Reading & Literacy

Anxious Educators Await Details of Bush Reading Initiative

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 14, 2001 5 min read
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President Bush’s $5 billion sketch for putting “Reading First” is winning widespread praise from educators for highlighting what many see as the most critical factors in students’ overall academic success: early-literacy skills and teacher training.

But observers are also anxious to learn the details of the plan, which is part of an extensive education initiative unveiled by Mr. Bush last month that has yet to be translated into a formal legislative proposal (“No Child Left Behind,” Jan. 31, 2000.)

It is the fine print, reading experts say, that will determine the program’s potential effectiveness in tackling the nation’s reading woes.

In a view echoed by others, Richard Long, a lobbyist for the International Reading Association, said he hoped the program would take a comprehensive view of early- reading instruction, such as one outlined by the National Reading Panel in an influential report last year. (“Reading Panel Urges Phonics For All in K-6,” April 19, 2001.)

Michelle Roberts helps her kindergartners with their reading at Key Elementary School in Mississippi, where federal aid has been a boon.
—Joy Gamble/Mississippi Department of Education

The 11/2 pages that Mr. Bush devotes to his proposal for ensuring every child is reading on grade level by the 3rd grade refers to the reading panel’s recommendation that instruction focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, and guided-oral reading, as well as comprehension strategies.

But the president’s campaign promise to require the teaching of phonics as part of his reading initiative, as well as his calls for greater accountability in education, has raised concerns among some educators that the Reading First funds would favor highly scripted programs and put a great emphasis on high-stakes testing.

“The best of what we know about effective reading instruction is not just phonemic awareness and phonics,” said Jill Lewis, a professor of literacy education at New Jersey City University. “We can’t say that those things motivate children to read, and motivation is a critical part of wanting to read.”

Art and Science

Researchers familiar with the proposal, however, say they are convinced that Mr. Bush’s plan, which would require that grant proposals be based on the latest research on how children acquire early-literacy skills and stresses the importance of literacy experiences for preschoolers, adheres to a larger view of instruction.

“The [proposal] is a broad framework,” said Susan B. Neuman, the director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Ms. Neuman was among a group of reading researchers who met with President Bush last month to make recommendations for the initiative.

“But it is saying that there is a science behind learning to read,” she continued, “it’s not just an art. There are some critical elements of a strong reading program, and you’ve got to have them.”

Mr. Bush’s plan— which would provide $1 billion each year for five years—would incorporate two other federal programs, Reading Excellence grants and Even Start.

The 1998 Reading Excellence Act provides state grants to support local professional development and family-literacy programs faithful to the latest research findings on how children learn to read. Even Start combines adult basic education, parenting training, and early-childhood-reading lessons for eligible families.

If the president’s proposal is simply an expansion of the Reading Excellence Act, however, Ms. Lewis and others worry it will have a narrow agenda.

New Jersey’s application for a Reading Excellence grant, which Ms. Lewis helped prepare, was denied last year, in part, she believes, because of an insufficient concentration on phonemic awareness—the understanding that words are made up of letters and sounds—and phonics, a strategy for reading words that requires sounding out letters and letter blends.

At least 27 states have been awarded more than $430 million in Reading Excellence grants, which they can use for teacher professional development, family-literacy programs, and intervention efforts for children deemed at risk of failing at reading. Grant recipients have generally not used the money to buy “packaged” curricula, as some critics of the plan had feared, according to the Department of Education.

The Reading Excellence Act has been a boon to the state reading initiative in Mississippi, where some 50 schools have received a part of the more than $31 million in federal money, officials there say.

“The REA money has the potential to make a dramatic impact in the state of Mississippi,” said Bonita Coleman-Potter, the director of the state reading effort in Mississippi, which ranks at the bottom among states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in that subject.

Texas Model

Observers expect that the requirements yet to be outlined in Mr. Bush’s proposal will reflect those in the Texas Reading Initiative, a 1996 law spearheaded by then- Gov. Bush, as well as those in the Houston reading program created under Secretary of Education Rod Paige when he was the superintendent of that district.

The Texas law includes early assessment of students’ reading skills, professional development for teachers, family-literacy programs, and reading academies to address the reading difficulties of middle and high school students.

Houston’s program—which requires most schools to adopt highly scripted, phonics-based commercial programs—has been credited with raising students’ scores on reading tests, although the gains have generally not held up when students move on to middle school.

President Bush’s proposal differs significantly from President Clinton’s America Reads program. Mr. Clinton sought $2.75 billion to enlist an army of 1 million volunteer tutors to help improve students’ reading and motivation to read. America Reads generated criticism for focusing resources on volunteers and tutoring instead of teachers.

The Reading Excellence Act was congressional Republicans’ response to Mr. Clinton’s proposal.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Anxious Educators Await Details Of Bush Reading Initiative

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