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Bill Would Replace Key Federal Literacy Programs

$2.35 billion being asked for K-12 literacy programs in wake of ‘Reading First’
By Mary Ann Zehr — November 06, 2009 3 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

Long-awaited legislation to replace three federal reading programs—Early Reading First, Reading First, and Striving Readers—was introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and would authorize $2.35 billion in funding to improve reading and writing in kindergarten to 12th grade.

As of press time, a similar literacy bill was to be introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., and Jared Polis, D-Colo.

The Senate’s comprehensive-literacy bill, if passed and fully funded, would represent a huge boost in federal aid for adolescent literacy.

At least 10 percent of the funding authorized under the bill would go to early-childhood education, at least 40 percent would go for students in grades K-5, and at least 40 percent would be spent on students in grades 6-12. The federal government’s only reading program that focuses on adolescents, Striving Readers, is receiving $35 million in the current fiscal year. President Barack Obama has proposed doubling that amount in the fiscal 2010 budget.

Beyond 4th Grade

Advocates of a greater emphasis on adolescent literacy praised the bill’s focus on teaching reading and writing beyond 4th grade.

“We think it’s great,” said Jamie P. Fasteau, the vice president for federal advocacy for the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education. “We had long known how inextricably linked literacy is to high school success. We believe it’s critical for the federal government to mark its importance and support it.”

Andres Henriquez, the program officer and manager of the adolescent-literacy project of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said the bill “will mean much broader support for literacy for youngsters in middle and high schools who are struggling readers, and will help them advance through high school, and hopefully prevent them from dropping out.”

The philanthropy is a big funder of research in adolescent literacy and efforts by national organizations to support state and federal policy in that area. (Carnegie also underwrites coverage in Education Week of new routes to college and careers.)

Mr. Henriquez added that it would be hard for students who can’t read at grade level to meet proposed nationalstandards being developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Sponsors Are Democrats

The bill introduced in the Senate on Nov. 5 is similar to a draft comprehensive-literacy bill circulated in Congress this past summer. Then, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who had co-sponsored the Striving Readers legislation with Sen. Murray, was expected to be a sponsor as well. But neither Sen. Sessions nor any other Republican was listed as a sponsor of the bill introduced last week. Likewise, no GOP sponsor was listed for the one that Reps. Yarmuth and Polis were poised to introduce in the House.

Mr. Henriquez said a new literacy bill is much needed because Congress in fiscal 2009 eliminated the funding for Reading First, the federal government’s flagship reading program under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Federal impact studies for Reading First showed that the program had helped more students recognize letters and words, but hadn’t affected reading comprehension among 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders in participating schools. (“No Effect on Comprehension Seen From ‘Reading First,’” Nov. 19, 2008.)

The evaluation of Striving Readers, the only federal reading program focused on adolescent literacy, found that after two years of implementation, the program had had a significant impact on reading achievement at three of eight sites where the program was carried out. In the Portland, Ore., and San Diego school districts, for example, Striving Readers had a statistically significant effect on student achievement, according to at least one test. (“‘Striving Readers’ Tough to Measure,” Oct. 14, 2009.)

The U.S. Department of Education has started discussions about reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the latest version. Though the comprehensive-literacy bill has been introduced as a separate piece of legislation, a spokesman for Sen. Murray said it was likely the bill would be rolled into the ESEA reauthorization.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Legislation Would Replace Federal Reading Programs

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