Reading First:

States Report Improvements in Reading Instruction, but Additional Procedures Would Clarify Education's Role in Ensuring Proper Implementation by States

GAO-07-161: Published: Feb 28, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 23, 2007.

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The Reading First program was designed to help students in kindergarten through third grade develop stronger reading skills. This report examines the implementation of the Reading First program, including (1) changes that have occurred to reading instruction; (2) criteria states have used to award sub-grants to districts, and the difficulties, if any, states faced during implementation; and (3) the guidance, assistance, and oversight the Department of Education (Education) provides states. GAO's study is designed to complement several studies by Education's Inspector General (IG) in order to provide a national perspective on some of the specific issues being studied by the IG. For this report, GAO administered a Web-based survey to 50 states and the District of Columbia, and conducted site visits and interviews with federal, state, and local education officials and providers of reading programs and assessments.

States reported that there have been a number of changes to, as well as improvements in, reading instruction since the implementation of Reading First. These included an increased emphasis on the five key components of reading (awareness of individual sounds, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension), assessments, and professional development with more classroom time being devoted to reading activities. However, according to publishers we interviewed, there have been limited changes to instructional material. Similarly, states report that few changes occurred with regard to their approved reading lists. States awarded Reading First sub-grants using a variety of different eligibility and award criteria, and some states reported difficulties with implementing key aspects of the program. After applying federal and state eligibility and award criteria, Education reported that over 3,400 districts were eligible to apply for sub-grants in the states' first school year of funding. Of these districts, nearly 2,100 applied for and nearly 1,200 districts received Reading First funding. Education officials made a variety of resources available to states during the application and implementation processes, and states were generally satisfied with the guidance and assistance they received. However, Education developed no written policies and procedures to guide Education officials and contractors in their interactions with state officials and guard against officials mandating or directing states' decisions about reading programs or assessments, which is prohibited by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) and other laws. Based on survey results, some state officials reported receiving suggestions from Education officials or contractors to adopt or eliminate certain reading programs or assessments. Similarly, the IG reported in September 2006 that the Department intervened to influence a state's and several school districts' selection of reading programs. In addition, while Education officials laid out an ambitious plan for annual monitoring of every state's implementation, they did not develop written procedures guiding monitoring visits and, as a result, states did not always understand monitoring procedures, timelines, and expectations for taking corrective actions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Education agreed with this recommendation and reported that it took the following actions to address it: 1) issued a memorandum to all senior officers in February 2007, and communicated to all staff, on factors they should take into account to strengthen the management and administration of its programs; and (2) began to provide all Department staff with extensive training on the standards for internal controls, similar to existing annual training requirements for ethics as of May 2007. In addition to the activities described above, Education issued additional guidance to Reading First staff related to prohibitions on mandating or directing curriculum and instruction. However, Education had not set up a process to help ensure the guidance was followed as of October 2008. In addition, Congress phased out the funding for the Reading First program FY 2009 budget.

    Recommendation: In addition to addressing the Inspector General's recommendations to develop internal (1) policies and procedures to guide program managers on when to solicit advice from General Counsel and (2) guidance on the prohibitions imposed by section 103(b) of the Department of Education Organizing Act (DEOA) and in order to ensure that the department complies with statutory prohibitions against directing, mandating, or endorsing state and local curricular decisions, the Secretary of Education should also establish control procedures to guide departmental officials and contractors in their interactions with states, districts, and schools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education agreed with this recommendation and reported it took the following actions to address it: 1) developed and disseminated a new monitoring protocol for both the state education agency and the local education agency that includes a time line to help clarify expectations during the monitoring process; (2) established new guidance on the monitoring plan clarifying states' rights and responsibilities.

    Recommendation: To help the department conduct effective monitoring of the Reading First program, the Secretary of Education should establish and disseminate clear procedures governing the Reading First monitoring process. In particular, Education should delineate states' rights and responsibilities and establish timelines and procedures for addressing findings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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