Putting Reading First?

When the history books are closed, we will find that Reading First improved the reading skills of U.S. students.  It is based on solid research.  It is proven success in schools and classrooms across the nation.  And there is clear data a scientifically based approach to reading skill acquisition rooted in phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension is the most effective way — without question — to teach kids to read.

So how can a program with so many successful attributes be in danger of failing?  When it is unable to translate that effectiveness into a public perception of support.  Recent reports from the IG and GAO have pointed to potential implementation problems and concerns about the perceptions of possible conflicts of interest.  Such worries put RF under a real microscope.  It calls for greater scrutiny and adhering to a higher bar of both achievement and standards of quality.  So what comes next?

The Associated Press provides the facts: http://www.federalnewsradio.com/index.php?nid=78&pid=&sid=1102760&page=1

Full disclosure, I am one of the individuals quoted in this article.  And I feel strongly about the public perception of this revelation.  At the end of the day, few people care that RMC Research secured a small portion of the RF assessment contract.  Even fewer choose to understand the process by which contractors and subcontractors (such as RMC) secure such contracts from the federal government.  But for an organization, like RMC, committed to seeing Reading First succeed, this sends the WRONG message, arming RF and scientifically based reading critics with the ammo they need to continue to question the program as a whole.

Federal contracting is best explained by the federal government.  But what lessons can we learn from the facts uncovered by the AP?:

* Independent third party means independent third party.  No one is questioning RMC’s ability to assess a federal education program.  But independent third party assessment means just that.  Contractors involved in the planning, implementation, training, and technical assistance of a program should not assume a role to evaluate the success of that same program.  How can we trust the impartiality of a contractor who was previously paid to help build what they are now evaluating?
* Scientists have forgotten the science.  NCLB was passed on the presumption that education research needs to undergo the same protocols and be held to the same standards as that which passes through NIH.  Can anyone point to an NIH grant program where the same contractor was paid to develop a clinical study, then paid again to evaluate their own work?
* Size doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if the contract was for $1.5 million, $15 million, or $15.  When a program is as scrutinized as RF is, third-party assessment needs to be as clean as the newborn snow.  Such a relationship just makes it too easy to feel like the wolf is guarding the RF henhouse.
* Set high expectations … and exceed them.  There is an axiom in business that you want to underpromise and overdeliver.  When it comes to RF, we now need to both overpromise and overdeliver.  If implemented effectively and with fidelity, RF will improve reading skills for virtually every student in the country.  That is now the expectation, and it can’t get any higher.  Now we need to exceed that.  That happens by demonstrating measurable results, being able to replicate those results, and having decisionmakers embrace them and put them into place in other schools and other districts.  That is the only way RF will truly change the fabric of our nation’s education system.  That only happens if we all trust the data and those delivering it to us.

For years, we have said the success of RF lies in the hands of those school administrators, teachers, and parents who were putting it to use on the front lines.  The focus was on communicating with those audiences.  How do we get them to embrace RF?  How do we get them to recognize the need?  And, most importantly, how do we get them to put it into practice?  

Today, though, the success of RF lies squarely on the shoulders of Margaret Spellings.  The IG, the GAO, and the media have given educators plenty of reasons to question Reading First.  We don’t trust our decisionmakers, and without trust, we aren’t willing to put our own necks on the line to change.  For the average educator, it is now easier to protect the status quo, and believe that RF will go with the way of the dodo, replaced by the next latest and greatest.

So it is up to Spellings and her team to change that public perception — a tall order to say the least.  But it is achievable through three key steps:
* Take responsibility for the past. President Truman had the buck stopping with him. Spellings must do the same.  She should accept personal responsibility for all the mistakes and misperceptions of the past six years.  With that responsibility, she has learned a great deal, and is taking all steps possible to improve the law and help our nation’s teachers and students.
* Speak … and act with authority.  This is more than apologizing or discussing the issue at a conference.  For years now, Spellings and her team have acted out of a defensive posture.  It is almost as if they hope any mention of RF will just go away.  Instead, they need to embrace the law.  In those schools where it is implemented with fidelity, we are seeing demonstrable improvements.  Now is the time to be bold.  Embrace RF and its original goals.  Demand expansion.  Demand greater accountability.  Show that the U.S. Department of Education is a partner in this effort, not simply the wielder of the stick.
* Move the discussion out of DC and into our schools.  Goodbye, SW DC, hello Main Street USA.  Get into the field and learn (and promote) how it is working, where it is working, and who is responsible.  Success is because of educators in the field.  Share the credit with those on the ground.  Doing so is like throwing a pebble into a lake.  The impact will ripple out, ultimately hitting all shores.  That is how RF, and NCLB, can have a lasting impact on our schools and really establish a legacy for this Administration.

Conflicts of interest, debates on contractors and subcontractors, and technical assistance instructions are the insidest of inside baseball.  It is time for Reading First to move onto a different field, and play the game that was meant to be played.  The law was written because of a national commitment to ensure every child learns to read, and every student had access to proven-effective instruction.  Let’s remember that.  Reading First is a simple message — its about students, and its about results.

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