By now, educators must have be living under rocks to have not heard about the enormous sums of money soon coming to school districts. In the next month and a half, the first installment of nearly 80 billion dollars intended to prevent pending cuts to local K-12 education and allow for real school improvement is expected to flow. How Title I and IDEA expenditures will be spent is pretty clear cut, following existing distribution formulae and providing a booster shot to those schools already receiving such funds. The big ticket item — the State Stabilization Fund — is still working through the details.
For those looking for regular updates on the policy and the language behind it, one of the best sources is EdWeek’s Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein’s Politics K-12 blog — blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/.
But we know the intent of the Stabilization Fund. Many, if not most, school districts have been planning budget cuts in these difficult financial times. Teachers are on the chopping block. PD is being sacrificed. Textbook adoptions on hold. Instructional material purchases put off for a later day. The Stabilization Fund is intended to stop such drastic action, providing immediate funds so that NO school district faces budget cuts. School districts are to look at their spending for FY2008 and FY2009 (the previous and current academic year), determine spending levels from those years, and then use the Stabilization Fund to prevent any reduction in spending. Those programs that have been in the school for the past few years are to be protected, providing educators the opportunity to continue efforts that are working and having a real impact on student achievement, economics be damned. The Fund is meant to alleviate worry and ensure investment in our classroom continues and that effective programs do not face irrational cuts.
At the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday moved the current fiscal year’s budget forward, a spending bill that was to be passed last September, but never quite broke through. Many educators have long feared that Reading First would be zeroed out in that budget bill, denying school districts around the country needed funding to invest in the research-proven instructional materials, professional development, and technical assistance needed to get our kids reading at grade level. That fear was realized, as the $300 million or so that was spent on RF last year was missing from the House version of the budget.
Eduflack has come to grips with the fact that Reading First is dead. The program itself was long plagued with significant implementation problems and a poor public perception. But its core tenets remain both true and essential. We can get virtually every child reading at grade level by using proven-effective instruction. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) released data late last year demonstrating the effectiveness of our investment in research-proven reading, showing real impact on RF and non-RF schools alike. And Eduflack has reported on a wide range of data demonstrating the programs effectiveness in states across the country, the most recent being the terrific results shown in California (http://blog.eduflack.com/2009/02/10/golden-reading-results-in-the-golden-state.aspx
School districts are rightfully worried about the future of their reading instruction efforts. RF funds have been a boon to struggling schools, providing then direct funding do what is necessary to improve student reading achievement. It has resulted in sea change when it comes to the instructional materials and PD available to our schools, whether they are RFs or not. And it has refocused technical assistance on research-based approaches aligned with classroom instruction and embedded in real practice. And have we ever mentioned that it just plain works?
The elimination of the Reading First program was an inevitability, but that does not mean our school districts should stop their effective use of proven-effective reading instruction. They should still invest in the instructional materials and PD that are most effective in getting students to read at grade level. They should still invest in classroom-based strategies for equipping students with the instruction and skills they need to achieve. And they should still invest in teacher empowerment, ensuring educators receive the reading PD and data understanding necessary to impact student achievement.
So a simple question? Why isn’t every state and every RF school across the country looking to use newly available State Stabilization Fund and Title I dollars to continue their literacy efforts? The Stabilization Fund is designed to ensure that no schools are forced to cut their budgets. Such reading investments have been part of recent budgets. They are now facing the ax. It just seems natural that the Fund is used to continue a school district’s investment in proven-effective reading instruction and professional development. After all, the law is intended to prevent cuts and continue those efforts that are boosting student achievement. In those states and districts where RF has been proven effective, it seems continuing the investment (in materials, assessment, and PD) should move forward, even if the original funding stream is gone. The Fund was meant to replace disappearing funds. And it becomes a slam dunk when we see that such investments are already proven effective in improving student reading skills and academic achievement?
And why can’t new Title I funds be used to expand the investment, getting it into more classrooms and more students? If a school district has identified and successfully implemented an approach to get students reading at grade level, that approach should continue, particularly with struggling students in Title I schools. New Title I funds available under ARRA is intended to expand good work. Seems there are a great number of Title I schools that could benefit from increased investment in effective reading instruction, particularly if we are looking to boost student achievement and offer every student a pathway to success, as intended by the President.
Heck, there will even be chances to invest in RF concepts through IDEA funds and highly popular Response to Intervention (RtI) approaches. And we won’t even start talking about the vast opportunities available through the soon-to-be-detailed Innovation Fund.
RF is dead, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean we give up on teaching our kids to read or offering the research-proven approaches and interventions that are necessary to raising student literacy levels and getting all students reading at grade level. Our states and districts know what is now working when it comes to reading instruction. We have administrators, technical assistance providers, coaches, and teachers in place to deliver effective instruction. After some unfortunate stops and starts, we now know the materials and curriculum that are most effective in reaching our goals. And we have clear understanding of the professional development and ongoing support our teachers need to turn every child into a reader. Now is the time to double down on reading, not walk away from the table.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education is now providing school districts the chips to place that needed bet on student reading ability. Reading programs in school districts across the nation are facing significant cuts. The feds are now providing upwards of $80 billion to ensure our K-12 schools don’t face any budget cuts and, in fact, can increase instructional spending (particularly on those items that will improve student achievement). It seems that the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act was custom written to ensure that our federal reading investment (currently through Reading First, previously through the Reading Excellence Act) continues and that no school cut its reading programs or its reading investment, particularly those struggling schools previously identified as RF schools.
I have no doubt that ED will be developing a new federal reading initiative, one based on the most positive attributes of Reading First and enhanced through a broader interpretation of the research and a greater commitment to professional development and teacher supports. It is a program that is needed by our schools and it is a commitment our federal government must make if we want to make good on our intent of strengthening public education and giving every child a chance at success. Until such a program is in place, though, every RF school should be working with their district and their state to ensure that these new funds are being use to protect the instructional investments in the classroom. And few investments are as worthy as the reading instruction programs that are boosting reading achievement for millions of kids across the nation.
Yes, school districts should be using this stimulus money to ensure that teachers stay on the job and no instructional positions are eliminated. We can’t teach our kids without educators in front of reasonably sized classrooms. But we must also provide those teachers with the resources, materials, TA, and PD they need to get the job done. That investment starts with reading, particularly proven-effective reading instruction. That is the full intent of the stimulus package.
The RF grant program may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean we stop investing in reading instruction that we know works. The economic stimulus law gives us both the funds and the direction to keep instructional efforts moving forward. Reading can, should, and must be at the top of that list.