We need more Reading First, not less

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Recent news articles have questioned the effectiveness of the federal Reading First program. I want to set the record straight about how and why Reading First came about, and what this program means to the 1.6 million students it serves.

Learning to read is one of the most sophisticated and difficult things we do. In April 2000, after leading a national panel on literacy, University of Maryland Chancellor Dr. Donald Langenberg noted that compared to rocket science, "the teaching and learning of reading is much more complex and difficult." As a lifelong experimental physicist, he would certainly know.

The Nation's Report Card shows that 33 percent of American fourth graders have not learned fundamental reading skills. And it's not just our kids. Thirty million adults lack everyday reading skills. That's about one out of every seven people!

When we don't get reading instruction right, the consequences extend beyond our schools and into our prisons, hospital wards and unemployment lines. It's no surprise that people who lack fundamental reading skills are more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to encounter health problems, and less likely to have a job.

Reading First is a result of our first nationwide effort to base reading instruction on sound science, instead of popular yet often misguided fads that have come and gone, yielding few results for students. This program is based on the report of the nonpartisan National Reading Panel, created in 1997, which examined more than two decades of research to determine, once and for all, what works when it comes to teaching reading.

Earlier this year, a teacher at Anna Booth Elementary School in Irvington, Ala., told me that thanks to Reading First, her school is "a place where children are not defined by their first language status, migrant status, or socioeconomic status ... a place where not even hurricanes provide excuses." Ninety percent of Booth's students are from low-income families, and after Hurricane Katrina, more than 70 percent were homeless. Today, nearly 80 percent of Booth's first-, second-, and third-graders are reading on grade level.

Nationwide, this is the kind of school that Reading First helps to build. In San Francisco, the number of third-graders at Harte Elementary School who are reading on grade level more than tripled over the last three years. In Virginia, educators in Norfolk and in Newport News saw third-grade reading comprehension improve by 20 percent over the last three years. Maryland, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana have seen statewide reading gains of 10 percent or greater. Students in most other states are also making significant progress.

Caroline Winchester, superintendent of Loup City Schools in Kansas City, Mo., says that Reading First "enables our high performers to excel at higher levels and our struggling students to receive intensive instruction so that they may catch up with their peers." Data prove her point. Since 2003, reading scores for Loup City fourth-graders jumped 14 percentage points.

A recent interim report on Reading First, released by my department's Institute of Education Sciences, found that while students at Reading First schools made notable gains, their improvements were not significantly different from those of students at non-Reading First schools in the same district. One explanation is that the program's benefits extend beyond the schools for which it is prescribed.

Educators have noted that after adopting Reading First, they often share its positive strategies with teachers throughout the district. In fact, the law encourages them to do so.

While Reading First has been effective in many schools, I believe its full promise has yet to be realized. That's why my department is working to help districts nationwide replicate the dramatic gains made by our most successful Reading First schools.

The bottom line is this: research-based reading instruction is as effective now as it was when the program was created, if not more so. And our most vulnerable students need all the help they can get. I can assure you that the answer is not less time and fewer resources. We need more Reading First, not less.


Margaret Spellings is U.S. Secretary of Education.