Making Reading First Fair and Flexible by Ken Goodman (2007)

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Chairman George Miller of the House of Representatives HELP Committee has promised that three F’s will guide changes in the reauthorization of NCLB, the 2001 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act including Reading First. The three F’s are fair, flexible, and finance.

Within the past two years the Inspector General of the Department of Education has issued a series of alarming reports on conflicts of interest and violations of the NCLB law that occurred during the implementation of Reading First by Department of Education staff and its consultants and contractors. In a subsequent Committee hearing several of these contractors and consultants admitted to making huge personal profits from requiring the use of tests and texts that they themselves had authored or otherwise profited from.

The perpetrators justified these conflicts of interest by citing the requirement in the Reading First law that state proposals must use materials and tests representing “Scientifically Based Reading Research.” A small group of consultants and contractors, mostly affiliated with the University of Oregon, was given the power to decide which tests and programs were and were not acceptable under SBRR. They concluded that only tests and materials that they themselves had produced met that criterion. Even if that were true their actions would have still been illegal since another provision of the law expressly prohibits the DOE from using NCLB to impose methods and curriculum on the states. And of course they should have reclused themselves from decisions from which they personally profited.

But their claim to a scientific base for their materials is not valid. In fact it is as if the astrologers had been put in charge of the space program. None of the specific programs anointed by the DOE as SBRR has any scientific research on its effectiveness. DIBELS, a test funded by the US government and now sold for profit .has been rejected by a wide range of psychometrists and test makers. The Inspector General’s reports cite this test specifically as one forced on states. An official of the Kentucky Department of Education testified at the committee hearing that their state proposal was turned down several times until they agreed to include DIBELS. Ironically, results on DIBELS are being used by Sec. Spellings to claim successes for Reading First which are spurious. Instructional materials published by Sopris West which were approved as scientific are not just poorly written: they are inane, racist, and sexist. Two programs pushed by the DOE staff and consultants are published by McGraw-Hill which includes several of the consultants and contractors as authors on the programs. A recommended program published by Scott, Foresman was developed by DOE consultants and contractors and SF used these same people to gain acceptance for the program in several states. All this is in the files of the House Committee.

Secretary Spellings has herself justified the strong arm approaches used by her staff on state negotiators by claiming that Reading First has been a success. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress data shows that bilingual fourth grade reading scores have been flat since a down and up ripple in the two years before NCLB took effect.

1999: 174
2000: 167
2001: 183
2002: 186
2003: 187

Since its inception Reading First has been used as a device for controlling reading curriculum and limiting use of materials not developed by those given the power to interpret the law. And it has had a devastating impact on teacher morale, forcing effective teachers who could not accept its narrow control out of the classroom in droves. This is not a simple “reading wars, phonics vs whole language” issue. Everyone from publishers of other phonics programs ( who filed the original complaints with the OIG) to traditional basal publishers, so-called balanced programs, and whole language programs have been excluded. In some cases DOE staff threatened specific school districts with loss of funds if they used Reading Recovery or Rigby, programs they had blacklisted. That’s not fair. Reading Recovery, a holistic remediation program, is actually the only program that has been certified by a government agency as having research support for its effectiveness.

To date no action by the DOE or Secretary Spellings has done anything to correct this narrow, unfair and inflexible application of the law.

To achieve fairness and flexibility the law must be rewritten to make it impossible for any narrow group to impose their own biases on states and LEAs. There must be a level playing field for all publishers and programs. The blacklists that were created by the DOE and its contractors on programs, tests and people must be abolished. Much more progress would be made from encouraging a wide range of approaches and then requiring them to provide unbiased research evidence that they are successful. In several cases contracts were given to groups to monitor their own programs under Secretary Spellings.( As documented in the OIG reports)

Specifically the following revisions need to be made in the Reading First law:

  • It should be stated up front that the law is not intended to impose tests, methods or materials on any states or LEAs. The phrase SBRR should be eliminated from the bill as having no common accepted meaning in the field of reading. While schools may be held responsible for achieving success in reading, the law should be interpreted flexibly to allow them to choose their own methods and materials. Specific definitions of reading, reading research, and reading instruction should be taken out of the law since they are scientific matters which are not susceptible to legal definition.
  • School districts should not be required to contract with outside agencies for tutoring services which often employ unqualified staff. Teacher education programs should be supported to produce the needed number of qualified teachers for all classrooms including those in rural and inner city areas traditionally unserved..
  • For Reading First to be fair and flexible the DOE should be required to renegotiate all state contracts under Reading First which were illegally negotiated. And the procedure for reviewing new proposals should be fair and flexible. A much broader range of experts in the field of reading should be involved in the review process. Conflict of interest policies should be much more fully spelled out. And there should be prosecution of those who made illegal profits from past enforcement.
  • The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that funds for Reading First should be dramatically reduced until there is evidence that the law has become fair and flexible. That’s essential to the law regaining the respect it has lost among the public and the educational community. Only when the law is made fair and flexible should it be fully funded.

Reading First can make an important difference in raising the literacy levels of those less well served by their schools.. But that requires positive, fair and flexible support of teachers and schools. The narrow punitive approach of the current law can only compound and obscure the real issues.

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