There’s no shortage of cheerleaders among the nearly 6,000 attendees at the National Reading First Conference here in Music City. Calling it the “5th annual celebration of the success of Reading First,” Joe Conaty, who directs the program for the U.S. Department of Ed, kicked off the national conference today with a plenary session touting the benefits of the federal reading program, and lamenting its potential demise if Congress proceeds with plans to zero it out in the next budget.
Deputy Secretary Ray Simon was up next, shaking his head at the looming cuts, saying Reading First “has given us a practical road map to success.” The move to cut the program, which has pumped more than $6 billion into efforts to improve reading instruction since 2002, “just doesn’t make sense. ... We need more Reading First, not less.”
He then introduced first lady Laura Bush, who in her brief comments shared student achievement data from several model Reading First schools.
“The solution for our nation’s struggling students is not less time and less resources” devoted to reading instruction, she said. “Congress must restore the $1 billion appropriation for Reading First.”
There isn’t too much optimism that that will happen in the fiscal 2009 budget. So many participants are trying to figure out how to sustain the program in their own schools and districts without the federal grant money.
More than 150 school leaders sat in on a workshop led by representatives of the Reading First technical-assistance centers to help them do just that. Stan Paine and Sarah Sayko had their close attention as they described how participants could craft a plan for sustaining the program. The session will be repeated each of the next two days.
When asked for a show of hands, everyone in the room agreed that Reading First had changed their district’s approach to reading instruction. All again said they are worried about what the loss of funding will do to those efforts.
“It’s not just about the money,” Paine said. “We believe you can find ways to sustain the essential principles of Reading First.”
Michael Johnson, an elementary school principal in Logan, W.Va., said his staff is working to do just that.
“This really works,” he said. “We now have a way of identifying students’ weaknesses and we have a number of interventions to address those weaknesses. We’re teaching all students to read.”
There’s been confusing, incomplete, and even conflicting data on the effectiveness of the program—and very little of it is based on rigorous studies—but don’t tell that to the enthusiastic group packing the sessions at the Reading First conference. The teachers and administrators have their own data and anecdotes to explain how the program has benefited their schools or districts. And many say they will remain committed to the program even without the money, and even work to spread the model to other schools.
We still need some definitive research on the impact the program is having on student achievement, especially if proponents want to convince lawmakers that the program has been worth the hefty investment. The participants at the conference, however, don’t have time to wait, and most already seem convinced it is worth continuing.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.