Reading & Literacy

Federal Program Will Test States’ Reading Policies

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 19, 2002 11 min read
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The states that are applying for their share of $900 million in grants under a new federal reading program may be headed for a rude awakening.

See the accompanying table, “State Reading Programs,” compiled through interviews with state officials in a 50-state Education Week survey. The table is available in a PDF version and an Excel version.

A recent national survey by Education Week shows that officials in most states believe their existing plans to improve reading will meet many requirements of President Bush’s Reading First initiative. As states scrambled to meet the June 12 application deadline, many were already making plans for spending the money to expand, enhance, or supplement their own efforts, the survey found.

But some policy analysts warn that such confidence may be premature, and contend that few states have taken the intensive approach that Reading First demands.

For example, even though a majority of states have implemented statewide reading initiatives, observers say that many of the efforts are not based on empirical research. Nor have states used specific data to gauge their effectiveness, as Reading First requires.

“I think it’s going to be a shock to states when they submit [their applications] to the peer- review process” for Reading First grants, said Melanie Pritchett, the assistant commissioner for statewide initiatives at the Texas Education Agency. The Texas Reading Initiative, created by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1996, has served as a model for the federal program.

“In Texas, it’s ‘In God we trust, ... but everyone else bring data,’” Ms. Pritchett continued. “It’s going to be like defending a dissertation, while in the past you could put all the buzzwords in [your grant application] and get by.”

State Initiatives

According to the Education Week survey, 35 states have created or are developing reading initiatives paid for with state money to help districts improve reading achievement through teacher professional development, instructional materials, remedial programs, tutoring, and other services.

All but 10 of those states say they require or encourage districts to adhere to strategies that have been proved effective through research, but those efforts may not meet federal standards.

“Oh I wish it were so when it comes to alignment,” said Susan B. Neuman, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education. “Some of the initiatives are not designed for the population we’re focusing on. They’re much broader and more global.”

Conducted over the past two months, the Education Week survey asked state education department officials to outline the components of state- financed reading initiatives, as well as their plans for aligning those programs with Reading First.

Most states have allocated some money in recent years—from $320,000 in New Hampshire to $100 million or more in Texas and Oregon for fiscal 2002—to encourage districts to take a range of approaches to improving reading instruction and achievement.

In general, the state programs provide money to local districts and schools either based on enrollment and other factors or through competitive grants.

Most states do not prescribe how districts spend the aid; some states are prohibited by their constitutions or by statute from dictating curriculum or instructional methods. Still, many states encourage districts to incorporate elements that some researchers deem essential to effective instruction, such as the explicit teaching of basic reading skills.

Many of the efforts followed news in the 1990s of disappointing student performance on national reading tests: In 1994, some 40 percent of 4th graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading did not have basic grade- level skills.

Policymakers in several of the low-performing states vowed to turn around their dismal NAEP scores. California, which ranked at the bottom, began targeting money for instructional materials and professional development that emphasized basic skills, such as phonics.

Then, in 1996, President Clinton launched a national campaign to combat the nation’s reading woes when he proposed spending nearly $3 billion to recruit an army of 1 million reading tutors.

While that program never came fully to fruition, its replacement, the Reading Excellence Act, provided some $260 million in state block grants to encourage improved teacher training and classroom instruction based on the latest empirical research.

Next, in 1998, Congress convened the National Reading Panel to review research in the field and provide recommendations for focusing on research-backed strategies and programs.

Federal Guidelines

The national panel’s 2000 report has influenced Reading First, which is part of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

States receiving Reading First grants will be required to incorporate all five components of effective reading instruction outlined in that report: phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters), phonics (a technique to help youngsters make those associations), fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

Under Reading First, each state can apply for a portion of the money, which will be allocated based on student-enrollment figures. Grants will range from a low of about $2.2 million each for Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia, to a high of $133 million for California.

States must submit detailed applications to the department of education outlining their proposals to establish comprehensive reading programs that fit the strict requirements in the law. They must include plans for distributing grant money to schools with large numbers of disadvantaged or low-performing students, and for tracking recipients’ compliance with program rules and progress in raising student achievement.

As of late last week 31 states had submitted applications for the program, according to Christopher Doherty, director of Reading First. Officials could not say when the first awards will be announced.

Panels of reading researchers and educators will review the applications to determine if they adequately address the criteria and contain sufficient accountability measures. States that do not make the cut will get further help in rewriting their proposals.

While the federal legislation includes specific guidelines for determining the scientific basis for a reading strategy, few states have done so in their own initiatives, says Kristie Kauerz, the program coordinator for early childhood for the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver.

“While half of the states encourage research-based strategies, it’s not clearly defined in their policies just what that means,” she said.

The ECS has completed a survey of state reading policies and programs. The database, which will be unveiled next month at the group’s annual conference, will provide information on each state.

States that have multiple reading programs or piecemeal efforts will face the additional challenge of aligning those programs with each other and with Reading First, Ms. Kauerz said.

Moreover, she added, each state receiving Reading First money will need a plan for a “leadership team” composed of high-level government and education officials, and representatives of community groups—something that no state has done. The teams will serve as advisory boards on implementation and evaluation of state plans.

Federal education officials have said that the federal grants will be awarded only to states that can meet program requirements and ensure local compliance.

As part of the application, states must carefully document and evaluate their various initiatives. State officials have learned, Mr. Doherty said, that there’s a lot to do in aligning current programs with Reading First guidelines.

“Rather than this being a reflection on things that are broken, we want them to look at the more specific requirements of this targeted K-3 reading program,” he said. “It is encouraging that state folks are talking about this issue of sensibly combining Reading First components with complementary [state]components.”

Officials’ Concerns

Reading First replaces the Reading Excellence Act, which was passed by Congress in 1998. Reading Excellence provided states grants to support local professional- development and family-literacy programs faithful to the latest research findings on how children learn to read.

But federal officials were generally dissatisfied with how states distributed the money to districts, and the lack of accountability. Some states, whose applications were rejected, never received grants from that program.

Now, the stricter standards federal officials promise to use in reviewing Reading First applications have raised concerns among some state officials, who fear that such standards will undermine their current efforts, even if they’re working well

“Our state doesn’t want to change what we’re doing,” said Janelle Toman, a spokeswoman for the South Dakota education department. The state wants federal aid, she said, but officials are hopeful that the success of its current reading programs will allow for some flexibility in applying the Reading First specifications.

Reading First’s focus on high-poverty schools, Ms. Toman said, “is not coherent with our beliefs about addressing the needs of everyone.” But Education Department officials said last week that the program’s focus on students at risk of reading failure is deliberate, and reviewers will look for strict adherence.

Meanwhile, the Reading First money may exert more influence in some states than was thought: The national economic downturn has put literacy initiatives at risk, particularly in states that spend a lot on them, making federal aid especially welcome.

Budget Woes’ Effect

Indeed, some states will rely solely on Reading First to pay for reading initiatives.

A budget crisis in Oregon forced the legislature to eliminate the $110 million School Improvement Fund beginning next fall. The program is aimed at improving reading instruction statewide. If that money is not restored, Oregon could have little more than its $7.4 million Reading First allocation to continue its efforts to raise reading achievement.

Other state initiatives, such as those in Michigan, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, expire at the end of this year or next and are not likely to be renewed under current budget conditions.

And California officials are debating if Reading First funds can replace state aid that has paid for teacher training in reading.

As budget debates continue to consume state leaders, similar ideas are likely around the country, Ms. Kauerz of the ECS said.

Despite wide concern that Reading First might limit recipients’ instructional options, many representatives of state education departments seem confident they will not have to significantly change their existing programs to meet the federal requirements.

“Our state reading initiative is currently aligned with Reading First,” wrote one respondent to the Education Week survey. “We anticipate Reading First funds will enrich and expand our current state efforts.”

Other states, such as Alaska, Florida, and Hawaii, are developing entirely new programs designed for the federal initiative.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Just Read, Florida! includes intensive training for every elementary school teacher in the state in the five components identified by the National Reading Panel. While the governor has asked for $10 million from the state budget, the plan is counting on some $45 million in Reading First aid as well.

Few Are Adequate

Few current state programs, however, are adequate to meet the Reading First mandate, outside experts say, adding that even those states considered models for the federal plan must change.

“A lot of these state initiatives are not unlike what Reading First calls for in a general sense,” said Cecil Miskel, a researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has closely followed the development and implementation of reading initiatives in nine states. But even those perceived as models may not match the federal guidelines closely enough, he said.

The Texas initiative, for example, is perceived by many as all but guaranteed to receive its $79 million under Reading First.

The information and training materials that the Texas Education Agency has devised for teachers will be made available to other states later this summer. Ms. Pritchett of the TEA has been active in federal training sessions and advised officials in other states on drawing up research- based programs.

But Texas is taking nothing for granted, she says. A component is being added to train principals to understand the reading process and the research findings upon which Reading First is based. State officials are also trying to encourage education professors to incorporate that information into their classes for preservice teachers.

After receiving Reading First grants, states may find it hard to monitor and enforce compliance, Mr. Miskel said.

“The states are going to write the proposals and say what they have to [in order to] get the money,” he said. “But when they go back to the districts, they are not going to be able monitor.”

The legislation requires that districts and states carefully document how they use the money and what results they can attribute to their efforts. And independent auditors will also be asked to review programs subsidized by the grants.

But Mr. Miskel noted that federal officials have had difficulty forcing compliance with the ESEA in the past: “There are limitations to what the federal government can or should tell Mrs. Jones to do when the door closes.”

But Robert W. Sweet, a reading expert on the staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, believes Reading First will build on the progress of previous and existing efforts.

“Those who choose to simply use Reading First money to continue to do the same thing will continue to produce many students who can’t read,” he said. “The bottom line is there is a willingness on the part of many to actually take a careful, hard look at what is being done in the classroom, and see if all the children who could learn to read are learning to read.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Federal Program Will Test States’ Reading Policies


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