A Closer Look at the President's Budget: Early Literacy Grants
On May 7 the Office of Management and Budget released the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2010. As Early Ed Watch reported at the time, that budget includes funding for several new early education programs, including Title I Early Childhood Grants, Early Learning Challenge Fund, Early Literacy Grants, and Home Visitation. Previous installments have considered Title I Early Childhood Grants and the Early Learning Challenge Fund. Today we turn our attention to Early Literacy Grants.
The President’s fiscal year 2010 budget proposal for the Department of Education includes $300 million in funding for a new program of Early Literacy Grants. This proposed program would provide grants to school districts to implement strategies to improve the literacy skills of children in the early elementary school grades.
From fiscal years 2002 through 2008, the Reading First program provided funding for scientifically-based early literacy programs. But Congress eliminated funding for Reading First in fiscal year 2009, in response to complaints about the program’s management and an
Under the proposal, Early Literacy Grants program would be funded out of the existing Striving Readers account. The Department of Education would make competitive grants directly to local educational agencies (LEAs). LEAs would apply for funds on behalf of schools in the LEA that are eligible for Title I schoolwide programs and have a substantial number of students reading or at-risk of reading below grade level.
Local educational agencies that receive Early Literacy Grants would be able to implement a variety of strategies to improve children’s literacy and reading comprehension. As with Reading First, these efforts must reflect the five components of effective reading instruction, as identified by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. In addition, initiatives must place a particular emphasis on reading comprehension, vocabulary development, oral language fluency, and writing skills. Grantees would be required to use funds for activities similar to those required under Reading First: implementing an evidence-based reading curriculum; using formative, diagnostic, and outcome assessments to track student progress; providing high-quality professional development; and supporting reading interventions for students who need additional help.
We’re pleased to see the administration seeking to restore funding for early literacy programs. Learning to read and write proficiently is perhaps the most important goal for the early elementary school years, because literacy is the key that opens the door for all future learning. Evidence shows that whether or not students can read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade is a very strong predictor of later educational success or failure. Yet a staggeringly high percentage of our youngsters—especially low-income children and those from racial and ethnic minorities—arrive in 4th grade without the skills to read proficiently. Only 33 percent of 4th graders can read at grade level, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and one-third of 4th graders are not even reading at a “basic” level.
Since 1998, the federal government has provided funding to states and school districts specifically to support early literacy programs, first through the Reading Excellence Act and then through Reading First. Regardless of one’s views on Reading First generally, it is clear that some states and school districts have used the program’s funds effectively to implement reforms and research-based approaches that are improving students’ reading achievement. Eliminating those funds—particularly in the current state fiscal climate—has negatively impacted efforts to help young children read proficiently by 3rd grade. Restoring dedicated federal funding for early literacy is the right thing for the administration and Congress to do.
Moreover, we’re pleased to see that the administration’s proposal for the Early Literacy Grants maintains a commitment to the National Reading Panel’s five components of effective reading instruction. We’ve been concerned that the last few years’ disputes over Reading First had the potential to reopen the so-called “reading wars.” By maintaining commitment to the consensus created by the National Reading Panel, we hope that the administration can avoid that.
Finally, we’re very pleased that the administration’s proposal would not only allow but encourage school districts to use Early Literacy Funds to support effective literacy strategies in pre-k, as well as in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Reading First funds were restricted only to children in grades K-3rd, and as a result elementary schools that serve pre-k students could not use Reading First funds to implement an aligned reading curriculum across the PreK-3rd continuum, or to deploy Reading First-funded literacy coaches to help pre-k teachers improve the quality of literacy supports in their classrooms. That was dumb. Two years ago, we proposed expanding Reading First funding to serve children in grades PreK-3rd, and we’re glad to see that recommendation incorporated into the administration’s proposals here.
That said, we do have some concerns about the Early Literacy Grants proposal. First, while we’re all for strengthening students’ reading comprehension, we’re very concerned that the program’s emphasis on reading comprehension could lead many schools to devote excessive time to teaching so-called “comprehension strategies.” Research shows that teaching students comprehension strategies—find the main idea, identify the author’s purpose, monitor comprehension, summarize—provides a one-time, significant boost in children’s reading comprehension skills, but that repeated instruction focused on reading comprehension strategies does not add additional value. Moreover, there is very little evidence that teaching comprehension strategies makes much difference before 3rd grade. There’s already some reason to believe that elementary school teachers currently spend more than the optimal amount of time instructing children in comprehension strategies—especially since questions related to comprehension strategies: “What is the main idea in this paragraph?” “Identify the author’s purpose” play a major role on many states’ reading/language arts assessments. (Linda Perlstein’s book Tested, for all its faults, does illustrate the ridiculousness, and wastefulness, of constantly drilling students in reading strategies.)
The administration says that the Early Literacy Grants program will allow school districts to “test a variety of strategies designed to improve children’s reading comprehension,” but we’re fearful that without strong guidance about effective ways to strengthen children’s comprehension, this could mean that schools just waste a lot more time on reading strategies drills. That would be both unproductive and really unpleasant for children.
As we’ve written here before, and as Daniel Willingham compellingly argues here, the best way to strengthen children’s ability to comprehend what they read is to expose them to rich and diverse content across various domains, so that they have the general knowledge to easily understand written passages on a wide variety of topics. That requires less time spent drilling comprehension strategies, and more time reading a variety of texts (especially non-fiction), and studying science, social studies, music, and the arts. If this program can help school districts move in that direction—while also maintaining a focus on strengthening students’ decoding skills and helping them gain fluency and vocabulary—that could be a really good thing.
Oh, what the heck, we really wanted an excuse to post Dan's excellent video one more time: