Reading First puts `scientific' mode first

The Education Beat

Funding: This federal program's insistence on structured methods to teach reading pleases some educators and concerns others.

August 04, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Christopher J. Doherty jumped from a puddle to an ocean. And the water's fine.

On Jan. 4, Doherty, 36, was one of four full-time employees of an obscure Baltimore nonprofit agency. As director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, he'd spent three years promoting phonics-based reading instruction in some of the city's neediest schools - and witnessing spectacular results.

On Jan. 7, installed on the third floor of the vast U.S. Department of Education headquarters, he began his new job as chief of Reading First, the $5.9 billion, six-year reading component of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

Reading First has education officials across the nation scrambling to win grants from Doherty's office. But of 37 state applications, only those of Florida, Alabama and Colorado have been approved.

Colorado, for example, will pour $100,000 to $250,000 a year into each of 45 low-performing schools, train reading coaches and teachers, and provide technical assistance. There'll be a statewide network of reading academies for coaches, teachers and administrators.

"We didn't worry about all the bad stuff that could happen," said William J. Moloney, the Colorado education commissioner. "We applied early and confidently, in part because we already had a lot of it in place."

Maryland, eligible for $11.3 million this year and $74 million over six years, has not applied, said Gertrude Collier of the State Department of Education. Collier said Maryland's application has to wait until the state devises a new battery of tests to replace the retired Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

"We're being very cautious, and we're monitoring the states that have been approved," said Collier.

Bush has called Reading First the centerpiece of the new act. The act requires annual reading and math tests for all students in third through eighth grades. Schools that don't demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" are subject to penalties, and as a last resort their students can transfer to other public schools with transportation provided.

"The secretary [of education] can discontinue grants to states that don't comply," said Doherty. Unlike other federal aid programs, "this is not your father's entitlement."

Because it's targeted at pupils at risk of reading failure - the 40 percent who test below the basic skills level in the National Assessment of Educational Progress - "Reading First has real meaning to cities like Baltimore," he added.

State officials like Reading First for two reasons. One is that since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January, several states have begun running budget deficits. "This makes a big federal grant all the more important," said Doherty.

The other is that 20 percent of each state's reading grant is to be used at the state's discretion, much of it for improving teacher performance and training new teachers. "This is unprecedented," said Doherty. "The usual federal grant sets aside 1 or 2 percent, no more than 5. This is professional development writ large."

Some educators praise Reading First for its prescriptive approach. "The norm of a federal program is to throw money at a general idea," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former education official in the Reagan administration.

"Now the government is saying, `Do it our way or don't apply,'" Finn said. "In the case of reading, that's appropriate. There's now a scientific consensus on how to teach reading, and we shouldn't be spending money on unscientific methods any more than the National Cancer Institute should spend money on apricot pits to cure lung cancer."

But many critics say Reading First is stacked against less-structured approaches to instruction generally known as "whole language" and in favor of phonics-oriented programs such as Direct Instruction and commercial packages such as Open Court.

Doherty denied it. He said no "brand names" are specified in the No Child Left Behind legislation, and "states need not name programs to qualify." He insisted that "home-grown" and "mom-and-pop" approaches would be approved if they meet the law's tough criteria.

In fact, none of the three approved states mentioned a specific program in its application. Florida officials said they would continue with many programs in place. In preparing its application, the state conducted an inventory, and found 1,600 reading programs and strategies, three-fourths of them commercial.

Several state plans have been sent back to the drawing board for strengthening, Doherty said in an interview. He declined to identify the states or the deficiencies in their proposals.

But Shirley Dickson, program director for literacy at the Education Commission of the States - a Denver-based organization that is tracking No Child Left Behind - said state officials are most worried about a requirement that reading programs be based on "scientific research" in order to receive federal funds.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.