The Real “Reading First” Scandal

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will testify before a House Education Committee hearing tomorrow, and the hottest topic for her appearance on the hot-seat will be the federal “Reading First” program. A centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind act, Reading First is a billion-dollar-a-year initiative to improve language instruction in the early grades. The idea behind the program was to encourage districts to adopt scientifically proven teaching methods, but it seems to have netted roughly a million bucks for people on the Dept. of Ed.’s payroll in the process. The Department’s inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., has made several criminal investigation referrals to the Justice Department as a result.

As government scandals go, this is tepid stuff. A million dollars? Individual states and school districts around the country have often mismanaged or defrauded taxpayers of comparable or larger sums.

The real Reading First scandal is that anyone would imagine that a bureaucratic school system bereft of competitors and immune to market incentives could be made to adopt and consistently implement effective educational practices on a vast scale, let alone sustain them over time or improve upon them.

Anyone familiar with the research on so-called systemic reform is aware that implementation quality matters as much or more than program selection. If teachers are not committed to and well trained in the selected methods, they will not effectively implement them and will not persevere with them over time.

A case in point is the federal ”Follow Through” experiment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which put a score of different pedagogical methods in head-to-head competition. The number one method, by far, was called Direct Instruction, or Distar. As soon as “Follow Through” officially ended, most of the schools that had been using Distar abandoned it, and their test scores eventually fell back to pre-follow-through levels.

So the real question is, how do you simultaneously achieve all of the following:

  • Encourage the consistent identification and/or development of effective methods
  • Hire, train, and maintain a staff of teachers capable of properly implementing those methods
  • Ensure that, once adopted, effective methods are not displaced by the latest pedagogical fad

The only way to do that is to create powerful incentives that pressure school administrators and teachers to do these things. The only system that consistently creates these incentives is a competitive education marketplace. Until we have a market, dreams of the pervasive use of effective pedagogical methods in American education will remain just that: dreams.