Reading & Literacy

‘Reading First’ Funds Headed for Extinction

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Alyson Klein — July 15, 2008 6 min read
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Many educators and researchers thought that reports of the positive effects of Reading First would prove the program worth continuing, administrative problems aside. So the decision last month by House and Senate panels to eliminate its funding in the fiscal 2009 budget—a move likely to doom the program unless intervening action restores it—came as a blow to proponents.

Now, federal, state, and local officials are scrambling to figure out how to sustain the program, or at least some of the instructional changes it fueled.

The prospect of the demise of Reading First does not necessarily point to the end of a federal role in improving reading instruction. Early Reading First, a preschool literacy program, for example, is budgeted for $112.5 million in both the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Appropriations subcommittee’s versions of the fiscal 2009 budget. Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have supported its goals of Reading First.

And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has not ruled out other federal efforts for tackling the nation’s reading problems.

“It is perfectly appropriate for the federal government to have a role in reading instruction,” Semonti Mustaphi, a spokeswoman for Sen. Harkin, who chairs the Senate subcommittee dealing with education spending, said in an e-mail. “We just have to make sure that federal reading programs are set up in such a way that they will produce good results. With Reading First, that doesn’t seem to have happened.”

At the state level, meanwhile, Louisiana lawmakers, for example, approved a $12.5 million program last month to restore Reading First funding in more than 100 of the state’s elementary schools and expand it to some 40 others. Colorado and other states are using surpluses from previous years’ grant allocations to continue the program for at least another year.

Reading First was created under the No Child Left Behind Act. State grants were financed at about $1 billion a year until last December, when federal lawmakers, citing allegations of mismanagement, slashed it to $393 million for fiscal 2008.

Last-minute advocacy efforts did not persuade lawmakers to reconsider the cuts. (“Advocates Say NCLB’s ‘Comparability’ Provision is in Need of Fine-Tuning,” June 27, 2008.)

In his push to zero out funding, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, cited management problems within the program and disappointing results of a preliminary federal evaluation.

Reading First “has been plagued with mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and cronyism, as documented by the inspector general,” Rep. Obey said, referring to a series of reports released by the Department of Education’s inspector general in 2006 and 2007 that suggested some federal officials and contractors involved in implementing the program had conflicts of interest and appeared to favor some commercial products over others.

“Moreover, a scientifically rigorous study released by the Department of Education found that the program has no discernible impact on student reading performance,” Rep. Obey, who is also the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles education funding, said in a reference to the evaluation released May 1 by the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the department. (“‘Reading First’ Research Offers No Definitive Answers,” June 4, 2008.)

The interim impact study concluded that the $1 billion in annual funding for the program had had no effect on students’ reading comprehension. The study did not evaluate the effect on overall reading achievement in participating schools. The final report, due this fall, is expected to have additional data comparing Reading First schools with nonparticipating ones in the same districts.

Gains Noted

Proponents of the program have tried to highlight results of several federal and independent reports and surveys that show Reading First is improving instruction and raising achievement in many of the nearly 6,000 participating schools. And many point to anecdotal reports of rapidly rising test scores.

Reading First Chronology

January 2002: President Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law, and federal officials kick off the Reading First program in a series of workshops and video presentations.

March 2002: Publishers’ representatives and reading organizations ask the U.S. Department of Education to clarify Reading First rules, saying that many state officials believe there is a list of approved programs and products they must purchase for participating schools. The department says no such list exists.

April 2005: Publishers file complaints with the Education Department’s inspector general charging that federal officials were promoting the use of some commercial texts and assessments in Reading First programs, while discouraging others.

September 2005: The Education Department’s inspector general opens a broad inquiry into complaints about the Reading First program. A month later, Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate education committee ask the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to conduct its own review of the program.

September 2006: The first of six inspector general reports concludes that some federal officials and consultants may have had conflicts of interest and appeared to promote certain products that they were associated with.

May 2007: Congress grills federal officials and consultants in hearings highlighting the findings of the inspector general reports.

December 2007: Congress cuts the Reading First budget by 61 percent, to $364 million for fiscal 2008.

May 2008: A federal evaluation commissioned by the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, finds that the $1 billion-a-year funding for Reading First had no measurable effect on students’ reading comprehension.

June 2008: House and Senate appropriations panels vote to eliminate all funding for Reading First.

SOURCE: Education Week

Rep. James Walsh of New York, the top Republican on the education spending subcommittee in the House, said that Rep. Obey’s description of the findings of the study “doesn’t track with my experience” of the program. Schools around his Syracuse congressional district reported that the program had raised student achievement “very, very quickly,” he said.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings urged lawmakers to reconsider their decision. State-reported performance data for the program indicate “impressive gains in reading comprehension,” she wrote in a June 25 letter to leaders of both chambers’ committees on appropriations and education.

The gains were across grades 1, 2, and 3 and for most subgroups of students. The analysis is not a rigorous study, however, and it averages data that are generally not comparable because all states do not use the same tests and may set different benchmarks for proficiency. The data are from annual performance reports submitted by each state and have not been verified as accurate.

‘Politically Toxic’

Members of the federal Reading First Advisory Committee, which met in Washington last month to review the IES study, were alarmed that lawmakers appeared to be basing the decision on what they described as misinformation about the IES findings. The panel of researchers drafted a statement to request that Congress “refrain from eliminating funding for Reading First” until the researchers could analyze all the available data and try to clear up confusion about the program’s effectiveness.

“We have concerns about the limitations of the study that preclude drawing firm conclusions,” Susan Brady, a member of the advisory committee, said at the June 23 meeting. The statement was forwarded to the Senate Appropriations Committee a day before it voted, without discussion, to follow the House subcommittee’s recommendation to kill funding. (“Senate Panel Also Votes to Kill Funds for ‘Reading First,’” June 24, 2008.)

Both panels, though, voted to continue funding Early Reading First, which provides grants to about 100 public and private prekindergarten programs, at $112.5 million.

Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has worked as a consultant to the Reading First program in several states, called the program “politically toxic.”

“Reading First is dead,” he writes on his blog, www.shanahanonliteracy.com. “It could have withstood the corruption described in the inspector general’s report or the interim impact study—but not both!”

Mr. Shanahan, a member of the influential National Reading Panel, whose 2000 report helped shape federal reading policy, said inserting new requirements in the federal Title I program for schools to use proven instructional methods to teach reading could help preserve the positive aspects of Reading First. The House and Senate panels both included small increases for Title I, which serves disadvantaged students, in the fiscal 2009 budget: a little more than 4 percent, for a total of more than $14 billion. Some of that extra money could go toward reading instruction, Ms. Mustaphis said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Reading First’ Funds Headed for Extinction

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