The Hard Truth on Proven Reading

For the last year, many have been rushing to bury the federal Reading First program.  Congress has dramatically slashed funding for the effort.  Critics have been quick to discount the impact the program has had on student achievement scores.  And the program has quickly been lumped in with No Child Left Behind as another example of what is wrong with federal involvement in education.

These eulogies make us forget of the deserved praise the program received when it was first written into law.  The goals were admirable. Get every child reading at grade level by fourth grade.  Significant, relevant professional development for teachers.  A commitment to doing what works, ensuring schools are adopting programs and instructional approaches that are proven effective.  It was about giving all students — regardless of reading skill, socioeconomic level, or geographic location — a sense of hope and opportunity.

Those goals were lost in recent years to urban legends of “approved lists” and conspiracy theories.  A noble mission was lost to implementation mis-steps.  A research-based approach fell victim to politics. 

The whole story can be found in a report written by Sol Stern and released by the Fordham Foundation.  “Too Good To Last: The True Story of Reading First” ( is a fantastic analysis of the roller-coaster ride that is Reading First.  In exposing both the warts and the silver lining of the program, Stern has done what few have been able to do in recent years.  He reminds us of the promise and intent of Reading First, clearly demonstrating what could have been and why it is not.

At the end of the day, we know that scientifically based reading works.  We’ve seen the positive impact its had on districts, schools, and kids across the nation.  It works with struggling readers, and it works with G&T readers.  It works in urban, suburban, and rural schools.  It just plain works. 

Reading First sought to get SBRR into every classroom in the United States.  If we are to learn from the past, we should definitely study up on Stern’s analysis.  By learning why so much went wrong in implementing Reading First, we can all learn what is needed to get research-based reading into all those classes we promised it to.  The federal program may be ramping down, but we still have a nation of students that need to be reading at grade level and need the hope and opportunity that reading ability instills. 

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