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Failing in reading

President Bush touts accountability in education. So why is he trying to save a poorly run program?

May 09, 2008

With the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush took a major role in bringing accountability to public education. No longer would the federal government give unfettered money to schools that weren't using it wisely to raise student achievement. Failing schools would be required to put Title I money toward offering private outside tutoring; over time, they could be shut down and revamped altogether.

Now it's time for the administration to walk its accountability talk. Its Reading First program has proved to be a $1-billion-a-year ethical disgrace that hasn't helped children read better. Congress was right to cut the funding by more than 60% for the next budget round; in fact, it was being too generous.

That's a sad thing to say, considering the good idea behind Reading First: Fund literacy education for children in the earliest grades, using phonics-based curricula that have been found effective in research studies.

But nearly from the start, schools complained about the program's narrow focus and its dictatorial approach to how reading was taught. Two years ago, a scathing internal review found that some U.S. Education Department officials had steered Reading First money to companies in which they had financial interests, and had stacked review panels to reflect the views of program director Chris Doherty, who has since resigned. In one e-mail, Doherty directed a staff member to discourage a rival of his favorites, referring to the company as "dirtbags" and saying, "We need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them" to show all would-be competitors that they were unwelcome.

The Education Department released a new study last week that found, despite the $6 billion spent thus far on Reading First, that it hasn't improved reading either. "The program did not increase the percentages of students in grades one, two or three whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level," the report said.

Enter accountability. An expensive, poorly run program that doesn't get results should be axed, yet Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings are fighting against congressional cuts. Spellings wants to fix Reading First; in that case, she should be given a sliver of its ordinary funding to prove she can do it, before the program is allowed to suck up hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding that might better go elsewhere -- perhaps to private outside reading tutors.

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