The true story of Reading First

Ethically-challenged political appointee overrides the "merit" process and steers millions of federal dollars to preferred firms, including one that employs his wife, all the while foiling those who would favor a different outcome. The program's intended beneficiaries--poor, illiterate children--lose out. Then a courageous federal watchdog investigates, producing an exposé-style report that brings down the arrogant official, who resigns in disgrace and engages an attorney. The opposition party and media exploit the opportunity, score many points, and hold the incumbent administration accountable.

The Reading First tale you have read and think you know, the one above, is almost entirely fiction. As City Journal contributing editor Sol Stern reveals in our new report, Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, the real Reading First story is far less salacious--and vastly less formulaic--yet much more interesting. Certainly it's more important. There were scandals all right, just not the ones that grabbed national headlines.

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Four decades of rigorous scientific studies demonstrate that most young children need explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness in order to learn how to read. The Reading First program was designed to support these findings, giving the force of law to mountains of evidence on effective reading instruction; it asked recipients of federal dollars to choose reading programs that work. It didn't say they had to do that--unless they wanted to share in this particular bucket of money.

At the program's outset, we were hopeful but guarded enthusiasts. And for several years it appeared that our optimism was well founded. One by one, state education departments embraced Reading First. Thousands of poor schools signed on enthusiastically.

Alas, it was too good to last and too much to hope. We watched in horror as Reading First was attacked, defanged, and eventually brought to its knees. The program went from a top White House priority to victim of one of the biggest budget cuts ever, all in seven years. We protested and editorialized (see here and here), but such pleas fell on deaf ears. Few wanted to know the truth about a much-maligned federal program that was once so full of potential.

So we sought out one of the most effective truth-tellers we know, Sol Stern, to put this tragic tale into plain English. His story may leave you angry or despairing--perhaps both. Almost nothing you've heard about the Reading First "scandal" turns out to be true. Stern painstakingly reconstructs what really happened. His findings, it's safe to say, will shock you.

Let us summarize:

  • President Bush, his domestic policy advisor Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne), and his reading czar Reid Lyon originally conceived Reading First as a strict federal program whose funds would only flow to states and districts using reading curricula whose effectiveness had been validated by scientific studies. Plenty of earlier federal reading initiatives had been too lax, had allowed unproven reading schemes to qualify for funding, and had wound up making no difference. Insisting on validation was the way to change that. But there was a problem: just two existing primary reading programs (Direct Instruction and Success for All) would initially qualify. So under pressure from commercial textbook publishers, whole language advocates, and others, Congress made the fateful decision to ease the eligibility criteria so that reading programs "based" on scientific research could qualify too. That opened the door to the possibility that all manner of nonsense might get funded--as it had under the Clinton-era Reading Excellence Act--unless executive branch officials held the line and hewed to the program's intentions.

  • This heavy responsibility fell to young Christopher Doherty, the Reading First program's new director. Chosen because of his success in using Direct Instruction to turn around failing schools in inner-city Baltimore, Doherty went to work to ensure that states and districts lived up to the principles of scientifically-based reading research. His charge--from President Bush, Spellings, Lyon, and then-Secretary of Education (now Fordham trustee) Rod Paige--was to ensure that Reading First schools used only programs proven to work and shunned those that weren't.

  • The inevitable backlash swiftly followed. Aggrieved vendors of whole-language programs complained bitterly that their wares couldn't be purchased with Reading First dollars. They found a receptive ear in the Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a bastion of green eyeshade and Dragnet types who weren't the least bit knowledgeable about the ins-and-outs of reading instruction or the intent of the Reading First program.

  • Meanwhile, Bob Slavin, developer of the phonics-based reading program, Success for All, thought he saw a federal conspiracy because few Reading First dollars flowed his way. The Inspector General failed to find any evidence that the Department of Education acted against Slavin's Success for All, though it did allege that Doherty worked to promote Direct Instruction (a dubious charge considering how few Reading First schools adopted that program). Importantly, the OIG did not charge Doherty with any financial conflicts of interest. There was none. The inspector general had invested several years and thousands of man-hours in his investigation, however, and seemed determined to issue a harsh report--and to feed a media frenzy by implying that there was "more to come."

  • And that he did produce. With little to go on besides a potential appearance of conflict of interest (not the financial kind, mind you, but "professional ties"), he published several titillating emails from Doherty that OIG investigators unearthed after combing through voluminous archives. Yes, the emails are unflattering and ill-considered. No, Doherty shouldn't have sent them. But all they really show is an impassioned official doggedly trying to ensure that the federal dollars for which he was responsible were spent on reading programs that worked--and not on whole-language programs that he knew would keep millions of poor children illiterate. For this, Doherty, a loyal lieutenant in the Bush army if there ever was one, was forced to resign. As for the rest of the OIG's case, it fizzled into thin air over the course of his next five reports. But the damage had been done.

  • By her actions (or inaction), Secretary Margaret Spellings may have hoped that throwing Doherty under the bus would resolve the matter and save the program. More likely, she thought that in sacrificing her soldier she would protect herself. After the "scandal" broke, her advocacy (and the president's) on behalf of Reading First all but disappeared.

  • Meanwhile, Slavin was still aggrieved that nothing had altered the facts on the ground. One surmises that he pushed his old friend David Obey, chairman of the House appropriations committee, to slash the program's budget. Whether that was Slavin's doing or not, it was definitely Obey's doing. And as a result Reading First is but a mere shadow of its former self--a tragedy denounced only yesterday by House minority leader John Boehner, who chaired the Education Committee at the time of the program's creation.

After reading the OIG report in September 2006, many editorial writers expressed "outrage" at what had happened. After reading our report, we hope they do the same.

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