House Panel May Put New Spin on Clinton Reading Plan

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While some lawmakers express hope that Congress can write a bipartisan bill consistent with President Clinton's plan for improving the reading skills of the nation's schoolchildren, leading Republicans are saying the measure will likely have a significantly different focus.

In the third hearing on literacy they have held since early July, members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee heard last week from teachers and researchers who lamented the lack of adequate teacher preparation and dissemination of the latest research in reading.

Those areas should be the central focus of any literacy proposal, some GOP committee members said, rather than recruitment of a volunteer tutoring corps--the cornerstone of the president's America Reads plan.

"While the administration has placed an emphasis on tutors as the key to teaching every child to read well by the end of 3rd grade, I believe you have to look first to the foundation on which children build their reading skills," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the committee. "We need to ensure each child receives the best possible reading instruction as soon as they enter school--and before, if possible."

Mr. Goodling is spearheading a Republican move to write a literacy plan that would contrast with President Clinton's proposal. The congressman, a former public school teacher and administrator who has presided at the three literacy hearings to date, said any such initiative should bolster prekindergarten and family-literacy programs. He is expected to unveil his own reading bill as early as this month.

Funding Questions

Mr. Clinton proposed the basic elements of the America Reads Challenge on the campaign trail last year as a way of helping ensure that all children can read by the 3rd grade. ("Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned," Feb. 26, 1997.)

The five-year, $2.75 billion initiative would use participants in the AmeriCorps service program and 30,000 reading specialists to recruit and manage 1 million volunteers for after-school and weekend reading programs. The plan would also provide grants to help parents improve their children's reading skills.

President Clinton requested $260 million for America Reads in his fiscal 1998 budget request. Congress approved the funding, but only for fiscal 1999--which begins Oct. 1 of next year--and contingent on the passage of America Reads authorizing legislation by April 1, 1998. In the House version of the budget, America Reads funding would be transferred to special education programs if the authorization deadline was not met.

After Mr. Clinton unveiled the America Reads proposal, educators generally praised the plan for channeling more federal money into reading programs, but said the money would be more effective if used for teacher training and research. Witnesses at the hearing last week agreed that too few teachers are prepared to teach reading when they first enter the classroom and that research on the best methods of helping children who arestruggling to learn is not readily available.

"Teaching reading is difficult," Ann Mintz, a language arts instructional facilitator for the 40,200-student Howard County, Md., public schools, told the panel. "I see too many beginning teachers who lack an understanding of what good reading instruction entails."

Carol Hampton Rasco, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, said in an interview that teaching reading is a multifaceted endeavor, but that the Clinton plan is committed to one part--volunteer tutoring--that needs extra attention.

"The volunteers that would be recruited to work [with the students] in conjunction with classroom instruction are very, very important in moving people toward reading well by the end of 3rd grade," Ms. Rasco said. "Many of [the children] need extra time in practicing the reading skills they are learning in the instructional period."

The administration also has sought $110 million in additional funds for the training of reading teachers through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The House and Senate do not plan to fund the increase, but instead to "level fund" the ESEA's Eisenhower Professional Development program at its fiscal 1997 level of $310 million.

Bipartisan Spirit?

Beth S. Check, a supervisor of reading/language arts for the Newport News, Va., school district and one of six witnesses at the hearing, offered evidence that tutoring programs can be a critical part of a school literacy program.

"Tutoring programs can be effective," Ms. Check said. Her 30,800-student district has worked with community groups, churches, and businesses to train more than 250 volunteers who have served in 19 schools in the district. She credits the program with helping one school, Magruder Primary, improve from just 1 percent of 2nd graders reading at grade level in 1992 to 80 percent in 1996. "We carefully screen tutors ... and they get a lot of guidance from the teacher," she said.

While the role of volunteers may be reduced in the House plan, some lawmakers say they will still be part of any literacy initiative.

"While we need to emphasize teacher training, there is clearly a role for individual literacy volunteers and parents," Rep. Frank D. Riggs, R-Calif., said. "If we look at it as an either-or, it will kill the spirit of bipartisanship."

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Web Resources
  • Read the U.S. Department of Education's summary of President Clinton's America Reads Challenge.
  • Read "English: What Students Need To Learn." Created by Columbia University's Teacher's College, this parent-friendly guide gives some basic goals for any student of English and ways that parents can help reinforce learning in the home.
  • Read the 1994 Reading Report Card. A status report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among its findings: The average reading proficiency of 12th grade students declined significantly from 1992 to 1994.
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