No Child Left Behinds reading program marked failure

NewsAnalysis

A key education program created under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act has failed to produce results, according to a recent study by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The study concluded that there was no difference in the reading comprehension scores between students who participated in the Reading First program and those who did not.

The Department of Education has spent more than $6 billion on Reading First since 2002, about $1 billion a year. Reading First has been a core program of the No Child Left Behind Act with 1.5 million students in grades kindergarten to third grades participating in 5,200 schools in 13 states.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Education Committee, said, “The Bush administration has put cronyism first and the reading skills of our children last, and the report shows the disturbing consequences.” Because of the criticism and accusations of conflict of interest of Reading First officials, congressional hearings were held in April 2007.

The hearings disclosed how those who implemented and designed the $1-billion-a-year Reading First program profited from steering states and school districts to purchase certain textbooks, tests and services. Reading First was also charged with mismanagement.

Chris Doherty, former director of Reading First, sent an email to a staff member which exposed his motives when referring to a reading program he disapproved. Said Doherty, “They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we treat dirt bags.”

Doherty and other Reading First officials awarded grants only when states and school districts used the reading programs they favored such as McGraw-Hill’s Direct Instruction and Voyager Expanded Learning. Even when other programs such as Reading Recovery and Success for All complied with the legal guidelines and criteria, they were not approved to be used. They were the “dirt bags.”

The Expert Review Panel did not function. Some grant applications were funded without documentation, while others were denied for no reason, the hearings revealed.

During the hearings, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chair of the House Education Committee, told a panel of Reading First officials, “This sounds like a criminal enterprise to me. You don’t get to override the law. But the fact of the matter is that you did.”

Following the hearing, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) led the fight to cut Reading First’s budget from $1 billion to $393 million in 2008. Bush’s fiscal 2009 budget seeks to restore funding to previous levels. Chris Doherty resigned right before the Department of Education Inspector General, John Higgins, published his Investigation Report of Reading First.

Actually, the goals and purpose of the Reading First program are laudable: “To assist States and local school districts to establish reading programs for low income students in Kindergarten to 3rd grade based on scientific research resulting in these students being able to read on grade level.”

The tragedy of the Reading First Program, however, is not the program itself but the officials who mismanaged it and their total disregard for the laws and guidelines under which the department was to operate. Cronyism and corporate greed was allowed to override the educational needs of the young children the program was to serve.

Rosita Johnson is a retired teacher and member of the PWW editorial board. This article was first published at pww.org. See related letter to the editor on page 6.