"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, March 09, 2007

Bush's War on Reading in the Limelight

Some educators who are concerned with teaching children how to read, understand and gain the critical thinking skills necessary to become lifelong learners, haven't bought into the Bush Administration's push for Reading First, a phonics-based instruction program that is now the subject of a Congressional investigation at ED.

It may have cost this district in Madison, Wisconsin, (as reported in today's New York Times,) $2 million in funding, but teachers are doing what they, as professionals, believe is best for their students. It appears the press is finally catching on to what most educators have known for years, the Reading First scandal is just another example of Bush & Co. cronysim that has been reported on by Schools Matter and other education watchers. The American public is now finally getting an education on how things at ED work when it comes to "the best interest" of our nation's children.
Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

“Pumpkin,” ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.

“Look at the word,” the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?”

Parker looked again. “Pea,” he said, correctly.

Call it the $2 million reading lesson.

By sticking to its teaching approach, that is the amount Madison passed up under Reading First, the Bush administration’s ambitious effort to turn the nation’s poor children into skilled readers by the third grade.

The program, which gives $1 billion a year in grants to states, was supposed to end the so-called reading wars — the battle over the best method of teaching reading — but has instead opened a new and bitter front in the fight.

According to interviews with school officials and a string of federal audits and e-mail messages made public in recent months, federal officials and contractors used the program to pressure schools to adopt approaches that emphasize phonics, focusing on the mechanics of sounding out syllables, and to discard methods drawn from whole language that play down these mechanics and use cues like pictures or context to teach.

Federal officials who ran Reading First maintain that only curriculums including regular, systematic phonics lessons had the backing of “scientifically based reading research” required by the program.

But in a string of blistering reports, the Education Department’s inspector general has found that federal officials may have violated prohibitions in the law against mandating, or even endorsing, specific curriculums. The reports also found that federal officials overlooked conflicts of interest among the contractors that advised states applying for grants, and that in some instances, these contractors wrote reading programs competing for the money, and stood to collect royalties if their programs were chosen.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has said that the problems in Reading First occurred largely before she took over in 2005, and that her office has new guidelines for awarding grants. She declined a request for an interview.

Madison officials say that a year after Wisconsin joined Reading First, in 2004, contractors pressured them to drop their approach, which blends some phonics with whole language in a program called Balanced Literacy. Instead, they gave up the money — about $2 million, according to officials here, who say their program raised reading scores.

In New York City, under pressure from federal officials, school authorities in 2004 dropped their citywide balanced literacy approach for a more structured program stronger in phonics, in 49 low-income schools. At stake was $34 million.

Across the country — in Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine and New Jersey — schools and districts with programs that did not stress phonics were either rejected for grants or pressured to change their methods even though some argued, as Madison did, that their programs met the law’s standard.

“We had data demonstrating that our children were learning at the rate that Reading First was aiming for, and they could not produce a single ounce of data to show the success rates of the program they were proposing,” said Art Rainwater, Madison’s superintendent of schools.
Lisa Schiff of San Francisco explains why the Reading First scandal is just symptomatic of a larger education policy that is based on private business and profits.

Other than its very existence, one of the biggest scandals regarding No Child Left Behind (NCLB), our federal education legislation, has been the Reading First program. Reading First is another one of NCLB’s typically myopic efforts to improve educational outcomes. In this instance, the approach has been to promote mechanical solutions to the development of literacy skills for K through 3rd graders through programs based on “evidence-based research” and “scientific data.”

Having a sound basis for using a certain method makes sense, but the absolute reliance on the ability to describe outcomes quantitatively is suspect, since meaningful assessments of literacy skills require more than that. As with some other programs NCLB has introduced, such as supplementary tutoring, a primary purpose of the Reading First component seems to have been to create a fast-track to funnel state dollars used to purchase literacy education materials into the coffers of just a few producers of those same materials. Language such as “scientific” and “evidenced-based” simply served to provide the authoritative cover under which to hide this intention.Many might argue that since NCLB is sufficiently scandalous in the way it reduces education to standardized curricula and tests, narrows the subjects taught and the pedagogical methods employed that there is no need to look further.

While there is a certain truth to this, the flagrant and sustained corruption that occurred with Reading First is particularly important to expose. The impropriety not only clearly breached ethical norms, it serves as a clear example of the privatization goals of NCLB and of the underlying philosophy that profit making is of greater importance than educating our society’s kids.

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