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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Another Educational Fad Bites the Dust

Funds to continue the once popular “Reading First” are shriveling up.

Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has worked as a consultant to the Reading First program in several states, called the program “politically toxic.”

“Reading First is dead,” he writes on his blog, “It could have withstood the corruption described in the inspector general’s report or the interim impact study—but not both!”

So what went wrong?
Reading First “has been plagued with mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and cronyism, as documented by the inspector general,” Rep. Obey said, referring to a series of reports released by the Department of Education’s inspector general in 2006 and 2007 that suggested some federal officials and contractors involved in implementing the program had conflicts of interest and appeared to favor some commercial products over others.

“Moreover, a scientifically rigorous study released by the Department of Education found that the program has no discernible impact on student reading performance,” Rep. Obey, who is also the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles education funding, said in a reference to the evaluation released May 1 by the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the department. ("‘Reading First’ Research Offers No Definitive Answers," June 4, 2008.)

Reading First went the way of most fads. What usually happens is something that may have started as a good idea when first implemented by enthusiastic early adopters gets watered down by mediocre professional development training by independent contractors hired to digest and then spit out the training. I know how this works; I have sometimes been one of the independent contractors hired to present someone else’s ideas. I do not do well at this. I usually cannot refrain from incorporating my own ideas, normally because the canned presentations do not respect the intelligence and feelings of the intended audience. Once the special interests get involved, it is generally all over. Besides, later implementations have difficulty replicating the results of the enthusiastic early adopters.

What the most skillful teachers usually do is incorporate the best, or at least the most workable, ideas from any fad into their eclectic bag of tricks. Even without special funding, some aspects of every fad usually survive in some form in the teaching repertoire of some teachers where it becomes impossible to isolate from everything else the most effective teachers do.

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