A Second Chance for “Reading First”

By Susan Crawford | Director, The Right to Read Project

As Congress progresses through its re-write of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), renamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the 2002 version, here is something for it to consider. NCLB contained a provision that might have enabled the full proficiency in math and reading envisioned by the law: the Reading First program. My suggestion is that Congress dust off the program, re-brand it if necessary, and re-insert it into the updated ESEA. If properly funded and executed, it could yield a fully-literate school-aged population in another dozen years.

During this year’s first public testimony on the re-write, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island noted that, if all children could read by the end of first grade, the persistent academic achievement gap would be ameliorated.  It was the first and only reference to this issue – let’s call it the “reading deficit” — that I’ve heard from a public official in a very long time. Having all children reading by first grade might be an unnecessarily heavy lift; school children in Finland, with its “first in the world” test scores, don’t even start to learn to read until age 7. Nevertheless, with the proper reading programs, supports, and interventions where needed, virtually all children in the U.S. could be reading proficiently by third grade.

Congress has a history of researching and pursuing such goals. Unfortunately, instead of supporting this goal, recent federal initiatives have spawned an array of initiatives that have far more to do with altering governance and payment structures in education (see ” Federal Mandates on Local Education: Costs and Consequences) than with actual instructional practices in the classroom.

The magnitude of reading difficulties in this country is huge.  For a description of how the reading deficit plays out at the ground level, see my 2011 essay on its prevalence in New York City public schools in, “To Help All Children Read, First Do the Math.”   An earlier report from the Abell Foundation, “The Invisible Dyslexics,” describes how students with dyslexia in Baltimore fall through the cracks.  These problems are duplicated in school systems throughout the country. Many so-called “failing schools” are in fact filled with over-aged students who have not gotten the reading help they needed.

In schools with highly effective reading programs, students do get the help they need, in their very own schools. In other so-called “successful” schools, however, the burden is on parents to find help outside the school (at enormous personal expense). Some otherwise strong schools counsel struggling readers out if they are not “getting it” by, for instance, third grade, when state tests kick in. In the case of “screened” schools, struggling readers seldom get in, even though barring their admission over reading difficulties runs counter to The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, in which gifted education is considered a “special need.” To remedy this concern, New York City replaced IQ tests for gifted and talented programs with “school readiness” tests. These newer tests focus less on intellectual giftedness or talents and more on reading readiness. Thus, they screen out those who, even with high IQs, do not show sufficient “emergent reading” by age 4.

Recognizing the depth of the reading deficits in this country, in the 1990’s, Congress asked the National Institutes of Child Health and Development (NICHD) to convene a Reading Panel of prominent researchers in the fields of reading instruction and remediation. In its Report to Congress (“Teaching Children to Read,” 2000), the Panel stated that by fourth grade, four out of ten children in the United States still struggled with reading.  Two out of ten were dyslexic.  The Panel recommended specific, scientifically-researched instructional and intervention protocols that were incorporated into Reading First, and the NICHD’s “Response to Intervention” (RTI) protocol that was included in the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) legislation update.

Reading First was incorporated into the 2002 No Child Left Behind law; it specifically followed the Reading Panel’s six components of reading instruction that had been thoroughly researched and found to show significant improvement in reading ability when used. The Panel determined that research-based components of a strong reading program are phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, comprehension strategies, and teacher professional development. The Reading Panel’s report can be read here, and a later description, written specifically for teachers, is here.

Such a program, and the financial support to enact it, was promising for this country’s children. Before long, however, the NCLB requirements for what could be used in the program were watered down, from “scientifically-researched” reading instruction and interventions to “research-based” curricula.  Soon after that, the whole program itself disappeared amid vendor scandals and pedagogical resistance.

Meanwhile, the other recommended help to struggling readers, Response to Intervention, has never been effectively implemented. RTI, too, was based on the findings of the Reading Panel, and was developed by NICHD to replace the “waiting to fail” model that had long been the trigger for a Special Education referral. Under that earlier protocol, students could not be referred for remedial help for their reading difficulties unless they were at least two grades behind in reading ability. Under RTI, remediation is to be offered as soon as a student starts to fall behind. The intensity of intervention is supposed to increase until the level that meets the child’s needs is reached.  Although it is still a component of IDEA, RTI suffers from inadequate funding that afflicts Special Education in general; Congress has not yet fully funded this law since its passage in 1975.  At the “ground level,” execution of RTI is extremely uneven. For instance, in New York State the most intensive of the three “tiers” of interventions for struggling readers  is accessible only through referrals to Special Education. Many parents resist such referrals, thus setting their children up for a cycle of reading failure is never addressed.

Congress could overcome this morass by championing Reading First in its original form (including the requirement that programs be supported by robust empirical evidence) and by funding RTI. It has the opportunity to do so as it rewrites ESEA and IDEA. Congress could provide the guidance and funding that would support truly effective reading instruction. It could finally fund interventions for students, at all grade levels, who need more help than regular classroom reading instruction can provide. Whether funding comes through ESEA, NCLB, IDEA, or any other alphabetical construct, every child who struggles with reading needs the proper instruction and supports for learning his or her ABCs.

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