Is Reading First Dead or Not?

Not much more than a month ago, it seemed the entire education community had written Reading First off for dead.  Congress has zero-funded the law.  The U.S. Department of Education was doing little, if anything, to do something about it.  IES had released an interim study questioning the program’s effectiveness.  All seemed relatively lost.

Yes, there was a small chorus of sane voices out there, trying to save this important program.  Sol Stern led a charge.  USA Today strongly weighed in.  Fordham Foundation provided intellectual heft.  Even little ol’ Eduflack got in more than its cent and a half.
Yet most have been planning for RF’s funeral.  Facts are facts, and the facts for RF were just not looking good.  Despite the need for scientifically based reading, despite the impact it has had on student achievement over the past five years, the simple fact was that RF was being zeroed out.  Those schools looking to implement SBRR would need to do so on their own, finding the necessary resources to fund programs that work (without the help from the feds).
The start of the school year may have shifted a little bit of thinking, though.  Tomorrow, EdSec Margaret Spellings will be in Des Moines, Iowa for a day o’ Reading First.  She’ll be touring RF classrooms at George Washington Carver Community School, and then will participate in a roundtable discussion with the superintendent and RF teachers.
More important, though, was the report issued late last month by the Reading First Federal Advisory Committee.  This advisory committee — led by Katherine Mitchell, the former Assistant State Superintendent in Alabama — issued its report as a direct response to the RF interim study released earlier this year by IES.  In their report, the Advisory Committee points to the interim study’s fundamental flaws (most of them methodological, which should be a surprise coming from IES).  More importantly, the committee states that the data found in the IES study is insufficient to make the claim that RF is ineffective.  The advisory committee’s ultimate conclusion — the Congress and ED should not make any long-term decisions on RF until better, more comprehensive data is collected.  They aren’t saying the IES study is wrong, they are just saying the data is insufficient to make any meaningful conclusions.
Of course, this study has gotten little (just about NO) attention from the media.  IES’s interim study was a dagger into RF’s heart, offering the media an entertaining Shakespearean education reform tragedy.  It made from great news, as IES (the office created, in many eyes, to build up SBRR and RF) was ultimately inflicting the wound.  It fell to alternate media, such as the blogosphere, to identify the flaws in the interim study.  It will likely fall to them once more.
So what comes next?  Despite the wishes of the chattering class, RF is likely to get level-funded for one more year.  As Congress fails to pass a new Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill before the end of the month, Congress will simply move into CR mode, meaning that the new budget will simply be a carbon copy of the old budget. So RF programs will collect another year of federal funding, some $350 million or so.  One more year of life.  One more year of opportunity.
Why is this important?  It gives RF (and more importantly, SBRR) supporters a final year to ensure that the legacy of RF is not abandoned when the federal implementation funding dries up.  In a year when the White House, ED, and a number of state departments of education will change hands, those who have benefited from RF’s beacon will need to figure some things out.  How do we keep what works in the classroom?  How do we ensure our schools continue to prioritize scientifically based reading research?  How do we distinguish between good and bad research?  How do we empower teachers with research-based instruction?  How do we get all kids reading?
A lot of questions, yes.  But a lot of questions with clear answers.  We may need a change of vocabulary, but the core principles on which RF was built remain more important than ever.

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