TOPICS > Education

Report Card, Reading First

June 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the first of a series of reports on education. We begin with a look at "Reading First," a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s major education initiative last year, the "No Child Left Behind" Act. John Merrow, our special correspondent on education, reports.

JOHN MERROW: By the time they’re in fourth grade, four out of every ten students still cannot read at a basic level.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We believe that every child can learn to read, not just a few.

JOHN MERROW: The Bush administration has made improving reading the cornerstone of its education policy. A new program called "Reading First" provides nearly $1 billion a year for high-poverty, low-performing school districts. In return, the federal government is asking schools not only to change the way they teach reading, but also to make what it calls significant progress toward the goal of having every child reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Changes for the first time we’ve asked in return for money, why don’t you show us whether or not you’re succeeding?

JOHN MERROW: For the past 40 years, federal education money has gone to states with large numbers of disadvantaged children. States pass the money along to schools, and that was that. Rod Paige is U.S. Secretary of Education.

ROD PAIGE: The system of spending our way out of this problem has failed us.


ROD PAIGE: We won’t spend a dime on programs that won’t work. If it’s not working, we won’t spend money on it.

JOHN MERROW: The U.S. Constitution leaves education to states, which historically have left it to local districts, thus local control. By insisting on results, Reading First is challenging tradition, and in the process, prompting accusations of federal interference in local schools.

ROD PAIGE: Reading First says that teaching reading is a science, and we’ve been acting like it’s an art.

JOHN MERROW: Reid Lyon advises the Bush administration on education policy.

G. REID LYON, National Institutes of Health: We’ve been doing research for many, many years. How do kids learn to read? What goes into it? What are the skills and the abilities and the environments and the genetics and the neuro-biology?

JOHN MERROW: What percentage of the teachers in the early grades actually know how to teach reading?

G. REID LYON: I would say, on the conservative side, 20 percent of our teachers know how to teach reading in those particular grade levels.

JOHN MERROW: Research indicates that certain principles are critical when learning to read: Phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and phonics– the idea that letters have sounds associated with them. Reading First insists that school reading programs include all of the above with special emphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics.

JOHN MERROW: Are you telling states what methods they must use?

ROD PAIGE: Absolutely not.

JOHN MERROW: Aren’t there approved methods?

ROD PAIGE: There are approved principles. There are scientific principles.

JOHN MERROW: Are there approved programs?

ROD PAIGE: There are not approved programs. There are approved principles.

JOHN MERROW: But only a handful of programs fulfill the new federal requirements, and so states are making sure to mention those programs in their applications. To qualify for Reading First money in Michigan, schools must use one of these five programs. Houghton-Mifflin, Harcourt, Open Court SRA, Macmillan McGraw Hill, or Scott Foresman. Kalamazoo was one of the first districts in Michigan to receive a Reading First grant. Lincoln International, with a poverty rate of 71 percent and low reading scores, received more than $330,000 for two years. Becky Hunt is the principal.

BECKY HUNT: I see it impacting our children every single day. Children that have not been able to read before are reading, and they’re bringing their books to the lunchroom and they’re bringing them to my office and they’re reading, and they’re very excited. It’s very positive for our school.


JOHN MERROW: Superintendent Janice Brown welcomes the financial support.

JANICE BROWN, Kalamazoo School Superintendent: We’re in a tremendous economic situation now that is very difficult for public schools, because in Michigan, the public schools are highly dependent on the state economic condition. In fact, the situation for next year looks even more dismal.

JOHN MERROW: With the money come rules and regulations, and Principal Hunt thinks that’s fair.

BECKY HUNT: This is the most prescriptive grant that I have ever been involved with. The fact that we are to have a literacy coach, that we have a prescribed number of minutes that are minimal; the fact that we’re to have supplemental phonics outside of the blocks is prescriptive. It’s actually doing what we need to have done. So I don’t see it as an intrusion at all. I see it as a positive support.

TEACHER: What sounds correct? The bus sounds the letter "b," right.

JOHN MERROW: Reading first’s rules and regulations fit well with Kalamazoo’s plans to improve reading, but other districts are not happy about having to adopt one of the five recommended programs. Monroe was one of the first districts in Michigan that chose not to apply for Reading First money. Chris Butler is assistant superintendent.

CHRISTINE BUTLER, Monroe Asst. School Superintendent: We felt there were a lot of restrictions that did not allow us to do what we needed to do for our local control.

JOHN MERROW: For Patty Weisbach, principal at Lincoln Elementary, this was a difficult decision.

PATTY WEISBACH, Principal, Lincoln Elementary: We live in a community where anywhere between 90 and 95 percent of the children here are in free or reduced lunches. When you tell a community that you’re not accepting a grant for $265,000, they’re looking at you saying, "what do you mean you’re not doing that?"

CHILDREN: Along came…

JOHN MERROW: Lincoln Elementary believes it’s already doing much of what Reading First demands: Retraining teachers, frequent assessment, and individual tutoring. With the help of three literacy coaches, Kathy Gwizdala devotes two hours a day to reading instruction in her combined first and second grade class. That’s 30 minutes more than reading first recommends. It’s a long block devoted to reading.

KATHY GWIZDALA: Yes, it is. We feel it’s the most important thing in a child’s education, because it’s the foundation on which everything else is built.

JOHN MERROW: Well, that sounds like Reading First.

KATHY GWIZDALA: Well, of course. There are some things on which Reading First agrees with what we’re doing here. I think the major difference and the reason we’re not interested in it is that it takes away the control from the teacher.

CHILD: It’s only me. Little Billy goat.

JOHN MERROW: Do you feel Reading First would have restricted you?

KATHY GWIZDALA: If I had to use a prescribed set of materials with a prescribed set of supplemental materials, I couldn’t do what I did this morning, if I were put into those restraints.


JOHN MERROW: The administration talks about the science of teaching reading. Is teaching reading a science?

SPOKESPERSON: Yes, it is a science. It’s also an art. It’s a two-pronged thing.

CHILDREN AND TEACHER READING: A runner must leap over a series of barriers.

KATHY GWIZDALA: I am a teacher because of that art of teaching. It is my passion.

JOHN MERROW: Reporter: You’re not worried about Monroe, Michigan, being seen as standing up to the federal government?

CHRISTINE BUTLER: Well, we do think we’re just this little area of the country. We’re doing what we think is right for our community. We didn’t not apply for the grant because we wanted to be David and Goliath necessarily. We very much, you know, want government to help support schools and help support what we’re doing, but at the same time we want local control to do what is best for their communities.

JOHN MERROW: Richard Allington of the University of Florida has been studying reading issues for more than 30 years.

RICHARD L. ALLINGTON, University of Florida: In my view, it’s the largest and most unwarranted federal intrusion on local control. I don’t know of any evidence that people in Washington can figure out what needs to be done in Chinatown in New York City better than the people in Chinatown.

JOHN MERROW: If after a year or two years there’s no measurable result, will you withdraw the money?

ROD PAIGE: We don’t want to withdraw money from students.

CHILDREN: Put all those together…

ROD PAIGE: But if a state is not in compliance, we absolutely will.

SPOKESMAN: It’s our money. It’s not their money. It’s not rod page’s money. This is money that the taxpayers of New York paid, the taxpayers in Florida paid.

SPOKESMAN: They just want to see if the taxpayer money is actually benefiting children. I don’t know how that’s control. To me, that is common sense. It is simple common sense.

JOHN MERROW: Local control or not, the administration is still demanding significant progress toward the goal of having every child reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

ROD PAIGE: What I think some are complaining about is the fact that we are insistent on measurable results, and there is no flexibility to that. We don’t want to fund failure. That’s the only reason that that exists.

JOHN MERROW: What if you’re wrong?

SPOKESMAN: But if we’re wrong, just like in any scientific endeavor, the weaknesses, the problems that we understand at least will cumulatively inform the next possibility.

JOHN MERROW: Scientists can continue with their research, but for local schools the stakes are higher.

SPOKESPERSON: If we aren’t successful, if we can’t make this work, then perhaps you need to find someone else that can make it work, and I would be willing to step aside.

JOHN MERROW: Your job is on the line.

SPOKESPERSON: I think so. I think all of our jobs are on the line.

JOHN MERROW: So far, 16 other districts in Michigan have decided not to apply for Reading First money. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has moved on to the next subject: Mathematics. In February, Secretary Paige convened what he called a national summit meeting to explore ways to improve mathematics teaching and student achievement.

JIM LEHRER: We will have another education report tomorrow night.