Reading & Literacy

States Unclear On ESEA Rules About Reading

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Erik W. Robelen — May 01, 2002 7 min read
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Lawmakers, reading experts, and publishers are urging the Department of Education to clarify reading requirements under the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, amid widespread perceptions that a small number of commercial programs will win favor while other popular approaches might be discouraged or spurned.

In recent letters to Secretary of Education Rod Paige and at a congressional hearing last week, policymakers and reading organizations raised concerns that state education officials are getting the message that they can improve their chances of receiving their share of $900 million in Reading First money by ordering school districts to use particular products and materials.

“Many of the writing teams for the [Reading First state applications] have gained the understanding that approval will be expedited if, in their state competitions, they indicate a competitive preference for particular commercial programs,” Donna Ogle, the president of the 80,000-member International Reading Association, wrote Mr. Paige last month. “This belief has been fostered by comments and examples offered by department staff at public meetings and events.”

Reading First is part of the new federal education law, which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. States must submit applications, beginning next month, detailing plans for improving reading achievement through research-based instruction.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, several lawmakers who played central roles in the reauthorization of the ESEA grilled Education Department officials last week on the guidelines they are providing states.

At an April 23 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, two top Education Department officials were questioned about the perceived limited scope of the federal agency’s reading- leadership academies and accompanying background materials.

Those materials emphasize the importance of programs and strategies that focus on classroom instruction. Some state officials, however, have complained that such a distinction might preclude them from using locally developed initiatives or from incorporating supplemental programs—such as Reading Recovery, a one-on-one tutoring program—into their reading plans.

Susan B. Neuman

“Our districts are telling [us] that based on everything they’re getting from the Reading Leadership Academies, from the directives coming out of the department, federal dollars are not going to be welcomed in the use of nonclassroom-based reading programs,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told Susan B. Neuman, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Other committee members disputed the department’s interpretation of the ESEA’s reading provisions.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, one of the Democratic architects of the legislation, said the law is clear that small-group instruction and individual-tutoring programs are allowed under Reading First.

And Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the guidelines should be revised to ensure that programs such as Reading Recovery, which is used in 49 states to serve some 150,000 struggling readers annually, can be incorporated into state proposals.

No Approved List?

But Ms. Neuman assured the committee that while the Reading First grant recipients would have to meet rigorous guidelines for ensuring that their reading plans are based on scientific evidence of what works best in reading instruction, states and districts would have considerable flexibility in decisions on curriculum and instruction.

“We do not have a list or a suggested list of programs,” said Ms. Neuman. “The state has to write a proposal that focuses on the scientific basis of reading and the five component parts of reading.”

She suggested that Reading Recovery, and other supplemental programs, could be included in a state’s reading plan, as long as they were part of a comprehensive, skills-based initiative.

“Reading Recovery has a place at the table,” Ms. Neuman told the committee. “But it cannot be the only thing, because it’s not a comprehensive program.”

Moreover, states can continue to use other resources—including federal Title I money and allocations from state programs—to pay for reading efforts that are not financed by Reading First. Title I, the flagship federal program for disadvantaged students, is also paid for out of the ESEA pot.

The legislation forbids the federal government to “mandate, direct, or control a state, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction. ...”

Reading First was drafted using the findings of the National Reading Panel, which released an influential report in 2000 identifying five key components for effective reading instruction: 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. The panel reviewed only those studies that were peer-reviewed and had produced measurable and replicable results. (“Reading Panel Urges Phonics For All in K-6,” April 19, 2000.)

That report figured prominently in the development of reading-leadership academies hosted by the department this past winter for state education leaders and reading experts. While department officials and consultants to the academies took care not to recommend any program by name, many workshop participants said the underlying message added up to an endorsement of scripted, off-the-shelf programs from commercial publishers.

Publishers Concerned

Now, publishers’ representatives are also complaining about the information that is being circulated. Patricia S. Schroeder, the president of the Association of American Publishers, expressed her constituents’ worries in a March 15 letter to Secretary Paige.

“The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has received numerous reports from various states that indicate there is a widespread misunderstanding about the number of reading programs which would qualify as scientifically research based,” the former Democratic congresswoman wrote.

“I am requesting the department issue a written letter of guidance” she continued, “on what publishers were told verbally at [a March meeting with Education Department officials] that there would be no ‘approved list’ nor would Reading First grant applications be disapproved simply because of the reading program they are using.”

In his response, Mr. Paige said the guidelines outline the “considerable flexibility” states have in funneling grants to districts that meet the legislation’s criteria.

But critics of Reading First say there is an inherent bias in the legislation toward Direct Instruction and Open Court, two highly scripted reading series published by the New York City-based McGraw-Hill Cos. Those programs have earned a reputation as having the research base required under Reading First. (“Some Educators See Reading Rules as Too Restrictive,” Feb. 20, 2002.

Ultimately, panels of researchers and other reading experts will decide which state applications adequately address the criteria and contain sufficient accountability measures. Each state can apply for a portion of the Reading First money, which will be allocated under a poverty-based formula. Grants will range from a low of about $2.2 million apiece for Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia, to a high of $133 million for California.

Panels will be selected within the next few weeks by representatives of the department, the National Institute for Literacy, the National Research Council, and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. The NICHD, which is a branch of the federal government, oversaw the reading panel’s report. The literacy institute is an independent federal organization, and the research council is a private, nonprofit group, though chartered by Congress.

Observers are anxiously awaiting the selection of the panel, which some fear will not include a range of views on effective instruction.

“The buzz in the profession is that there are only certain people on their approved list [of panelists],” said Richard Long, a lobbyist for the International Reading Association. “There are plenty of qualified people out there, and we’re real concerned that those panels be put together carefully to bring a lot of different points of view that are still evidence-oriented.”

In late April, the Education Department was overseeing writing workshops for teams of state representatives as they worked on final applications for the Reading First grants. The department is also dispatching experts around the country to provide states with technical assistance.

Despite the concerns, many state officials appear confident that their proposals will win approval even if they are not overly prescriptive in their approach to reading instruction.

“Under our state constitution, we cannot mandate curriculum, so I started formulating [our state] application on that basis,” said Jana Fornstrom, an early-literacy specialist for the Wyoming education department. “We took our application, the first draft, to the writing workshop to help identify any gaps.”

After getting feedback from federal Education Department staff members and consultants, she added, “we felt much more comfortable about submitting our application without mandating programs.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as States Unclear On ESEA Rules About Reading

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