Reading First: Implementation Issues and Controversies

Publication Date: January 2006

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Education



The Reading First program was authorized as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLBA). Reading First was drafted with the intent of incorporating scientifically based reading research (SBRR) on what works in teaching reading to improve and expand K-3 reading programs to address concerns about student reading achievement and to reach children at younger ages.

The Reading First program has required significant startup time on the part of states. Because the program is complex and many of its requirements are new, it has taken time for states and local educational agencies (LEAs) to put together the necessary staff, curriculum, assessment, and evaluation components for the program. By the end of October 2003, all states and the District of Columbia had received their FY2002 and FY2003 Reading First awards. Puerto Rico's situation is unique because it did not spend the first Reading First funds it received (for FY2003), and it declined funds for FY2004 because of disagreements with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) over instruction and methods to be employed.

The Reading First program has been the subject of ongoing controversy. Some of the criticisms of the program have centered on the perceived "overprescriptiveness" of the program as it has been administered, perceptions of insufficient transparency regarding ED's requirements of states, and allegations of conflicts of interest between consultants to the program and commercial reading and assessment companies. Three groups representing different reading programs have filed separate complaints with the ED's Office of Inspector General (OIG), asking that the program be investigated. The OIG is currently conducting an investigation of the Reading First program; OIG will reportedly be examining the state application process and the role of consultants and technical advisors to the program. On September 23, 2005, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions submitted a request to the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation of questions related to the implementation of the Reading First program.

Controversies have also arisen regarding the application of the SBRR requirements in the NCLBA to the Reading First program. The issues that have arisen regarding implementation of SBRR reflect the current state of SBRR and the difficulties of applying existing research to concrete educational interventions. Some observers have noted that there are many areas of education research with few if any studies based on randomized control trials, viewed by many as the "gold standard" of scientifically based research. Although there is also more user-friendly guidance available, there is very little to date that reflects evaluations of concrete educational interventions and meets the criteria of SBRR. Some critics of ED's implementation of Reading First have also argued that ED has unduly "narrowed" the definition of SBRR, causing states to be unnecessarily limited in their choices of reading programs, assessments and professional development packages. This report will be updated periodically.