Don't fund dubious reading programs

Posted: Feb 23, 2001 12:00 AM
President Bush wants to spend $5 billion on federal literacy programs. Can you spell b-o-o-n-d-o-g-g-l-e? Fiscal and social conservatives should be up in arms over this left-of-Clinton proposal. Why allow the federal government to take money from homeschoolers, stay-at-home parents, and others who teach their kids to read on their own time, and give it to public schools that squander the funds on half-baked remedial reading programs? Not that it makes this redistributionist scheme any more palatable, but the Bush administration promises to support only "scientifically based reading instruction" programs that ensure all children are reading by the end of third grade. It's not a very reassuring pledge when you take a closer look at the program President Bush endorsed this week at the Moline Elementary School in St. Louis County, Mo. Bush selected Moline because it participates in the "Success for All" reading program. Launched in Baltimore in 1987, Success For All has spread to more than 1,800 schools -- including those in New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, Memphis, Tenn., Montgomery, Ala., Modesto, Calif., and Clarke County, Ga. Pupils are grouped by reading level rather than grade, and 90 minutes are set aside each day for reading. Success for All is billed by its founders as "one of the greatest success stories of educational research and reform." But the fine print doesn't support the claims. The "success" of Success For All has been documented in a number of studies by Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden of Johns Hopkins University, and by other researchers affiliated with their educational research center. Slavin also happens to be the reading program's co-developer, No. 1 cheerleader, and lead fund-raiser. Though bias can be overcome by well-designed, peer-reviewed research, the conflicts of interest and incentives to rig results are huge. Stanley Pogrow, an independent education researcher at the University of Arizona at Tucson, points out in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan that in 1999, "Slavin's research center, which was originally funded for $27 million, was re-funded for another five years for $36.5 million without competition." The center and a related foundation secured additional federal grants worth $23 million over the next five years, and sales of Success For All materials were projected to be $44 million in 2000. Pogrow concluded in a peer-reviewed study that Slavin misrepresented Success For All's achievements in Baltimore, the program's flagship district, by "selectively citing data from some of the tests used for a subset of students in 1 of the 1,100 schools that have been used in the program." University of Delaware researcher Richard Venezky concluded that "Not only is the average SFA student failing to reach grade-level performance by the end of grade three, but even with further SFA instruction, continues to fall farther behind national norms." Rebecca C. Greenberg and Herbert J. Walberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago concluded in a separately published journal article that "Contrary to the promise of its title and its expressed goal of at or near grade level performance, children participating in SFA fall increasingly behind national norms the longer they are in the program." In Florida's Dade and Putnam Counties, independent evaluations found no difference in academic performance -- or worse, lower test scores -- when comparing Success For All students with other students. San Antonio's SFA schools also found "no overall effect on school performance." New Jersey and Memphis reported similar results. Slavin and his supporters rebut critics by suggesting Success For All wasn't "implemented properly" -- and that success would be achieved if only they had more government funding. That's the same old junk-science racket education researchers have been playing for decades, resulting in the same old dismal failures. Pinellas Park Elementary School teacher Fred Roemer, a vocal skeptic of Success For All in Florida, told me this week that if President Bush "doesn't look carefully at the programs he's endorsing, it could be a big waste of money." The White House needs to do its homework. Success For All is a classic lesson in fiscal irresponsibility and educational malpractice.