Another skirmish in the reading war that won't end

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Perhaps growing weary of turning the other cheek, the U.S. Department of Education is more aggressively defending itself against critics of one of its more solid programs: Reading First. Releasing some early evidence of the program's impact (a year in advance of the full study that promises student achievement data), the Department is anxious to show the public and certain members of Congress that Reading First schools are in fact having a positive impact on the nation's reading problem. The preliminary study by Abt Associates reports that Reading First schools spend up to 100 minutes more on reading each week than other schools. They are also are more likely to employ reading coaches and refer struggling students for intervention programs at an early age.

Nearly a year later, the Department is still trying to deal with the fallout from an Education Week expose that many viewed as an unfair attack on the program, but which nevertheless prompted Congress to launch an investigation. Congress seemed indifferent to the mighty questionable tone taken by Ed Week, which demonstrated as much cynicism towards scientifically based reading instruction as any Whole Language aficionado, referring, for example to "'so-called' scientifically based methods." Caught up in some Woodward and Bernstein wannabe act, Ed Week trumpeted the supposedly sordid findings of an investigation that took them months, yet which actually produced little more than a few disgruntled quotes from state education officials who basically seemed upset that they weren't able to spend federal money on reading programs that don't work. Perhaps the loudest complaint came from an unhappy curriculum vendor, upset because not enough business was coming his way--even though he managed to peddle his program to Reading First schools in 28 states.

The Department may be saddled with a lot of programs that don't live up to their lofty intentions, but Reading First, built upon solid research and popular backing by the schools that use it, just ain't one of them.