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Posted at 11:54 AM ET, 03/24/2010

NAEP reading scores: Bad news was sadly predictable

By Valerie Strauss

Anybody paying attention over the past eight years to the implementation of No Child Left Behind will not be surprised that it failed to do what it was chiefly aimed at accomplishing: Improving reading scores.

Today we learned the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- which is known as the “nation’s report card” because it is the only standardized measure that allows us to compare student test performance at different grades nationwide.

It shows, my colleague Nick Anderson writes here, that fourth-grade reading scores stalled after the law took effect in 2002, rose modestly in 2007, then stalled again in 2009.

Eighth-grade scores went up 1 point on a scale of 500 since 2007 but showed no real gain over the seven-year span when NCLB was in high gear.

This was all predictable.

At the heart of NCLB was the Bush administration’s $6 billion “Reading First” initiative, which supported specific approaches to literacy instruction that emphasized explicit phonics instruction and didn’t do enough to foster comprehension. A lot of reading experts warned that the program would fail, but the administration didn’t listen.

So it was no surprise when the Education Department’s own research arm concluded in a 2008 report that kids in schools with the program did no better on tests than those in schools without the program.

But Reading First had more problems than simply being ineffective. The program was mired in allegations of conflicts of interest and mismanagement. Government investigators found that some people who helped oversee the program had financial ties to publishers of Reading First materials that the Education Department advocated that schools use.

Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served in the NCLB period, called Reading First one of the “most effective” education programs she had ever seen. I’d hate to see the other ones.

But this isn’t just history.

There is a bill now in Congress called “Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation,” or the LEARN Act, which would devote $2.35 billion to literacy programs from birth to grade 12.

The problem is that it promotes some of the very methods of instruction that were doomed to fail in Reading First.

When are the people who write the laws ever going to learn?


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 24, 2010; 11:54 AM ET
Categories:  No Child Left Behind, Reading  | Tags:  NAEP, No Child Left Behind, Reading First  
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When are the people who write the laws ever going to learn?

They learned a long time ago. What they learned is that military contractors make more ( and make more campaign contributions ) than soldiers. Educational contractors make more than teachers. Money talks,

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 24, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Just imaging a US Department of Education that was actually concerned with education and that actually used the resources to explore problems in public education and hopefully develop programs with public schools to help overcome these problems.

But this would not be a one shoe fits all with scapegoats, and politicians would have to stop pretending that all will be taken care of 4 years after they leave office.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 24, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

It is about time Americans start to understand that No Child Left Behind not only did not improve public education but it also hurt it. Sitting in a classroom that continuously repeats material in the hope that children that have difficulty in learning will somehow learn from repetition only turns off the children that do not have a difficulty in learning.

Imagine going to a company training program for your job and sitting in a classroom with the instructor continuously repeating the same thing that you understood the first time the instructor mentioned it. More than likely you will hate company training programs.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 24, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

Don't ask teachers! Whadda THEY know? Well, this teacher knows Reading Workshop works. My DCPS (!!) kids will almost all be proficient or advanced by June -- they read self-selected books on their own level. I work with them in small groups that constantly change based on their needs. I GOT THE TRAINING ON MY OWN -- Michelle Rhee canceled the funding for the NW schools that had it.

Posted by: wakeupfolks99 | March 24, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

How is it that all these creative learning techniques based on bogus learning styles go out the window when it's time for the big test. Then it's drill, drill, drill, which doesn't seem to work either.

It makes me sick.

Posted by: efavorite | March 25, 2010 7:26 AM | Report abuse

That would be "Readers Workshop", I think.

Posted by: incredulous | March 25, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

What was not predictable was how little the gaps would be closed by NCLB insistence on performance of and therefore school attention to children in lower-performing subgroups. Reality bites. Minorities did gain not at the expense of advantaged groups. There's not greater equality between regions of the country or cities, towns, and rural areas, either. No losses, and just some trivial, diffuse gains.

Posted by: incredulous | March 25, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

The scores are nothing to write home about. This and other blogues have comments that identify claimed successful reading learning methods. What can DCPS do, now, with special emphasis, to press a lot harder on reading?

Posted by: axolotl | March 25, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Now, wait a minute, don't knock the Reading First initiative. Because it isn't even an initiative yet in our school district. Meaning it has not even been INITIATED yet. Our district does NOT teach explicit phonics, but still uses that whole language EPIC FAIL garbage. By 3rd grade, the emphasis is on reading comprehension, when kids don't even know how to decode (i.e. READ!) because they have not been taught to decode - only to memorize a few words. So that problem is solved by giving kids the read-aloud accommodation on the SOL test. So don't say that explicit phonics instruction has not worked! I suspect most districts are just like ours - they never implemented the required reading methodology and just continued with the whole language they've been using all along.

And don't say the reading specialists have been teaching the phonics piece. Only a few kids see the reading teachers for remediation, and while the reading specialist does teach phonics, it is neither explicit or systemic and only for a few minutes a day. By the time the kids transition to and fro, it's about 20 minutes a day. Very few of the kids who see the reading specialist get up to grade level.

Posted by: concerned36 | March 25, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

concerned36: you sound very informed, but please tell us--whom are you arguing with? and, are you in the District?

Posted by: axolotl | March 26, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I taught myself to read when I was four. Several of my friends and relatives did also. (Two of us joked that we had to learn to read because we acquired a sibling at that age and our parents had less time for us.) I have always been able to read upside down and in a mirror. Several of my friends--many of the early readers--also can. None of us can remember a time when we couldn't read anything printed in any direction.

Until educators admit that early, self-taught readers exist and start studying just how we teach ourselves to read and some brains work just as well backward as frontward, we will never be able to develop a reading program that teaches reading efficiently. The dirty little secret that educators won't tell you is that they have absolutely no idea how youngsters learn to read.

(It would probably help, though, if politicians we never again elected a president who was proud of his lack of intellect.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 26, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

If you enjoy standing by watching train wrecks like Reading First unfold, you will find the implementation of the federal Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation discretionary programs fascinating.

Same story - replace "phonics" with "charter management and "teacher development" organizations. Replace the "large publishers" with the "new philanthropy." "Replace Margaret Spellings and Susan Neuman, with Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton. Replace Edward Kame'enui and Deb Simmons with Andrew Rotherham and Kim Smith. In the end you have the same story, the same pattern - a small network of individuals with longstanding ideological commitments to implementing "reform" programs with little in the way of serious evaluation, and certainly less than required for national scale.

There's a real story of investigative journalism here, yet few education reporters care to recognize the dots, let alone connect them together. If this were national security it would be like ignoring the lessons of Pearl Harbor and letting it happen again. Why education journalists lack interest in this kind of story....

Interested readers might start their own research with my blog, edbizbuzz, and specifically here: and here Check out the facts for yourself from the primary sources noted.

Posted by: deanmillot | March 27, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

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