Education boss wants Texas-style reading

Bush relies on Paige to push phonics, tests on nation of students

April 11, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Four months after President Bush tapped fellow Texan Roderick R. Paige as education secretary, Paige has emerged as a champion of improved reading instruction - and to do that he intends to borrow liberally from programs forged in his home state.

Just as Paige did as Houston schools superintendent and Bush did as Texas governor, the new secretary says he'll appoint a top-level federal official to serve as a national reading czar - to give reading instruction higher visibility "and make sure the money the president is committing to reading is properly managed."

Paige calls reading "a civil right that hasn't been getting the attention it deserves." He says stagnant national reading test scores - according to results released Friday, they haven't budged in nearly a decade - constitute "an emergency of the first order."

And he wants federal grants to improve reading going toward "scientifically based programs, not fads."

Such programs were installed in Houston during Paige's seven-year superintendency, and some of the research pointing to their effectiveness was conducted by experts at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School.

Paige declines to endorse any single instructional program, but the research he cites supports initial direct instruction in systematic phonics, as opposed to literature-oriented approaches, and most of it was financed by the National Institutes of Health.

That agency's reading research director, G. Reid Lyon, has become a chief adviser to Bush and Paige and could become the administration's reading chief.

Several major national education groups - which tend to insist that many different approaches to reading instruction can be effective - are apt to be upset that Paige and the Bush administration intend to weigh in so heavily on one side of the decades-long reading wars between proponents of phonics and other methods.

The new secretary says he expects resistance to his plans. "There's nothing more difficult than change," he says. "No matter how compelling the evidence, there are those vested in the current situation, and they're going to resist. But we're going to do what's right, and what's right isn't based on whimsy. It's based on 20 years of research."

Paige's comments came during a wide-ranging interview with The Sun late last week.

Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education and former president of the Maryland state school board, says Paige's focus on reading is unprecedented for a U.S. education chief.

"I'm impressed that he's targeted on reading," Cross says. "It's gutsy because though we've accumulated a lot of wisdom about reading in the last decade, there's still no agreement on how best to teach it."

Cross also notes that Paige is defying Washington convention. "He's crossing boundaries to elevate the work of another agency," Cross says, referring to the National Institutes of Health, which competes with the Education Department for federal funding. "When do you see that happening in Washington?"

Announced during the presidential campaign, Bush's "Reading First" initiative calls for "science-based" reading instruction in kindergarten through second grade and gives states $5 billion over five years to put that in place. Some of this money is included in Bush's proposed 11.5 percent budget increase for the federal education agency for the next fiscal year, the largest increase of any department in Bush's first budget.

Similarly, Paige focused on reading teachers in Houston, and the state began training teachers for the first three grades, starting with 14,000 kindergarten teachers. The effort appears to have paid off: The percentage of Houston students passing Texas state tests rose from 44 percent to 64 percent during Paige's tenure.

He also wants more literacy instruction in Head Start, the federal antipoverty preschool program. "Head Start started out with a literacy focus," says the secretary, "but it gradually lost that focus."

He takes as his model a long-time friend, Thaddeus Lott, who elevated reading scores as principal of Wesley Elementary School in a high-poverty Houston neighborhood. Lott used Direct Instruction, a heavily scripted program that includes intensive drills in systematic phonics. "Thaddeus and I had lunch together almost weekly," says Paige. "I call him a one-tracker, and that track is reading.

"When you broke out first-grade scores at Wesley, you could tell the kids Thaddeus had had for kindergarten and pre-K. Their scores looked pretty much like those in the middle-class bedroom community across town. But when you broke out the kids who had had kindergarten and pre-kindergarten but not at Thaddeus' school, they looked just like everybody else."

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