Reading & Literacy

Group Seeks Federal Probe of Reading First

By Sean Cavanagh — August 05, 2005 4 min read
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The Reading Recovery Council of North America, which represents a popular nationwide program for struggling learners, has asked the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general to investigate the agency’s signature reading initiative, known as Reading First.

In a letter written Aug. 4, the Reading Recovery organization requests an examination of the way grants are awarded through the hugely influential federal program, which has a $1 billion annual budget.

The request accuses the department, which oversees Reading First, of supporting “a quiet yet pervasive misinformation campaign” against the Reading Recovery program, despite what its supporters see as its long-standing record of accomplishment. The letter echoes some of the complaints lodged by another prominent reading group, the Success for All Foundation, in June, as well as earlier assertions by other critics.

“There are a lot of organizations and people out there who are looking at Reading First and its impact on children,” Connie Briggs, the Reading Recovery Council’s president, said in an interview last week. “We felt like we had to take a stand.”

Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey declined to comment in detail on the council’s letter. “We stand by our program,” she said in an e-mail to Education Week.

Dictating the Curriculum?

The council, located in Columbus, Ohio, cites four areas of concern in its 10-page letter. It charges that Reading First has “systematically undermined” legal restrictions that forbid the federal government from dictating state and school district curricula. A second complaint is that the department has discouraged the one-to-one teacher-to-student instructional approach favored by Reading Recovery.

The letter also accuses the Education Department of selectively implementing Reading First’s call for “scientifically based research.” And finally, the council asserts that the federal agency has ignored the research supporting Reading Recovery.

Despite the council’s concerns, officials in many states have said they are benefiting from the Reading First program. While they say that solid data on the program’s performance is limited, state officials have reported gains in professional development, support services, and instructional services through the program, which, as of earlier this summer, had served an estimated 4,700 schools. Department officials have also said they are seeing positive results at the state and local level.

Launched in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, Reading First is expected to guide the flow of as much as $6 billion in federal spending over six years. A core tenet of the program is that only reading strategies backed by solid, scientifically based research will receive federal money. Under Reading First, states apply for grant funding from the federal government to support reading programs. The money then flows to selected schools and districts.

Yet the department’s criteria for judging reading programs have come under scrutiny from critics, who contend that it favors programs with ties to a relatively small group of consultants and commercial products.

Critics also maintain that the criteria narrowly and inconsistently define what programs are based on scientific research, rejecting strategies with proven records of accomplishment.

Dollars and Doubt

Since its introduction in the United States in the mid-1980s, Reading Recovery has served more than 1 million elementary school children, and is in place in about 8,600 schools. The program focuses on struggling 1st graders, who work one-on-one with teachers in daily 30-minute lessons for a 12- to 20-week period.

But critics say Reading Recovery pupils show little academic gain relative to those in other programs. They charge that Reading Recovery is too expensive, and does not focus enough on developing phonemic awareness—the understanding that words are composed of sounds and letters.

Reading Recovery advocates say their approach is backed by broad research, some of which they cite in the letter to the Education Department. They assert that the agency has “spread doubt” about Reading Recovery’s effectiveness. Ms. Briggs said critics undermined the program through “word of mouth,” rather than through written or official policy.

In June, Success for All, based at Johns Hopkins University, requested an investigation of the federal program. (“Complaint Filed Against Reading Initiative,” June 22, 2005)

Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, said despite complaints about Reading First, his own organization’s research had found “quite a bit of variability” in the types of strategies the federal program supports.

Mr. Farstrup, whose Newark, Del.-based organization represents reading teachers, said Reading Recovery’s complaint would most likely draw a “wait-and-see” response from reading advocates.

“Clearly, it’s an expensive program, but one that has an extensive track record,” Mr. Farstrup said about Reading Recovery.

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week

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