Reading Is at the Forefront of Local Education Policy

Published June 1, 2003

The new federal push for schools to ensure their programs of instruction are based on valid science is lending urgency to an old debate over the best way to teach reading. Many school systems are learning that federal approval of their Reading First funding applications is no sure thing.

Reading First is part of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 and carries a $6 billion commitment from the Bush administration. It succeeds the Reading Excellence Act, administered during the Clinton administration. During the Clinton years, Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Bowler has observed, “states dressed up tired old [reading] programs and saw them sail through the federal approval process.”

Today, localities face tough sailing if they expect programs lacking scientific validity to attract federal funding. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and his Education Department have returned numerous reading proposals marked “F” or “incomplete.”

During Reading First’s debut year, only 27 state programs gained federal approval. Almost all of those came only after initial rejections.

Maryland’s Proposal Rejected

Maryland is a recent example. Although the state’s overall NCLB accountability plan won approval and praise from Paige, its Reading First proposal bounced, with calls from Washington for further work. At stake is $175,000 for each of 50 schools to beef up their reading instruction and teacher training.

Although nothing in federal law stipulates a reading instruction method, the landmark report of the National Reading Panel in April 2000 found–after reviewing 100,000 research studies conducted since 1966–that children must be taught phonemic awareness and phonics skills in order to become good readers. The Panel also stressed teaching the applied skills of fluent reading and comprehension.

Bush’s reading advisor, G. Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which sponsored the Panel’s work, frequently stresses the imperative of phonemic awareness and phonics.

Maryland’s state school superintendent, Nancy Grasmick, professed not to be upset at the rejection of her reading proposal, “because we know all of the other states were rejected the first time. We’re going back to the drawing board optimistically.”

Whole Language Cloaked as Phonics

Controversy erupted over New York’s Reading First proposal when schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced a program called “Month by Month Phonics” would be mandated in most of the Big Apple’s public elementary schools. Despite its name, the program is based on the Whole Language approach–discredited by scientific research–and contains only a smattering of phonics, according to Sol Stern of City Journal and other critics.

Given the likelihood of a federal rejection, Mayor Michael Bloomberg–who controls the New York City schools under a state law passed last year–quickly announced Month by Month would be supplemented with a phonics-based program developed by Dallas-based Voyager Expanded Learning. That program was used by Paige when he was superintendent of the Houston public schools.

Thus, it is likely New York City will get its $68 million in federal reading aid. However, noted Stern, “a lot of that money will be wasted as teachers in the elementary schools will have to be trained to work with not one but two new reading programs.”

Under their contract, teachers don’t show up until a few days before pupils arrive for classes in September. The situation will be chaotic, Stern predicted, “as untrained teachers juggle two new programs and try to figure out which students should get phonics lite and which should get the real McCoy.”

Orlando Sentinel Initiative

Not all communities are waiting for blessings from Washington. In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel has launched an ambitious project called Reading by Nine. Over a period of several years, the newspaper will be devoting comprehensive coverage to reading and following the work of teachers dedicated to raising levels of literacy.

In introducing one of its most recent reports, the paper noted “one out of every three of our fourth-graders can barely read a book written for second-graders. Almost half of Central Florida’s 9-year-olds are reading below acceptable standards. Research shows that until the age of 9, children learn how to read. After that, they read to learn. … Our hope is that by shining a spotlight on this issue, we can help find solutions that will benefit our community–and our children.”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information …

Information on the Orlando Sentinel‘s Reading by Nine program is available from the newspaper’s Web sit at