Challenging Districts to 'Put Reading First'

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When it comes to the legislation known as Reading First - a law with profound implications for how our children will learn to read - President George W. Bush's administration has backed up its words with forceful policy, its policy with unprecedented amounts of money, and its money with a plan for vigilant enforcement. As one education publishing executive put it, "The feds are serious about these reading issues - they are playing to win."

Reading First is one of the largest single initiatives within the No Child Left Behind Act. It is expected to deliver more than $5 billion to eligible districts over the next five years for K-3 reading - the curriculum area that is considered the crucial early warning system for leaving a child behind. The evidence concerning the role that reading plays in the rest of academic success or failure is overwhelming, as is the documentation of the inadequate reading instruction that disadvantaged children receive at home and in school. Education policy needs to be ambitious if it is going to confront these problems, and even Reading First's critics concede that it is ambitious.

Reading First and the District

The challenge for ambitious federal education policy is always the issue of local control. If you read through the first 500,000 phonemes of NCLB, you eventually come to this passage: "Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the federal government to mandate, direct or control a state, local educational agency or school's specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum or program of instruction." In other words, the federal government cannot tell schools precisely what reading programs and assessments to buy. Still, the Reading First policy wields as much influence as it can over the types of reading programs and assessments that will be purchased by Reading First schools. This influence, and how it will filter down to the district level, has been a cause of much confusion for district administrators.

The legislation exerts this influence by insisting on "scientifically based reading research" (SBRR), citing this phrase more than 20 times as it defines what makes reading products and programs fundable. The "science" it refers to is based upon the principles of rigorous experimental design, which test reliability, validity and efficacy, or the predictive value of reading products and practices. These principles guided the findings of the National Reading Panel (www.nationalreadingpanel.org/Publications/publications.htm), an interdisciplinary team of reading experts who were tasked by Congress to determine what the research has proven about how to help children learn to read. The panel recommended that instruction, assessment and professional development should focus on the "five big ideas": phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. The panel favors explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness. In following the recommendations of the panel, Reading First lands closer to what has been called the "phonics" camp of reading instruction and further from what has been called the "whole language" camp. The report also encourages the use of technology to support the teaching and learning of reading, although it laments the dearth of scientific research to support the selection of technology products.

The heightened importance of SBRR creates some new challenges for most school districts. District officials are often not qualified enough and lack the time to review the quality of the scientific research underlying the products that vendors pitch to them. Naomi Hupert, a senior research associate at the Educational Development Center Inc.'s Center for Children and Technology, has advised on the development of evaluation plans for both Reading First and Early Reading First proposals. Hupert explains, "There are a lot of requirements in the law and people in districts are often not sure how to address them. ... In districts there's always the lack of resources and time to plan for the future. They feel several layers below where the Reading First decisions are being made, so preparing for it, particularly in those states where funding is not yet in place, isn't high on those districts' to-do lists."

That said, for those who are comfortable with the underlying philosophy of Reading First, the legislation can be a source of excitement and action. Based on her work in New Mexico, Hupert says, "While some districts feel overburdened, there are some that feel 'finally, this is what we've been hoping to do all along.' They're finally getting to dig in to talk about the content of teaching reading, because people know there will be money available if they have a good plan."

To help states and districts sort out the decisions they need to make, the leaders of Reading First have spread the word about the National Reading Panel's findings and distributed an abridgement of "Put Reading First" (www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading/publications/PFRbooklet.pdf), which describes how to design instruction based on scientifically based research. In technical assistance workshops, state-level Reading First teams received guidance from the U.S. Education Department (ED) regarding basal reading programs and reading assessment instruments, and how well each aligned with the guidelines of the initiative. These reviews have simplified matters for many states and districts, but, as we will see below, may have narrowed the choices for others.

The List That Isn't a List

ED guidance was intended both to provide a model of how SBRR can help educators evaluate curriculum and assessment products, and to provide some ready examples of products that meet the Reading First requirements. For instance, a report on assessments conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon reviewed several publisher products and some state tests. The list was by no means exhaustive, nor did it claim to be. The report was also quick to clarify that it was reviewing the quality of the research data about the assessments, not offering endorsements.

But according to Scott Paris, a reading researcher at the University of Michigan, "All of the district educators I've talked to think there is a list, despite all the denials to the contrary." Paris points out that in Michigan "20,000 teachers have been trained on a locally developed assessment called the Michigan Literacy Progress Profile (MLPP). Michigan educators created it and researchers have studied it, but now it is not approved for Reading First programs in Michigan, because the state chose assessments from 'the list.'"

The problems this creates for districts run deeper than the selection of an assessment instrument. "There's a lot of in-service training in our state Reading First plan, but the teachers in Michigan have been hostile to it - they see it as a disconnected add-on, not aligned with the MLPP," says Paris.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has sent out a letter assuring everyone that there is no list, and indeed several approved Reading First plans, such as Virginia's, have been approved using assessments that are not on "the list that isn't a list." Michigan's conundrum over which assessment instrument to use also touches on another serious challenge to districts regarding assessment requirements of Reading First. The law stipulates that schools must use screening, diagnostic and progress-monitoring assessments for determining student reading achievement - something that few teachers have been trained to do. Hupert explains that "the problems of struggling readers - the Reading First target population - vary enormously, but the average teacher with a master's degree receives a minimal amount of instruction in how to diagnose and work with reading difficulties. Districts are already striving to provide professional development for teachers who lack certification. Reading First allows for a substantial amount of resources to be directed toward professional development, but the need is vast."

Waiting for Reading First

Perhaps the most vexing challenge for districts is one of timing. David Rust, the vice president of development for Rigby Education, a Harcourt supplemental publisher, says, "Our experience is that the districts feel they cannot make any decisions until A, the state receives notice that its application has been accepted and then B, the process has been defined for how that money gets awarded for schools and districts." In addition, Paris describes a situation in which "there is a paralysis - people are afraid of moving too quickly and creating something inconsistent with what the state wants to do. The districts want information more quickly than the states can provide it."

The cure for this paralysis may just be a matter of timing. States that are well into their subgrant process are generally content that the right information is flowing and that district decisions are being made swiftly so they can draw down the money. Indeed, the International Reading Association, which has been openly critical of some aspects of Reading First, has conducted a review of the process and found that the states were generally satisfied with the process and were not pressured into choosing from a list of prescribed reading programs.

Possible Solutions

If you are in a district that feels any of the paralysis that Paris describes, then there may be more to do than just be patient. This would be a good time to read up closely on the implications of the National Reading Panel's report, to read the Reading First documentation available online at www.ed.gov/offices/'ESE/readingfirst/ReviewCriteriaFINAL.doc, and to look at various funded state and district Reading First plans to see what has already been done. (Most states post their plans on their department of education's Web site once it is approved.) It is also crucial to begin a dialogue with your state Reading First officials. According to Rust, "There are a few cases where districts have had a prearrangement with a state that the moment a state application is approved, the district can go ahead and make the purchase. Doing advance work like this makes the spending happen faster."

Rust also says that vendors are learning their way around the requirements of SBRR and the timing of Reading First decision-making. In this way, vendors can be useful allies. "The first thing a district should do is become intimate with the ways that its state is using the [local educational agency] application process, and we can help with that," he says. "Districts should know that almost no states have approved lists of resources. They don't have to be concerned about what is on 'the list' because those lists, for the most part, don't exist. What they should request from vendors is to show how any given element is fitting into a cohesive plan for reading improvement. Districts should make us consult with them on how it all coheres. Cohesiveness is one of the main criteria that the state and federal evaluators will consider."

What to Do About SBRR

In this first year of Reading First funding, districts have had to make do with the existing research about what works, which, in some cases, is constraining their choices. But the policy is meant to encourage the flowering of SBRR nationwide. So, if your district wants to pursue innovative new directions - or wants to build the case for staying the course with some of its existing efforts - this would be the time to make alliances with local universities, research groups and even preferred vendors that are scrambling to provide SBRR in support of their products. Initiatives involving technological innovations may be a particularly fruitful area for these local SBRR projects, because Reading First offices at the federal and state levels know that many of the newer technologies are too new to have a research base behind them.

However, Paris cautions that the connections between the research and its policy implications may not be straightforward: "Policy people look at research as a proven state of affairs, but reading research is much more of a living laboratory. ... There's a variety of research that people can use in different ways to support different points about reading education. What policymakers need is not exactly what reading researchers do."

This dialogue between practitioners, researchers and policymakers is valuable in its own right. Paris sees this as one of the lasting legacies of Reading First: "The biggest influence of the federal legislation is that teachers from the classroom right up through the district leadership are becoming more informed than ever about reading research."

Larry Berger and Greg Gunn are co-founders of Wireless Generation Inc. (www.wirelessgeneration.com), a company that provides mobile assessment tools for reading teachers and assessment data management systems for states and districts.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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