GAO Outlines Strengths, Weaknesses of Reading First

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The federal Reading First program has led to changes and improvements in reading instruction, but the U.S. Department of Education failed to guard against federal officials’ “mandating or directing states’ decisions about reading programs and assessments, which is prohibited by [law],” the Government Accountability Office says in a report released today.

The long-awaited report on Reading First by the investigative arm of Congress substantiates the findings of a broad review of the reading initiative by the Education Department’s inspector general.

Little new ground is plowed in the report in describing problems with the oversight of the $1 billion-a-year program authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act. It agrees with many of the conclusions outlined in six reports by the inspector general that have been released since last September. Those reports found that federal officials worked to influence the selection of reading programs used in participating schools, interference that is prohibited by law; and that some commercial programs and assessments appeared to have been favored, and others disadvantaged, in the grant-review process.

More Positive Tone

But the GAO’s tone is decidedly more positive than the scathing inspector general’s reports, and it primarily highlights the impact Reading First has had on instruction in the nation’s underachieving schools.

Even the title, “Reading First: States Report Improvements in Reading Instruction, but Additional Procedures Would Clarify Education’s Role in Ensuring Proper Implementation by States,” emphasizes the positive.

“The report demonstrates that states were satisfied with the forms of guidance and technical assistance they received during the application and implementation process for the Reading First program,” Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon wrote in a response letter to the GAO.

Mr. Simon’s response, included in the report, outlines the steps the department has taken, or plans to take, to address the problems spelled out in the inspector general’s reports.

As part of its review, the GAO conducted a Web-based survey of each state and the District of Columbia, in-depth interviews with officials in 12 states, and visits to four. According to the survey results, 69 percent of the respondents reported “great or very great improvement in reading instruction,” while 80 percent said that professional development had improved significantly.

Most of the hard data on student achievement under Reading First, however, have not yet been compiled. An independent review of test scores for Reading First schools is due out later this year. But the GAO found that the Education Department’s ambitious plan for monitoring each state’s implementation of the program was muddled by a lack of written procedures. Ultimately, “states did not always understand monitoring procedures, timelines, and expectations for taking corrective actions,” the report says.

‘Lack of Analysis’

The GAO report is the last of the federal reviews of Reading First that were prompted in 2005 by complaints from several vendors of reading programs largely shut out of the program, despite meeting requirements to participate. ("'Reading First' Contractor Neglected Bias Rules," March 14, 2007.)

Some observers said they were surprised that the report provided little new information and mostly reiterated what was in the earlier review.

“I thought that we’d have a report that aimed to rebuild public trust in Reading First and that would address and clarify the points made in the IG reports,” said Richard Long, the director of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “There was an anticipation that this report was going to be more comprehensive and more analytical, but there’s a distinct lack of analysis here.”

Vol. 26, Issue Web Only

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