Dept. of Education To Hike Oversight Of Reading Grants

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The Department of Education is warning states that the agency will more closely monitor how they are spending money under a waning federal reading initiative, after reports that local grant recipients may not be following "scientifically based" principles or other requirements.

Federal officials have asked states that received awards under the Reading Excellence Act to submit performance reports by the end of this month detailing the progress made in local districts and schools in improving reading achievement.

Susan B. Neuman

In a strongly worded letter obtained by Education Week, Susan B. Neuman, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, also warned that states suspected of shirking the programmatic and fiscal requirements of the 1998 law, or of failing to stop local recipients of the grants from doing so, could face an audit by the department. Moreover, Ms. Neuman said in an interview last week, those states where local implementation of the REA program has been deemed inadequate could also face a delay in getting some of the $900 million in new federal money slated for reading.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia are continuing to implement the Reading Excellence program, and 13 of those states are in the first phase of a three-year grant period. Another 18 states have phased out the program or are in the final year. From the outset, however, federal officials have been frustrated by local efforts they say are not based on practices proven effective by research, as required under the law.

Ms. Neuman has complained in public presentations about some practices she has observed in REA classrooms that she says have no scientific basis. In the interview last week, she scoffed at claims by state reading officials that many states' REA initiatives are already well aligned with the new federal initiative, Reading First.

1998 Law's Failings

The failings of the Reading Excellence Act, federal education officials believe, could hinder the success of the new program. Representatives of participating states met with officials in Washington last month for instructions on how to align their current initiatives with the stricter requirements of Reading First, part of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

Reading First will provide some $5 billion over the next six years to help states boost reading achievement through research-based instruction that includes five components outlined in the law: phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters), phonics (a technique to help youngsters make those associations), fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

So far, 18 states have won Reading First grants after a stringent review. About a dozen applications are being revised or are awaiting approval.

Under Reading First, states and local districts will have a higher burden of proof that they are complying with the law and will need to show proof that their efforts are raising student achievement.

Ms. Neuman's letter, dated Oct. 9, urged state officials to make corrections to their REA programs in order to lay the groundwork for Reading First.

"As you prepare for this transition, the definitions, requirements, and tenets of the Reading First program may be helpful in assisting your state in implementing the REA program," Ms. Neuman wrote. Meanwhile the department has revised its guidelines for carrying out Reading Excellence initiatives, focusing greater attention on what it means to have programs based on research.

While some state officials say they have already begun aligning the two programs, others raised concerns that the department is changing expectations under the REA in midstream.

Alignment Problems

"We tried to fit our program with the old [REA] guidelines from 2001," said Mary Andis, who coordinates Indiana's REA program, called I-READ. "I can meet the criteria I was expected to meet in the original legislation," she added, but any new guidelines could run counter to the state's plan under REA.

Meshing the two programs, she said, is even more challenging, since the state has not yet gotten approval of its Reading First proposal.

Education observers agree that the greater responsibility the Education Department appears to be placing on states for monitoring the progress of the program could strain state resources.

"One of the clearest points is that the [state agencies] are going to be required to engage on a more consistent basis with the [local recipients] in a more comprehensive dialogue," said Richard Long, a lobbyist for the International Reading Association. "This is going to stretch everybody. ... There is a fundamental issue of if there is the capacity to do this."

Even states that have earned praise for their efforts to align the two federal programs have had some trouble ensuring the intent of the legislation is carried out at the local level.

Colorado was among the first three states to win approval for Reading First proposals, and is to get $59 million over the next six years. Yet nearly a third of the 16 Colorado schools that received money from the state's REA grant have not shown much progress in raising student achievement, according to Jan Silverstein, the director of the state's reading initiative.

Officials there will be working with those schools to make dramatic changes in instruction in the hope the schools will be able to qualify for Reading First money.

Rose Shaw, an independent evaluator who has monitored REA implementation in Colorado, said the state's initiative has raised awareness among teachers about the lessons research offers for effective reading instruction.

"REA was on the forefront of change," Ms. Shaw said. "To expect widespread change would have been unrealistic, ... but local folks are getting the message better about what is expected."

But some Colorado schools have continued to show resistance to changing how they teach children to read, Ms. Shaw said.

"There's so much of the [old] way of looking at reading that was institutionalized," she said, "that beginning to chip away at that is very hard. Some schools have planted their feet and said they would not change."

Vol. 22, Issue 11, Pages 1, 32-33

Published in Print: November 13, 2002, as Dept. of Education To Hike Oversight Of Reading Grants
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