Reading First, part of the 2001 No Child
Left Behind Act, seeks to lift reading achievement by encouraging
the use of reading programs that have been scientifically
proven to work. Reading First, which accounts for just 2
percent of federal education spending, is helping many districts
to achieve promising results including Richmond,
Virginia, where test scores have risen dramatically. But
negative publicity stemming from recent reports by the Department
of Educations Office of Inspector General could put
Reading First under a cloud when NCLB comes up for Congressional
reauthorization. That would be tragic for millions of children
at risk for reading failure. To see clearly whats
at stake in the reauthorization battle, the Manhattan Institute
gathered a panel of experts on the science of reading instruction.
As our luncheon speaker, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret
Spellings then discussed the prospects for reauthorization
of No Child Left Behind.
* * *
Reading First and Reading science
G. Reid Lyon, Former Chief, Child Development
and Behavior Branch,
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development,
National Institutes of Health
Diane Ravitch, Education Historian;
Research Professor, New York University; and author of The
Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students
Learn (Alfred Knopf, 2003) among other books
Rick Nelson, Former President, Fairfax
County Federation of Teachers, Fairfax County Public Schools,
Maria Casby Allen, Parent Activist, Fairfax County
Public Schools, Fairfax, Virginia
Moderator: Sol Stern, Senior Fellow,
The Honorable Margaret Spellings, Secretary,
U.S. Department of Education
* * *
MR. SOL STERN:
Im a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and a contributing
editor of City Journal. On behalf of the Institute,
I want to welcome you to this conference on reading science,
the Reading First program, and No Child Left Behind.
This mornings panel is really about an American tragedy.
After a century and a half of universal public education,
and despite the highest per-pupil expenditure on elementary
and secondary education in the world, 40 percent of U.S.
fourth-graders cant read proficiently. Thats
according to the gold-standard NAEP (National Assessment
of Educational Progress) tests. For minority students in
inner-city schools, the reading failure rate is a catastrophic
65 percent. The consequences of this education failure are
devastating. Children who dont read by fourth grade
almost always fall behind in other subjects, often end up
in costly special-education programs, and are more likely
to drop out of school.
But this is an entirely self-inflicted wound. American
scientists have figured out an answer to the reading-failure
problem. For the past several decades, the National Institute
of Child Health and Human Developmenta wing of the
National Institutes of Healthhas, under the direction
of our first panelist, Reid Lyon, sponsored reading research
by scientists in the field of cognitive neuroscience, pediatrics,
and educational psychology. We now have hundreds of peer-reviewed
studies that describe not just how children learn to read
but also why so many fall behind, and how schools and teachers
can keep this from happening.
But heres the scandal: in the education schools that
train our future teachers, science is disdained. Whats
worse, education professors have convinced many school districts
to choose reading programs for the classroom that satisfy
the professors philosophical beliefs about children
but have no scientific support. When this happened in California
in the 1980s, reading scores plummeted to the bottom in
In New York City, our schools chancellor dismissed the
federal Reading First program, which is based on this science.
He took the federal money$2 millionbut still
asked, Wheres the science? Perhaps the
panel we have assembled today can help the chancellor and
his staff find the science. Doing so would point the way
to better reading scores. Coincidentally, the state is releasing
its 2007 report on reading scores in a couple of hours.
Ive been told that the report shows that New York
City could use a lot of help.
Our panelists are, each in his or her own way, heroes of
American education. Our first speaker, Reid Lyon, was the
chief reading scientist at the National Institutes of Health
for twenty years. Reid will give you a glimpse into the
power of the reading science that has been incorporated
into the Reading First program, and he will tell you how
it can improve classroom instruction and narrow the shameful
racial gap in academic performance.
Diane Ravitch is our nations leading historian of
education and is the author of numerous highly acclaimed
books, including the definitive history of the New York
City schools. Shes an eloquent champion of the idea
that true education reform begins in the classroom with
a rich curriculum, high standards, and instructional approaches
that are backed by evidence. She will provide you with historical
background on the reading wars and explain why most of the
education establishment still hasnt come to terms
with the scientific revolution.
Our final speakers are Rick Nelson, a former president
of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers in Virginia;
and Maria Casby Allen, a parent activist from Fairfax. They
did exactly what we hope all parents and teachers will do
as a part of our democratic public school system: they educated
themselves about the science of reading, looked at the data
for their own district schools, and lobbied district authorities
to do the right thing for the children, based on the evidence.
DR. REID LYON:
I am currently working in Dallas, Texas, at Higher Ed Holdings.
I have left the government. One thing Ive learned
is that Washington, D.C., is 30 square miles of unreality
surrounded by reality. And its nice to be in some
of that reality. What Im doing in Dallas is building
a school called the American College of Education, so that
I can put my money where my mouth has been. Were trying
to develop colleges of education that do straightforward
things. We try to help teachers understand what the best
scientifically based instruction is as well as what the
most current and accurate content is. We teach the teachers
in the public schools so that they can immediately apply
the concepts were teaching them. And we monitor teachers
progress just as we monitor the progress of youngsters.
The data will tell us whether were doing it right
or not. And if were not doing it right, we need to
Today, Im going to talk about the research weve
done over many, many years. But I want to read something
to you first.
The history of the profession has never been a particularly
and one reason for this is that
it is so deplorable of a story. For century after century,
the profession got along by sheer guesswork and the crudest
sort of empiricism. It is hard to conceive of a less scientific
enterprise among human endeavors. Virtually anything that
could be thought of for treatment was tried out at one time
or another. It was the most frivolous and irresponsible
kind of human experimentation based on nothing but trial
and error and resulting in precisely that sequence.
That passage was originally presented by Dr. Lewis Thomas,
president of Sloan-Kettering. He was talking about the medical
professiona profession that took over a century to
move out of its treatment armamentarium: leeches, apricot
pits, cutting, slicing, bleeding. It wasnt until the
public stood up and said, You are killing people
that the profession began to monitor itself and changes
were made. Indeed, when the polio vaccine was first developed,
it wasnt seen as productive or effective because doctors
didnt do the right science: they didnt do randomized
clinical trials. Once they did, they saved a lot of childrens
Over my career, Ive looked at some of the gaps that
we have in our educational practice, and Ive always
tried to use common sense foremost. Why, with children in
front of us, would we ever present to them or provide them
with something that might not work, or something for which
we might not understand whether it works? It has never made
sense to me. Yet, as Sol pointed out, we continue to stretch
kids through a wide variety of malpractice. And they continue
Ill tell you later how all of that prompted Reading
First. I dont want to bore you with certain parts
of the research. But when I talk about most scientific research,
all Im talking about is common sense. If you want
to understand something, you have to ask a good question.
And at the NIH, I asked the same three questions for three
decades. First, how do kids learn to readthat is,
what skills and abilities do they need? Second, what goes
wrong when kids dont learnwhats getting
in the way? And third, what do you do about it?
Three questions, thats it. Year after year, we tried
to map out how kids from every walk of life learn to read.
Does the learning process get messed up for some kids because
of genetics and neurobiology? Yes, for a very small number
of kids. Does it get messed up because teachers arent
prepared? Yes. The biggest impediment to kids learning
to read is not biological or genetic: its instructional.
Instructional casualties account for the majority of that
5060 percent of our poor kids who cant read.
It does not have to be that way. Its as simple as
But we just sit back and watch as enormous travesties are
placed on our nations children. And we dont
get it. Its more complicated than a program or a method.
But nobody wants to deal with complexity, either. They have
a hard time, particularly in education, recognizing common
sense. Its either/or: everything is this or that.
Nothing in life that I know of is either this or that.
By 1990maybe even by 1985we had figured out
what goes into reading, how the process works. Wed
also figured out what gets in the way when the process doesnt
work. What we hadnt figured out was what to do about
it. And to figure that out, I asked: For which kids are
certain instructional strategies or approaches most beneficial,
at which stages of development, in which settings, for how
long, and by which teachers? I definitely did not ask: Does
whole language work better than phonics? Thats a dumb
dichotomy. Thats political. Science asks: For which
kids are which instructional strategies most beneficial,
at which developmental phases, in what classroom, and by
Weve pretty much answered those questions. But will
anybody use our answers? No. The press cant understand
these issues. Every time they talk to me, they ask, Does
phonics work better than whole language? In early childhood
development, is it social, emotional, or cognitive? If youre
a researcher, is it quantitative versus qualitative research?
The dichotomization of complex concepts is a proxy for IQ;
we seem to be operating at an IQ of 75 or lower when we
talk about reading. But I know that we have to do research
to tell us what works, why it works, when it doesnt
work, and under which conditions it works. Businesspeople
understand this sort of thing. If there are any physicians
in this room, they know about dosage effects and combinations
of medications. We have to do that a lot in education. That
is why teachers have to be prepared with the best information,
because they will know that not every program is equally
beneficial for each child. If a kid doesnt get it,
the teachers will have to modify instruction, even with
the most well-supported, strongly based programs.
There is no script that teachers can follow for every kid.
But they cant be teaching kids without some facts
in front of them. Most important: reading is complex. Youve
heard it before. Reading requires the development of a sound
structure, called phonemic awareness. It requires the ability
to place sound on top of lettersthe F-word in our
society, phonics. It requires the speedy application of
those phonemes or sounds onto the letters; speedy so that
kids can read words and sentences quickly, without getting
bogged down and bored. But you cant read and understand
anything unless you have the vocabulary to bank new against
known. I can read an astrophysics text all day, quickly
and using good decoding strategies, but its going
to bank up against a limited vocabulary. And I wont
understand it. Youve got to be able to comprehend.
To make a long story short, learning how to read is a multidimensional,
complex process that requires the development and integration
of many equally complex subparts. Our teachers usually dont
get that, because they teach what they have been taught,
as Sol pointed out.
What gets in the way when kids have trouble learning to
read? Usually, theres a missing link, or links, among
the components I just described. Some kids dont have
good phonemic awareness. Some kids dont have good
vocabulary. Some kids dont read quickly. Some kids
suffer from all of the above, and they bomb. Do they have
to? Absolutely not.
In 1996, as I begin to tell this story publicly, I got
a call from Bill Goodling, who was the chairman of the Education
and Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives.
He said, I hear you guys at NIH are doing some science
on reading, even though it was his committee that
had given us a lot of money for it. And he said, Look,
we are about to fund a program called America Reads. Its
a program where we are going to pay for people to read to
children. And we are hoping that it will really help the
kids out. I said to him, Reading to children
is absolutely necessary. But to spend that amount of money
on having grandparents and adults read to kids who dont
often get read to, while laudable, will not teach them to
Kids dont pick up reading naturally. Its like
golf or piano playing. The whole idea that reading is natural
has been disproved over and over again. If people hang onto
it, they do so at kids risk. Be that as it may, Goodling
asked me to take a look at the data. He was a former high
school principal, and his wife was a kindergarten teacher.
He understood education. When I finished talking to him
in detail over a day and a half, he said, You mean
to tell me that weve got 60 percent of poor kids not
reading? And the studies that you have in Washington, Houston,
and Tallahassee in schools with real teachers are showing
that you can reduce that to 10 percent? What do we do about
that? A fellow I worked with, Bob Sweet, said that
we should enact some legislation, and what came out of that
was the Reading Excellence Actthe first time you ever
saw scientifically based reading research (SSBR) placed
It didnt work. There was no accountability to it.
People wrote grants and said that they would adhere to the
criteria for SBRR, but then theyd get the money and
do exactly what they had always done. When we moved down
the road, the science kept accumulating; we knew how reading
developed, why it went wrong, and what you could do about
it. So along came Reading First, which contained one crucial
difference. With Reading First, we said: federal money will
be provided for programs that have been shown to be effective,
with well-defined groups of children, and under well-defined
circumstances and conditions. That was the general message.
That would have allowed about three programs in the entire
country to receive fundsthats it. Im a
scientist, and I wrote that language in there because I
knew, even from a policy point of view, that if we werent
specific, people would take advantage of the system. We
had to be specific, or otherwise everybody would say, Well,
Im research-based, and they would change the
language in their materials to say that. Thats just
human nature. The lobbying efforts were tremendous, and
in the end Congress changed the language and said that federal
money would be provided for programs based on SBRR, not
merely for effective programs. People tried to game the
system all over the place.
Chris Doherty, the Reading First program director in the
Department of Education, was one of my heroes. He said,
This state has said that it will adhere to programs
based on SBRR. Yet it gets the money and pays for
programs that are like apricot pits and leeches. But we
wrote in the law, thank goodness, that they couldnt
do that, and Bill Goodling told the states that he would
need to pull their funding if they didnt get it right.
The policymakers on the Hill forgot about something. They
passed Reading First, but they didnt think about how
it might bump up against local control. What people are
saying now is that you cannot mess with how local districts
use that money. But in Reading First, we said that you cannot
use federal money for programs not based upon SBRR. People
started saying that they would adhere to SBRR, but then
they didnt because of local control. Does your tax
money go to people who say they will do one thing, only
to do another at the detriment of the kids because its
a local control issue? Im afraid so. These are self-inflicted
Nevertheless, with all of the policy developments that
were talking about, its the first time that
Ive ever seen research driving policy in Reading First
and No Child Left Behind. These developments werent
driven by the typical kinds of policy engines. They certainly
werent driven by consensus conferences or policy workshops.
For example, there was the National Reading Council report
on beginning readinga great report. But it was a consensus
report, and it went nowhere. It was not read in terms of
changing the legislation.
What had to happen was for someone with decision-making
powerlike a Bill Goodling, Thad Cochran, Ann Northup,
or Ted Kennedyto ask, You mean to tell me theres
this gap between all these kids learning how to read, and
that we know how to reduce that rate all the way down to
10 percent or less in the worst schools with the kids with
the most difficulties? You mean to tell me we can do that
and were not doing it? And youre studying these
kids in real schools? This isnt laboratory stuff?
Yes, sir1,000 schools, 2,500 teachers, 44,000 kids,
all studied for at least five years longitudinally and an
average of nine years longitudinally. The kids are now thirty-something;
they started when they were five. All those kids contributed
to what we know, but their legacy has been lost on the nonsense
perpetuated by this dichotomization that I talked about
earlier and by the failure for adults to use common sense.
If theres anything I can leave you with, its
that we do have the science that can reduce these numbers
dramatically if we do it right. A word of caution: no one
program, as I mentioned already, is equally beneficial for
all kids. But the process does have to be direct and systematic.
It cannot be happenstance. It cannot be everything-and-anything-goes.
Kids do not learn to read naturally. When you think that
they do, they come from middle- or upper-middle-class homes
where the kids have been read to since in utero. They come
into school with vocabulary, sound structure, and everything
else. Poor kids dont typically have that advantage,
and people expect them to read naturally by looking at good
literature, which might help kids who already have the foundational
skills. Poor kids dont know whats going on.
Its like anything else; theyve got to be taught
directly and systematically. We cannot overturn that scientifically.
We cannot falsify that hypothesis. You just cant let
People say, Well, if you teach them too directly,
theyll never love reading. Ive never met
a kid who loves something he cannot do. You have to have
great programs and comprehensive, direct, and systematic
instruction. But you also have to have a great teacher.
And there isnt going to be a chance for those things
to work if you dont have good building-level leadership
providing a context where they have the time and can collaborate
and talk with one another. That way, they can solve problems
using a common language, based upon scientific knowledge
of how reading develops, what goes wrong when it doesnt,
and what you can do about it.
DR. DIANE RAVITCH:
As the designated historian, Im going to give you
the background to what Reid Lyon was talking about. Reading
wars are nothing new. Education experts have been arguing
about how to teach reading for nearly 200 years.
When we first began as colonies in this country, the popular
method was called the alphabet method. There were hornbooks
that listed the alphabet. People used to memorize those
letters and somehow figure out how to read by memorizing
The alphabet method was succeeded by the phonetic method,
whereby children learned the sounds of letters and combinations
of letters. This was the method used in Noah Websters
famous Blue Back Speller, which taught millions of
people to read. The Webster spellers were succeeded by the
even more famous McGuffey Readers, which sold more
than 120 million copies from the time they were initiated
in 1836 until about 1920. At one point in our nineteenth-century
history, the McGuffey Readers were used in half the
classrooms of the United States. By the way, they have wonderful
literatureit wasnt just phonics. People look
at them and say, Oh, this was just drudgery.
But no: they had great literature for kids.
The third method that became popular was the word method,
in which children learned to recognize words and to read
sentences without necessarily learning the alphabet or phonics.
They memorized the look of the word. One of the early champions
of the word method was Horace Mann, who is better known
as the father of the American public school system. Mann
believed that learning the alphabet was pure drudgery and
torture. He spoke of the alphabet as the twenty-six bloodless,
skeleton-like figures that torture American children.
When I was in graduate school, I learned that Horace Mann
had a famous debate with the Boston schoolmasters, but nobody
ever said what the debate was about. So I dug up some information
about these old debates. The Boston schoolmasters, angry
with Mann, said, When children are taught to read
without learning those letters, they dont ever learn
to read very well. And they spell very poorly. And by the
way, Mr. Mann, the words that you love so much are made
up of those twenty-six bloodless, skeleton-like figures.
A later variation on the word method was what we now know
as whole language, in which children learn to read because
theyre motivated to do so by their interest, with
no analysis of letters or sounds. Phonetic methods had dominated
the teaching of reading in the nineteenth century, but with
the rise of progressive education, a new philosophy came
along that was much more in tune with what Horace Mann had
been arguing. The progressive philosophy was articulated
by men such as Francis Parker in Massachusetts, G. Stanley
Hall at Clark University in Massachusetts, and John Dewey.
One hallmark of this philosophy was that children should
not be taught to read until theyre at least eight
years old. Early reading is bad for the childs nervous
system, this philosophy claimed, and teaching the alphabet
discourages children from learning to read because it lowers
their motivation and their interest. The most important
book about teaching reading in the early twentieth century
was Edmund Burke Hueys The Psychology and Pedagogy
of Reading. It was a must-read in every college of education
in the country. Huey echoed Dewey, Parker, and Hall in saying
that children should never learn to read until theyre
at least eight years old, preferably even later. They should
be taught to read at home, not at school. Reading should
be taught like pictographs, with no phonetic analysis of
any kind. And the best method for teaching reading is no
method at all. The best readers, Huey said, were compilationsnot
textbooks, but compilations of students own work.
Researchers in the 1920s and 1930s endorsed all these themes.
Among the other findings that resulted from the research
of that era was that reading out loud is harmful to children;
it slows them down. They would learn to get information
through the ear, not the eye, and this would be very bad.
According to this research, they should read silently. Putting
the emphasis on silent reading obviously took the emphasis
away from any kind of phonetics, because now the sounds
of letters didnt matter at all.
Another part of the research synthesis of that era was
that any linguistic analysis of sounds or letters was a
bad idea. It was unnecessary and not helpful in learning
to read. The best way to learn to read was to form a mental
image of the word instead of recognizing letters or sounds.
The Dick and Jane reading books, which first appeared
in 1930, were whole-word look-say books. They were intended
to be the anti-phonetic books. They had a controlled vocabulary
of short, simple words that were repeated again and again.
They dominated the world of reading instruction, along with
other textbooks of that erawhich were modeled on the
Dick and Jane approachuntil the mid-1950s,
when Rudolph Flesch blasted this approach in his best-selling
Why Johnny Cant Read. That book was on the
best-seller list nationally for over thirty weeks, which,
for a book about education, is very impressive. Flesch argued
that there was a national crisis in literacy because of
the systematic neglect of phonics. He said that children
were memorizing one-syllable words but that they were unable
to read unfamiliar words.
In the early 1960s, with the great debate that was going
on across the country about phonics, about Dick and Jane,
and about bad readers and good readers, the Carnegie Corporation
of New York commissioned Harvard University researcher Jeanne
Chall to review the research about reading. A former kindergarten
teacher in the New York City public schools, Chall had gone
on to become the nations preeminent reading researcher.
The book that resulted from this Carnegie Corporation study
was her Learning to Read: The Great Debate. It appeared
in 1967, and it is still, from my point of view, the definitive
book on the reading debate. Chall had never heard of Reid
Lyon or the research that he has done, but her book still
provides the best overview of the research and the arguments.
Her book should have ended the great debate.
Chall said that the debate about reading methods sounded
more like religion and politics than science and learning.
She said that there was not just one successful way to teach
beginning readers. No method had completely eliminated the
problem of reading failure. Some methods were better than
others, but none is a panacea. She found it difficult to
compare methods of teaching reading, because each approach
contained some elements of the other. Every school
that introduces a new method still retains a good deal of
the old one, she wrote. Teachers tended to stick with
whatever method they knew, regardless of what the administrators
said that they were doing.
Chall said that there are two primary approaches to teaching
reading: one stresses the importance of breaking the code
of language; and the other stresses the meaning of language.
Phonics programs had a code emphasis, and look-say programs
had a meaning emphasis. The research, Chall said, unequivocally
supported the use of a code emphasis for beginning readersand
she stressed beginning readers.
She found that the first step in learning to read in ones
native language is essentially learning a printed code for
the speech we possess. The code emphasis was especially
important for children of lower socioeconomic status, she
said, because they were not likely to live in homes surrounded
with books or with adults who could help them learn to read.
Knowing the names of the letters and the sounds of the letters
before learning to read, Chall said, helps children in the
beginning stages regardless of which method is used. She
concluded that for a beginning reader, knowledge of letters
and sounds had even more influence on their reading achievement
than the childs tested IQ did.
Chall warned that the schools should not go overboard in
teaching phonics. She warned that if phonics was overemphasized
to the exclusion of comprehension, there would be a reaction
and the pendulum would swing back to the whole-word method.
Jeanne Chall, a very wise woman, was exactly right. By
1980, the whole-language movement had emerged, and it swept
the field for at least the following generation. The leaders
of the whole-language movement insisted that children should
read for meaning and pleasure and should not study the mechanics
of language. They ridiculed phonics and any other kind of
linguistic analysis. They insisted that children would learn
to read without any instruction in the names or the sounds
of the letters. Because whole-language theory dovetailed
with progressive education theory, stressing the joy of
learning as opposed to the drudgery of instruction, it proved
immensely popular in the schools of education. State departments
of education, too, championed it in their credentialing
policies. Textbook publishers rushed to become part of this
exciting new movement.
The whole-language movement, however, ran into a wall when
California, the state that had most enthusiastically embraced
it and had really launched it, received a terrible ranking
on the NAEP reading test in 1994. California scored almost
at the bottom nationally, ahead only of Louisiana and Guam.
Students in every racial and ethnic groupeven children
of college graduatesdid very poorly. State leaders
immediately concluded that whole language was responsible
for Californias terrible showing.
In 1995, the California state legislature mandated phonics
instruction, and the state board of education adopted a
new phonics-based reading curriculum. Nationally, several
events that followed suggested that there might be an end
to the reading wars. In 1997, a report sponsored by the
National Research Council, called Preventing Reading
Difficulties in Young Children, emphasized the importance
of phonics in teaching beginning readers, echoing Challs
finding. Additionally, the report of the congressionally
mandated National Reading Panel in 2000 confirmed the importance
of phonemic awareness for beginning readers.
Congress included the Reading First program as part of
the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002. The Reading
First programand many people are surprised to hear
thisis not a mandate on districts; it is not a mandate
on anyone. Its a competitive grant program. No state
or district is required by No Child Left Behind to use any
particular reading method. If they ask for Reading First
funding, theyre asking for money to introduce programs
of reading instruction that have some evidentiary basis.
Reid Lyon spoke about the Reading First program, and the
other speakers will do so as well. What I want to emphasize
is what Jeanne Chall wrote in her classic book Learning
to Read: The Great Debate: there is no single best method
of teaching reading. There is no surefire, failsafe method.
Efforts to dedicate the schools solely to skill-building
are narrow and unrewarding. And efforts to eliminate phonetic
instruction in the alphabet are misguided. What we should
have learned from the history of the reading wars is that
reading is not natural, and its not easy. If it were
natural and easy, we wouldnt need teachers or schools.
We wouldnt have any illiteracy, and we wouldnt
have any problem readers. The literacy rate would be equally
high around the nation and around the globe, regardless
of the quality of teachers or schools, if there were any,
which there wouldnt be.
What we do know is that good teachers and good teaching
make a huge difference. Children need teachers who know
how to teach them decoding skills and how to teach them
good literature. Most children will not learn to read unless
they are taught to read. The only way ever to break free
of the pendulum that moves from one extreme to another is
to insist upon solid evidence before adopting any reading
program on a broad scale.
It is imperative for educators and parents to ask: Has
this program been tried before? Where was it tried? For
how many years, with what results, and with what kinds of
students? Are the students similar to ours? Is there a research
base behind the program? Unless there is a consistent
and predictable demand for evidence, we shall continue to
be players in a drama that has gone on for far too long,
arguing about methods based on ideology and sentiment, instead
of insisting on methods that are known to be successful.
MS. MARIA CASBY ALLEN:
Im a parent of two boys who attend public school in
Fairfax County, Virginia. Fairfax County is a very large,
mostly suburban school division. Its the twelfth-largest
school division in the country, with more than 140,000 students.
It has an excellent reputation as an outstanding school
system with high achievement. Children in Fairfax County
are generally fairly easy to teach. The median household
income in Fairfax County is about $90,000 per year.
At a school board meeting in October 2004, almost three
years ago, I stood in front of the school board with this
graph (see Appendix, Fig. A), which compares the level of
achievement of black children in Fairfax with that of black
children in Richmond, Virginia. Both school districts have
about the same number of black childrenbetween 15,000
and 20,000although in Richmond, black children represent
90 percent of the schoolchildren in that city. In Fairfax,
they represent 10 percent.
Across the chart, youll notice that the data are
pretty consistent: reading, math, science, and social studies
in third grade, and the same in fifth gradeall the
standardized tests they take in Virginia.
What may surprise you, as I told the school board and the
administrators at the time, is that the blue bars represent
the city of Richmond, and the red bars represent Fairfax
County. On every state test given to elementary school students
in Virginia that spring, black children in Richmond significantly
outperformed black children in Fairfax County.
The data, I told the school board, get even more interesting.
When one adds in the averages for the state, you see the
same sorts of results (see Appendix, Fig. B). The state
is the black line in the middle, and Fairfax County is the
red line on the bottom. Richmond is on the top, again, in
every single subject thats tested in elementary school
in third and fifth grade.
So black children in Richmond outperformed not only Fairfax
children but their counterparts across the state as well,
while children who attend our highly regarded schools in
Fairfax are seriously lagging behind not only Richmond but
the whole state. The data came as a surprise to school administrators,
who were convinced that Fairfax County, because of its high
reputation, simply was untouchable.
However, I saw things a bit differently. In my town, Reston,
which is a planned community, children from subsidized low-income
housing and children from million-dollar homes walk the
same pathways to school. But it seemed that in our schools,
only some of the children were learning. Children who came
to school without the basic skills in reading, writing,
and math left school pretty much the same way, or at least
many of them did. The home, the parents, and poverty all
took the blame. But as a frequent school volunteer, I observed
that the blame lay elsewhere. The children were simply not
Education would determine the fate of these children. So
I hoped that somebody somewhere was doing something different,
and I hoped that Fairfax County could learn from whoever
that was. If not, the future for these kids and for Reston
The first data that I came across, as I started to look
for something different, came from George Mason Elementary
School in Richmondor at least, those were the first
data that surprised me. George Mason Elementary School is
99.6 percent black, and its also in a high-poverty
section of Richmond. I discovered that in 2004, despite
this poverty, their scores were as high as the scores in
the wealthiest part of Fairfax, which was 99 percent white.
Until two years previously, academic achievement at George
Mason had been exactly what one would expect for such a
school: rock-bottom, about 30 percent pass rates for both
third grade and fifth grade in every subject. And then,
all of a sudden, something happened. Scores shot up in third
grade to between 90 and 100 percent; and in fifth grade,
the same thing. Within two years, they were at the top (see
Appendix, Fig. C).
I wanted to know what it was they were doing there, so
I telephoned the principal to ask him some questions. With
great enthusiasm, he and several other Richmond principals
talked about their successes, which, it turned out, came
from the same things I would later learn are at the center
of No Child Left Behind. George Mason had to change, the
principal explained. All the children were failing. Yet
there was nothing radical in what they were doing, he told
me. They were simply making every moment of the school day
count by teaching in ways that were proven to get results.
The hardest part, he said, was changing the mind-set of
teachers and staff. But once that was done, everything else
was just plain common sense.
What had to come first, he said, was that they had to stop
blaming others and making excuses for failure; instead,
they had to take responsibility themselves for teaching
their students. He said, We have no expectations of
the home. We understand that we cant count on anyone
else to teach our children. Its our job to do it here
in the school. And its not easy. So every minute of
our school day is precious.
Youre out of excuses, said another principal.
And you know what you have to accomplish in so little
time, so you look carefully at how youre teaching.
You make sure that what youre doing and that the way
youre teaching really work so that youre getting
the most out of every precious minute.
How did Fairfax respond to the data? Initially, the Fairfax
administration said that Richmond was known to inflate its
scores, so it was probably cheating. Others dismissed the
success in Richmondand still do as, a matter of factby
saying that Richmond was simply teaching to the test, whatever
exactly that means. The data that I presented did not create
a sense of urgency; in fact, the data seemed too quickly
forgotten. So, not much later, I returned to share more
bad news with the Fairfax County School Board: other school
districts in Virginia that were doing good things were also
starting to get good results.
I compared scores of the ten school divisions in Virginia,
which were urban as well as suburban, with the largest black
student populations (see Appendix, Fig. D). Fairfax County
came out rock-bottom, ten out of tenor at least, tied
for the bottom positionon every single state test
taken in elementary school, right across the board. Richmond
schools were consistently some of the top performers.
Where are things now, a few years later? Frankly, not much
has changed. The staff in Fairfax County went to observe
Richmond schools, but the school board never asked them
to report on what they found. If they thought that Richmond
had anything to offer, they were careful not to say so publicly.
Fairfax felt some heat when the Washington Post picked up
the story on its front page, so they intensified remedial
efforts for those at the greatest risk of failing, and they
picked up a few percentage points.
Six months ago, the instructional staff in their annual
report to the school board gave no hint of any sort of change
in what they were doing, even though they acknowledged that
the reading-ability gap between children who are and who
are not living in poverty in Fairfax County had actually
widened slightly. They seemed to be saying in this report
that what they were doing wasnt workingbut that
they would continue to do it. As usual, the term phonics
or phonemic awareness never came up. Youre
not supposed to talk about things like that in Fairfax County.
But a great deal of time was devoted to discussions with
elaborate charts showing the effects of poverty and home
life and the education of the parents and everything else
on reading scores, although the staff said many times that
they werent bringing up these things as an excuse.
Why, then, were they bringing them up? They cant change
poverty in Fairfax County.
A comment by the head of instruction in Fairfax County
to the Washington Post was quite revealing. She said that
Richmonds progress had little relevance for Fairfax
County because in Fairfax County, the vast majority of students
were passing. School officials, she said, didnt want
to give up the creativity that comes with current teaching
methods. She feared that many in our community would say,
This is not what I want for my child.
The majority of children in Fairfax County are wealthy
and white. They can get by with poor instruction. And majority
rules, I guess. The disadvantaged children in Fairfax Countywell,
I guess theyre simply out of luck.
MR. RICK NELSON:
From 1972 to 2004, I worked as a teacher and as an elected
union representative in Fairfax County. For the last ten
years of that career, I tried, without much success, to
get the school system to change its reading and math policies.
After I went off to fight a different battle, Maria came
along and did her amazing studies, which took hours of work
eyeballing data presented by the state in a most unfriendly
fashion. Over the years, I collected some data that may
help to explain Marias findings. I suspect that what
is true in Virginia is true in many other states.
Virginias Reading First plan invited the states
200 lowest Title I schools to apply competitively for seventy-two
grants. Those grants totaled $1 million per school over
a five-year periodserious money. The schools were
given a choice of about five or six curricula to choose
from, all of which were science-based. But they werent
too limited in their choices.
Despite the flexibility and the money, many schools in
the state did not apply for the lottery, in which the chance
of winning $1 million was one in three. The seventy-two
schools in Virginia represent only 10 percent of our Title
I schools, and they represent only 3 percent of the schools
in the state, so Reading First is really quite limited.
Its a demonstration program, and, frankly, not many
teachers are directly seeing the benefits of Reading First
unless theyre at those schools. The teachers at those
schools love it, though.
Most Virginia schools, like schools in most of the country,
got their Reading First money at the school level after
August 2003. And one thing you dont do, no matter
how strong a principal you are, is to ask your reading teachers
and your classroom teachers to change the reading program
after the year has started. So most schools used the 200304
school year for training and for acquisition of materials,
and they started Reading First in the classrooms in September
2004. Because of that, we only have two years of data on
how Reading First is doing in Virginia, and those two years
represent children who spent kindergarten and first grade
in the lowest-scoring Title I schools in the state with
programs that werent working, then spent second and
third grade in Reading First. Thats not a fair test
of Reading First, but nevertheless, the initial data are
These data are compiled by Chris Braunlich at the Thomas
Jefferson Institute in Virginia. I want you to construct
this same chart for your state and your local districts
and then add the scores that we get this spring and try
to use the data to drive reform that helps children. This
is not difficult to do. All these data are up on the Web
in every state, thanks to No Child Left Behind (see Appendix,
Virginia does have one school district with five years
of data on Reading First and science-based instruction,
and thats Richmond. What Richmond did was to start
Reading First three years before everybody else. I should
say that Richmond has 25,000 students in fifty-one schoolsa
big district for the South90 percent of whom are African-American,
and 75 percent of whom attend Title I schools. In 2001,
Richmond got a new superintendent, Deborah Jewell-Sherman.
Her first initiative required that every school adopt some
form of science-based reading instruction over a two-year
period. Most, but not all, of them chose Voyager, a specific
core reading and professional development program. Unlike
California, Richmond didnt do just phonics. Richmond
incorporated all five elements of the science-based reading
research, which Dr. Lyon talks about.
What kind of results did they get? Richmond went from the
bottom 5 percent in Virginia to the top 40 percent in four
years. Does anybody else know of an urban school district,
75 percent Title I, 90 percent black, that has reading scores
in the top 40 percent of its state for third grade or above?
I think Richmonds success is unprecedented, and its
one demonstration of what science-based instruction can
do. This was an average for forty schools across the district.
Some individual Richmond schools, as Maria noted, did better.
Some did worse. Some of the highest-poverty schools in Richmond
scored higher than any school in Fairfax County in third-
and fifth-grade reading. Those schools attributed their
success to three things: science-based reading research;
training their teachers on how to use science-based reading
research; and training their teachers to test the students
frequently to make sure that they were keeping up, and to
adjust instruction accordingly.
In Fairfax County, they were doing something very different.
Fairfax County is a suburban system. Its the wealthiest
county in America in terms of median family income this
year, according to the Census Bureau, with the highest rate
of parental education in the nation for the 1990 census.
About 10 percent of the students are black, and 10 percent
are Hispanic. There are more than 700 non-school-based administrators
in Fairfax County. Its very bureaucratic.
In 1987, the central office curriculum administrators persuaded
the school board to make whole language the official policy
of the entire county. Teachers were told to stop teaching
reading and to let kids learn to read naturally, the way
they learn to speak. For twelve years, we had no adopted
readers. I had a phone call in 1993 from a teacher who said,
Rick, I just got told that if I got caught one more
time with a spelling book on my desk, Im going to
So they went whole hog for whole language. In 1999, after
the reading scores had plummeted and an election was coming
up for the school board, they made a slight change. They
made the schools buy a reading book, and the schools were
given the choice of two books: one was an unstructured reader
with a lot of stories in it; and the other was from Open
Court Resources, which at the time was the only thing out
there that had any structure in it, I think.
Out of those from 134 schools, how many principals bought
Open Court? Two. Why? Well, if youre a principal,
what you quickly learn is not to irritate the people at
the central office, because there are many ways that they
can get even with you. Even though all school districts
will tell you that our principals are empowered to run the
school, the truth is that theyre all careful not to
irritate the people at the central office who clearly supported
Today, in 2007, 85 percent of the schools still have not
purchased any class sets of textbooks with any systematic
phonics, much less the elements that Dr. Lyon talked about.
They now call it balanced literacy. But how
balanced is it? There are very few phonics books and very
few vocabulary books.
This reality has had an impact on the budget. This year,
in Fairfax County, 12 percent of our school budget is spent
on what they call the problems of children with learning
difficulties. Most of them are reading difficulties.
Then we have some with difficulties in math.
In Fairfax County, one out of every ten teachers is a learning-disabilities
teacher. Most of their students are not learning-disabled;
at least half of them are curriculum-disabled. They are
curriculum casualties, whom we are spending lots of money
to remediate unsuccessfully, and many of them drop out.
In Fairfax County, we had seven schools that qualified
for Reading First funding. Only one principal applied for
the $1 million, and within a year, that principal had been
replaced by a new principal who then pulled the school out
of Reading First. If youre a principal, you dont
do that unless you have very strong support at the central
office level. Normally, that would kill a career.
The problem is that if you bring in an outside program
to a school district where the administrators have decided
the curriculum for years, and the outside program works
better, then the administrators who are your bosses get
angry because youve proved that they were the problem.
Bureaucratic structures dont like to be proved to
be the problem. Theyre going to get even.
A lot of the bizarre educational practices you see in Fairfax
County are not bizarre at all if you understand that the
schools are run in the interests of the people who run the
schoolsand those people are not the teachers and the
principals. Theyre the people who have the authority
and the responsibility, either at the state level in California
to set the curriculum, or at the district level in Virginia
to tell the teachers what textbooks that they can use. Theyre
the people who put pressure on principals to buy stuff thats
favored ideologically. This is exactly what you see in Fairfax.
In Richmond, they cut the black-white achievement gap in
reading from 30 percent to 13 percent in two yearsthey
cut it in half. In 2005, the gap in Fairfax County was 26
percent. Every school district can cut its black-white achievement
gap in half if it does what Richmond did: all it did was
use common sense. It didnt do what the wing nuts were
proposingvouchers, and a whole lot more money for
the schools, and better teacher salaries (though Ill
admit that I would love to have those). They didnt
propose reconstitution. All Richmond did was what Dr. Deming
taught the Japanese to do in the cases of Toyota, Sony,
and Honda: give the workforce improved skills and improved
tools and train them to use them. What Richmond got was
Toyota-like results, and we all know how good that is. Thats
all you have to do to improve achievement dramatically.
Let me summarize the lessons of Richmond versus Fairfax.
First: poverty does matter, but curriculum matters more.
Thats good, because a curriculum is cheap to fix.
You could raise scores by cutting poverty in half, doubling
teacher salaries, and cutting class sizes in half. But thats
tough to doits not going to happen tomorrow.
This is a cheap fix. Richmond bought stuff that worked instead
of stuff that didnt.
Second: science-based instruction works, and it works especially
well. Its not phonics. Its not whole language.
Its beyond that. As you can see, in Richmond it got
amazing results for children.
Third: Im concerned that the penalties of No Child
Left Behind fall heavily on the schools when, in fact, the
people in the schools dont decide what the curriculum
is. The curriculum decides what teachers do in classrooms,
and it decides whether or not children learn.
I hope that the people who are the stewards of federal
law will admit that the law has some good parts as well
as some bad parts that arent working. I hope that
they will work to correct the problems. I dont want
to go back to the situation that we had with the Reading
Excellence Act, where the law had plenty of good language
that Congress could not enforce. If we do that, none of
these school districts is going to change.
Finally, there was a time when attending the schools in
this city and attending the public universities put you
on the inside track for the Nobel Prize. I believe that
if we can get rid of the curriculum bureaucracy and go back
to a system in which the teachers are in charge of the curriculum
and are informed by the science, and in which theyre
required to do what the science saysas all professionals
should bemaybe we can return to those days when going
to the schools of New York put you on the inside track for
that Nobel Prize. Thank you.
MR. SOL STERN:
Questions for our panelists?
MS. EDITH EVERETT:
Im from New York. My question has to do with testing.
Its clear that testing children to find out what theyve
achieved is an important thing, but I havent heard
any of the speakers use the term diagnostic testing.
And if we understand, as the first speaker said, that there
are various needs and deficiencies that children have, how
do we find out about them if we dont test them diagnostically?
Thats a great question, and Im sorry that I
left that out. If, in fact, we know how kids learn to read,
we also have to develop assessment instruments that are
easy to use and that quickly give the teacher an idea of
whether the youngster has mastered those skills. Those instruments
should be used in the progress-monitoring phases of instruction,
and they are diagnostic.
If you have a youngster who has been presented with evidence-based
instruction, and you see gains in certain areaslets
say that the student is getting better in vocabulary but
not in comprehensionthe assessment will tell you that
immediately, and you can reframe your instruction. But the
diagnosis is not geared toward whatever it is biologically,
or genetically, that may place the youngster at risk. The
diagnostic instruments are simply used to determine exactly
how the student is responding to instruction.
Scientifically based reading research says that continuous
diagnostic assessment has to be an intimate and explicit
part of all instructional programs. It has to be carried
out in Reading First schools because of the data that have
to be reported. I cant answer for schools that are
not Reading First schools, apart from saying that our data,
from the time when Reading First was implemented several
years ago, indicated that most schools did not use progress
Richmond uses diagnostic testing, and they say its
one of the keys to their success.
Im tremendously impressed with Dr. Lyons presentation,
but I dont like his answer to this question, at least
in this respect. You said, The thing to do is to test
the skills that the kids have learned, and thats the
answer. And Im sure that is part of the answer.
I remember when Chicago went through a big business of
reteaching skills. They tested the students skills
and were very intentI think they had developed 375
reading skills that the kids had to learn, and they drilled
them on those skills. Then they tested the skills and found
that the students did very well.
But then they foundand this is a big exaggeration,
Im surethat by sixth grade, most kids had never
read a book. So if we are going to use the scientific method
and if were going to base everything on assessmentsparticularly
if were putting decisions in the hands of teachers
or even of schoolsand if were going to test
results, dont we need to develop an assessment system
that accounts not only for the skills that the kids are
learning but for whether they do indeed learn to love reading,
and whether they comprehend much better than the skills
would indicate? Do the kids really learn to read, and not
just learn a whole lot of individual little skills?
In the longitudinal studies that we did each year at NIH,
we consistently asked whether the time spent reading increased
in school and at home and whether the number of books that
kids read increased as well. The relationship between learning
how to read successfully and reading widely and frequently
is substantial. I dont know about all the kids who
didnt read a book in Chicago. But if we look at the
44,000 youngsters whom we studied over a period of five
to thirty years, the relationship is extraordinary. Again,
as I tried to point out, its hard to love doing something
you cannot do.
I am deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of
Education. How do these results carry over into the eighth
grade and the higher grades as well? Even if you use graduation
rates as a proxy, these are third- and fifth-grade scores.
Clearly, a lot of great things are going on in Richmond,
but they cant possibly all be attributed to Reading
First because in every single subjectreading, math,
science, social studiestheres a positive differential.
Ive heard nothing in any part of the presentation
here today that does anything but attribute all that to
If you cant read the test, youre not going to
do well on the test. In 2005, Richmond scored higher than
the other nine big districts. They were number one in the
state in fifth grade on three different tests. They beat
the six suburban districts in the region, and they beat
the other three urban districts. They beat everybody. Fairfax
County, on the other hand, lagged on every test.
One critical issue youre bringing up is whether, if
we bolster reading capabilities at foundational levels with
Reading First, those capabilities will be able to translate
into results later on. Will they continue as the kids move
The youngsters who are the beneficiaries of Reading First
come into the system with as much difficulty in vocabulary
and background knowledge as in word-level skills. Those
reading programs that intensively, directly, and explicitly
make sure that vocabulary is heightened tend to serve the
youngsters fairly well as they move forward. What are the
For the kids most at risk, the conditions are that the
program has to be comprehensive: teach phonemic awareness,
phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Those capabilities
have to be taught directly and systematically. Kids without
background knowledge do not acquire them easily unless they
are taught intentionally. When that happens, and when the
kids spend enough time on those activities, coupled with
teachers who use diagnostic assessments, you get generalization.
In our studies, eighth-grade scores look pretty good when
those conditions are in place. Scores look pretty good in
the twelfth grade, too.
Youre asking a question about kids who dont
get into Reading First until the second or third grade.
How well will they do? Well just have to follow their
progress. Many people want to see Reading First fail, which
is amazing. But Im not saying that you want it to
fail; Rick and Maria looked at some of those conditions
that have increased capabilities at certain ages. If students
dont read in the eighth grade, we havent gone
anywhere. So lets figure out how to extend what weve
done fairly well in the early grades.
MR. SOL STERN:
The best way to get the eighth-grade reading scores up is
to adopt some of the ideas and principles of Core Knowledge,
as articulated by E. D. Hirsch. I would suggest that the
DOE give it all the support it can get and then monitor
and compare the results of those schools with those of the
When I put together these charts, I addressed all the subject
areas. I wasnt looking for reading in particular.
However, schools that looked for what works in reading also
taught well and looked for the best approaches to every
kind of instruction, especially math instruction. They tried
to make the best use of every minute of their day, and that
affected all scores in the same way. It wasnt just
that the schools directly affected reading.
Its also hard to do math if you cant read.
MRS. GAIL BADILLO:
I am a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher in New
York City. Ive been very frustrated by the Teachers
College curriculum. Many other teachers I know are intimidated
into teaching the Teachers College curriculum. This curriculum
expects children to sit in little groups and read as many
little books as they can to themselves, the theory being
that the more they read to themselves, the more theyll
understand, and the more theyll know without any instruction
from the teacher. I am not a proponent of this way of thinking,
obviously. Id like to hear your comments about the
Teachers College curriculum.
Thank you for your comments. Im not a fan of the workshop-model
approach, because Im a strong believer in a content-based
curriculum. I think that kids shouldstarting in kindergarten
and even in pre-kindergartenbe learning about the
world. They should be getting history, civics, geography,
science, and literature. And the literature should not be
from the box of books that came into the classroom or from
a library that has absolutely no literature of any quality.
It should be carefully selected to introduce children to
the central myths and tales and biographies of our society
and our culture and the cultures of the world. Thats
called the Core Knowledge curriculum.
As I spoke before a Core Knowledge group recently and was
describing what they try to do, I thought, We used
to just call this good education. It didnt have
a name, Core Knowledge. It was called good education. But
now its been supplanted all over the country by all
this process orientation, which robs children of knowledge
and vocabularyand then were surprised when the
children dont turn out to be good readers. So I think
that youre right.
MS. MARY RIVERA:
Im a former superintendent in the South Bronx. I was
a building principal in District 7 for twenty years. Teaching
students, especially Hispanic and black children, to read
is my passion and my devotion. I know that they must learn
to read or else they will not succeed.
What do you think of the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of
Basic Literacy Skills) program? Do you think that it is
the type of program that should be in our schools?
The DIBELS program, as a measureif you put aside the
issues relating to its implementationis well constructed.
All it is designed to do is to measure, on a frequent basis,
the ability of kids to read rapidly. Why does it focus on
fluency? Because fluency is a proxy for all the word-level
skills. You cant read fast if you dont have
phonemic awareness and phonics. So if youre reading
fluently, itll cover those. If youre not reading
fluently, the teacher then knows to go to the lower word-level
skills and identify specifics. Fluency is an extraordinarily
strong predictor of comprehension and vocabulary. As a means
of giving teachers immediate information so that they can
modify instruction, DIBELS does a good job.
MR. MICHAEL MEYERS:
I am executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.
I want to follow up on Gail Badillos question. My
question addresses the so-called at-risk teacher, because
teachers arent what they used to be. I know teachers
who believe in such things as Ebonics, which they actually
So how do we know that teachers know how to read? How do
we know that teachers can teach reading skills? What are
the specific assessment instruments for teachers?
We have studied teachers for a long time. Teachers ought
to be good readers. In reality, it depends on whether youre
looking at inner-city districts. I dont want to paint
with too broad a brush here, but on average, teachers in
inner-city districts are much less fluent. We do have teachers
who are reading between the sixth- and the twelfth-grade
levels. When we measure their phonemic awarenessthat
is, how they understand the sounds within the languagemy
colleague Louisa Motes and her team have found that phonemic
awareness is a difficulty. Can adults learn to do all of
that? Absolutely. But remember, all of us are products of
where weve come from. Its not the teachers
faults. Its the system that was in place where they
To answer your question, teaching capabilities are among
the strongest predictors of student learning and achievement.
If we dont ensure that teachers have the proper capabilities
in the field that theyre teaching, were going
to see that in the results.
Everybody hates tight, scripted reading programs, but a
lot of them are very good, for two reasons: theyve
been through experimental trials and come out looking pretty
good; and they train the teachers as theyre teaching
the kids. The programs are so scripted in requiring the
teachers to present the information that, through teaching,
they actually learn a good deal.
Let me just add a teachers perspective on that. The
teachers I know who have been in very good reading programs
have complained that they should have learned this stuff
in college and in the education schools. In Virginia, we
now have a test to see if the education schools are teaching
science-based reading instruction. The test is good, but
its been slow to be implemented, partly because under
No Child Left Behind, the education schools face no penalties
if they dont teach reading. They keep getting hundreds
of millions of dollars in federal aid. There ought to be
some accountability there.
- Luncheon Address
MR. HERMAN BADILLO:
Margaret Spellings was sworn in as secretary of education
on January 20, 2005. Prior to that, she was an assistant
to President Bush on domestic policy, including areas such
as education and immigration. Prior to that, she worked
for George Bush when he was governor of Texas. She also
worked on education reform committees throughout the state.
But since were talking about No Child Left Behind,
the important thing today is that Margaret Spellings was
the prime mover behind the No Child Left Behind Act and
has been responsible for implementing its provisions. When
I was in Congress in the 1970s, Congress did not want to
get involved with education because it felt that education
was a local matter. It was difficult to get anything approved
that would regulate the states and localities in any way.
Therefore, No Child Left Behind is a tremendous achievement,
because it forces the states and the localities to do things
that they havent done before.
For example, today, the New York City Department of Education
says that the graduation rate from high school is 60 percent.
But two weeks ago, it said that the graduation rate for
Latinos was 45 percent. That is tragic. The No Child Left
Behind Act compels states and localities to break down the
results not just by general category, but by ethnic groups
Its very important that No Child Left Behind and
Secretary Spellings be supported, because I believe that
education is going to be the most important domestic policy
for the next generation. Take the Latinoswe have a
population that is now 15 percent of the country, the largest
minority ethnic group, going up to 25 percent. And the kids
are not performing. That is a national disaster.
No Child Left Behind can help to change that. And thats
why Im delighted to present Secretary of Education
SEC. MARGARET SPELLINGS:
Thank you very much, Herman. I appreciate that great endorsement.
Not much has changed in Congress since the 1970s; lots of
people still feel that way, Im sorry to say. But with
your help, we will get No Child Left Behind reauthorized
this year. I very much appreciate the opportunity to talk
with you about something near and dear to all our hearts.
Sol Stern, senior fellow, thank you for your participation
today. And my friends Reid Lyon and Diane Ravitch: Im
sure your panel was spectacular. Thank you not only for
your participation today but for all the good work that
youre doing with regard to reading. I believe that
if we get reading right, we are on our way; and if we dont,
we ought to just close shop. The good news is that we have
a lot of great results to talk about in reading, and thats
in no small part due to you and your good work.
We continue to hear critics of No Child Left Behind say
that our focus on these basic skills of reading and math
distracts from teaching other subjectsthat were
narrowing the curriculum. But how are students going to
master history or science without being able to read or
to decipher? This is as obvious and commonsensical as anything.
We all know that reading and math are the subjects that
are the gateways to every other area of learning. Thats
why I was so pleased, and Im sure you all were, that
the new NAEP data show that our young students are making
very good strides in both history and civics.
The report on U.S. history that was released last week
shows increased scores across the board and a narrowing
achievement gap among our fourth-graders. Similarly, in
civics, fourth-grade students showed improved scores and
a narrowing gap between white and Hispanic students. These
reports confirm what we all know: if you cant read,
you cant read the history test, the history curriculum,
or the history book. The reports also affirm to me that
this narrowing and teaching to the test stuff
is a lot of baloney as well.
As you all know, Ive been working with President
Bush on education issues for a long time. A lot has changed,
of course, since our days in Texas, when we were one of
the incubators for some of the policies of No Child Left
Behind. But he and I continue to be guided by the same principles
that were at work then.
One of the presidents first stops on the campaign
trail was here at the Manhattan Institute: in 1999, he came
to talk about his core philosophy and how, as a different
kind of Republican, he was going to talk a lot about education.
He sometimes reminisces about the days that Herman talked
about, when lots of people were talking about abolishing
the Department of Education, and he often says that people
just hear abolish education. Thats not
where we want to be.
So Im proud and pleased that the president has worked
to change the national conversation on education. Sometimes
we get bogged down in mythology, which I want to confront,
but I do think that its a very different discussion
today, in no small part because of No Child Left Behind
and the presidents ability to frame the issue of education.
The first thing I want to talk about is some of the core
beliefs that have informed our policies. We know for sure,
as you do, if you heard the panel that preceded me, that
there is such a thing as scientific researchor data-driven
decision making, as we now call itwhen it comes to
education policy. We have to use that research to inform
our policies and our investments, just as we do in every
other endeavor. We also know that the federal government
is only about a 9 percent investor in K-12 education. But
our experience has shown that its a very important
9 percent, and we need research to focus our policies and
resources where they will be used to maximum effect.
Reid Lyon has done great work to transform scientific insights
from the laboratorythe things weve learned about
the braininto practical tools for our reading teachers.
The Reading First program that my department runs grew out
of twenty years of research that now is helping more than
2 million schoolchildren make gains in fluency and comprehension.
We have proof in Reading First. So where research shows
what works, lets do it, as we do in medicine and other
The second thing is that parents do know what is best for
their childrenI know that this is sometimes beliedespecially
now that they are armed with data and information about
their schools. Im saying this not only as the secretary
of education but as a mother of schoolchildren. We believe
that the wisdom of parents and families must be brought
to bear on education reform. In particular, its helpful
when we look at school choice options.
Thanks to the president, if I may say so modestly, we have
done more to expand choice and opportunity in education
than any other administration has. Exhibit A is the first
ever federally funded Opportunity Scholarship Program in
the District of Columbia, a program that is now helping
1,800 students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds
attend fifty-eight private schools.
Weve also been huge supporters of the charter movement,
providing significant resources for school facilities and
for start-up funds. The charter movement, which just last
week celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, is helping to
dispel the myth that some children cant learn. Charter
schools act as great laboratories for some of the best practices.
I met some of the people who are involved in KIPP (Knowledge
Is Power Program) here in New York City. Alternative public
schools are great examples of this, and were all learning
a lot about these innovation laboratories.
The third thing is that we need high standards, and people
at the state and local levels are in the best place to set
them. Since were a 9 percent investor, its right
and righteous for those who are paying the bills to set
the standards. We dont need to establish federal standards;
No Child Left Behind doesnt call for that. But I do
think that we have some genius in the policy, with the NAEP
data being made more widely available. Meaningful accountability,
of course, must include deadlines and consequencesjust
as we have with No Child Left Behind and the year 2014along
with the flexibility to achieve those goals.
Thanks to No Child Left Behind, the NAEP has become more
accurate and more informative, because now every single
state is required to participate in that national report
card. Its a much better report card than it was when
we had states coming in and out of it annually. It is the
only national assessment that tells us with accuracy how
were doing. Now that local policymakers have this
information, they can act on it; and I can tell you, having
served at the state level, that people look at it closely.
They dont want to be dead last but still paying the
bills. I do think we can do a better job, in reauthorizing
No Child Left Behind, of ensuring that parents have the
NAEP data so that theyll be armed with even more information
than they have now.
The fourth thing that we know for sure is that teachers
make the single biggest difference in enhancing student
achievement. So we have to do everything we can to get our
best teachers in our most challenging educational settings.
We need qualified teachers to deliver a rigorous curriculum
that challenges students. No Child Left Behind is a floor,
not a ceiling. It is necessary, but not sufficient.
The old solution to education challenges, of course, was
to spend money and cross our fingers, or simply hope for
the best. Now we can actually find out what works, because
we measure with regularity. One of my mottos is, What
gets measured gets done. You all see that in your
work; it guides every other endeavor in American life. Certainly,
its a welcome principle in education.
The basic premise behind No Child Left Behind is that we
expect results from our federal investments. Thats
a smart and wise thing to do as taxpayers, not to mention
that its good for kids. For a long time, childrenespecially
our neediest kidswere shuffled through the system,
as the president says, and were left to just move on through,
without the necessary skills, until they either dropped
out or were given a diploma that didnt mean a lot.
I have yet to meet a parent who says, Count my child
outI dont want my kid on grade level by 2014.
Mostly, they say, Id like my kid on grade level
today. Im pretty sure that the parents in this
room feel this way, irrespective of their neighborhood,
color, or income level.
We are already seeing some very promising results from
No Child Left Behind, among our young readers. We have made
more progress with our young readers over five years than
in the previous twenty-eight years of our national education
report card. It tells us that this policy recipe is working.
But it also shows us where we need to continue to work.
Similarly, we have seen little progress among our high
school students over that same period of time, nearly thirty
years. We know that we have to be smarter about targeting
resources and strategies in our chronically underperforming
schools so that we can know specifically where we are. Those
are some of the key issues that will be before us as we
renew and reauthorize No Child Left Behind.
In addressing our lowest performers, those chronic underachievers
who for more than five years have missed No Child Left Behind
targetsthats about 2,000 of 95,000 schools across
our countrywe simply have to bring more vigorous tools
to bear. We have to give superintendents the opportunity
to staff those schools with our best teachers. We have to
give local officials the opportunity to charter those schools,
notwithstanding arbitrary caps that might be set. And we
have to give parents, who have waited too long for options,
the opportunity to get additional help or scholarships to
send their children to private schools or to obtain additional
enriched supplemental services. That will be a key issue
in the No Child Left Behind reauthorization.
Another key frontier will be, of course, strengthening
our high schools. We have to change the fact that, as Herman
Badillo noted, about half of our Hispanic kids get out of
high school on time. It is a national crisis. Here in New
York City, the graduation rate at about ninety high schools
is worse than 50 percent. Our high schools, I think, are
often failing to prepare our kids adequately, not only for
the workplace, but for college as well. We simply have to
do more to expand access to rigorous course work, such as
advanced placement classes, and train more good teachers
to teach those classes.
We also need to do more to link high school standards with
the expectations of the workplace and of higher education.
We have to be honest about dropout rates. And as we continue
the fight to empower parents and promote choice and turn
around failing schools, we must stay focused on this great
goal of getting every child on grade level by 2014.
As Im sure you all are aware, recently some conservative
members of Congress have suggested overhauling No Child
Left Behind by basically reverting to the old days of sending
resources without demanding accountability. We cannot fix
education, or pick up the pace, without accountability and
without the deadline of 2014. Flexibility without accountability
is an absolute recipe for failure. We cannot afford to go
back to the ways of the past. We tried that, and we know
that it doesnt work.
So if you are committed to turning around our chronically
underperforming schools and to making sure that this country
remains the worlds innovator, then No Child Left Behind
must be reauthorized this year. If you are committed to
more flexibility, and to preserving momentum for school
choice and local control, No Child Left Behind has to be
reauthorized this year.
We have a moral responsibility to give every single student
a chance for success. Only education builds the skills,
the habits of mind, and the knowledge for our children as
well as for our country. This idea goes back to what we
Americans believe in. It goes back to our founding. And
it is the key to the American dream.
I look forward to working with you this year and for your
continued strong support for this very important law. Thank
MR. SOL STERN:
Secretary Spellings, how can we possibly meet the goal of
a qualified teacher in every classroom by 2014 if the federal
government is completely agnostic about the education schools
that are supposedly going to train these qualified teachers?
How can we continue to certify education schools that dont
even teach the science of reading?
The law requires that we have highly qualified teachers
long before 2014; in fact, were supposed to have them
now. One of the conversations that were having in
Washington is about how we can go from an input-driven system
to one that talks about efficacy and highly qualified and
effective teachers, where we start to use data. Im
talking about student achievement results, to more accurately
reflect who our best teachers are.
I think were changing the conversation from inputs,
training, course hours, and so forth to talking about whos
doing the best job in the classroom. I think that change
will clearly be debated in Washington, but it certainly
makes a lot of sense to me.
MR. SOL STERN:
You spoke about the imperative of 2014, and I certainly
agree that we need accountability and results. But we all
know that eliminating the achievement gapreaching
proficiency for all by 2014is an impossible goal.
I also know that in 2001, when you and the Democrats worked
out the coalition for No Child Left Behind, there was a
feeling that we needed this 100 percent proficiency as a
motivator and that it would make people pay attention.
I think that has worked. But now that were five years
down the road, isnt it time to say that we have to
come up with a more realistic output measure? If we go down
this road, were calibrating Annual Yearly Progress
(AYP) standards to an impossible standard. More and more
schools are going to be listed as needing improvement. And
it seems to me that this whole effort is going to implode
No, the effort wont implode upon itself, and heres
why. On any given day, in any given state, there are kids
outside of the accountability system. Weve provided
the flexibility to have it that way. One percent of the
student population is profoundly handicapped, and, as such,
these students are obviously not part of the accountability
We published the new rules following the reauthorization
of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),
which said that there were an additional 2 percent of students
outside of the accountability system. Remember, special-education
numbers are growing; this is a large number of kids. These
students are going to take more time, different strategies,
and different kinds of assessments. Now were up to
3 percent. We have limited-English students who are allowed
to be exempted from the system for one full academic yearor
more, if theyve come in the middle of an academic
Also, the states decide the sample size necessary to have
a valid and reliable group of students to be counted.
Accommodations have been made to reflect the reality of
this organic system called public education, and I think
thats appropriate. But I also think that we have established
an achievable goal. What parents want to say that their
kids arent going to be on grade level?
Madame Secretary, my home county and yours kept all their
eligible schools out of Reading First. As a teacher, I know
that many things in my classroom happen because of decisions
made at the central office level. Yet in No Child Left Behind,
almost all the penalties fall at the school level and on
the school staff, for decisions made by the central office
that tie our hands.
Governor Spitzer in New York has proposed that, as part
of the state accountability system, school boards and superintendents
be held accountable. Thats something thats missing
in No Child Left Behind. Can we add it for the reauthorization?
Thats an interesting question. As you mentioned, Im
also a resident of that school districtFairfax County,
Virginia. Weve had some issues about the assessment
of limited-English students there. Nationally, two-thirds
of our limited-English students are United States citizens,
80 percent of whom have been here for five years or longer.
So as we read these stories that say, So-and-so got
here six months ago, and now that mean old secretary is
expecting him to be proficient in English, lets
be mindful that lots of these kids were born here. Can we
make some distinctions about arrivals? Sure.
With respect to accountability for school boards, superintendents,
and others who are making decisions, one of the most profound
things about this law is the information about results that
enables people like you to say, Well, how come theres
$1 billion of federal aid flowing toward needy readers and
were not getting any? I think that the power
of sunshine is an important dimension. Whether there will
be specific tools for me to enforce requirements on school
boards and superintendents, I dont know.
MS. DOROTHY WILNER:
Im from the Womens City Club. I think that you
put up a straw man when you spoke about children who have
been here five years or longer. I come from Queens, which
has the largest number of new immigrants in the whole city.
Every one of our schools is going to be considered a failing
school because your law says that if a student is here for
one year or longer, he has to show the same results as other
students on the test.
This is ludicrous. We do not have failing schools; we have
wonderful schools. They are going to be called failing because
of your law.
Let me clarify on the two-thirds, 80 percent calculation.
That, of course, is a national calculation. There will be
community anomalies in any given place. Im not asserting
that two-thirds of the students in your schools are United
States citizens. But nationally, that is the figure.
With respect to the transition issues, clearly, thats
what Im speaking about when I talk about the need
to build nuances into the accountability system. No Child
Left Behind, as you know, is largely a pass-fail system.
We need to start making distinctions between schools that
are within range and those that are chronic underperformers,
with five or more years of not meeting AYP. And I think
well certainly do that as part of No Child Left Behind.
But I think there is a right balance between intensity
of effort and throwing our hands up and saying, You
know, we dont think that this majority-minority population
in Texas or California can read on grade level. That
balance is what well discuss in Congress.
MR. BOB WEISSBERG:
Since the 1960s, weve been throwing hundreds of millions
of dollars at Title I, Head Start, and all those things
to boost the bottom, and were still not up to par.
Meanwhile, money for gifted programs has virtually dried
up. As you well know, the Javits Program, which I think
was the only federally funded program for the gifted, was
canceled this year. Even so, there was not much in it to
begin with; it was a few million dollars. Most of that,
actually, was directed toward kids at risk, so it wasnt
truly a program for the gifted. In many states, money that
was normally going to the gifted has now been pushed over
to satisfying the demands of No Child Left Behind.
Its my opinion that our gifted program in the United
States has become the H1B Visa Program. Every year, we import
perhaps 100,000 gifted people, maybe more, to fill the positions
that we cannot supply ourselves.
What is the Department of Education doing for gifted childrenthe
people who are the future Bill Gateses and Larry Ellisonsaside
from pursuing a strategy that has proved ineffective for
forty-five years or longer, namely, pouring money into the
Let me start with the Javits comment. Its a $12
million program, and Congress has made the judgment that
its hard to have a nationally scalable program for
fifty states, plus the territories, for $1 or 2 million.
You probably agree with that.
Just as a point of evidenceand if you have more,
please share it with mewe are not seeing that bringing
up the bottom means that we are keeping the top down. It
just doesnt bear out in the data. We do have more
of a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats phenomenon. Were
seeing gains across the board. Thats the second point
I would make.
Third, I would say that what is different about No Child
Left Behind is that it is a game-changer away from the thesis
that you first laid out. We are about results in exchange
for resources. This is the first time weve done that.
Its not true, frankly, of Head Start. That program
is not run by the Department of Education; its at
Health and Human Services.
This is the first time weve said that we have some
expectations for a particular goal. Theres more accountability
here for federal tax dollars than ever in the history of
the forty-year commitment to education.
What do you do about districts, particularly urban districts,
that are living with No Child Left Behind and yet somehow
life goes on just the way it did before the statute was
I would just say that we passed the best law we could five
years ago, when about half the states did annual measurement
and we didnt know a lot about certain things. Have
we learned things in the last five years that we ought to
be mindful of and be guided by in the reauthorization? Of
course we have. Thats why the presidents reauthorization
proposals speak about some of the things that youre
talking aboutthe need for a growth model, for instance.
That would help on your issue of being able to chart progress
more accurately over time.
But when we were trying to take a snapshot of the accountability
system in half the places around the country, half the states
waited until the 200506 school year to do annual assessment
for the first time.
Can we be smarter and more precise about doing that now?
Yes, we can. Ive given five states waiversand
Im actually going to do a couple more this week
for this growth model notion. Are there things that we can
do to fix and be watchful of the unintended consequences?
Yes; thats why we have reauthorizations in Washington.
Madame Secretary, fifty-three years after Brown v. Board
of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in the
public schools, there are school districts in this nation
that are trying to show that segregation by race will work
to raise the academic achievement level of black male students,
despite Title VI regulations.
What are the Office of Civil Rights and the Department
of Education doing to counteract this racial idiocy?
If you have the specifics of that particular assertion,
I would obviously like for my Office of Civil Rights to
look at those. Obviously, that assertion is not in keeping
with the law that I took an oath of office to uphold.
What I see and talk about nowand this is why looking
at our high schools is so importantis a rationing
of opportunity, if you will. Forty percent of our high schools
have no advanced placement classes. I use the example of
our neighborhood. In Fairfax County, Virginia, Langley High
School has twenty-eight advanced placement classes. Ballou
High School in inner-city Washington, D.C., has maybe three
We all know that our most experienced, most degreed, and
often most effective teachers are at Cream Puff High, while
our least supported, brand-new, unmentored, lowest-paid
teachers are in our most challenging educational settings.
We have to do something to reverse that, such as rewarding
teachers through pay systems for doing the hard and challenging
work. Clearly, I worry about the issue that you raise, but
I also worry about what undergirds that, which is the rationing
of rigor and personnel that we often see.
Coming from the sciences, Im always astonished that
discussions like this happen on a national level, because
in the sciences everything is transnational and relatively
border-free. With that as a context, what is your response
to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development) Programme for International Student Assessment
(PISA) studies of international comparisons of national
I think that it shows us that we have work to do in focusing
on math and science. You are all scholars, and you know
all the issues surrounding the use of PISA data to rate
our schools or to make comparisons. But there certainly
are some takeaways there, among them the need to focus on
our high schools and on math and science more intensively
than we have.
MR. HENRY STERN:
A great deal of emphasis earlier today was on Reading First
and on the virtues of phonics programs as compared with
whole language. These things are supposed to have been scientifically
proved. Yet we are told that they are not required by the
Department of Education in funding local programs. What
is your view on that? If phonics is better, as is widely
asserted, shouldnt the Department of Education reflect
that policy judgment in giving out all this money?
The law says that there are certain criteriaresearch-based
principles that ought to exist to teach youngsters how to
read. There are a myriad of products, programs, plans, and
approaches that meet those criteria. Can we do a better
and more appropriate job of overseeing the program? Yes.
Thats why I adopted every recommendation that the
inspector general said that I should to improve the oversight
and stewardship of that program.
We can take this core set of principles, however, and ask
states to develop plans that meet those criteria while still
allowing them to employ many different approaches, strategies,
or products. Its a combination of national core principles
with flexibility and local control. These things are not
in disharmony; and thats how we ought to do it.
MS. DEE ALPERT:
Im from specialeducationmuckraker.com. With respect
to Reading First, your inspector general said basically
that the New York State Education Department shouldnt
have received a grant. Your inspector generals subsequent
look-see has shown that the state Department of Education
gave out money to districts under Reading First in accordance
with some agreements or arrangements that really had nothing
to do with Reading First. Weve also had similar audits
with respect to Title I.
I find it hard to support these federal programs when your
agency is not requiring that strict requirements be met
in this state. So Id like to know what youre
going to do about the New York State Education Department
and its handling of Reading First and Title I.
Clearly, Congress is going to provide additional guidance
with respect to conflict of interest provisions and such
things. Im not going to get into the specifics of
particular state grant approvals. But as I said, the good
stewardship of very large grant programs and the integrity
of those programs are of paramount importance to me, particularly
when theyre proving to get such great results for
MS. KRISTA DUNBAR:
Im from the Cahn Fellows Program for New York City
distinguished principals. You mentioned that No Child Left
Behind is a floor, not a ceiling. You also said that what
gets measured gets done, typically. If No Child Left Behind
is how schools are measured, Im assuming that its
what the schools are going to shoot for. Many schools, we
know, do fall short. But whats the incentive for reaching
the ceilingor even the light fixturesin striving
for success on the AP exams, the SATs, the ACTs, true graduation
rates, and other things that would promote innovation through
The federal commitment to education has been directed to
our nations neediest studentspoor kids, special-education
kids. That is how weve engaged for the last forty
years, preNo Child Left Behind.
This is why the NAEP is important; when you have this kind
of information, the federal government has a role to play.
And that role is to see that every child is performing at
grade level by 2014. But I can tell you, having worked for
two governors, that its also incumbent upon governors.
There are certainly no state impediments. If I were still
working for the governor of Texas, Id say, Lets
have an accountability system that expands the subjects
that are taught. Lets measure social studies. Lets
measure history. Lets measure these other dimensions.
And lets ask ourselves how well we are doing across
Now we have the highway in place. We have the infrastructure.
We can ask ourselves how many students are on grade level.
We can also ask ourselves how many students are at the top.
I would recommend that those of you who are in this arena
talk to your state legislators and your governors about
filling out your accountability system now that No Child
Left Behind has brought this infrastructure to bear. These
are knowable values that state and local policymakers ought
to be looking at.
(Figrues supplied by Maria Casby Allen and Rick Nelson,
Fairfax County, Virginia.)