What is the future of the federal investment in reading instruction? It is a question that many folks are still waiting to answer. By now, we all realize that Reading First is dead as a doornail. After billions of dollars of dollars spent, a significant number of research studies demonstrating its effectiveness at the state level, and even a US Department of Education (OPEPD) study highlighting that the program has worked, the fat lady has indeed sung. The implementation problems, the IG investigation, the Bush-era RF tag, and a recent, yet flawed, IES study have all assured that.
But the federal government has been investing in reading instruction for decades. RF was just the latest iteration of the effort (and probably the most significant). But the end of RF doesn’t mean the end of federal reading, does it? If one looks at the President’s budget, released last week, the answer is a clear “no.” Buried in the thick volume is approximately $300 million for reading investment, comparable to the last year of RF (though the term Reading First is no where to be found, don’t mistake me).
So I’ll ask again, what is the future of the federal investment in reading instruction? Eduflack opined
on this back in January. The current buzz around town, four months later, is pretty simple. Critics of RF believe to this day that it was all about phonics. It was a drill-and-kill bill designed to prop up programs like Direct Instruction or Open Court, teaching reading in an automaton sort of way. We forget that the legislation — and the instruction to come from it — was supposed to focus on five key, research-based principles. It was all about phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, with each component building on the one that came before it.
RF wasn’t a phonics bill, it was a scientifically based reading research bill. That’s why we saw the “scientifically based” terminology i the NCLB legislation more than 100 times. Its writers recognized that we have spent billions of dollars in this country trying to get our youngest learners reading. And despite all of the money and the best of intentions, nearly 40 percent of fourth-graders were still falling below the proficiency mark. RF was intended to refocus our dollars on what was proven effective. it was about spending on what works. It sought to abandon the notion that our classrooms are laboratories to test out the latest and greatest silver bullets, and instead should be centers of excellence where we apply instruction and teacher training that is proven most effective in getting kids to read.
Until I am provided a better name, Eduflack will refer to RF 2.0 as Yes, I Can Read. So what does Yes, I Can Read look like in 2009? We know from the buzz that Yes is going to place a stronger emphasis on both vocabulary and reading comprehension, two key components of SBRR. For well more than a decade now, we have heard about the vocabulary gaps between high-income and low-income students. Low-income students often enter school having heard thousands fewer words than their counterparts. One can’t be truly proficient in reading if you don’t know the words. So yes, vocabulary should be a key component of Yes.
As should comprehension. All of the work at the beginning of the learning process — that focus on phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency — is meaningless if a student ultimately doesn’t understand what he or she is reading. We use the fourth grade measure because that is when students need to start using their reading skills to learn other subjects, like science and social studies. At the end of the day, comprehension is king. Without it, all of the previous work was for naught. So you get Eduflack’s ringing endorsement on that as well.
Third, we have the teacher component. Although RF provided for up to 25 percent of the dollars to be spent on professional development, it is often a provision that is overlooked. And that’s a cryin’ shame. We cannot expect our kids to learn to read if we are not properly supporting and training our teachers to lead the instruction. It is hard, hard work to teach a child to read. It’s not just a matter of finding the right button to push or handing out the right workbook. Teachers need to understand the five core building blocks of reading instruction. They need to be able to identify where a student’s roadblock may be, using whatever is necessary to increase the application of that principle. They need to use RtI when appropriate to get students over the hump. They need to stick the research, but do so in an engaging way with literature that is both relevant and interesting to a student. They need to become reading wizards, doing the impossible with more than a third of our students — engaging, educating, and inspiring. They need to do it all.
So obviously, we need to invest more heavily in both the pre-service and in-service teacher training and support for reading instruction. And this isn’t just for ELA teachers, this is for all teachers. Every educator has a vested interest in a child reading at grade level. Every teacher pays the price if the child is not. It is only natural, then, after more so many dollars have been spent in the past six years to get SBRR materials in the classroom, that Yes focuses on equipping teachers with the skills and knowledge to maximize the learning tools they currently have.
The final piece to this equation is recognizing that reading instruction is not simply a K-4 game. As the Christian Science Monitor reported
yesterday, a new NCES study found that 14 percent of Americans over the age of 16 struggle with basic reading and writing. That’s 30 million adults and young adults! What does that say? For Yes, it means that our reading efforts can’t be limited to the elementary grades. We need to focus on middle and high school reading instruction as well, particularly for our most struggling readers. We need to take what we know works with younger students, mix in the limited research about middle and secondary school reading, and build an instructional program and the teacher supports that work with these students. The Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next report gives us a start. We now need to move those recommendations into practice.
NAEP’s recently released long-term data showed us a couple of things (and no, I’m not going to harp on the achievement gap … this time). First, it demonstrated that we are on the right track with SBRR. Reading scores for our elementary grades are on the rise. They are on the rise for white, African-American, and Hispanic students. And they are on the rise for both rich and poor students. What this means is the investment in SBRR, and the development of SBRR materials, is working. All kids are improving reading proficiency, whether they are in a RF school or not. This is not an indictment of RF, rather it is a vindication of SBRR. Textbook publishers are not selling one set of texts to RF schools, and another to non-RF schools. All texts are now aligned with SBRR. Teacher training programs are not offering one set of reading pedagogy to those teachers about to enter RF schools and another to those going into non-RF schools. All teachers are getting the same basics in the tenets of SBRR (if they are getting any reading at all). The NAEP data shows it is working, and shows we need to keep at it and redouble it, not change course and try something new … again.
The NAEP data also demonstrates the impact of greater accountability measures. The implementation of SBRR has come at the same time we were holding our sch
ools to a greater level of accountability through AYP. Such accountability measures have ensured that all students were served, and we were making no exceptions for such standards. Yes, it was seen as harsh by some, particularly those who wanted to use their own lenses or sought greater proportionality in how AYP was measured. Accountability is harsh because it needs to be. At the end of the day, the rise in NAEP scores over the last decade better aligns with the accountability movement than it does with NCLB. As some states started to put firm accountability measures into place in late 1990s, we started to see the uptick. As NCLB nationalized it, the results on NAEP speak for themselves. When we hold our schools and state accountable, truly accountable, they can rise to the occasion.
Why is this important? It gets back to the learning needs of our older students. We don’t have such accountability measures in place for secondary schools, and we really don’t have them in place for our middle schools. If Yes, I Can Read is going to have real teeth and leave a lasting impact, we need to hold our schools, particularly our secondary schools, accountable for its effective implementation. We need to collect all the data, measure all the students, grades K-12, and report who is doing the job and who isn’t. Those who are should serve as beacons and exemplars for the nation. Those who aren’t should be put on notice and should have to take the corrective action to get those students reading.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there is a correlation between drop-out rates and literacy levels. Nor does it take a brain surgeon to know that the root of the achievement gap is our reading proficiency gap.
So as we build Yes, I Can Read, we need to make sure we are investing in all five of the core components of SBRR, particularly vocabulary and comprehension. We need to invest in our teachers, ensuring they have the data, knowledge, and skills to be effective literacy instructors to all students, regardless of age or current reading level. And we need to hold our K-12 schools accountable for reading proficiency.
Reading is not mastered at the fourth grade. Those who are proficient at that stage still have a lot of work to do. Those who are not need extra work, extra attention, and extra intervention. SBRR has a lifetime of application. It has been proven effective. And as far as I know, no one has offered up a better roadmap to getting virtually all children reading. Hopefully, just maybe, it will remain the core of Yes, I Can Read.