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Curriculum Letter to the Editor

‘Reading First’ Interim Report Prompts Larger Questions

June 15, 2008 2 min read
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To the Editor:

After six years, billions of dollars, and many young victims, politicians are realizing Reading First is an unworkable program (“Reading First Doesn’t Help Pupils ‘Get It,’” May 7, 2008). When the Bush administration finally sponsored a study to see if Reading First improved reading comprehension, the interim report showed no benefit.

The flawed study compared Reading First students to a control group. But we’re not told what instruction those pupils received. That has led many of us to play the “What if?” game.

Congress mandated, in Reading First, a single methodology, and the U.S. Department of Education gave power to interpret it to a small group of ideologues. But what if the law had let schools choose from alternatives including the much-maligned whole language? We know now that the extreme Reading First approach didn’t produce comprehension. If a variety of methods had been supported, we could have compared their results regularly.

Instead, we had claims, made on the basis of scores from the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, that Reading First was successful. Yes, it was successful at teaching kids to respond to nonsense items in three seconds, and to rush through incoherent texts calling the names of words. But it didn’t help learners make sense of print.

Reading First has created an atmosphere of coercion and intimidation. Teachers have been punished for raising questions during their “training.” What if teachers could have chosen a school that used methods they believed in? What if the tests and texts mandated by Reading First had gone through the review process states and districts traditionally employed? None of the absurd materials forced into the schools could have passed review.

What if even half of the billions of dollars misused by the Reading First profiteers had funded a full range of programs evaluated by unbiased third parties?

The answer to these “what ifs” is clear. We would know much more about effective instruction. We would have much happier students, teachers, and parents. We would not be losing dedicated teachers who won’t teach in ways they believe hurt kids. Urban districts would not be closing schools because they fail to meet unachievable goals. And we wouldn’t have kids labeled as failures in their first week of kindergarten.

Kenneth S. Goodman

Professor Emeritus

Department of Language, Reading, and Culture

College of Education

University of Arizona

Tucson, Ariz.

A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Reading First’ Interim Report Prompts Larger Questions

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