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Reading First's Subtraction Lesson

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Since its creation in 2002, Reading First has simultaneously been one of the most popular and controversial aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. The program offers states funding for reading instruction and assessment programs, provided the state demonstrates plans to establish a comprehensive and accountable phonetics-based reading program.

While Reading First has drawn some criticism from proponents of whole language instruction—a method that teaches reading through context of sentences rather than through individual letters and sounds of words—it has received positive feedback from participating states. A 2007 survey by the U.S. Department of Education reported that most states credit Reading First with a marked rise in reading comprehension.

Reading First’s controversy began with an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General, which revealed that members of Reading First’s review panel had ties to companies providing states with reading instruction models and teacher training. The conflicts of interest led to accusations that Reading First was selectively approving state applications in their own interests. Reading First director Christopher Doherty was forced to resign amidst the allegations.

Reading First in the Lurch

Reading First has survived in spite of the controversy but in January 2008 it received what may prove to be a fatal blow. Congress cut funding for Reading First from $1 billion to $393 million, with House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey specifically citing the program’s mismanagement as a driving reason for the cuts.

Many states still believe in Reading First’s achievements and worry that the lack of funds will force them to cut what they’ve seen as effective programs. In response, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has spent the past three months advising states on ways to continue Reading First-funded programs, including drawing funding from other federal education programs. Yet despite these efforts, Reading First’s future is still uncertain.

What People are Saying About the Cuts to Reading First

Jim Ward, an employee of the Kentucky Reading First Office, strongly believes in what Reading First can accomplish, saying:

I was a principal of a Reading First school in Crab Orchard, Kentucky. I was eight years in that building, and I saw more progress with Reading First than anything I’ve seen in my 20 years in education. This process taught me how to be an instructional leader in my building.

Some policymakers believe in the program as well, but worry that the lack of funds will weaken its effectiveness. Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, says:

We’re disappointed to see cuts to Reading First, a program that has a track record of proven results. With the Department of Education and Congress working throughout the last year to improve structural weaknesses in the program, it’s hard to understand why the program is now being cut so dramatically. Ultimately, the result of these cuts will be fewer resources to help children learn to read.

Yet many are still worried by the program’s shady past. Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, still feels the program needs further examination:

We all agree that the goal of the Reading First program -- to help all children learn to read -- is incredibly important. We must have every assurance that Reading First funding is being used as intended -- to benefit our nation's schoolchildren, not to line the pockets of Bush's cronies.

Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, sees the program as flawed both in theory and in practice:

As it stands now, I don’t think Reading First should be funded at all. It imposes … heavy doses of phonemic awareness and intensive phonics, extremist approaches that are not supported by the research. It hasn’t worked, [and] there is evidence of serious corruption/conflict of interest in the awarding of Reading First funds.

Education Sector co-founder and co-director Andrew J. Rotherham takes a more nuanced view of the program:

Everyone's right. The Bush administration screwed up. The program is proven to be effective. And funds shouldn't have been cut.

Is Reading First an effective program for improving reading skills, or is it just another case of mismanagement? Could it be both? Most importantly, should it have lost funding? What do you think?

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