When I see smart guys like Dean Millot and Sherman Dorn confused about what went on in Reading First I think it is safe to assume that nearly everyone else is confused as well.
So this is my attempt at a brief and simple primer on what actually went on in Reading First. To understand what's going on you need to understand the reading wars, basic economics, and a little history. Then all you need to do is to follow the money. I'll keep this as short and sweet as is humanly possible.
The diagram below shows you the kinds of reading programs in use.
There are two kinds of reading programs on the market: whole language/balanced literacy and phonics programs.
Whole language programs and balanced literacy programs are similar. Balanced literacy programs merely add a phonics component. Both programs use predictable texts which favors the guessing of text from context clues rather than the decoding of words via phonics skills.
Phonics based programs use highly decodable texts that facilitate the decoding of text via the use of phonics skills and discourages the use of context clues during the initial stages of reading instruction.
Oddly enough, the presence of a phonics component does not distinguish between between balanced literacy programs and phonics based programs. Both programs claim to have a phonics component. In fact, both will argue that they contain the five essential elements of reading instruction (ECRI), i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies. These are the five components that the National Reading Panel's meta-analysis found were present in all highly-effective reading programs (though the presence of these components does not guarantee effectiveness).
Rather, the most easily ascertainable difference between the two is in the texts that are used in the initial stages of reading. Look at the texts and you'll easily see which pedagogical lineage the program belongs to.
Most of the reading programs in use today have not been validated by scientifically based reading research (SBRR). At the time Reading First was adopted, only three reading programs have program specific SBRR -- Success for All (SfA), Direct Instruction's Reading Mastery (DI), and a prior edition of Open Court (OC) (though not the current edition). All of these programs are phonics based programs using highly decodable texts.
The publishers of these reading programs are capitalists and will dutifully provide whatever product the market calls for. The market has been predominantly calling for balanced literacy programs. This is because balanced literacy ideologues are firmly entrenched in most school districts throughout the country and at all levels of the education hierarchy, including at schools of education and at state level departments of education.
The poor track record of balanced literacy programs with 'at-risk" students and the mounting research base of phonics based programs has not served to dislodge the entrenched balanced literacy programs which remain in widespread use.
But, phonics advocates had the Bush administration's ear starting in 2000. Apparently, someone had the idea to let the federal government do what it does best -- bribe schools with federal dollars to adopt scientifically based reading programs for their "at-risk" students. And, thus, Reading First was born as part of NCLB and the effort to force more accountability and obtain better results from the federal dollars being sent to schools to increase the achievement of "at-risk: children. NCLB was enacted with overwhelming bi-partisan support.
Reading First was designed to cause change. And change is going to cause tension between those who want change (and federal dollars) and those that want to maintain the status quo (while getting federal dollars). Given the state of the reading wars let's see how all this breaks down.
At the state level, the motivation is to continue the status quo, i.e., balanced literacy, while grabbing as much Reading First funding as possible. This is called rent seeking and it is what monopolies do. (It's also why your utility companies and the DMV treat you like crap.) As a result, these folks were going to do whatever they could to get their existing reading programs funded with little or no modification. If you read the IG's reports on Reading First, you can plainly see that this activity was going on behind the scenes and DoE was trying to prevent it.
Reading program publishers were trying to increase their market share caused by the disruption caused by the injection of Reading First funding. To accomplish this goal they published phonics-based programs that were capable of being funded under Reading First, but yet were palatable to those balanced-literacy lovin' educators who would ultimately be selecting those programs at the state level. (Publishers are, by and large, capitalists who will provide the market with whatever it is asking for.) Thus, publishers were also trying to game the system by skirting the line between phonics-based programs and balanced-literacy programs in order to grab the biggest market share they could. Similarly, publishers were simultaneously trying to re-market their existing balanced-literacy programs as complying with the Reading First statute.
The U.S. Department of Education would be charged with determining which reading programs qualified for Reading First funding and which ones didn't. The DoE would be constrained by two primary factors: the statute itself and the department's prohibition against directly mandating curricula.
The relevant section of the Reading First statute is vague, requiring only that funding go to a school that selects and implements a reading program that is "based on scientifically based reading research" and includes "the essential components of reading instruction." Both of these terms are further defined in the statute, but not in a meaningful way that would have informed DoE where to draw the funding line.
But, let's cut right to the chase. There are only three meaningful places where the funding line could be drawn based on the statute.
1. Funding limited to reading programs having program-specific reading research. Basically, this would have limited funding to Success for All, Direct instruction, and Open Court. But, the statute clearly intends broader funding than this since it reads "based on" SBRR and not something more restrictive like "having its own program-specific" [SBRR]. Now Bob Slavin thinks the line should have been drawn here, but Slavin is an interested party that would reaped a financial windfall had the line been drawn here. I've been going back and forth with Dean Millot, both in private correspondance and on his blog, about this issue. Dean thinks this is where the line should have been drawn, but has been unable to convince me that his interpretation is proper. I will go so far to say that this is where I wish the line were drawn, but the statutory language precludes such a strict interpretation. Moreover, no one involved in the drafting of the law has gone on record and said that this is the proper interpretation of the statute. If anything, those members of Congress who have made statements appear to be of the opinion that the funding should have been widely distributed.
2. Funding limited to phonics-based programs having decodable texts. In my opinion, this is the most likely place that the funding line should have been drawn based on the statutory language. In fact, this is where DoE thought the line was drawn and was the distinguishing point at which they excluded programs from funding. All the major publishers must have thought that this was where the line was drawn as well sicne they all developed new phonics-based reading programs. Publishers were also trying no make their balanced literacy programs appear to be phonics-based by including a phonics component. these programs were rightfully sent packing by DoE since the research shows that a phonics component won't do the trick; it has to be a phonics component plus complementary decodable texts. In any event, this is where the main battle line was drawn and where much of the behind-the-scenes fighting took place. A few questionable reading programs appear to have been funded, but it appears that those programs snuck by with the help of ideologues at the state level that did whatever they could to obscure the reading programs they intended to fund on their Reading First applications. It also appears that DoE was fearful about violating the prohibition against mandating curricula and capitulated to the demands of some of the more aggressive states that wanted to fund balanced literacy programs. The facts also indicate that DoE did what they could to make sure as few non-phonics-based reading programs as possible.
3. Funding not limited; all reading programs funded. This is not a reasonable reading of the statute, but some members of Congress and the Inspector General believe that some reading programs were unfairly excluded from funding. Given that DoE pretty much funded all the phonics-based reading programs, this would mean that all reading programs were fundable for some to be unfairly excluded. This is a ridiculous interpretation, by any standard, but it appears to be the standard that the IG used in finding in its reports. And, those reports were parroted by various Democratic congressmen for partisan ends -- just in case you think your congressman is more concerned with making sure "at-risk" are properly taught with federal dollars than throwing them under the bus when political gains could be made.
With this background in mind, you can read any Reading First media story, any congressional press release, or any of the IG reports and make a fair evaluation of what actually went on. Did DoE violate the law?
We don't know for sure. The IG didn't find any actual violations in which a program was improperly excluded, was improperly include, or in which anyone in a position to make a funding decision made one that benefited him or herself.
At most, DoE played fast and loose with the law and regulations in an effort to maintain as much control over the process as possible. That activity was technically improper by an reasonable standard even if DoE thought they needed the control to fend off hostile publishers and states that were trying to get funded improperly. The conditions appear to be in place for violations to have occurred, but oddly, the IG failed to find any actual violations.
But that's for you to decide. If you find an actual violation let me know.