Last Rites for Reading First

March 31, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on March 31, 2009.

The omnibus 2009 spending bill recently passed by the House zeroes‐​out funding for Reading First, the Bush administration’s flagship early literacy program. Consuming more than $1 billion annually during its heyday, Reading First promised to systematically improve public schools by encouraging their use of scientifically validated methods and curricula. It failed.

Reading First will probably be best remembered for its conflict‐​of‐​interest scandal, in which paid advisors to the Department of Education profited from the policies they recommended. But if education reformers heed the lessons of Reading First’s demise, it could end up doing more good for American schools than even its advocates imagined.

On its surface, the program seemed promising. The structured phonics methods it was intended to promote certainly have a proven track record. The National Reading Panel, created during the Clinton Administration, analyzed scores of studies and concluded that “systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade.”

So it came as a shock to proponents last year when a federal study revealed that Reading First had failed to improve student literacy. But as I noted in May 2007, it was naive to imagine that “a bureaucratic school system… could be made to adopt and consistently implement effective educational practices on a vast scale.”

The fundamental problem is that nationally replicating and sustaining effective methods is tough. Very tough. Unless all the participants are committed to (and well trained in) those methods, they won’t implement them effectively or persevere with them over time.

Countless studies have lamented how education methods that worked wonders when directly overseen by their developers proved to be unreliable when brought to scale. This pattern was already well known back in 1993, when president Clinton remarked at a White House event that the “people in this room who have devoted their lives to education are constantly plagued by the fact that nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, and yet we can’t seem to replicate it everywhere else.”

The failure of Reading First fits neatly into this mould.

But there are programs that have shattered it. From its inception in 1954, the Kumon chain of math tutoring centers has scaled up from 1 student in Japan to 4 million students in 45 countries. Other tutoring firms, such as Huntington and Sylvan Learning Systems, have also scaled up successfully.

What explains these dramatically different outcomes? Tutoring firms enjoy something that public schools lack: the combination of freedoms and incentives essential for replicating and sustaining success. Prospective tutors are free to apply for a job with whomever they wish. No government credential is required. Tutoring chains are free to hire whomever they want, to lay out their own training and performance standards, and to dismiss those who cannot meet them. Both tutors and managers have incentives to do their best, since their livelihoods depend on it. Every tutoring firm is constantly trying to find ways of improving its services, lowering its costs, or both, to avoid being squeezed out of the marketplace by its competitors.

That is the first lesson of Reading First: no matter how good a curriculum or method is, it cannot be reliably disseminated nationwide without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace. After 150 years of experience with state‐​run schooling, we can point to a long succession of pedagogical fads, and to some genuine if isolated successes, but nothing to rival the sustained scale‐​up of the leading tutoring firms.

The second lesson of Reading First is that the White House and Congress change hands on a regular basis, and the new occupants often have different preferences on education policy. It was a virtual certainty that Democrats would kill Reading First upon taking power, whether or not the program was successful, because they perceive it as a fundamentally conservative, traditionalist program. It was a triumph of wishful thinking over political realism for conservatives to imagine that the methods they wanted to promote in public schools would survive their tenure in power.

The rise and fall of Reading First should stand as a cautionary tale for would‐​be education reformers of all political stripes. Today’s legislators should remember that they will not always hold the balance of power, and so politicizing pedagogical methods and curricula is a recipe for an endless tug‐​of‐​war over our schools. They should also recognize that no bureaucratic system will ever be able to innovate and scale‐​up effective methods in the way that competitive enterprises do on a daily basis. Wishing otherwise will not make it so.

About the Author