- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

Scientific research over decades has confirmed that children who cannot read at grade level by the fourth grade are destined to face an ongoing struggle to learn and a lifetime of diminished success. Yet fewer than one-third of fourth graders in 2002 could read at grade proficiency, a national disgrace of a statistic that had remained unchanged over the previous 12 years, despite the fact that U.S. education spending during that span more than doubled.

The predominant approach to reading throughout this period was “whole language,” which is based on the theory that learning to read is a natural progression, like learning to speak or listen. This holistic educational paradigm is neither a teaching method nor a reading program, but a philosophy with no scientific foundation. With an emphasis on effort over accuracy, language is viewed as a cumulative social activity, where it’s OK to “negotiate meaning” and use “spelling inventions.” With reading scores flatlined, a national reading panel was convened to find a solution, and Reading First was born.

With the bipartisan establishment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, the Reading First program set out to help states implement rigorous reading instruction strategies grounded in scientifically-based reading research (SBRR). The mission is to help facilitate a systematic approach to recognizing reading difficulties as early as kindergarten, and to ensure that teachers know how to apply appropriate remedial measures. The law demanded (a) evidence-based assessment practices that measure foundation skills, predict later reading fluency and comprehension, and continuously monitor progress, and (b) professional development programs to provide teachers with proven methods to remediate reading failure with direct instruction. In exchange for Reading First funds, state and local educational agencies are compelled to implement programs that meet these requirements.

Now, after several years of political pressure from vendors of the failed programs of the past, comes a report from the Education Department’s inspector general, blasting Reading First management for being too aggressive and stocking its review committee with SBRR advocates. Whining publishers and peddlers who couldn’t pass muster as defined by the administration and Congress set out to discredit the process instead. The narrowly-focused IG report ignores the department’s admirable efforts to promote and defend the law’s carefully-formulated intent and slams Reading First for “influencing” state reading program decisions and not properly “balancing” its expert review panel. Translation: not enough opportunity to water the program down.

Rather than recognizing the program director’s assertive style as a breath of fresh air aimed at results, the IG pores through a bunch of e-mails to try to show that Reading First’s implementation was slanted toward certain program designs over others. Well, of course it was. That was the whole point of the legislation, which brings us to another report, this one much more quietly released and infinitely more important if you happen to be a child or a taxpaying parent.

The independent Center on Education Policy’s Keeping Watch on Reading First finds that this initiative “is having a significant and positive impact on student achievement, and has led to many changes in curriculum, instruction and assessment.” And if you’ve ever heard the partisan saw that NCLB is an “unfunded mandate,” 45 states report sufficient funds to implement this opt-in program. So far, the direct beneficiaries are 1.7 million students and 100,000 teachers, and the results are especially impressive, since Reading First money has only been aimed at the highest-poverty, lowest-performing schools. Further, the achievement gap is closing, as reading scores for black and Hispanic 9-year-olds have reached all-time highs. And for all the IG’s keening about “mismanagement,” try finding a more effective or better-run federal program of any kind.

The best way to foment the next forest-for-the-trees inquisition would be to start aiming at the root cause, the collegiate teaching programs that keep poisoning the well with discredited reading ideology.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, Reading First works. It should be expanded, one way or another, to every American elementary school. And instead of maligning the devoted professionals who rightfully refused to compromise, it sure looks like some spirited praise is due for four years of no-nonsense data-based success.

Geoffrey D. Cronin is chairman and CEO of Edvocacy Research, a public charity.

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