When overseas colleagues criticize American foreign policy, I've been known to respond, "If you like Iraq, you'll love what the Bush administration has done to public education." Late last week, the US Department of Education proved my point when they released the Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report.
Like the invasion of Iraq or the disastrous Katrina aftermath, Reading First is the latest in a string of colossal failures of the Bush administration. As in the other cases of malfeasance, the White House is spinning news of the Reading First fiasco. This denial of culpability has gone unchallenged by the mainstream media disinterested in matters of education policy. Children and our economic security are the ultimate losers.
Reading First is the centerpiece of the Bush Administration's unprecedented takeover of public education, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Public school teachers and students have endured a half dozen years of terror as NCLB used shame, blame and crackpot theories to turn classrooms into Dickensian test-prep sweatshops devoid of creativity, joy or relevance. Veteran educators were handed scripts to follow, rather than teach.
The recent report concludes, "Reading First did not improve students' reading comprehension... The program did not increase the percentages of students in grades one, two or three whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level." In other words, a $6 billion federal program spending had no positive impact. Additionally, local school districts have made inestimable investments to support Reading First.
The failure of Reading First represents more than a course correction for a well-intentioned attempt to benefit the nation's children. Reading First was rife with politics, contempt for professional educators and conflicts of interest from the outset. It is particularly ironic that an administration insistent that every classroom practice must adhere to "scientifically-based research," to the exclusion of research it did not like, continues to insist that Reading First should be the law of the land, despite its own evidence to the contrary.
How did we get here?
Like the invasion of Iraq, Reading First was justified with ideological theories and bogus intelligence. NCLB and Reading First were based on the purported success of the "Houston Miracle" from when George W. Bush was Governor of Texas and his first secretary of education, Rod Paige, was the Superintendent of the Houston Schools. Although the "miracle" was quickly exposed as a fraud in which data was cooked in an Enron-like fashion and at-risk students disappeared, Congress decided that what flopped so spectacularly in Houston should be applied to the nation.
Reading First has its own Halliburton and Blackwater-like profiteers. In 2006, I wrote an analysis of the Department of Education Inspector General's report detailing the widespread corruption, cronyism and fraud endemic in Reading First. Untested and obscure strategies, such as Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) reduced reading to a series of one-minute tests of mechanics having nothing to do with students understanding what they read. DIBELS went from obscurity to ubiquity virtually overnight and made millions for its creators.
A handful of textbook publishers were greatly enriched while others were demonized and their books declared ineligible for purchase. Internal Department of Education memos indicate a conscious effort to create winners and losers in the marketplace. Before being forced to resign in 2006, Reading First Director Christopher Doherty called representatives from publishers the program shunned "dirtbags" and "would-be party crashers" and said, "We need to beat the [expletive] out of them."
The Connection to September 11, 2001
Reading First even has connections to 9/11. As the terrorists attacked the United States, President Bush was in a classroom where a teacher read The Pet Goat to a group of young children. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind and Reading First.
The Pet Goat is an exercise from a "literary classic" titled, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite-sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, "The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices."
Engelmann also said, "We don't give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels."
Engelmann's publisher, textbook giant, McGraw-Hill, has ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush's transition team and the board of his mother's literacy foundation. The publishers received honors from both Bush administrations and they in turn bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The company's former executive vice president was the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, National Intelligence Czar and current Assistant Secretary of State, John Negroponte. Direct instruction became synonymous with the "scientifically based methods" required by No Child Left Behind and Reading First.
Direct Instruction appears as effective at teaching reading comprehension as the War in Iraq is at spreading democracy.
On February 23, 2004, then Education Secretary, Rod Paige called the nation's largest teacher's union, "a terrorist organization" during a meeting with the National Governor's Association. Two years earlier, Reid Lyon, one of the architects of NCLB and Reading first said the following in a government-sponsored forum, "If there was any piece of legislation that I could pass it would be to blow up colleges of education." These are just two examples of the paranoia manifest by the "you're either with us or against us" worldview, even when the declared enemies happen to be your child's teacher.
Underlying Reading First is one of the religious right's favorite issues, phonics instruction. Educators have long understood that some students need help sounding out words while learning to read. However, the "reading wars" is an offensive by neoconservatives and religious fundamentalists convinced that every child learns to read in exactly the same way by being taught 43 phonemic sounds in a lockstep sequence. Some suspect that the promotion of "highly structured, systematic sequential explicit phonics" instruction is a Trojan horse for public school privatization while others suggest that phonics is embraced by religious fundamentalists happy to reduce reading to the literal interpretation of text. Either way, Reading First is the federal government's program for mandating uniform phonics instruction. Any parent who has watched a child spontaneously learn to read must question mechanistic theories of human development that oversimplify complex issues.
The Department of Education's attempt to spin the devastating conclusions of their own Reading First evaluation demonstrates how they are fueled by phonics fanaticism and choose failed ideology over science. The Department of Education made the incredulous claim that the Secretary of Education planned to look at the study "to inform our efforts," and would "look forward to reviewing the final report." Then they started spinning.
According to the May 1st edition of USA Today,
"On the plus side, researchers found that Reading First teachers spent more time emphasizing phonics and other aspects of what many experts consider solid instruction -- about 10 minutes more a day, or nearly an hour more a week. "Teachers' behavior was changed," Institute of Education Sciences Director Whitehurst says.
The White House wants us to believe that teachers spending more time executing a failed strategy is cause for celebration. Reading First doesn't work, but the good news is teachers are doing more of it -- all in the name of science. Got it?
Apparently, what our schools really need is a phonics surge against little children, the collateral victims of Reading First.