From Local Control to Government and Corporate Takeover of School Curriculum:

[Reprinted with author's permision from Critical Issues in American Educationedited by Svi Shapiro and David E. Purpel, Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates, Mahweh, N.J. and London, 2005]

The No Child Left Behind Act and the ‘Reading First’ program.

Harold Berlak


The No Child Left Behind Act signed into law in January 2002 by George W. Bush is the latest chapter in a historical conflict between business efforts to shape public education so that it serves their best interests, and the struggles by democratic movements to resist corporate control and create and sustain public schools that serve children’s best interests and strengthen democracy.

This essay is in two parts. Part one is a history and analysis of the radical shift in federal educational policy over the last 40 years, a shift that fundamentally altered the balance of power --from a time when local educational authorities, principals, teachers, teacher educators exerted considerable influence over the curriculum and learning process, to today when federal and state governments together with mainline cor-porations and numerous corporate funded think tanks, foundations, and NGOs such as the Business Roundtable , the Broad Foundation and the Education Trust are the dominant force.

The second part focuses on a new federal program included in Title I of the No Left Behind Act called ‘Reading First. It exemplifies how federal and state government together with major business interests exercise cultural control over schooling by controlling how basic reading is taught to the nation’s children. The essay concludes with a set of questions that ought to be asked by the public, parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders about the teaching of reading in their own communities.


The Route to Federal and Corporate Dominance

On October 4, 1957, the belief in U.S. invincibility was shattered when Soviet scientists put Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit. Not much larger than a basketball, it was visible to the naked eye as it circled the earth, and quickly became a living symbol of the former Soviet Union’s scientific and technological prowess, and of the failures of America’s own unfortunately named space program, ‘Vanguard’.  The launch of Sputnik inflicted more than a psychic wound; it was taken as threat to the survival of the US.  Time Magazine reflecting the temper of the times noted the following week that if the Soviets had rockets powerful enough to launch a 184.3 pound satellite into orbit, they were capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the US heartland. The New York Times response was a series of articles suggesting that among the primary reasons for the US losing the ‘race to space’ was the failure of the federal government to invest in tech- nical and scientific education.

Over the next thirty or so years of the Cold War, real and imagined threats from the Soviet Union profoundly changed the political, social, and economic life and the cultural landscape of the American nation, including its educational policies and practices. Less than a year after the Sputnik launch, Congress passed NDEA, the National Defense Education Act. This legislation was the first in a series of legislative moves that turned on its head a foundational assumption of US democracy since Colonial times  —that schooling of the young was to be a strictly local affair, and pedagogical and curricular decisions were to be left to teachers, principals, districts, and locally elected governing boards. There was no cabinet level federal office of education nor was there much federal support for pre-collegiate education. State governments rarely intruded on what were then presumed to be local district and school-level prerogatives.  

There were exceptions notably the textbook adoption states, including California, Texas and the former Confederate states where local school and district curriculum and pedagogical choices were constrained by a list of state approved texts districts and schools were permitted to purchase with state funds.  Many states also published so-called curriculum ‘frameworks’ or ‘guidelines’. However, books and other materials that departed from the mandated state texts and curriculum frameworks could be purchased using local and in many cases state funds. Teachers, committees of teachers, and local officials made these curriculum choices. The states’ curriculum prescriptions were frequently ignored. State education departments often lacked the legal mandates or the bureaucratic apparatus required for enforcing the curriculum mandates.

NDEA aimed to shape local educational priorities in science education, technology mathematics, and modern foreign language, areas considered critical for defeating the communist menace and defending democracy. NDEA also channeled funds into schools, and colleges for interdisciplinary area studies, language development, teacher education, school counseling, libraries, educational media, and for guaranteed low-interest student loans.  In spite of President Eisenhower’s lukewarm support, the bill breezed through Congress with bipartisan support including from the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who two years later became president, and from Senator Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican icon from Arizona who was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election.  Among the few in opposition was Senator Strom Thurmond, the hardcore states’ rights segregationist from South Carolina who opined (correctly as it turned out) that NDEA marked the beginning of end of the sacred principles of states rights and local control of schools.

To address these concerns about local control, the following restriction was incorporated into NDEA. ‘Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize any agency or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution or school system.’  There was also built into the act another protection against greater centralization of state authority. Federal funds flowed directly from the federal government to the local institution and/or local jurisdiction, bypassing the states’ educational bureaucracies.

Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency upon Kennedy’s assassination and was elected to a full term as president in 1964. Though Kennedy is often remembered as the consummate politician, at the time of his assassination little of his highly acclaimed ‘New Frontier’ program had made it through Congress. Johnson, a former senator from Texas and Democratic majority leader, was able to navigate an extraordinary number of highly controversial bills through a Congress stalemated by an alliance between Southern Democrats, who bitterly opposed voting rights and school desegregation, and Senate Republicans. Major pieces of legislation were passed creating educational and job opportunities, protecting voting, civil, and workers’ rights, the environment, occupational and public health. Under Johnson the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act became law, a federal agency, the Commission on Civil Rights, was granted the power to enforce its provisions and ‘affirmative action’ was first advanced as a legitimate remedy for past and current injustices. This collection of programs and initiatives promoting civil rights and social justice Johnson called ‘The Great Society’. 

In 1965 Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Act, or ESEA , that replaced NDEA as the most important federal legislation authorizing expenditures for elementary and secondary schools and teacher education. It was the centerpiece of the Great Society plan to increase educational opportunities for children of the poor who were designated by the legislation as ‘disadvantaged’.  As with NDEA, prohibitions designed to preserve local control were written into ESEA.  The federal government was forbidden to intervene in local school policies, in local pedagogical and curriculum decisions, and ESEA funds flowed directly from the federal government to the local institutions or jurisdictions in effect diluting the authority of state officials and state departments of education.

ESEA was passed at about the same time that Lyndon Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War and when public resistance to the war was widespread and growing. The anti-war, civil rights and Black power movements were giving birth to the Cultural Revolution of the sixties and early seventies.  A youthful, countercultural movement then called the ‘New Left’ openly questioned the power structure, basic cultural values, and attitudes, and challenged sexual orthodoxies. The feminist movement was reborn with calls for abortion rights, political and economic equality for women.  Other identity movements --La Raza, Native and Asian American, Latino, gay rights movements, emerged challenging corporate and white male dominance of the political process, the culture, and the economy.

Demands for political and economic democracy extended to public schools. There were calls for forms of teaching and learning that stimulate student creativity, develop imagination and critical thinking, teach democratic values, and encourage active participation in the political process. These were coupled with calls for more direct community, parent, and student participation in decision making, for Black and women’s studies, and for an inclusive multicultural curriculum that acknowledges the role of non-European cultures and women in the formation of American society and culture.

As the decade of the sixties came to a close, the costs of the war in terms of dollars and American lives overshadowed all other public issues. Vietnam turned into a quagmire that in time destroyed the Johnson presidency, and talk of the War on Poverty and equality of opportunity largely disappeared from the American political scene. Guns once again triumphed over butter.  While a number of Great Society programs including ESEA were enacted and survived, they were rarely funded at levels that had any hope of achieving the Great Society promises.

ESEA has been reauthorized every five to seven years since 1965. Over time it has been amended and its scope broadened. In 2001 it was rewritten by the Bush Administration to advance a right wing education agenda, and renamed the ‘The No Child Left Behind Act’ (NCLB).  The act authorizes the vast majority of federal K–12 education programs including Indian education, teacher training, Head Start, early literacy, school libraries, bilingual education, technology, and school safety. Title I remains the flagship of the act.  In 2003 Title I granted $11.7 billion in federal funds to schools that serve low income children, 64 percent of whom are students of color, in approximately 47,000, nearly half of the nation’s public schools.

Though federal dollars account for about    7 % of the nation’s expenditures for elementary and secondary education, the lowest percentage among the developed democratic nations, these dollars have an enormous clout, particularly in times when states are in budget crisis --as most are.  The federal hand rests especially heavy on schools and districts that depend most heavily on ESEA funds, those that serve communities with high proportions of poor children, African-American, Latino, and/or immigrants for whom English is a second language.

NDEA and ESEA brought federal dollars and federal oversight to the schools. While federal funds clearly skewed local priorities, there was not until the late eighties an effort to impose federal control over the content of the curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning.  A large measure of control of curriculum content and teaching methods remained with schools and teachers. 

By 2003 only vestiges of local control remain. Virtually all federal education grants now arrive with many strings. Once a school, district, or state accepts federal dollars, the Bush Administration claims the right to override state, and local school curriculum decisions. The tentacles of federal authorities extend far beyond the curriculum. A provision of the act requires, for example, that schools receiving any Title I funds must provide assurances that they employ only  ‘highly qualified’ teachers, and teacher education programs conducted by colleges and universities and other institutions must also conform to what a federal panel considers ‘highly qualified’.  The federal government in effect has assumed the power to standardize the teacher education curriculum, fundamentally change existing teacher education programs, and overide state teacher credentialing laws.

The second section of this paper focuses on the new Title I program, Reading First, as a case in point of how federal and corporate power in 2003 is exercised over the teaching of early reading in the nation’s classrooms.

How did the U.S, where local control and democracy are celebrated, come to a place where federal government can exert so much control over the nation’s schools?  The explanation for this historic turnaround is found in the cultural changes and the political developments that accompanied and followed in the wake of the Vietnam War, and the response to these changes by those who hold political and economic power. 

The social justice, liberation and identity movements of the sixties provoked a cultural and political backlash. Corporate America feared the growing influence of the peace, countercultural, liberation, environmental and consumer protection movements on American politics. It is uncontestable that large corporations have the most to lose by democratization of American politics and a government that actively protects the public interest.  Many if not most liberals put off by ‘identity politics’, feminism, and affirmative action abandoned social democracy along with the Great Society and shifted to the right. Christian fundamentalists considered the sixties a moral assault by the godless left on their most cherished values and beliefs about family, sexuality, and country. By the late seventies the far right had gained full control of the Republican Party and in 1980 chose former California Governor Ronald Reagan as its candidate for President.

Reagan was elected espousing the virtues of individualism, small government, low taxes, restoration of family values and national pride.  He vowed to dismantle the Department of Education as a cabinet level agency and return control of education to the states and the American people.  As president he showed almost no interest in public education and during his eight year tenure introduced no significant federal legislation.

During Reagan’s presidency, however, the movement that led to centralized government, curriculum control and national testing was launched by his first Secretary of Education Terrel Bell.  With nominal support by Reagan, Bell commissioned what he called the ‘National Commission on Excellence in Education.’   Bell, a former Utah chief state education officer and a onetime superintendent of public schools, though thoroughly conservative on social and educational issues, was not an extreme right winger, nor a strong partisan for corporate interests. The eighteen member Commission he appointed included several public school educators, superintendents of schools, principals, three college presidents, two distinguished academics, several state and local education officials, one former governor and a single teacher. A retired Chairman of the Board of Bell Laboratories was the sole member with corporate credentials.

In 1982 the Commission produced a twenty-nine report called A Nation at Risk.  In words intended to shock it declared:

 Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility….

[T]he foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments…If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

This overwrought rhetoric with its military metaphors preceded a set of rather unremarkable recommendations that were rarely cited and soon forgotten The report would likely have been ignored had it not been for its overheated rhetoric and the fact that nation was in the depths of its severest economic crisis since the 1930’s.  The report named the schools as the chief culprit for the failures of economy, affirmed conservative educational values and called for a new commitment to excellence and the ‘basics.’ There was, however, no mention of vouchers, privatization of schools, public funds for religious schools, national standards or national testing. The report in fact affirmed that education was primarily local concern, and the federal government had a supportive role to play in providing for the needs of  ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged, students of color, language minority, and the handicapped’ and for ‘protecting constitutional and civil rights of students and school personnel’ [1]  

A Nation at Risk offered no general prescriptions for national policy and made no grand recommendations for federal legislative action.  It also had almost no effect on school governance or curriculum. The report however accomplished two things.  First it made education a national issue by linking school reform to the health of the national economy. Second, it introduced the language of excellence, and high standards into the language of school reform.

A Nation at Risk unleashed a torrent of other reports by all the major think tanks and foundations, national professional educational associations, advocacy groups, the national associations of governors, and chief state educational officers. Virtually all invoked the language of excellence and accepted without question the view that the first and central purpose of schooling is to serve the economy, which was usually taken as synonymous with serving US corporate needs and interests.   At the time the media compared the US’s economic stagnation with Japan’s miracle of double-digit growth. The implication was that Japan’s success was explained by its educational system with its no nonsense emphasis on discipline and mastery of the basics, as compared to US schools which had lost their way during the sixties in the pursuit of unattainable and unwise progressive social goals. 

Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H. Bush attempted to capitalize on A Nation at Risk’s link between school reform and the economy.  He proposed the first radical shift in the relationship of the federal government to states and local schools in the nation’s history. During his campaign, Bush had been portrayed by the press as experienced in foreign policy, but lacking background and interest in domestic policy.  His campaign manager, the former Republican governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, urged Bush to make education his issue. Bush pledged to become the ‘Education President’.  After his election Lamar Alexander, who had a reputation as an educational reformer, was named Secretary of Education.  Alexander had worked closely with fellow Southern governor Bill Clinton on a committee of the National Governors Association that was convened to respond to A Nation at Risk’s call for educational reform.  The two were among the chief authors of a report, Time for Results, which urged national goals and standards.

In September 1989 Secretary Alexander, together with Governor Bill Clinton assembled the first national ‘Education Summit’ in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was cosponsored by the National Governors Association and co-chaired by Clinton.  In attendance were governors, state and federal legislators, chief state education officers and several CEO’s of major corporations who were also among the leaders of the Business Roundtable (BRT).   BRT is a national organization with branches in every state. On its governing board sit the CEO’s of the Nation’s 219 largest corporations. The avowed purpose of the BRT is to speak with one voice on a wide variety of public issues including public education.  It is important to note whose voices were missing  --scholars, researchers, parents, local educational officials, local labor and community leaders, practicing local school administrators and teachers. [2]

The Summit took a position on reforming public schools that is indistinguishable from the positions adopted that same year by the BRT and National Governor’s Association: that standardized curriculum content standards tied to centralized testing and sanctions is the key to school reform.  The Summit formed a ‘National Goals Panel’ and adopted six National Education Goals designed ‘to guide reform of the nation’s schools.’ by setting ‘high standards’, and recommended that Congress authorize a panel to advise on ‘the desirability and feasibility of national standards and tests.’ Alexander subsequently assembled a thirty member ‘National Council on Education Standards and Testing’ co-chaired by a Republican and a Democratic governor.

At a Washington press conference in January 1992, the Council announced publication of Raising Standards for American Education: a report to the Congress and the American People.  Its chief recommendation was preordained: install national testing tied to standards.  The word ‘standards’ took on a particular meaning in the report.  These are not broadly stated principles or guidelines but detailed prescriptions of curriculum content that all students are expected to master K-12.  These ‘content standards’ were in fact the same as what had previously been called curriculum ‘frameworks’ or ‘guidelines’. The important difference is that federal and state government was now prepared to use its bureaucratic power to force compliance to its mandates.

The report anticipated and made an effort to deflect the argument that national testing is an assault on state and local control by asserting that its plan for testing was ‘national’ but not ‘federal’ and was voluntary’ because the report claims states are under no obligation to join the program. The claim that national testing is not compulsory is disingenuous. Most states are in no position to forgo 7% of their annual public school budgets. Once states sign on to the program they are required to adopt content standards linked to tests and districts, schools; teachers, and students have no choice but to comply belying the claim that national testing does not infringe on local prerogatives.  

G.H. Bush incorporated the key testing recommendations of the Raising Standards For American Education report into a legislative proposal he named America 2000.  His reign as education president came to an abrupt end, when the key national testing proposals of the bill were blocked in the education committee of the House by the Black Caucus and a coalition of civil rights, children’s and fair testing advocates. 

As president Clinton resurrected the Bush / Alexander plan repackaged and renamed it Goals 2000: The Educate America Act. It included a revised version of the six National Educational Goals adopted at the 1989 Summit.  Several parts of Clinton’s proposal were signed into law in the spring of 1995.  Federal funds were allocated to develop ‘content standards’ and states and schools were eligible for Goals 2000 grants on the condition that they develop content standards linked to testing. But Clinton’s key proposal for national testing in math and reading for the 4th and 8th grades was eliminated from the bill by an odd alliance of progressive Democrats and far right wing Republicans led by the then senator John Ashcroft.

It was George W. Bush who finally managed get though Congress a much revised version of national testing first proposed by his father. Along with other changes, national testing was incorporated into the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 reauthorization of ESEA.


Teaching Reading and

‘Reading First’

Controversies over reading curriculum
When the words ‘literacy’ or ‘fundamentals’ are introduced into conversation, what come immediately to mind are not math, geography, history, or the arts, but reading. It is difficult to exaggerate the cultural and political significance of how reading is taught in the early grades. Reading is important not only for the obvious reasons that it is crucial for survival in daily life and for success at school, but also for the less obvious reasons that how basic reading is taught sets the tone of a school, and shapes the entire primary school curriculum, as well as students’ cultural beliefs, and basic attitudes toward learning and knowledge --including how they perceive their own intellectual capacities and potential. 

Controversies over approaches to teaching reading are not new. They persist over time because they are deeply rooted in profound differences in basic cultural and political beliefs and values about what children can and should read; about the importance of race, gender, culture and language differences in the selection of content and teaching methods; and about the role schools should play fostering cultural diversity and democracy.  

There are three identifiable approaches to teaching of reading in U.S. schools:

Direct phonics instruction. According to the National Reading Panel (which is described below) there are two aspects to direct phonics instruction (1) systematic acquisition of a sequence of discrete phonic skills and (2) their application to reading. [3]   The assumption of a systematic phonics-based approach is that all students need direct instruction in a pre-determined sequence of letter / sound relationships. Racial, cultural differences and differences in home language are seen as relatively unimportant.

Whole language (also referred to as a literature -based,’ or constructivist) approach emphasizes the importance of learning from context, and drawing upon learners’ previous experience and their capacity to use visual and textual clues. The assumption is that most children bought up in print rich communities grasp the elements of phonics  – the association of spoken language with alphabetic symbols-- from their daily life, their active experience with books, and conversations about books with peers and adults. This approach usually employs systematic phonics instruction, but rejects the idea that all children must master a fixed sequence of discrete phonetic skills before they are capable of reading ‘real’ books.

A Critical literacy emphasis requires children to go beyond taking meaning from print, to develop the capacity to become critical of experience and the texts they read, and to learn to observe and make critical judgments on both the texts they read and the world around them. There is no fine line between critical literacy and whole language perspectives; both stress the need for children to compose their own texts, to raise questions, to attend to differences in situation and context, and to connect texts with lived experience. Both assume that race, culture, language, and prior experience matter in the choice of curriculum materials and classroom activities. What distinguishes whole language from critical literacy is the latter’s emphasis on democratic education --preparing students to become actively engaged in the social and political life in their communities advancing  democracy and social justice.

Many variations of these three emphases coexist today, sometimes within a single school. Some version of direct phonics instruction is the most commonly used approach in U.S. classrooms and becoming more common as Reading First programs are adopted.  Though fully developed ‘whole language’ reading and writing programs are few; curriculum and methods associated with this approach are nevertheless widely used and accepted.  Aspects of a critical literacy approach exist in schools, but living examples of such practices in the US are confined to a relatively small number of independent progressive schools, and within some alternative public schools, special programs, and charter schools.

For many years liberals and conservatives alike assumed that despite these deep divisions, the choice of teaching methods and materials was a local matter, left to teachers and educators at the school and district levels.  Today, if schools and districts are to receive Title I funds, they must be prepared to accept federal controls over reading curriculum and methods. Reading First in effect federalizes curriculum decisions transferring control from local boards, communities, and teachers, to a state and/or federal government authority. The act ‘s testing pro-visions and its Reading First program have a major impact on how schools teach reading

Reading First’
Reading First
was modeled on a program that was introduced in Texas by G.W. Bush when he was governor. It was incorporated into NCLB based on a presumption that a highly structured phonics approach would ensure that every child will read by the third grade.  It provides substantial federal grants to improve reading instruction [4] with the condition that the teaching materials, books, assessments, and professional development must be grounded in ‘scientifically-based’ research, a term that appears at least 111 times in the text of the NCLB Act.  What this means in practice is that a federal panel and the Department and the Secretary of Education must certify that the approach to teaching reading, and the professional training offered to teachers are all ‘scientifically-based.’ that is to say consistent with what the Bush administration claims are the findings of the 2000 National Reading Panel report.

What are the grounds for the Bush Administration’s claim that systematic direct phonics instruction is the only  scientifically based’ approach to teaching reading ? 

In 1997, Congress authorized the creation of a National Reading Panel (NRP) whose charge was to identify best practices in reading instruction. The panel was appointed by the director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (a part of NIH, the National Institute of Health) in consultation with the Secretary of Education. The chief of the branch that commissioned the NRP report was G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D.  Lyon, a specialist  in learning disabilities and self-proclaimed reading expert, is a long time advocate for direct, sequential, phonics instruction and has served as Bush’s educational advisor on reading instruction since his days as governor.  He had testified to a congressional committee in 1997, prior to the appointment of the Reading Panel that science has definitively proven the superiority of direct phonics instruction in early reading.

Congress mandated that the National Reading Panel be composed of  ‘leading scientists in reading research, representatives of colleges of education, reading teachers, education administrators, and parents.’ In fact, there were 12 university professors, eight of them academics in several areas, but none who questioned G, Reid Lyon’s narrow perspective on educational and social scientific research.  One person represented parents, and there were no teachers of early reading.  There was a middle school teacher and one principal, Joanne Yatvin, [5] a former teacher and the only panel member who openly held a different perspective on early reading instruction. When the report of the National Reading Panel was released in April 2000, Ms. Yatvin refused to sign, charging that the Panel had deliberately misrepresented the evidence they did examine, and contrary perspectives on reading and reading research and literacy were systematically excluded. [6]

The NRP report was released in April 2000, together with a 32 page summary booklet and according to the news release, a video ‘ideal for parents, teachers, and anyone concerned about reading instruction and how to better teach children to read.’  Secretary Paige cited the findings of the National Reading Panel as the ‘scientific foundation’ of the Reading First program. [7]

What did the National Reading Panel Report Conclude?

Grand claims about what science says should be greeted with skepticism, particularly in an area as complex and contentious as reading, where there are vested interests within and outside of government, billions of dollars in products and services at stake, and deeply held ideological and cultural differences with respect to child development, learning, teaching, and the purposes of public education.  

Although government sources and the Secretary of Education repeatedly claim the NRP report proved that structured phonics instruction is scientific and beyond question, a reading of the full NRP Report reveals that this claim is false. Though the Panel was heavily weighted to favor direct phonics instruction, an unequivocal endorsement of heavy phonics is nowhere to be found in the report.  The 32 page government summary of the NRP report in one place reads, ‘Teachers must understand that systematic phonics instruction is only one component—albeit a necessary component—of a total reading program…’ [8] The full Report which runs over 500 pages includes numerous caveats against heavy-handed emphasis on phonics drills. In several places the report urges ‘balance’ and increased opportunities for early readers to be ‘immersed in print’ and to have ready access to real books and quality literature. The official summary booklet reads ‘systematic phonics produces significant benefits for students kindergarten through sixth grade,’ blatantly contradicting the full report which states ‘there were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics with normally developing readers above first grade.’ [9]

Among the more alarming limitations of using the NRP Report and the official summary, as a guide to policy is that the panel chose to ignore a large body of research on reading and language that did not fit their criteria for what constitutes scientific research.  The panel restricted its analyses and conclusions to what is known as ‘experimental research’, that is research that assigns ‘subjects’ randomly to an  ‘experimental’ or to a ‘control’ group, and where all variables and outcomes are expressed and measured in quantitative terms. The NRP’s definition of scientific research eliminated most of the research on reading --studies of teaching of reading as it occurs in natural settings, virtually all the established forms of systematic observational and interview research, and most, if not all, quantitative and qualitative studies conducted by linguists, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, reading researchers, and cognitive, developmental, and clinical psychologists. 

Among the studies never considered were those that focused on the connections between writing and learning to read, student attitudes and motivation, and the impact of ‘print-rich’ and ‘print-poor’ social environments on learning to read. Ignored also were close-in interview and case studies of students with special developmental needs, qualitative longitudinal studies, research on the impact of race, racism, culture and language on early language acquisition and reading.  Finally, the panel failed to consider the gross inequities between rich and poor schools, the effects of the continuing failure to provide all children with the tools, human and material resources, necessary for learning. These include availability and quality of physical facilities, books, teaching materials, trained teachers, places to read, access to tutoring, and to well-provisioned school and public libraries. [10]

‘Reading First’ and NCLB Testing Provisions

To continue to receive Reading First funding, schools are required to show ‘Annual Yearly Progress’ (AYP) --the minimum gains in test scores as specified by government regulation, –in reading and math for grades three through eight and, beginning in 2005 tests for grades 10 to 12.  Each state has some latitude in choosing  its plan and procedures for setting content standards and statewide testing, but the state plan be deemed acceptable to federal authorities. 

Beginning in 2002-03 states must also participate in biennial National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading for fourth-and eighth-graders, and use the data to ‘…examine the relative rigor of state standards and assessments against a common metric.’ [11] According to the plan NAEP test scores will ultimately serve as the national standard for measuring teaching quality, students’ academic achievement; and for distributing rewards and applying sanctions.

NAEP are non-commercial standardized tests that the federal government administers to a national sample of students. NAEP currently does not provide scores for individual students or schools. NAEP results are released by the federal government to the public as a ‘report card’ on the nation’s public schools. Data are disaggregated by poverty, race or ethnicity, disability, and English proficiency.

The use of NAEP as the standard is problematic. The tests were never designed to be used for the purpose NCLB Act requires, [12] and the proficiency levels set by NAEP are arbitrary and set excessively high. On the 2000 NAEP reading assessment, for example, only 32% of U.S. fourth graders reached the ‘proficient’ level or above, but U.S. nine year olds in a 27 nation comparison ranked second. [13]   In addition, NAEP assessments are afflicted with the same  validity and reliability problems that plague the standardized tests now mandated by most states. Neither is correlated to actual academic performance nor have significant predictive value.

What is the effect of the act’s testing provisions that rely on standardized tests to measure reading proficiency? There is a large body of independent research that suggests that the negative consequences of NCLB testing policies far outweigh the presumed benefits, and that should these policies continue the effects will be devastating in terms of the quality of teaching and learning, increasing dropouts and the ‘achievement gap’. The best proponents can do is point to some very modest five to ten point gains in test scores, but the gains are predictably erratic and flatten over time. Nor is there any evidence that suggests that a few points gain in test scores translate to observable improvements in reading or school quality.   

The educational significance of shifts up and down of a few points on standardized tests will likely continue to be debated by policy makers, the public, and the press. However there is little dispute over the effects of government mandated testing on the quality and breadth of the school curriculum. The pressures to raise standardized test scores translate to increased time and resources devoted to test preparation. Whatever does not contribute directly to short-term gains in test scores –writing, literature, critical thinking, civic education,  interdisciplinary studies, the arts, physical education, and multicultural curriculum and bilingual education that are not add-ons, but integral to the entire curriculum– is marginalized.  Standardized curriculum and testing extinguishes unpopular and dissenting perspectives, discourages curriculum innovation and community initiatives to develop educational programs that serve students, community, and local needs.

Whole language and critical literacy approaches to reading and language instruction and professional development are under attack and being supplanted with programs federal officials view as  ‘scientifically-based’.  Schools under great pressure to raise test scores increasingly adopt commercially available packaged programs such as ‘Open Court’ and ‘Reading Mastery’ (formerly called DISTAR) and similar highly scripted programs that focus almost entirely on teaching children to read through an intense focus on phonics. Such programs are heavily promoted as meeting the ‘scientifically based’ requirement of the NCLB Act and therefore, it is assumed, consistent with the recommendations of the National Reading Panel report.  The term ‘scientifically based’ serves as a code word that indicates to state officials and local districts that the program is likely acceptable to federal officials and therefore fundable under the NCLB Act.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Paige, and Bush’s educational advisor G. Reid Lyon readily endorse the use of such highly structured programs even though the NRP report explicitly cautions against ‘phonics programs [that] present a fixed set of lessons scheduled from the beginning to end of the school year,’ and ‘the lack of flexibility and developmental and cultural appropriateness offered by commercial programs. [14]   (Italics added) The educational interests of all children –particularly those who are poor and of color– are compromised as decisions about testing and reading programs are made based on the political influence of major corporations including the highly concentrated textbook and test publishing industry.  Among Bush’s confidants and generous campaign contributors is Harold McGraw III, CEO of McGraw-Hill, which is the nation’s largest producer of standardized tests, school textbooks, and instructional materials, including two of the best known highly scripted phonics programs, Open Court and Reading Mastery.

Reading First’, testing, and the achievement gap.  

 There is nothing in the NRP Report to support the claim that a direct instruction phonics approach is effective with poor children or children of color, or that such programs will close the achievement gap. The reason, noted earlier, is that studies that focused on race, and culture, differences in learning styles and family income were eliminated on the grounds they did not meet the panel’s criteria for science. [15] . It is also indisputable that poor children and children of color are the first in line for a truncated, narrow curriculum because they are disproportionately in the lowest scoring schools. The highly prescriptive commercial packages greatly restrict the ability of schools and classroom teachers to use their own observations and judgment in selecting teaching materials and teaching methods that are responsive to individual, cultural, and language differences.

Standardized tests used by NCLB to assess reading progress serve as gatekeepers determining, for example, eligibility for promotion, access to advanced classes and special programs. The limitations of this form of assessment are especially troubling because standardized test disproportionately exclude students of color, the poor, and those not raised in standard English-speaking households. Because the technology of standardized tests inflates differences that often have little or no educational significance, and because there are no demonstrable connections between performance on a standardized reading test and real academic performance, the use of standardized testing to measure reading proficiency and assess school and teacher competence serves as a form of institutional racism.  

The No Left Behind Act and its Reading First program are defining examples of the social policies of the Bush presidency that serve corporate interests first, without a pretense that government is to serve as an arbiter or moderator between the corporate interest and the public interest. The federal government under Bush, father and son, and Clinton has become an unabashed advocate for the corporate educational agenda, and the use of governmental bureaucratic authority to impose its will.

Horace Mann, the 19th century educator considered the founding father of US public education, sought to convince business leaders of his day that a system of free public schools open to all was in their self interest. He also spoke of his vision of public education as ‘the great equalizer,’ and ‘the great balance wheel of the social machinery’ that would lead to the disappearance of poverty and with it the ‘rancorous discord between the haves and have-nots.‘ [16] The No Child Left Behind Act as currently written and enforced cannot and will not advance this vision of the common school. Rather the effect of the corporate and government alliance that produced the act is to impose a regressive and standardized view of culture, curriculum, learning, and knowledge that is inimical to a free society.

Democratic reforms of schooling cannot occur without adequate funding and restoring power to local communities, parents, teachers, and students. This requires legislative action to reverse the damage visited upon public education by the No Child Left Behind Act as well as other laws that regulate public education nationally and within each state. New legislation, state and federal, is essential to put an end to the use by government of standardized tests as the definitive measure of school quality, teacher effectiveness, and student achievement.

These changes cannot occur on their own. They will come about only in response to persistent pressure by national and local coalitions and tactical alliances that cut across political party, social class, racial, and even ideological lines. Many coalitions of citizens, students, teachers, parents, child advocates, civil liberties and civil rights leaders, and fair test advocates now exist. The resistance to current policies is growing and will continue to grow and become more militant and well organized as the pernicious effects of mandated testing and other No Child Left Behind provisions become evident.

As a nation we will continue differ profoundly on how schools ought to educate, what an educated person ought to know and how best to teach the young to read. In a democracy we cannot allow federal and state officials, government appointed boards and panels of experts remote from communities, classrooms and students to make these choices and thereby control our and our children’s futures


Citizens, parents, public officials, must continue to raise questions about how testing is being used and how reading is being taught in their local schools. These include:

1.   Does the reading program adequately address students’ developmental, learning, and cultural differences? What is or is the mix of approach(es) to beginning reading in the school.  Are there exceptions?  To what extent are teachers being required to follow a fixed sequence of instruction?  Is test preparation displacing writing, oral language, drama, and other aspects of a balanced reading and language program?

2.   Section 1905 of NCLB states the following. “Federal officials may not ‘mandate, direct, or control a state, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum or program of instruction.’ [17]   Is this provision to preserve local community control being violated in your local school or district?  Are parents and students told of their rights to waivers, exemptions, or modifications and accommodations in assessment practices?  Are teachers and counselors allowed to explore the options with parents?

3.   What are the claims being made about whether material and programs used are ‘scientifically based’?  Are these claims critically examined? Are there independent reviews of such claims?

4.   Are there adequate numbers of up-to-date texts, teaching materials, and school and public library collections? Are libraries accessible?  Are the required texts and book collections reflective of the backgrounds and cultures of the students?

5.   Are standardized tests being used as the only or primary measures of reading proficiency? Are the assessments used helpful to teachers and students?

6.     Is there an independent assessment of the effects of standardized testing programs and curriculum on school climate, student engagement in learning, dropout rates, teacher morale and turnover? [18]

©2003 Harold Berlak   v.1.0  10.Oct.03


Harold Berlak is an independent researcher, senior research fellow at the Applied Research Center in Oakland California and a fellow at the Educational Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University. He is a former teacher and teacher educator. He lives in Oakland, and can be reached at


[1]    A Nation At Risk. (1983)

[2] For an account of the role of the BRT in shaping federal state policy see unpublished dissertation Emery, K (2002) The Business Roundtable and Systemic Reform, University of California Davis.

[3] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Summary Booklet. (1999). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. p. 8

[4] This figure was $900 million for 2002, see the No Child Left Behind web site: Critic’s note that this amount does not represent additional funds, rather funds are taken from existing federal programs. Support for purchase of library books is one example. 

[5] Yatvin, J. (2002)  ‘Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel.’ Phi Delta Kappan, January. pp. 364-369.

[6] Coles, G. (2003). Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann 

Garan, E.M. (2002). Resisting reading mandates: How to triumph with the truth.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Metcalf, S. (2002,). Reading between the lines.  The Nation January, 28

[7] See

[8] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Summary Booklet. (1999). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. p.11,

[9] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Summary Booklet. p. 9.  Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Report of the Subgroups (1999). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. p.2-116

[10] For more detailed critique and analysis see Coles, op cit. Garan, op cit., Krashen, S. (2000) ‘More Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of NRP Report’ Phi Delta Kappan 83 (2)

[11] No Child Left Behind: A Desktop Reference. (2002).  Washington, DC: Office of the Undersecretary. Available at

[12] Linn, R. L (1998) Standards-Based Accountability: Ten Suggestions. Policy Paper. Center for Research in Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, General Accounting Office,

 Educational Achievement Standards: NAGB's Approach Yields Misleading Interpretations. (1993). Washington, DC: Author, June, Report GAO/PEMD-93-12;  National Academy of Sciences,

Grading the Nation's Report Card: Evaluating NAEP and Transforming the Assessment of Educational Progress. (1999). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Jones, L.V. (1997) National Tests of Educational Reform: Are They Compatible? Princeton, NJ: Policy Information Center, Educational Testing Service. Available at

[13] Bracey G. (2003).NCLB -A Plan for the Destruction of Public Education: Just Say ‘No’ February  Available online at

[14] , Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Report of the Subgroups.(1999). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. p. 2-97

[15] Coles, G.  op cit. Chapter 6 pp. 86-114

[16] p. 9, Cremin, L.A. (1962).  The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education, 1876-1957, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[17] Manzo, K.K. & Hoff, D.J. (2003). Federal influence over curriculum exhibits growth. Education Week, February 5. p.1.

[18]   I thank Ann Berlak for her careful critical reading and invaluable suggestions.