Reading First is not a mandate!
I don’t think you understand how the Reading First program works. No state or district is compelled by federal mandates to use the reading methods specified by the Reading First program. No state is required to apply for RF funding. No district is required to accept RF funding. The Reading First dollars are available only to states and districts that apply for them. Reading First is a competitive grant program.
For example, in New York State, the RF money went only to districts that sought the money and then only for a limited number of schools that were prepared to follow the law’s guidelines. The districts had to fill out an application saying that the schools would accept the requirements of the program to use only methods based on “scientifically based reading research.”
New York City, which has about 800 or so elementary schools requested RF funding for 46 public elementary schools and 36 nonpublic (mainly Catholic) schools. The State Education Department reviewed all the proposals and the city received $107 million for three years. (A few months ago, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education said that New York state should refund the $107 million to the feds because NYC’s application didn’t receive enough points from reviewers, and the state had arbitrarily awarded bonus points to the city. This matter is still in dispute.)
The point is that states are not required to accept Reading First funds, nor are districts. The states do not lose ESEA funding if they do not apply for Reading First funding. You are confusing Reading First with No Child Left Behind. States do have to comply with NCLB requirements if they want to continue to receive federal funding. But again, Reading First money goes only to districts that request the funding, and even then not to all schools in a district.
Some newspapers (such as The New York Times) have frequently attacked Reading First, but I don’t think the reporters realize that states and districts get the money only if they ask for it. Nor have they reported the success stories associated with Reading First. Consider the contrast between inner-city Richmond, Virginia, which sought Reading First money, and Fairfax County, Virginia, which did not. Richmond’s schools, 95% black and more than 70% free lunch, have been among Virginia’s lowest performing; Fairfax County is an affluent, high performing district. Richmond implemented RF programs in its lowest performing schools. Since adopting RF methods, African American third-graders in inner-city Richmond have surpassed African American third-graders in rich Fairfax County on state tests, by 74% to 59%. (For more on this story, see Sol Stern, “This Bush Education Reform Really Works,” City Journal, Winter 2007 .
I agree with you that different methods work with different kids who have different needs. The problem is that for many years, whole language—or some variant of whole language—was the only method found in most schools. Kids who were not learning to read were called “learning disabled” or promoted from grade to grade not knowing how to read. Few schools of education even taught reading methods that relied on phonics for beginning readers, except for special education. If you truly believe, as you say, that “teachers need to understand how to instruct in various ways,” then you should agree that teachers need to know how to teach phonics and the correspondence between letters and sounds as one of those “various ways.”
We agree that, beginning in the earliest grades, children should have lots of time devoted to science, the arts, stories about historical persons, and classic children’s literature. Knowledge about the world and immersion in literature and science builds vocabulary and background knowledge. Jeanne Chall knew this; her wise and wonderful book "Learning to Read: The Great Debate" should be required (oops, sorry) reading for everyone who cares about these issues, as we all should.
Unlike you, I don’t think that a knowledge-rich curriculum is inconsistent with learning to crack the code that unlocks the English language. Many kids learn to crack the code at home, because their parents read to them and teach them the code. Many more need help to do it.
That’s the purpose of Reading First, and given that no state or district gets RF funds unless they put in an application, I don’t see why this is a problem for you.