Reading First: Scandalous and ineffective

Allegations that directors of the reading proficiency program pressured states to adopt particular reading programs prompted the first of six investigations by the Inspector General

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Reading First was established under the No Child Left Behind Act as a six-year, $1 billion initiative to help students achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade, but the Department of Education’s own inspector general has criticized it for favoritism and ineffectiveness. Under the plan, appointed board members would give grants to states, which in turn would award sub-grants to school districts to establish reading programs for kindergarten through third-grade students. But allegations that program directors and board members pressured states to adopt particular reading programs prompted the first of six investigations by the Inspector General. The IG’s conclusion: Department officials were playing favorites, giving grants for certain programs over others.

The Department of Education contended that it screened board members for conflicts of interest. But the inspector general in 2006 deemed the process ineffective, noting that the department failed to look at applicants’ resumes, which clearly indicated potential conflicts. The following year Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, issued a report concluding that four regional program directors maintained ties with educational publishers while they were under contract with the department for Reading First. The directors were paid to promote certain publishers while simultaneously advising schools to adopt the company’s products. Regardless of the scandal, the program failed to meet its objectives. An April 2008 study revealed the general ineffectiveness of Reading First and found that students in schools receiving funds for the program had no better reading skills than children in schools that did not.

Follow-up:
At an April 2007 hearing, Representative George Miller, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, condemned Reading First’s practices as “unfair and costly to states and school districts that were denied the opportunity to use their first-choice reading curricula and assessments.” Miller proposed a measure to prevent future conflicts of interest but the program’s future became uncertain when Congress slashed its $1 billion budget by more than 60 percent in late 2007.

For FY 2009, the president asked to restore $1 billion for the program, but the House and Senate continued to slash funding. A Department of Education spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, but the department issued a final report on Reading First in November 2008. While the report found “no statistically significant difference in reading comprehension,” between students who participated in Reading First and those who didn’t, it did conclude that Reading First “had a significant impact on students’ decoding, phonics, and fluency skills.”