Obama, merit pay, and Reading First

by David Safier
This from an AP article in the Star about some of Obama's spending plans:

• Plowing $2 billion more into merit-based teacher pay to help failing schools turn around. He would spend $370 million on a successor to the Reading First literacy program, a key element of Bush's No Child Left Behind law.

I don't know any details beyond this.

The idea of merit-based is more palatable to me if its purpose is "to help failing schools turn around." If Obama and Duncan want to lure better teachers into low performing schools, where too many of the teachers tend to be mediocre, with some types of bonuses or raises, I say, more power to 'em. The devil, however, is always in the details.

Reading First is a well known boondoggle from the Bush administration. They spent $1 billion a year (even a year ago, that sounded like more money than it does now) to push a single drill-and-kill reading program they liked. The program had absolutely no comprehension benefit based on reading tests given to students in the Reading First schools and students in other schools.

If Obama and Duncan spend the money on a variety of approaches and see which ones, or which combinations, yield the greatest benefits, I say again, more power to 'em.

I remain hopeful but skeptical about Obama's approach to education. Much as I like the guy and think we need to cut him some slack early, I'm not planning to give him a pass.

0 responses to “Obama, merit pay, and Reading First

  1. David Safier

    You have the last word on this, he said graciously.

  2. Yikes, David, disagreeing is fine when discussing the color for a tablecloth, whether to plant daisies or tulips, or what to eat for breakfast. Disagreeing on reading programs at the early grades has been disastrous for many students and entire school populations, because the science is ignored.

    “Almost every premise advanced by whole language proponents about how reading is learned has been contradicted by scientific investigations. Almost every practice stemming from these premises has been less successful with groups of both normally developing and reading-disabled children than practices based on reading science. As Michael Pressley, editor of Educational Psychologist, has remarked, “At best, much of whole-language thinking…is obsolete, and at worst, much of it never was well informed about children and their intellectual development….”

    We have thirty years of reading research which should inform our actions. We have the penicillin, and we should use it.

  3. David Safier

    Patt, your belief in science’s ability to chart the learning experience by brain imaging or any other means is greater than mine. So we will continue to disagree. Which is a fine thing for two people to do.

  4. Sorry, David, your information is dated and not scientific. I know the U of A is ground zero for whole language, but the new research is evidence based and uses brain imaging. It’s not an adherence to one approach, it’s science.

  5. David Safier

    We’re going to disagree on this one. For every expert advocating phonics, you’ll find an expert advocating whole language.

    I think in lots of cases, it’s a question of definition of the terms. Both sides see a rigidity on the part of the other. As someone who taught from gut, heart and head, I would never advocate a strict adherence to any one approach.

  6. David,
    There is no longer a credible debate on whole language vs. phonics. I direct you to the work of Dr. Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia, and panel member on the National Reading Panel:

    “On the face of it, who can argue with balanced literacy? On the other hand, we have learned about the importance of reading instruction that consists of systematic, comprehensive, and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These are the five basic elements of effective reading instruction. The concern is that sometimes programs that are not consistent with scientifically-based reading research and are only fragmentary or incomplete (for example, lacking systematic and explicit instruction in phonics), are then euphemistically referred to as “balanced literacy” even though they are not as comprehensive or systematic or aligned with what the evidence tells us are the most effective, scientifically-based reading programs. So, if a parent is told that the program is to reflect balanced literacy, that parent should ask “Is this program consistent with the findings of the National Reading Panel, or the methods and programs that are noted in Overcoming Dyslexia?”

    The RF programs were meant to be limited to those with systematic, comprehensive, and explicit instruction, as noted above.

    I agree that parts of Reading First were corrupt (the parts the Bushies got involved in, of course), but the recommendations of the Reading Panel were scientifically based.

  7. David Safier

    Patt, this shouldn’t be an either/or discussion, but a both/and discussion. Whole language can be misused, but I believe it’s far from a useless approach. Phonics is the same — misusing it causes problems, but a good use is valuable.

    My objection to the way Reading First was set up is it limited the programs to ones that fit the Bush administration’s guidelines. Their term, “scientifically based,” was misused to discard programs that weren’t strictly phonics based. So we spent $6 billion and lost the opportunity to compare the value of a number of programs and approaches.

    I’m pleased your school and children benefitted from the funding. That isn’t the nationwide perception, however, either from the RF skeptics or from the Dept. of Ed’s studies.

  8. Reading first schools had to use a scientifically based research program. More than one program fit RF criteria. Programs had to address the five elements of reading; phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. A major component of the Reading First money was in professional development; understanding how children acquire reading skills and learning how to teach reading. (It is rocket science.)

    Measuring only comprehension and then saying the program didn’t work is ridiculous. Those of us involved in the program know, it did benefit children. Fluency is highly correlated to comprehension. Our students have improved their fluency over the years of the grant and beyond.

    The best thing Reading First did was give poor kids an opportunity to learn to read through phonics based instruction. Many schools set aside their useless, “whole language” programs to become a Reading First school. For the first time, poor children were given the most necessary tool needed for reading; systematic and sequential phonics instruction.

    Say what you will about the corrupt pieces of Reading First and there were many, but with a view from the trenches, it was a good thing.