Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First

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Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, by Sol Stern, is an in-depth and alarming study of Reading First's betrayal.

President Bush vowed he would "leave no child behind." The centerpiece of his education agenda was Reading First, a new federal program aimed at helping poor children acquire basic reading skills. Under the leadership of White House domestic policy chief Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne) and with support from Congress, Reading First was to provide funding to primary-reading programs that were based on scientific research. Christopher Doherty became Reading First's new director. His job was to ensure that Reading First schools used only programs that work and shunned those that don't.

Backlash and brouhaha followed. Aggrieved whole-language program proprietors complained bitterly that their wares couldn't be purchased with Reading First funds. They found a receptive ear in the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a bastion of green eyeshade and Dragnet types who weren't the least bit interested in children learning to read. The OIG launched a witch hunt against Doherty, falsely claiming that he was improperly favoring particular publishers. Despite the lack of evidence and the fact that Doherty was acting with the full knowledge and support of Margaret Spellings, this conscientious and hard-working public servant was forced to resign. Then the administration turned its back on Reading First, allowing the program to be gutted and starved of funding.

This report cites the real scandals of Reading First:

  • An influential "progressive" lawmaker, Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, slashed by over $600 million the budget of one of the most effective programs for poor children in the federal government--the only No Child Left Behind program that has received plaudits from both the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Management and Budget.
  • President Bush and Secretary Spellings hung Chris Doherty out to dry, even though he was following their orders and acting aggressively (and heroically) to ensure that only effective programs got money under Reading First.
  • Another influential "progressive" lawmaker, Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, hauled Doherty before his panel and browbeat him for carrying out the very policies that Miller had helped to craft.
  • The Education Department's Inspector General pursued a reckless, one-sided investigation and was not held accountable for his actions. Who inspects the inspectors in today's Washington?
  • Most of all, millions of poor children are suffering from the political games of adults-toying with the Reading First program, its implementation, and its budget.


Related Resources

In A Nutshell brief of the report

At A Glance: a look at state-by-state funding

Video from March 10 press conference

Transcript of Michael Petrilli's remarks at March 10 press conference

Freedom of Information Act Request

Letter to the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency & Integrity Committee's Response

Letter to Congressman Obey urging him to publicly disclose the extent of his relationship with Robert Slavin


Fordham demands investigation into real Reading First scandals

Press Release - March 10, 2008

Fordham demands investigation into real Reading First scandals

Calls for Secretary Margaret Spellings, Rep. David Obey and ED's Office of the Inspector General to account for their actions

Washington--At a press conference held outside the U.S. Department of Education headquarters today, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute demanded an inquiry into scandalous efforts by the executive and legislative branches to sabotage the Reading First program.

Designed to help poor children learn primary-reading skills, Reading First is the only program among the many contained in the No Child Left Behind act to receive stamps of approval from both the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Yet, Reading First's funding has been slashed by two-thirds, the Bush Administration has gone AWOL on this once-loved program, and its first director, Christopher Doherty, was forced to resign--all purportedly because of a "scandal" uncovered by the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Fordham's latest report, Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, written by City Journal contributing editor Sol Stern, reveals the real scandals that have yet to be brought to public attention:

  • Millions of poor, illiterate children are suffering because of the political games of adults who have undercut the implementation, budget and positive impact of the Reading First program.
  • Doherty was sacrificed for vigorously doing his job: making sure that only effective reading programs received funding--just as Congress envisioned and the White House intended--while intervening when taxpayer dollars flowed to unreliable programs.
  • For doing his job, Doherty and his team were subjected to a reckless, one-sided, hydra-headed investigation by the Department of Education's OIG. After failing to uncover any financial wrongdoing, corruption, or abuse, the OIG published a weak, mostly unsubstantiated report that called Doherty's integrity into question with little or no evidence.
  • Doherty was hung out to dry, even though he was doing the bidding of President Bush and then- domestic policy advisor Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne). From her office in the West Wing, Spellings oversaw the Reading First program. She was Doherty's de facto supervisor. Her invisible fingerprints were all over every key decision made by Doherty. Yet only Doherty came to grief.
  • President Bush and Secretary Spellings have allowed Reading First's budget to be gutted, and a once top administration priority has fallen by the wayside.
  • Chairman David Obey (D-WI) of the House education appropriations subcommittee slashed Reading First's budget by over $600 million in fiscal 2008.
  • Chairman Obey is known to be a longtime supporter of Robert Slavin, developer of the Success for All reading program, who has publicly stated that he was angry Success for All was not receiving more federal funds under Reading First. He urged the OIG to investigate Doherty. Following the OIG report, Slavin demanded that Reading First's budget be substantially cut--which Obey did.

"Maybe Secretary Spellings and her team hoped that throwing Chris Doherty over the side would resolve the matter and save the program," said Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "That obviously didn't happen. This is the sort of tragedy that Shakespeare or Sophocles would have relished."

In order to get to the bottom of the Reading First tragedy, the Fordham Institute took these actions today:

  • Filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, demanding that all correspondence, including e-mails, between Secretary Spellings, as well as other Education Department senior staff, and the OIG, related to the audit of the Reading First program be made available.
  • Wrote the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency requesting an independent investigation into the manner in which the OIG accepted, conducted, and reported its audit of the Reading First program.
  • Sent a letter to Congressman Obey urging him to publicly disclose the full extent of his association with Slavin, including correspondence, e-mails or conversations he and/or his staff had with Slavin and/or his staff about the Reading First program and its funding. Furthermore, the letter asks that Congressman Obey disclose whether he has ever received any campaign contributions or gifts from Slavin or his associates.

Fordham also believes the media should probe why Secretary Spellings was unwilling to stand up for Doherty, and why she has repeatedly failed to defend Reading First from the assaults of Congress.

The Leadership Limbo

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In the era of No Child Left Behind, principals are increasingly held accountable for student performance. But are teacher labor agreements giving them enough flexibility to manage effectively? The Leadership Limbo: Teacher Labor Agreements in America's Fifty Largest School Districts, answers this question and others.

    The main findings:

    • Thirty, or more than half, of the 50 districts have labor agreements that are ambiguous. The collective bargaining agreements and the formal board policies in these districts appear to grant leaders substantial leeway to manage assertively, should they so choose.
    • Fifteen of the 50 districts are home to Restrictive or Highly Restrictive labor agreements. Nearly 10 percent of the nation's African-American K-12 students population attend school in the 15 lowest-scoring districts-making these contracts major barriers to more equal educational opportunity.
    • The study also found that districts with high concentrations of poor and minority students tend to have more restrictive contracts than other districts-another alarming indication of inequity along racial and class lines.
    • The labor agreements of the nation's 50 largest districts are particularly restrictive when it comes to work rules.
    • Most of these agreements are also quite restrictive when it comes to rewarding teachers for service in hard-to-staff subject areas such as math and science, with 31 actually prohibiting districts from doing so.

    Individual District Reports

    Albuquerque Public Schools (NM)
    Anne Arundel County Public Schools (MD)
    Austin Independent School District (TX)
    Baltimore City Public School System (MD)
    Baltimore County Public Schools (MD)
    Brevard County School District (FL)
    Broward County School District (FL)
    Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (NC)
    City of Chicago School District (IL)
    Clark County School District (NV)
    Cleveland Municipal City School District (OH)
    Cobb County School District (GA)
    Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (TX)
    Dallas Independent School District (TX)
    Dekalb County School System (GA)
    Denver Public Schools (CO)
    Detroit Public Schools (MI)
    Duval County School District (FL)
    Fairfax County Public Schools (VA)
    Fort Worth Independent School District (TX)
    Fresno Unified School District (CA)
    Fulton County Schools (GA)
    Granite School District (UT)
    Guilford County Schools (NC)
    Gwinnett County Public Schools (GA)
    Hawaii Department of Education (HI)
    Hillsborough County School District (FL)
    Houston Independent School District (TX)
    Jefferson County Public Schools (CO)
    Jefferson County Public Schools (KY)
    Jordan School District (UT)
    Long Beach Unified School District (CA)
    Los Angeles Unified School District (CA)
    Memphis City Schools (TN)
    Mesa Public Schools (AZ)
    Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (TN)
    Miami-Dade County Public Schools (FL)
    Milwaukee Public Schools (WI)
    Montgomery County Public Schools (MD)
    New York City Public Schools (NY)
    Northside Independent School District (TX)
    Orange County School District (FL)
    Palm Beach County School District (FL)
    Pinellas County School District (FL)
    Polk County School District (FL)
    Prince Georges County Public Schools (MD)
    San Diego Unified School District (CA)
    School District of Philadelphia (PA)
    Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VA)
    Wake County Schools (NC)

    Related Resources

    Click here to read the "In A Nutshell" summary of The Leadership Limbo.

    Click here to see the fifty districts ranked from top to bottom.

    Panel Discussion

    On February 20, Frederick M. Hess, co-author of The Leadership Limbo, was joined by the following distinguished panelists to discuss the report:

    • Dr. Terry Grier, Superintendent, Guilford County (NC) Schools
    • Gail Littlejohn, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Center for Reform of School Systems
    • Bill Raabe, Director of Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy, National Education Association
    • Moderator: Chester E. Finn, Jr., President, Fordham Institute


    Opening remarks from Chester Finn and panelists 

    Chester Finn asks panelists questions 

    Q & A

      Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?

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      Sheila Byrd

      Lucien Ellington
      Paul Gross
      Carol Jago
      Sheldon Stern

      Foreword by:
      Chester E. Finn, Jr. and
      Martin A. Davis, Jr.

      Over the ten years of Fordham's modern existence, we have panned vigorously for gold--curricular gold. This quest has frequently left us disappointed, as our reviews of state standards have consistently shown that expectations for American primary and secondary students are typically weak and watered down. This has been especially the case with high schools. Recently, however, there has been a proliferation in high school students taking courses offering rigorous pre-college curricula. In particular, enrollment in the Advanced Placement (AP) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs have skyrocketed. Fordham's latest report, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?, by Sheila Byrd, examines whether the reputation the programs have for academic excellence is truly deserved. Our expert reviewers looked at the four AP and IB courses most similar to the core content areas in American high schools—English, history, math, and science—and found that, in general, the courses do warrant praise. In a few cases, they deserve gold stars. 

      See also the "In a Nutshell" brief of the report.

      Alternative Certification Isn't Alternative

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      At first glance, the explosive growth of "alternative" teacher certification--which is supposed to allow able individuals to teach in public schools without first passing through a college of education--appears to be one of the great success stories of modern education reform. From negligible numbers twenty years ago, alternatively prepared candidates now account for almost one in five new teachers nationwide. That's a "market share" of nearly 20 percent. As longtime supporters of alternative certification, we should be popping champagne, declaring victory, and plotting our next big win, right? Not so fast. As the old cliché says, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

      "Alternative Certification Isn't Alternative" reveals that alternative certification programs, contrary to their original mission, have not provided a real alternative to traditional education schools. In fact, they represent a significant setback for education reform advocates.

      Here are the report's main points:

      • Entry standards are abysmally low: Two-thirds of the programs surveyed accept half or more of their teacher applicants; one-quarter accept virtually everyone who applies.
      • Rather than providing streamlined and effective coursework, about a third of the programs require at least 30 hours of education school courses-the same amount needed for a Master's degree.
      • Most disturbing, nearly 70 percent of alternative programs studied in the report are run by education schools themselves. Education schools have kept their market monopoly by moving into the alternative certification business.

      In short, policymakers, reform advocates, and philanthropists who think they have "won" the battle in favor of alternative certification should think again. Twenty-five years later, concerns about the quality of education schools remain--as does the need for bona fide alternatives: swifter, better, surer, cheaper ways to address teaching aspirations on the one hand and workforce quality and quantity problems on the other. So put away the champagne. Much heavy lifting lies ahead.

      Related Resources

      In A Nutshell brief of the report

      Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children

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      The United States is not going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it's going to be in terms of creativity and innovation. America has always had a capacity for hard work and stamina, but those qualities of creativity and ingenuity are not being nurtured and fostered by our current educational system.

      - Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

      History offers many explanations for why people should acquire a broad, liberal-arts education. Prominent thinkers and leaders over the centuries have expounded on the virtues of such learning. Aristotle said liberal education is necessary if one is to act "nobly." Franklin said it was needed to cultivate "the best capacities" in humans. And Einstein found in liberal learning the locus for imagination.

      In the era of No Child Left Behind, however, liberal learning is on the defensive. Federal law mandates academic gains only in reading and math, and its sanctions and interventions are triggered only by failure to make gains in those two areas. States, school districts and individual educators have understandably responded by ramping up the time spent teaching those two sets of core skills and prepping students to take tests in them, to the detriment of "broad" and "liberal" and "arts."

      Recent months have brought yet another challenge to liberal learning, as well-meaning business leaders and policy makers, rightly concerned about American competitiveness, are pushing "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) training. Yet America's true competitive edge over the long haul is not its technical prowess but its creativity, its imagination, its inventiveness. And those attributes are best inculcated not by skill-drill but through liberal arts and sciences, liberally defined.

      This volume argues that case. It emerges from a Fordham-sponsored conference in December 2006 (underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Louis Calder Foundation). It develops the rationale for liberal education in the primary and secondary grades, explores what policymakers and educators at all levels can to do sustain liberal learning, and sketches an unlovely future if we fail.

      Contributors include Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Institute and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Diane Ravitch, Fordham trustee and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; E.D.Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation; David J. Ferrero, senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Martin West, assistant professor at Brown University; Matthew Gandal (executive vice president), Michael Cohen (president), and John Kraman (senior policy analyst) of Achieve, Inc.; Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality; Sandra Stotsky, member of the Massachusetts Board of Education; Joan Baratz-Snowden, former director of Educational Issues at the American Federation of Teachers; David Steiner, dean of Hunter College's school of education; John Holdren (Senior Vice President of Content and Curriculum) and Bror Saxberg (Chief Learning Officer) for K12. Inc.; Aaron Benavot, a senior policy analyst with UNESCO; Matthew Bogdanos, New York Prosecutor and Marine officer; and venture capitalist John Backus.

      Individual chapters 

      The Autonomy Gap

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      Public school principals encounter a sizable gap between the autonomy they believe they need to be effective and the autonomy that they actually have in practice, especially when it comes to hiring, firing, and transferring teachers. That's a key finding of this report from the Fordham Institute and the American Institutes for Research, which is based on a series of interviews with a small sample of district and charter-school principals. Regrettably if understandably, many district principals have also come to accept this "autonomy gap" as a fact of life. They learn to work the system, not change the system.

      Full reports on each state in the study as well as just charter schools across all three states are available only online:

      Whole-Language High Jinks

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      If you thought whole-language reading instruction had been relegated to the scrap heap of history, think again. Many such programs (proven to be ineffective) are still around, but they're hiding behind phrases like "balanced literacy" in order to win contracts from school districts and avoid public scrutiny. Louisa Moats calls them out in Fordham's new report, Whole-Language High Jinks.

      Moats, a psychologist and widely respected authority on early reading, authored a previous Fordham report in October 2000 called Whole Language Lives On. In it, she revealed that what was going on in many classrooms in the name of "balance" or "consensus" was harming students.

      Seven years later, such programs still exist-and still try to pull the wool over educators' eyes. Worse, major school systems, including Denver, Salt Lake City, and New York City, continue to adopt them, misled by materials that "talk the talk," touting the five elements of effective reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel, but which are actually just whole-language programs in disguise.

      Fwd: Teacher Education: Coming Up Empty

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      The nation’s leading teacher educators made a startling admission last year in their tome, Studying Teacher Education, by conceding there’s little evidence that what happens in ed schools helps in the K-12 classroom. But more astonishing, writes Kate Walsh in Fordham’s Teacher Education: Coming Up Empty, is that the professoriate ignores the most pressing education problem of our time, the achievement gap. “Had the panel asserted that teacher education should be the front line in the nation’s war against the achievement gap,” Walsh writes, “it could have made a sound case for justifying the existence of the profession. Instead, it passes on this mandate to help right educational inequities, and thus consigns itself to irrelevance.

      Personality Test: The dispositional dispute in teacher preparation today, and what to do about it

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      The standards of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Excellence (NCATE) are of critical import for America's future teaching corps and for K-12 education in general and will wield disproportionate influence for decades to come. Over the past fifteen years, 25 states have outsourced the approval of teacher preparation programs to NCATE by adopting or adapting its standards as their own; the other 25 have various "partnerships" with the organization. Which makes it all the more disturbing that central to these standards is the call for teachers to possess certain "dispositions" such as particular attitudes toward "social justice." As Professor William Damon of Stanford University explains in Fordham's latest Fwd: Arresting Insights in Education, NCATE's framing of the "dispositions" issue has given education schools "unbounded power over what candidates may think and do." This is leading to (understandable) charges of ideological arm-twisting and Orwellian mind-control. A must-read for state policy makers and others, who might reconsider whether being accredited by NCATE is evidence of quality or something far more sinister.

      Fwd: Opportunities Lost: How New York City got derailed on the way to school reform

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      How did New York City's experiment in school reform, once so promising, become such a mess? Author Sol Stern explains in this third edition of Fordham's new Fwd: series of short articles of interest to K-12 education reformers.