WSJ Opinion: Reading between the lines of rigidity

The WSJ Editorial page published a very useful editorial this morning on the Madison School District’s rejection of $2M in federal Reading First funds for reading improvement programs:

Taxpayers have the right to ask why the Madison School District would turn its back on a $2 million grant.

Read a number of other articles on the district’s rejection of the $2M reading first funds here.

Reading between the lines of rigidity
Given that its own evaluator says the Madison School District�s Reading Recovery program is not working as well as was hoped, it seems clear the district acted too quickly in turning down a possible $2 million federal grant for reading instruction.
Earlier this fall, superintendent Art Rainwater informed the Madison School Board that the district was ending its participation in the federal “Reading First” program after one year. Rainwater said federal evaluators refused to accept the district�s homegrown reading program, called the Comprehensive Literacy Instruction Program (CLIP), and insisted the district switch to one of many federally approved reading programs.
Rainwater noted that the $2 million federal grant would not have translated directly into a $2 million savings in local taxes because the federal money had to be devoted to materials and staffing specific to “Reading First.”
He said that the tightly scripted phonics-based “commercial” programs approved by “ReadingFirst” would hamstring teachers� ability to use different methods with different children. He also contended that none of the federally approved programs are backed by data demonstrating success. In contrast, under CLIP 80 percent of Madison third graders were reading at the proficient level or better, so, Rainwater claimed, there was no need to change.
But what about the other 20 percent? How can one of the nation’s finest school systems accept sub-par outcomes by a fifth of its students?
Just five out of 30 elementary schools qualifed for participation in “Reading First” – Glendale, Hawthorne, Lincoln, Midvale and Orchard Ridge. All have substantial minority and low income populations and all are below the 80 percent proficient ideal.
Despite Rainwater’s contention that students continue to improve using CLIP, third grade reading scores have actually declined since 2001 at Lincoln, where (as at Glendale) fewer than 70% of students are proficient or better.
Meanwhile, a district analysis of Reading Recovery an intensive, expensive program aimed at helping the worst first grade readers improve asked whether the program is really worth the money. Reading Recovery, which costs about $8,400 per graduate, does not yield statistically significant achievement gains when participating students� performance is compared to nonparticipating students. This analysis echoes the findings of reading re searchers throughout the country, who advised Congress and the federal Department of Education that Reading Recovery should not be included among the federally approved Reading First programs.
If Reading Recovery isn�t helping the 20 to 30 percent of Madison school children who struggle with reading, it�s the district�s responsibility to find a program that can. Maybe the answer is in one of the approved “Reading First” curricula – but we�ll never know, because of the district�s decision to pull out of the program.
That was a mistake. The district should have taken the money and tried a new approach at the five qualified schools, while simultaneously getting the federal evaluators to take a good hard look at CLIP. It is possible that CLIP could get a federal OK – but again we’ll never know because the district pulled out of the process.
School Board Member Ruth Robarts was right: A decision this important should have been made by the board, not the administration. Taxpayers have every right to ask why the district would turn its back on a reading program funded by a $2 million grant.
WSJ Editorial Page