Training of Okla. Reading Teachers in Doubt

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After training thousands of teachers over the past five years in a massive effort to raise reading achievement, Oklahoma officials are worried that the exercise may have been for naught.

The state received word this month that, after several revisions, its application for a federal reading grant was approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

But while many in the cash-strapped state cheered the $12.5 million for raising reading achievement in the neediest schools, others were scrambling to salvage the state's existing literacy initiative after a federal panel suggested it is not aligned with current research in the field.

The Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation, which has trained some 14,000 teachers over the past five years in the essential components of effective reading instruction, may now be in jeopardy. The state legislature established the body in 1997 to oversee preservice and in-service teacher training. But when it came to the state's application for its share of the $900 million federal Reading First program, representatives of the commission were not consulted on the professional-development portion.

"The state department of education did not include the legislature nor the teacher-preparation commission in developing their plan. We had no input," said state Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson, an elementary reading teacher. "The fact that they didn't include [the commission's work] puts at risk 14,000 teachers and their training and our $15 million investment over the last five years," said the Republican.

But officials with the state education department said the decision was a matter of meeting the federal standard.

"I will not suggest that the previous training was not successful," said Alisa Frank, who oversees the state's federal reading programs. "But according to information we have received, the program lacked sufficient evidence."

While the training initiative, called Literacy First, was mentioned in at least one draft of the state's Reading First grant proposal, reviewers concluded from that information that the program "is not fully aligned with scientifically based reading research."

In later drafts, mention of the program was removed, suggesting that teachers in schools receiving federal grant money may have to be retrained.

Moreover, state officials worry that the program may not meet other federal requirements, such as those guiding Title I.

The federal reviewers' assessment came as a surprise to commission officials, who said they had worked with a consultant to craft a program that incorporates the five essential components of reading instruction outlined in Reading First, a part of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. The tenets now guide teacher-preparation programs, professional development, training for administrators, and assessments for new teachers statewide.

Confusion Reigns

The Oklahoma commission also sought outside evaluations from the Florida Center for Reading Research, which found that much of the program is consistent with research findings recognized by a federal panel. The commission, however, has not received details of the federal findings, and officials say they are at a loss to know exactly where Literacy First breaks from evidence-based practice.

"We do know that what we're doing is having a powerful impact on learning," said Barbara Ware, the chairwoman of the commission. But "if we need to change something, we're sensitive to that and willing to do whatever we need to to improve it."

Ms. Ware has sent requests to the U.S. Department of Education for guidance on how to bring the program into alignment with Reading First, but since the commission is not involved in the federal program, federal officials could not provide such assistance. She said she and her commission colleagues would hire other consultants to review the program for weaknesses.

While Oklahoma's experience may be unusual in that separate agencies are in charge of different literacy projects, the confusion over the exact requirements of the Reading First legislation is widespread, said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association.

"The decisions seem to be around whether the professional development adheres to a particular pedagogical ideology," he said. Officials in several states, Mr. Farstrup said, have expressed frustration with the review process. "There is very little 'science' regarding professional-development models," he said. "There is a bit of a rubber ruler being applied to the professional-development side of things."

Federal officials have said applications are judged on a rigorous set of criteria, and that states are given further guidance if their plan falls short.

Oklahoma, Mr. Farstrup said, has earned a solid reputation for its professional-development model. That assessment seems to be supported by some school administrators who have gone through the training.

"This training has provided the foundation of systematic reform of our professional development and given us a focus on literacy from prekindergarten to high school," said John E. Scroggins, the deputy superintendent of the 6,000-student Ponca City school district, west of Tulsa. "It is the strongest professional-development movement I've seen in my [30-year] career."

Vol. 22, Issue 23, Page 5

Published in Print: February 19, 2003, as Training of Okla. Reading Teachers in Doubt
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