Bush Says Reading Is Job 1

Published July 1, 2001

While many of President George W. Bush’s education reform proposals are meeting stern opposition in Congress, one of his pet projects is sailing through with nary a raised eyebrow.

Bush’s “Reading First” initiative would target federal funds to help students learn to read in the early grades. Despite its relatively large price tag–about $5 billion over five years–the program appears on its way to easy ratification. The President already is lining up a cadre of reading experts to get the program rolling as soon as it is approved.

Within days of taking office, Bush introduced a bold education plan, titled “No Child Left Behind,” to serve as a blueprint for Congressional reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal government’s primary vehicle for influencing K-12 education. It came as no surprise that Bush, who championed literacy in the early grades as Governor of Texas, included the Reading First initiative in his federal blueprint.

Close on the heels of the Bush plan’s launching, a report issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that over one-third of the nation’s fourth graders were rated “below basic” in reading in 2000. The gap between the lowest-performing students–typically minority and poor students–and the highest-achieving students has widened since 1992, despite significant effort and resources expended to narrow it. (See “NAEP Reading Scores Tell a Grim Tale,” School Reform News, June 2001.)

Over the past few months, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have feuded over how to address several cornerstone issues in the President’s education blueprint–notably school choice, testing, and accountability–and also over funding levels for various programs. Several of the President’s proposals have been watered down or removed altogether from House and Senate versions of the ESEA bill.

Smooth Sailing for Reading

By contrast, the Reading First initiative, which would establish an unprecedented federal focus on the teaching of reading, particularly for students in grades K-3, is widely popular. Even its focus on research-proven phonics–which usually raises the ire of “whole language” proponents–has, so far, gone uncontested in Congress.

Reading First aims to have all U.S. students reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade. It would provide states and school districts with federal funds for professional development, rigorous diagnostic assessments, tutors, parent-focused programs, and instructional materials. Along with a companion “Early Reading First” proposal, which promotes pre-literacy programs for preschoolers, the Bush plan may spell the end of a decades-long emphasis on “whole language” as the primary means of teaching students to read.

One person who is credited with restoring the public’s faith in phonics-based reading programs is the appropriately named Reid Lyon, who has headed up several years’ worth of scientific research on reading instruction at the National Institutes of Health. While governor, Bush turned to Lyon to help design a Texas statewide reading program; as President, Bush is leaning heavily on Lyon to see his federal program through.

“The successful translation of scientific research to practice in Texas, which reduced the number of poor and minority students having reading difficulties, affirmed the President’s commitment to educational practices based on high-quality scientific evidence,” explained Lyon, who is serving as an informal advisor to Bush.

One of Lyon’s first charges was to recruit several top-tier officials to orchestrate the administration of Reading First and other K-12 federal programs. Those tapped include Susan Neuman, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, who has been nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education; and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, psychology department chairman at SUNY Stony Brook, nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement.

According to Lyon, both nominees reflect the President’s commitment to finding leaders with strong scientific and content backgrounds, “rather than simply filling administration positions on political grounds.”

Fewer Special Ed Students

Lyon believes the effective teaching of reading to young students will not only help reduce the achievement gap, but will also lower the number of students assigned to special education programs.

In a paper recently published by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Progressive Policy Institute, Lyon contends the effective teaching of reading to very young students could reduce the number of “learning disabled” students placed in special education programs by up to 70 percent.

With special education costs reaching $60 billion a year, the $900 million Bush wants to direct towards early literacy in 2002 reflects a smart investment, explains House of Representatives’ Committee on the Workforce and Education staffer Bob Sweet, who is working closely with the Reading First legislation. He also notes the focus on early literacy translates to success in all other areas.

“Over the past 35 years, [the federal government has] funded billions and billions of dollars in programs that were ineffective,” said Sweet. “This is a way to turn the nose of the ship in the right direction.”

Kelly Amis is program director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, DC. Her email address is [email protected].