Reading First is Dead

  • 24 June, 2008

Two very interesting reports came across my desk yesterday--within minutes of each other.

  The first one was an Education Week story that said the House Appropriations committee intended to kill off Reading First.

This is no surprise since Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., is the chair of that committee and he has shown a strong penchant for using his power for political reasons with little regard for educational needs. He has been anti-Reading First for a long time (mainly, I suspect, because it was proposed by a Republican), and the unfortunate management problems along with the recent interim report (see my earlier Reading First blog) make it easy for him to play politics with this. Lots of Congressmen will be sad to see Reading First go, since their home districts like it, but Obey will make this pill go down easier by expanding Title I funding (more money to schools that still aren't sure how to spend it in ways that will help kids).

  A little later I received a press release from the U.S. Department of Education: NEW READING FIRST DATA FROM STATES SHOWS IMPRESSIVE GAINS IN READING PROFICIENCY.

This report claims that "students from nearly every grade and every subgroup show improvement" and goes on to report on information drawn from the states. This study provides a picture of Reading First very much at odds with the one evaluated in the recent Institute of Education Sciences study that found no reading comprehension improvement. According to these new data, kids improved in reading comprehension, second language kids improved, etc. and these gains were big.

  So what does all that mean? In science, when you have conflicting data, you sharpen your pencil and try to figure out how to collect new data that will resolve the differences. In politics, you hold a finger up in the air and try to determine which way the wind might be blowing. I suspect Congressman Obey's finger is going to win the day over any scientific approach. Translation: Reading First is dead. It could have withstood the corruption described in the Inspector General's report or the interim impact study--but not both!

  Under the circumstances, "Reading First" is politically toxic, no matter how effective it may be or how popular with the schools. I doubt that any candidate can easily embrace Reading First (Senator Obama seems to have enough money and a large enough margin in the election that he could afford to take a risk on it, but he didn't embrace Reading First when it would have been easy to do so, so I wouldn't look for any support there). His proposals for reforming education have a lot more to do with increasing funding and improving the tests than rethinking curriculum, professional development, or interventions for struggling kids (I documented his education views in an earlier blog).

  So, if I am right that Reading First is dead, where are we? I hope that everyone will think of Reading First as only a first salvo in a much-needed rethinking of Title I spending. The demise of Reading First will simply mean that we need a second attempt to rethink Title I spending (one that again will provide strong guidance to states and local districts in how to expend certain additional funds in ways more likely to raise reading achievement than what the districts have been doing on their own). This new effort has to be different from Reading First, but clearly based on lessons learned from it. That means, those aspects of Reading First that were positive (and there were many), need to be preserved--and those that were problematic need to be rethought. I described some key changes that I thought were necessary for a second attempt at using federal money to improve schools and not just fund them.

  The idea of this new Reading effort would be three-fold: (1) to try to immediately and powerfully improve a small set of struggling schools (something Reading First might have been doing, but it is impossible to be sure given the conflicting evidence); (2) to serve as an immediate model for all Title I schools to start trying to emulate now (as they so clearly did with Reading First--look at the degree of emulation described in the Reading First implementation study); and (3) to ultimately identify a set of policies that will eventually become requirements for all Title I schools (we cannot continue to spend more than $15 billion of federal money each year in high poverty schools without a sound educational return for that money--Congressman Obey might think that is okay to continue like this, but it has been a meat grinder for poor children!)


See what others have to say about this topic.

Carol Jul 02, 2017 01:59 AM


::sigh:: Yet another reason why I'm not expecting any great changes to come from either side of the political isle. At least it gives the idea of social business in the education sector more credance. Its the only way to circumvent most of the political process.

Paresh Jul 02, 2017 02:00 AM


nice article.

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Reading First is Dead


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.