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The politics of reading


THE READING First program, part of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law, focuses on improving reading skills among youngsters as the key to broader academic success. But a Baltimore-based researcher and others are accusing Reading First of catering more to highly paid consultants than to the low-income children it is targeted to serve. The Department of Education's inspector general has wisely agreed to investigate the charges; he should do so quickly and thoroughly.

Reading First has generated a lot of excitement because it is pumping about $1 billion annually - for an expected total of about $6 billion by 2007 - into 4,700 schools to enhance reading skills of first-, second- and third-graders. The instruction provided is supposed to be rooted in scientific research and must cover all aspects of reading.

According to recent reports, about half the school districts in the country changed their reading programs to qualify for the grants. Many have used the grants to train teachers and to provide better assessments and interventions for students. But other districts have suffered from a lack of good reading coaches and too-rigid curriculum requirements. And while some schools and districts point to higher test scores, the evidence is not yet in on whether the grants have improved reading instruction.

A few reading program designers also complain that Reading First is being undermined by favoritism and conflicts of interest. One of the principal critics is Robert Slavin, whose highly regarded reading program, Success for All, is being provided to 28 states through Reading First grants, but who has been losing out to programs that have been less-rigorously evaluated. In a recent complaint urging an investigation by DOE's inspector general, Mr. Slavin, a professor of education and a school reform expert at the Johns Hopkins University, said Reading First programs increasingly are not scientifically based and grants are not awarded on the basis of fair competition. He and others cite a tight loop of DOE consultants who provide technical assistance to districts applying for grants but who also have ties to reading textbook publishers that receive lucrative contracts to supply materials to those same districts.

Some Education Department officials think Reading First is working just fine and dismiss Mr. Slavin's complaint as that of a disgruntled vendor who is losing market share. But by deciding to pursue, rather than dismiss, Mr. Slavin's complaint, the DOE's independent inspector general has rightly determined that it's worth making sure that comfortable consultants aren't ripping off disadvantaged students.

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