today’s legislators should remember that they will not always hold the balance of power, and so politicizing pedagogical methods and curricula is a recipe for an endless tug-of-war over our schools”.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.