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Structure, Monterrori

"R" Stands for Reading Rat Race

By Nancy Salvato

Monday, October 23, 2006

In the Summer of 2001 Dame Marie Clay, creator of the New Zealand based Reading Recovery program, and her entourage came to the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, to speak with House Education Committee Staffer Bob Sweet. Her purpose was to ascertain whether Reading Recovery would be eligible for Reading First funding once the bill was passed. Bob explained to Ms. Clay that explicit, systematic phonics instruction had to be included in any program eligible for RF funding because it was one of the necessary key components of reading instruction that had been established through decades of carefully conducted quantitative research. These findings had been validated in the Report of the National Reading Panel in 2000 and were now going to become an essential part of the Reading First Law. He pleaded with Ms. Clay to use her extensive network of teacher training programs all over the US to help in the implementation of the RF program. He encouraged her to provide the leadership within the RR family to make the modifications necessary, and thus make RR eligible for RF funding consideration.

With a stare as cold as ice, Marie Clay replied that RR would not be making any changes to their program; however, Mr. Sweet could be certain a new description of its components would be written in such a way as to bring it into compliance with the RF law. Momentarily dumbfounded, he maintained that Reading Recovery could not be eligible for RF funding without modification, and his initial estimation then still stands today.

A little background about Clay's Reading Recovery program reveals it to be a very expensive program to implement, averaging more than $8,000 per student per year when the expense of teacher development is considered. This cost is more than one whole year of education in all subjects for one student in many districts around the country, yet, only the lowest 10 to 20 percent of first graders is even eligible for such services. It seems hardly worth implementing given that students who complete the first grade Reading Recovery sequence lose much of their gains, and that unpaid trained volunteers can prepare students to perform equally as well. Given the importance of explicit phonics instruction for the poorest readers, it shouldn't be shocking that they make almost zero gains when instructed with Reading Recovery. Students who do not respond have been found to be weak in decoding skills because phonics instruction in Reading Recovery is not sufficiently explicit and systematic.

Interestingly, New Zealand researchers found that adding an explicit phonics component to a standard Reading Recovery intervention reduced the time required to complete the program by about 30%.

President Bush initiated Reading First soon after he took office. It marked the first time that the findings of scientific research became the basis of federal law. This research dealt with teaching methods, brain function; positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and many other aspects of reading research that were summarized in the Report of the National Reading Panel in 2000. The findings of this extensive 30 year long effort to discover how children learn to read concluded that changes could be made in instructional practices to apply those findings in the classroom and to offer both prospective and veteran teachers the tools they need to succeed. Its objective was to change the teaching of reading from the latest fad to instruction based on scientific evidence.

The practical application of the research boiled down to the identification of five essential components of reading instruction. Those components are: phonemic awareness; phonics; vocabulary development; fluency, including oral reading fluency; and comprehension strategies. If taught explicitly and systematically children could learn to read proficiently.

These five components of reading instruction were written into law (Sec. 1208 (3)) and became the heart and soul of Reading First. This was the measure which states were to use in the proposals and applications they submitted to the Reading First Office. It was up to the states to choose products that would fit the new standard. It is not astounding that this law spurred an internal feud within the education industry.

Chris Doherty, the Director of Reading First who was asked to resign in the aftermath of the release of the Inspector General's Report on Reading First's grant application process, was faced with an enormous task. He and his two assistants had to develop state application forms, guidance documents (which were approved by staff on both the House and Senate Education Committees), review panels, and training sessions making sure that all states knew the deadlines for applying for their share of funds. Then, the real work began with the review of state applications to make sure they were in compliance with the new law. Unfortunately, many of the states sent back their applications and proposed they use the ‚─˛same ole, same ole' reading programs used up until then. The Reading First law was different because it required states to change practices that had been used for decades, and voluntarily use reading programs that were consistent with the latest findings of scientific reading research. For example one state wanted to use the new money from Reading First to pave parking lots; another submitted requests to use the money for library books, and still others wanted to use the old basal textbooks, which did not follow the findings of scientifically based reading research. Some states did not want to submit specific products they would use for Reading First classrooms and simply gave their assurance that they would comply with the law. Other states actually did include programs that met the standards of Reading First, but had little leverage to insist that local educational agencies comply with the requirements of Reading First. There was resistance up and down the line to voluntarily adopting reading programs which included the essential components of reading instruction.

In spite of the challenges in implementing the new law, Director Doherty and his small staff did an outstanding job. Reports are now coming in that make clear Reading First is making a substantive improvement in reducing illiteracy in the US. Many states who were skeptical about the "paradigm" shift away from untested programs to those that were aligned with explicit, systematic instruction in the essential components of reading instruction are now the law's strongest advocates. The testimony of Reading First State Directors tells the story:

Alabama: "Reading First is the most helpful thing about No Child Left Behind and the most helpful federal program I've seen in my career." Katherine Mitchell, Assistant State Superintendent for Reading.

Washington: Reading first encompasses all the things that research says effective schools do. That is unique. It's seen as a place to learn. I love everything about it. I love it every day." Lexie Domaradzke, Reading First Administrator

New York: "An awful lot of non-Reading First schools are starting to implement the tenets of RF on their own. Veteran teachers are raving about what RF has done for them. The whole field is learning together. Before Reading First, reading instruction was all over the map." Cindy Gallagher, Reading First Director.

But one of the most moving comments comes from the principal of a school in Wyoming. "In 25 years in education it has been one of the most well-researched, results-oriented programs I have even seen. The results in our school speak for themselves. We'd been the state leader in Reading Recovery/Balanced literacy, and were not seeing the results there. Reading First is an exceptional model every school in the country should be following. The results for children learning to read are amazing!!"

When we keep in mind that the I.G. Report was initiated by two disgruntled publishers for Reading Recovery and Success for All, because they didn't get "their fair share of the federal largess," one can only wonder how far selfishness can go. Reading Recovery's publisher even has the audacity to ask for reparations for loss of revenue. Success for All's publisher complains that not enough states chose to use their program since it is scientifically based and is demanding that the Department of Education require states to use it, even though that is forbidden by law. There are other publishers who have squawked that they too have not been treated fairly under Reading First, although their products are not supported by the findings of scientific research.

We can be thankful that Director Chris Doherty stood his ground under great pressure and established a strong national foundation through the initial five years of Reading First. We will miss his leadership and his dedication to the cause of insuring that all children learn to read proficiently in the early elementary grades. One can only hope that the Secretary of Education will find someone who is worthy to replace him, and who can match his grace under fire.

Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country.
Nancy can be reached at: [email protected]
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