Clinton Proposal Puts Attention on Early Reading Instruction

By Karen Diegmueller — September 11, 1996 6 min read
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Poor reading scores among students in California have pushed state officials there to turn policy and pocketbooks upside down in the past year.

But many educators and policymakers hope the rest of the nation doesn’t wait to see how things work out for California. They’re hoping that President Clinton’s campaign-trail proposal to improve young students’ reading skills points the way to a large-scale mobilization of volunteers, parents, and educators.

“Communities that are using volunteers and professionals together are finding that they are getting a lot of success,” said Richard Long, a spokesman for the International Reading Association, a professional organization of language-arts educators in Newark, Del. “The elegance of this is it’s creating a team with a professional with a high degree of training to work with people with a high degree of caring.”

But others question whether the $2.75 billion cost of Mr. Clinton’s proposals might be put to better use. They want to know where elementary schools fit into the four-part reading initiative.

“Sounds great,” conservative commentator Linda Chavez wrote in a column last week, “but aren’t public schools supposed to teach kids to read already?”

And some educators suggest the emphasis should be on improving teacher training and expanding existing programs that are known to work.

En route to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago last month, where he was nominated for a second term, Mr. Clinton unveiled what he calls “America’s Reading Challenge.”

The goal of the five-year plan is to ensure that all children can read by the time they complete 3rd grade as defined by their ability to meet the basic level of the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card.

In the latest administration of the exam, given to a random sample of students in 39 states in 1994, 40 percent of 4th graders scored below the basic level.

Details of Plan

Mr. Clinton’s reading “challenge” consists primarily of four parts that would:

  • Expand the Head Start preschool program for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • Earmark an additional $25 million for the biannual administration of the NAEP reading assessment.
  • Set aside $300 million for the establishment of a Parents as First Teachers Challenge Grants fund. The pool of money would be awarded to two categories of recipients. National groups such as the Urban League and the American Association of Retired Persons might receive funding to help spread programs that help parents aid their children’s learning. And money would go to states, local governments, and community or nonprofit groups to operate proven programs for helping parents develop their children’s literacy skills.
  • Establish a national reading corps. America’s Reading Corps, the cornerstone of the president’s plan, would be made up of 1 million volunteers who would be trained to tutor K-3 students whose teachers referred them for help. They would be supported by a reading specialist and a supervising tutor at about 15,000 to 20,000 sites across the country.

Many of the volunteers would be AmeriCorps members, who receive the minimum wage, health benefits, and an education grant in return for a year’s national service. The remainder of the volunteers would be drawn from the community. To defray the $2.425 billion cost of this program, $1 billion would be redirected from the embattled AmeriCorps national-service program, which congressional Republicans have sought to kill.

Enactment of Mr. Clinton’s plan would require Congress’ approval.

On Target

In California, renewed attention to early elementary reading instruction has been stoked by low test scores. To remedy what many Californians viewed as a crisis, state leaders have, among other measures, approved policies to reduce K-3 class sizes to 20 students and to allocate $200 million this year to buy new instructional and library materials and to provide staff development for teachers.

The president’s proposal “meshes wonderfully with what we’re trying to do in California,” said Delaine Eastin, the superintendent of public instruction.

She is one of many educators and policymakers who believe Mr. Clinton’s focus on mobilizing parental and community support is on target.

Other educators also credit Mr. Clinton for spotlighting the problem of poor reading skills and proposing ways to repair it.

But many suggested that the money might be better spent on professional development for early elementary teachers, the hiring of reading specialists, and the implementation of programs with successful track records.

“Somebody with the visibility of the president talking about reading is very gratifying to elementary principals,” said Carole Kennedy, the principal of New Haven Elementary School in Columbia, Mo.

“Although it sounds good, volunteers sometimes are not as dedicated as we would like them to be,” added Ms. Kennedy, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals. “We’ve never tried a volunteer program of this magnitude before. We do know there are programs that work, such as Reading Recovery, or reducing class sizes, or the assistance of a specialist.”

Reading Recovery, an intensive one-on-one literacy program for schools’ lowest-achieving students, is based at Ohio State University, which also runs several AmeriCorps projects.

Skilled teachers work for Reading Recovery; the AmeriCorps projects are staffed by volunteers who receive about 100 hours of training and have the support of teacher leaders in their schools.

Diane E. DeFord, a professor of education at Ohio State who helps direct the two programs, said she views the president’s proposal not as a usurpation of the schools but a support of education from the community.

If the reading challenge is one piece of a larger plan to bolster literacy, then Ms. DeFord said she is fully in favor of it. But if it comes down to volunteers or teacher training, “then I would have to say, put it into teachers.”

“I do not think you can run a program for your greatest at-risk children with volunteer or uncertified teachers,” she said.

Political Gain

Ohio earmarked about $1.2 million for Reading Recovery last year and served 8,099 students. Of the 6,041 students who completed the program--some moved and changed schools--88 percent were “discontinued” because they were no longer at risk of needing remedial education and fell within the average reading ability of their classes.

Another proven venture is Success For All, a national comprehensive program for disadvantaged students that is based in Baltimore.

“That is a lot of money,” Robert E. Slavin, the architect of the program, said of President Clinton’s proposal.

Roughly speaking, “you could put a program like Success For All into almost every Title I school in America if the schools agreed to align their Title I resources with the new resources,” said Mr. Slavin, who also is the co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk at Johns Hopkins University.

While lauding Mr. Clinton’s goal, other observers suggested that his strategy was designed as much for political gain as for education.

“Clinton did not want, as a matter of politics, to explicitly indict his friends, the teachers,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan. “Instead, he offered them what a lot of teachers would like to have--a helper in the classroom.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1996 edition of Education Week as Clinton Proposal Puts Attention on Early Reading Instruction


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