Professional Development

Reading-Achievement Program Is Off to a Quiet Start

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 13, 1999 5 min read
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Just as its passage slipped quietly through the federal appropriations process last fall, implementation of the Reading Excellence Act, a plan to raise American schoolchildren’s lackluster reading achievement, is proceeding without fanfare.

The program’s staff at the Department of Education, appointed a few weeks ago, is working behind the scenes to ready applications, draft procedures, and inform states about how to tap $520 million in block grants over the next two years.

Most of the money is intended to have a direct effect on the classrooms that need it most, with 85 percent targeted to professional development for teachers and to assistance programs for disadvantaged children who may be at risk of failure in reading. States will be required to distribute the grants to their poorest districts and to those that state education officials identify as most in need of improving student achievement. What’s left will go to family-literacy and tutoring programs.

The program is expected to reach 500,000 children.

“I think [the Reading Excellence Program] has the potential to have a substantial impact on the children most at risk of reading failure,” Joseph Conaty, who was appointed the program’s director last month, said in an interview last week. Mr. Conaty previously worked for the department’s office of educational research and improvement, most recently as the director of the Student Achievement Institute. “If well done, the program can provide teachers with the knowledge and information they need to help these children learn to read by the 3rd grade,” he said.

Research-Based Programs

The Reading Excellence Act has won praise for putting improved reading instruction at the forefront of education reform.

“We have an enormous problem in achievement disparity in poor districts,” said Marilyn J. Adams, a professor of education at Harvard University and a prominent reading researcher. “I am very pleased that the government has the initiative in addressing it.”

Ms. Adams said the new law, because of its emphasis on professional development, will ensure that teachers understand the latest research findings on how children learn to read and how to help those struggling with reading.

But some experts are wary of the potential for bias to creep into the grant-review process. The legislation outlines a definition of reading that can be agreed on by many advocates of both phonics- and literature-based approaches to reading instruction. The requirement that programs receiving the awards follow “scientifically based reading research,” however, concerns some researchers who believe that the phrase has become code for instruction steeped in phonics. That method teaches children to break words into letters and sounds before putting them into the context of sentences and stories.

“Because of the way the language [in the legislation] is worded, it has the potential to be exclusive and ideological,” argued P. David Pearson, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing and a co-director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.

A panel composed of representatives of several federal agencies--including the Education Department, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute for Literacy--as well as the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences will decide which applications best meet the goals of the legislation.

The law requires that programs receiving aid use a balance of strategies, including both systematic phonics and rich literature, to develop phonemic awareness (the understanding of the letters and sounds that make up words), fluency, and reading comprehension.

The composition of the panel will determine whether applications are reviewed objectively, said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “We try to make sure that these important policies are not held hostage to other political agendas.”

But Catherine Snow, a professor of education at Harvard University who was instrumental in preparing an NRC report on reading last year, said that many experts now agree on what makes a good reading program.

“There is a fair degree of consensus across the field concerning methods and approaches to teaching children to read,” she said. “Now, we can focus on putting what we know into practice and stop having the fights that detract from a focus on the kids and what they need.”

Under the legislation, the National Institute for Literacy, an independent federal agency charged with helping to coordinate federal, state, and local literacy efforts, will be the main source for information on effective reading programs. Though the institute’s primary focus is on adult learners, its experience in family literacy and reading research can be effectively applied to the K-12 arena, Mr. Conaty said.

The states receiving the grants must establish “reading and literacy partnerships” made up of state government and education representatives and members of community groups.

Teacher Training Crucial

The reading initiative grew out of President Clinton’s proposal, unveiled during his 1996 re-election campaign, to build a citizen army of a million volunteer tutors to help children learn to read.

The $2.7 billion plan was widely criticized for its lack of focus on the classroom and on teacher qualifications, and for implying that volunteers with minimal training and supervision could cure the nation’s reading woes.

The Reading Excellence Act, the Republican response to Mr. Clinton’s initiative, focused instead on improving teachers’ knowledge of the reading process and their skill in bringing struggling young readers up to grade level.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman who was the chief sponsor of the measure, “is thrilled that it is law,” according to Jay Diskey, a spokesman for the committee’s Republicans.

“From the start of the debate, Mr. Goodling said that training is the most important element. This will do a lot more for teachers and children than America Reads,” Mr. Diskey said.

But Mr. Clinton’s plan for reading tutors did not disappear. Aside from the 15 percent set aside in the Reading Excellence Act for tutors, a drastically scaled-down version of the America Reads program has flourished with thousands of participants from the federal work-study and AmeriCorps programs tutoring children in reading. (“‘America Reads’ Is Taking Hold at Grassroots,” May 6, 1998.)

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 1999 edition of Education Week as Reading-Achievement Program Is Off to a Quiet Start

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