May 6, 2008

Reading First analysis, the Boring Version

I've got to stop being even slightly witty, or I'll continue to be quoted slightly out of context, but in this case, it's entirely my fault for being all "meta" on Mike Petrilli's defense of the Fordham Foundation's defense of Reading First.

So let me try to address the substantive policy issues. No Child Left Behind created a large program (Reading First) to give money to states that promised to adopt early-reading programs with significant research support. This came on the heels of a National Reading Panel report that emphasized the importance of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction to early reading, among the focused questions it addressed.

For now, let me skip the question of the NRP report, since I'm not a reading research specialist (see completely ambiguous disclosure at the end of this entry). Instead of looking at the reading research base, I'm going to make the point that at least the implementation was bollixed up. The Department of Education's appointees to various pieces tied to Reading First were often tied to people at or from one institution (the University of Oregon), and the Inspector General's report was concerned about both conflicts of interest and also the way that many states felt pressured to adopt a specific curriculum/reading program.

I don't have much experience reading program audit reports, but from the few I have, there's an understated quality to most of the language, and it's not clear from the outside whether the muted tones necessarily mean, "Well, someone complained, and there are minor problems," or whether they mean, "I'm going to be very polite, but at least one person screwed up massively, and the only reason why no one's being prosecuted here is because there's no covering statute or the threshold for conviction is pretty high--but since I'm an auditor and not a prosecutor, I'm staying well out of that territory." I'm on the outside, so I have no clue which is which with the Reading First report, though I looks like it shaded into at least minimal corruption.

So it's possible that the Congressional bristling at appropriating funds for Reading First may reflect some informal briefings about the extent of problems. But it's not that simple, either, since Reading First appropriations may also be the way that Congressional Democrats can exercise limited authority over the Bush administration scandals: it may be possible that since Democrats can't punish the DoD or key administration figures over Halliburton the way they'd like, they're going to Make Damn Sure that other shenanigans are shut down (or programs they perceive to be shenanigans). Whether that shades into partisan battles probably depends on your partisan leanings.

... or it may be the standard legislative Scandal Fatigue: "We're not sure exactly what the problem is, but something's wrong, the program evaluation doesn't appear to look good, and maybe just wiping the slate clean is best."

... and wiping the slate clean may be best, both for state officials who want funding for reading programs and also for children. There will probably be a new reading program, with several new statutory requirements to prevent a repeat of what the IG found (or what Congressional leaders think the IG found or are concerned about because of the report or what their staffers think is a good idea in response to the audit report or...).

Whatever federal program comes out of the ashes of Reading First may be as closely related to phonemic awareness and phonics as Reading First, but it may not. The evaluation cracks open the debate over teaching reading that the NRP never really closed. I'm not sure it's that controversial that fluency is important but not sufficient to guarantee comprehension. But Big Bucks are involved, so everything gets magnified. The corruption in Reading First hasn't helped that, either.

(And now the disclosure: My experiences are firmly on the side of phonemic awareness's importance: I was a postdoc with a fellow postdoc who was a firm advocate of Direct Instruction (with capital letters), and I've seen similar stuff work with struggling young readers. And one of my children clearly learned to read relying first on phonics and classic blending instruction (together with individualized picture mnemonics to learn the ball-and-stem letters' sounds). But my DI friend's roommate was a comprehension researcher who teased her friend, "So after your kids learn to sound out words fluently, they need to come to me to learn what the stuff means!" The struggling readers I mentioned earlier also had the benefit of engaging text. And my other child clearly was a print-convention person whose learning of reading didn't appear to need phonics instruction, as far as I can recall. Go figure, but if you can find an ax I'm grinding here, you're pretty creative.)

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Posted in Education policy on May 6, 2008 7:38 PM |