What’s Next for Federal Reading?

For decades now, the federal government has made teaching children to read a national priority.  Reading First is just the latest iteration of this commitment.  The Reading Excellence Act came before it, with other federal efforts before REA.  That’s why Eduflack is always surprised when he hears from reading advocates who are gravely concerned that federal investment in reading instruction will grind to a halt this year when RF ends.

Let’s be perfectly clear.  Reading First is dead.  There is no political will to continue this program, particularly with the baggage it carries.  RF has been tarred, feathered, and paraded through the town square as an example of poor government implementation and of questionable outcomes at best.  But that doesn’t mean the program, at least as it was originally envisioned in 2001, does not offer some strong instructional components upon which a better, stronger, more effective reading effort can be constructed.
To get us started, we need to drop Reading First from our vocabulary.  Call it “Yes We Can Read,” “And Reading For All,” “Literacy for America,” or anything else that will capture the hearts and minds of countless schools and families looking for literacy skills to improve their lots in life and close the achievement gaps in their schools.  (And while we are on the topic, no one in the Administration should utter the words No Child Left Behind or NCLB from this point forward.  That was the old regime.  As we focus on reauthorization and improving the law, let’s stick to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, until we come up with a stronger brand for our overall federal education policy.)
So how do we do it?  What are the core components of “Yes We Can Read” that redouble our national commitment to ensuring every student is equipped with the literacy skills to read at grade level, particularly by fourth grade?  How do we ensure that every child –regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood — becomes a skilled, able reader?
Working from the strongest and best of RF — those components that have reading teachers, state RF directors, and a host of other stakeholders excited about reading instruction and certain that they are making the reading gains originally intended — we can build that better reading program by focusing on five key components:
1) Continue the commitment to scientifically based reading.  RF turned a new page on education research, how it is defined, and how it is applied.  It is important that any new education programs continue to rely on science as part of its policy.  We need to make sure we are doing what is proven effective.  If we expect to demonstrate return on investment, we must ensure our federal dollars are being spent on efforts that work.  That means demonstrating a strong scientific base.  We cannot lose sight of that.  But we must also broaden our view of that proven research base.  To date, we’ve been governing under rule of the National Reading Panel report.  That is a strong start.  But there is more to SBRR than just the NRP.  The National Research Council’s Reading Difficulties report, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next study, the AFT’s Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, and even the recent National Early Literacy Panel findings all contribute to the scientifically based reading base we must build upon.  If it is good, replicable research, we must include it into the equation.
2) We need to broaden our spectrum.  RF was built as an elementary school reading program, believing we could catch all kids and get them reading proficient by fourth grade.  Today, more than a third of our fourth graders are still reading below grade level.  We have millions of kids in danger of falling through the cracks.  Our federal reading program must be a P-12 reading initiative.  We need to start with the best of what was found in Early Reading First, ensuring our early childhood education efforts are empowering our students with early literacy skills.  We continue that through the elementary grades.  And then we move it through the middle grades and our secondary schools.  If reading is a lifelong pursuit, our federal reading efforts must continue across the educational continuum.  This is particularly true as we look to international benchmarks and state exit and graduation exams as the marks of success.
3) Federal dollars need to be focused on two key components — instructional materials and professional development.  We’ve wasted the past six years fighting over commercial products and which one of those is on a so-called golden list.  This is supposed to be about getting what is proven effective into the hands of good teachers.  The name on the box doesn’t matter.  We need to find a better way to make sure that good research is getting into the classroom.  Too many people took advantage of the intent of SBRR, selling research vapor and serving as 21st century RF profiteers.  Moving forward, it should be about content and proof, not branding.
We forget that 25 percent of the more than $1 billion spent on RF was intended for teacher professional development.   We also forget that effective instruction begins and ends with effective teaching.  Our teachers need to be empowered to improve literacy instruction in our schools.  They need to better understand the research and put it to use in their classrooms, using that knowledge to provide the specific interventions necessary to get all children reading.  We must recognize that such professional development should reach more than just the traditional ELA teacher in our elementary grades.  Every teacher across the continuum is, in essence, a reading teacher.  How do we help math and science and social studies teachers reinforce our reading priorities in their classrooms?  In many ways, research-based pre-service and in-service professional development is the single most important component to any future reading instruction effort.  We need to train, equip, and support our teachers in both the broader and the finer points of literacy.
4) We need to factor ELL and ESL into the equation.  At the end of the day, reading skills are reading skills, whether they are acquired in English or in your native Spanish, Hmong, or other language.  We teach all children to read, and then we convert those skills into English as needed.  With a growing immigrant population and school districts that are now home to 100+ native languages spoken in their hallways, we need to instill literacy skills in all students and then look for ways to transfer those skills to the English language.  Reading is reading.  Phonemic awareness and fluency and comprehension are universal, regardless of the language you may be starting in or what is spoken or read at home.
5) We need to better measure the impact of our efforts.  RF has been bottlenecked the past year over measures of efficacy.  The recent Institute of Education Sciences study on Reading First is seen by many as a repudiation of the program.  Unfortunately, it is not a study of SBRR, it is a study on the effectiveness of program spending.  As we’ve written about many times before, IES failed to take into account the issue of contamination, meaning that the study was built on the notion that only those schools receiving RF funds were implementing RF programs and SBRR, so we compared RF schools with non-RF schools to see the difference.  We know that to be a false comparison.  Publishers changed their textbooks to meet RF standards, and those new books were sold to all schools, not just RF schools.  PD programs were redeveloped to address RF expectations, and that PD was offered to all teachers, not just those in RF districts.  RF permeated all schools in the nation, whether they received a federal check or not.
A programmatic study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) took this contamination issue into account, and its fall 2008 evaluation report identified real success in our federal reading initiative.
Regardless of one’s loyalties to IES or OPEPD, the next generation of federal reading needs to include clear measurements and clear assessment tools to identify our progress and determine true ROI.  How do we measure our success?  What tools, beyond the state exams, should be considered?  How do we quantify good reading PD?  How do we demonstrate that the good works performed by teachers, teacher educators, reading specialists, families, and CBOs is not for naught?  Good programs must be measured.  Great programs must be assessed, reviewed, improved, and strengthened over time.  
These five components provide us the foundations for a federal reading initiative that addresses the real-world needs of our classrooms today.  They recognize the need for federal funds, particularly at a time when state and local budgets are strained beyond belief.  They recognize the central role of the teacher, as an educator, researcher, and student.  And they recognize the ultimate end game we all are playing — to get every student reading proficient, ensuring they have the skills and abilities necessary to achieve in school and in society.
Even when we talk about 21st century skills or STEM skills, literacy remains key.  Nothing is possible if our students can’t read.  They can’t do advanced math.  They can’t study the sciences. They can’t explore our civilizations or our history.  They can’t even fully participate in the school chorus.  Reading is the heart and soul of the American public education system.  Now is the time to come together, tap available resources, and redouble our national commitment to getting each and every child to read.  It is the only way we close the achievement gap, boost student achievement, and improve graduation rates.  It all begins with reading.  And effective reading begins now.

278 thoughts on “What’s Next for Federal Reading?

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