Reading & Literacy

Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Joetta L. Sack — February 26, 1997 12 min read
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At first glance, educators say, it is a grand plan: Mobilize a “citizen army” of college students, parents, senior citizens, and other do-gooders, and march them into schools around the nation to help all children read by the end of 3rd grade.

And few disagree that President Clinton’s America Reads Challenge, which he promoted in his State of the Union Address and again highlighted at a visit to an elementary school here last week, is a bold attempt to address one of the critical problems in American education. With 40 percent of the nation’s 4th graders overall--and much higher proportions of minority and disadvantaged students--reading below the basic level set by a national assessment, the challenge is huge.

But as excited as educators are by the plan to launch a national crusade to stamp out the reading problems of U.S. children, many are questioning the initiative’s prospects for success.

Nor are they the only skeptics. Some Republican lawmakers, while acknowledging that the reading crisis is all too real, have nonetheless dismissed the president’s plan as a duplication of existing programs. So far, the GOP has identified 14 federal programs and numerous private-sector ones that already promote literacy.

Finally, the plan has some people wondering where the elementary schools fit in and, perhaps more important, why all of these programs are necessary when the schools’ foremost mission is to teach children how to read.

“If children at the end of 3rd grade can’t read, then we have to examine what went wrong before we start talking about new programs and more money,” Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said at a recent press conference.

“What we are discovering isn’t that we don’t have enough programs,” said Mr. Goodling, a former teacher and principal, “but the problem is many of those programs don’t work.”

A Sophisticated Task

Almost universally, educators and policymakers note the sheer scope of the proposal--$2.75 billion to recruit and train 30,000 reading specialists and 1 million volunteers.

“It is analogous to President Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon,” Robert E. Slavin, a leading reading researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a creator of the Success for All reading program, said last week. That proposal excited a nation to attain what many thought was unattainable, and President Clinton’s plan has the potential to do the same for bringing students’ reading skills up to par, Mr. Slavin said.

Although Mr. Clinton’s proposal would boost community involvement in education and infuse new life into existing tutoring programs, researchers and reading experts doubt that America Reads can offer the comprehensive approach that is necessary.

“You really have to be cautious about using volunteers. If these children are not learning to read easily, I don’t know how untrained people can be expected to do it better,” said Judith R. Birsh, an adjunct assistant professor and master-teacher trainer at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Ms. Birsh is joined by others who say that the task of teaching reading is a sophisticated one and best attempted by those with an understanding of language and how children learn to read.

Also coloring the issue is the ongoing debate over whether phonics or whole language is the best method of teaching reading, although most researchers say a combined approach works best.

Some say the money would be better spent on better training for teachers in beginning-reading strategies. (See story, this page.) They also suggest directing more resources toward teacher professional development in reading instruction or toward existing federal programs that address reading deficiencies, such as Title I.

But Carol Hampton Rasco, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, said that the program would be closely tied to children’s regular classes and that the tutors would serve as “learning partners” who would read with children, rather than provide instruction. Classroom teachers would refer children to the tutors, said Ms. Rasco, who will oversee America Reads.

Bella Rosenberg, the assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that too many existing federal literacy programs don’t serve their purpose, and that many don’t address children’s problems at all.

America Reads, Ms. Rosenberg said, is just what is needed to put children with less severe problems “over the hump.”

AmeriCorps at the Core

Even though Mr. Clinton first proposed the program last August as part of his re-election campaign, the details are still being hashed out. They will be written into legislation that the administration will send to Congress in the next few months, Ms. Rasco said.

Democrats, who are in the minority on Capitol Hill, are confident that they can mobilize enough public support to get a bill passed. “I find it hard to believe that Congress is not going to want to put some resources into a goal that has such bipartisan support,” said Harris L. Wofford Jr., the director of AmeriCorps and a former U.S. senator.

AmeriCorps, the federal program that offers young people college-tuition aid in return for community service, plans to mobilize volunteers this summer and set up local programs, Mr. Wofford said.

At the core of the initiative are 11,000 AmeriCorps members who will be targeted to recruit and coordinate local volunteers.

Administration officials expect to attract another 100,000 volunteers from college work-study programs. Leaders of Campus Compact, the arm of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States that promotes community service in higher education, recently urged more than 500 college presidents to set aside part of their federal work-study money for America Reads.

More than $1.5 billion in new funding would provide after-school reading specialists to train and supervise tutors. They would provide individualized instruction in after-school, weekend, and summer programs for about 3 million children in kindergarten through 3rd grade who want and need extra help.

An additional $300 million in challenge grants would be awarded over five years to programs that involve parents in their children’s reading development.

The plan also calls for the expansion of Head Start, Title I, and Even Start, federal programs aimed at disadvantaged children, to strengthen the teaching of reading in schools.

Moreover, Secretary Riley promised in his State of American Education Address last week to “work with religious leaders from across the country to rally tens of thousands of volunteers to this national effort.”

What Works?

Observers agree that recruiting 1 million volunteers, difficult thought it may be, is not the most daunting task. The troops can be rallied through the expansion of existing programs and from AmeriCorps, college campuses, and local communities, they maintain. Preparing those volunteers is another matter.

“The use of tutors is fantastic as long as they get the training. That is where they will succeed or fail,” said Miriam Y. Westheimer, the executive director of HIPPY USA, the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, a New York City-based early-childhood enrichment program.

But research on which training methods work and which don’t is limited. A 1993 study by Mr. Slavin and Barbara A. Wasik, also a Johns Hopkins researcher, found that programs deploying certified teachers showed greater improvements in student reading achievement than those using paraprofessionals.

Ongoing training and supervision are the vital elements, said Marcia A. Invernizzi, who runs the Book Buddies program with colleague Connie Juel.

The Charlottesville, Va.-based program uses doctoral students who serve as paid, part-time supervisors to school-based volunteers. The supervisors provide initial training, lesson plans, instructional materials, and continuing guidance to ensure that tutors are meeting students’ needs.

“The supervisor is critical. Volunteers don’t have a clue what to do,” Ms. Invernizzi said. “Many think that if you read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to them, the children will learn to read.”

States would be responsible for evaluating the programs that receive money through America Reads and for determining which ones are effective.

Experts caution that even though many programs report positive outcomes for participating students, there are few reliable data to prove these claims. Evaluating which programs will offer the best investments could be tricky, they say.

“There isn’t much information about one-on-one tutoring, and certainly there is very little research about effective tutoring and less-effective tutoring,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association, based here. “We believe this program is moving in the right direction, but there has got to be a good deal more research and development for these programs.”

More Than Training

The challenges do not end with training, however. Although some of the participants in the America Reads program will be paid, most will not--a situation likely to create variations in the time and effort people are willing to commit to the project. Reading experts also say it is impossible to hold volunteers accountable for the improvement of their students.

“A lot of kids this program is aimed at, especially those in the lower 25 percent, are extremely disadvantaged. They have no book experience; they don’t know their alphabet,” Ms. Wasik said. “It seems very difficult to believe that those kinds of disadvantages can be ameliorated by a tutor who comes in twice a week.”

Even teachers in the Success for All, an early-intervention reading program, who are trained and certified, have difficulty assisting such children, she said.

Some educators are also concerned that volunteers will not be equipped to deal with children who have learning disabilities.

“We want to make sure the people coming into schools are well-qualified,” Sally N. McConnell, the government relations director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said.

Dale Lestina, the chief lobbyist for the National Education Association, worries that volunteers will be unable to identify a disability, making it essential that tutors work closely with classroom teachers.

The National Academy of Sciences is hoping to address the research deficit. A committee of the academy is conducting a study of reading programs around the country in the hope of isolating the elements that make programs effective. One part of the study will focus on volunteer tutoring programs, said M. Susan Burns, the director of the study.

Sponsored by the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, the study is expected out late this year. But if Mr. Clinton’s initiative proceeds as swiftly as he would like, the data are unlikely to provide guidance in the early stages.

Planning such a far-reaching program in the absence of more abundant research has left many experts full of doubts.

“I wish it had been called the America Tutors initiative,” Mr. Slavin of Johns Hopkins said. “But if you are creating the expectation that all children are going to learn to read through the use of tutors, it’s just not going to happen.”

Teaching a Nation to Read

Sampling of Privately Operated Literacy Programs

HIPPY (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters) USA
Teachers College, Columbia University
Box 113
525 W. 120th St.
New York, N.Y. 10027
(212) 678-3500

Assists parents in providing home instruction to preschool children.

  • Founded: 1984
  • Participants: 15,000 families nationwide.
  • Budget: About $1,300 per child.

National Center for Family Literacy
Waterfront Plaza, Suite 200
325 W. Main St.
Louisville, Ky. 40202-4251
(502) 584-1133

Promotes family literacy through a combination of early-childhood and adult-education programs as a way to combat illiteracy and poverty.

  • Founded: 1989
  • Participants: 50,000 families nationwide.
  • Budget: $6 million.

Parents as Teachers
10176 Corporate Square Drive, Suite 230
St. Louis, Mo. 63132
(314) 432-4330

Early-childhood and family- education program assists parents in choosing and using appropriate books for children from birth to age 5.

  • Founded: 1981
  • Participants: More than 250,000 families nationwide.
  • Budget: Averages $660 per child.

Reading Is Fundamental
600 Maryland Ave. S.W., Suite 600
Washington, D.C. 20024
(202) 287-3220

Network of local projects that provides books, tutors, and other resources for children and families to assist young readers.

  • Founded: 1966
  • Participants: 220,000 volunteers, 3.8 million children nationwide.
  • Budget: Not available.

Reading Recovery
Ohio State University
200 Ramseyer Hall
29 W. Woodruff Ave.
Columbus, Ohio 43210
(614) 292-7807

Provides certified reading teachers to guide lowest-achieving 1st graders through reading and writing activities outside the classroom.

  • Founded: 1970s
  • Participants: 15,000 teachers and 81,000 1st graders in 49 states.
  • Budget: N.A.

Success for All
Johns Hopkins University
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, Md. 21218-2498
(410) 516-8896

Certified teachers integrate tutoring program for lowest-achieving 1st and 2nd graders with structured classroom curriculum to improve reading skills.

  • Founded: 1987
  • Participants: 473 schools in 31 states.
  • Budget: N.A.

Federal Literacy-Related Programs

Targeted Literacy Programs

  • Adult Education State Grants, local adult education classes: $345.3 million
  • Adult Education National Programs, evaluation and technical assistance: $5.0 million
  • Even Start, family-centered education projects and literacy training for parents$102.0 million
  • Inexpensive Book Distribution (Reading Is Fundamental), book distribution to encourage children to read. $10.3 million
  • Literacy Programs for Prisoners, programs for the incarcerated and institutionalized: $4.7 million
  • National Institute for Literacy, studies of learners’ needs; literacy-awareness promotion: $4.5 million
  • National Writing Project, improving the teaching of writing: $3.1 million

Programs With Broader Purposes

  • Title I, assistance to state agencies for remedial education programs for disadvantaged children: $7.2 billion
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special education and related services for children identified as disabled: $3.1 billion
  • Bilingual Education, support services and professional development: $156.7 million
  • Immigrant Education, education-related programs for new immigrants: $100.0 million
  • Educational Research and Development: $72.8 million
  • AmeriCorps, tuition aid in exchange for community service, including tutoring: $402.5 million
  • Head Start, early-childhood-development services: $4.0 billion
  • Retired Senior Volunteer Program, matches volunteers with community service: $35.7 million

NOTE: Reading is Fundamental receives funding from both private and federal sources.
Figures listed under programs with broader purposes are for the full program, not the literacy portion of the program.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; House Education and the Workforce Committee.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1997 edition of Education Week as Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned

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