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Resisting Reading First: Another Title I Teacher’s Story

October 18, 2010

Sarah Wagner is a reading instructor who worked as a Title I teacher and Reading First coordinator in her district. My deepest thanks to her for sharing her story, and for standing up for the best interests of children.

My mother was a teacher, her mother was a teacher, and my father served on the local school board for 28 years. So growing up, a typical discussion at our dinner table was teacher salary schedule increments. I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything besides a teacher. I graduated from college and got my first job in 1972. I have worked in every grade K-12, and I have served on the local school board. I stayed home with my four daughters for a few years, and I was very involved in their education. I have a Master’s degree in Elementary Education and a reading teacher license in my state.

In 2004, I took a job as a Title I teacher in a district that was implementing Reading First. I was not part of writing the grant, so I came in with no preconceived ideas.  However, I was in on the ground floor of implementation. I spent two years at this building and then went to another building in the district to be a Reading First Coordinator.

I first began to question the effectiveness of the program as we realized that students were not progressing, despite our hard work and adherence to the grant. I saw teachers losing their confidence, because they could tell it wasn’t working. A real tipping point for me was three years into the grant, when we were suddenly told that writing could not be part of the reading block. None of us had ever heard this before, and we were stunned. I tried to placate the teachers with the explanation given in Understanding and Implementing Reading First Initiatives. But “we didn’t have time to get to it” didn’t set well with the teachers, or with me.

In 2006, our state coordinator quit for no apparent reason. We liked her, and were very sad to see her go. Shortly thereafter, the Chris Doherty scandal broke. I was suspicious that these two events were connected. I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read books like Elaine Garan’s Resisting Reading Mandates and In Defense of Our Children, Susan Ohanian’s What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?, Gerald Cole’s Reading the Naked Truth,  and Frank Smith’s Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices. Our state reading association did an excellent job at bringing in speakers on the subject of Reading First. I heard Richard Allington, Joanne Yatvin, and Elaine Garan. In January 2008, I attended Elaine Garan’s presentation at our reading association convention and felt I now knew enough to start asking some pointed questions of the Reading First people. I had come to the conclusion that the research was faulty, this grant was put together in haste, and more than anything else, it was a way for Bush’s cronies to get rich.

For me, it had become a question of integrity. I was a reading professional, and I had passed on faulty research to teachers who had passed it on to their students. I felt responsible to try to fix the damage that had been done. If we knew the research was faulty, let’s fix it. I had this notion that I was working in a profession that thrived on the exchange of ideas and the willingness to say, “This isn’t working, what should we do instead?”

During a break at a state meeting in March, I asked one of the two state monitors (who had no experience in education) why, if we knew the research was faulty, would we continue without fixing it? His reply was that we knew this would be political from the beginning.  He never denied that the research was faulty, but his loyalty was to the grant, not the students, not the teachers. So I asked the second state monitor (who had no experience in education) if it bothered him that the research was faulty. His reply was that research was like religion; you either believed it or you didn’t. And if you didn’t like the pastor at your church, you change churches. He did not deny that the research was faulty, but his loyalty was to the grant, not the students, not the teachers. At this point, I was deciding if I could in good conscience continue working in Reading First.

Well, when I returned to school I found out that decision had been made for me. Those two monitors had told my principal that I had to go because I would undermine the grant. I was shocked. I had done nothing wrong. I thought those people owed ME an explanation.  They were the ones who came into my profession, with their shoddy research and their attitude that teachers didn’t know how to teach reading and needed to be monitored by people who had no experience in education. I felt like Joanna in “The Stepford Wives”. I had discovered the truth and I had to be eliminated. I fought hard to keep my position. The union rep told me to walk away, the lawyer I hired told me I had no First Amendment rights, and the district superintendent told me he agreed with me, but “they” held the purse strings.

Not one of these people mentioned the students.

By June, I had accepted that I lost, and in August I resigned. The financial toll has been big, but the emotional toll has been bigger. It hurts when you no longer “fit’ in your chosen profession.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. TeacherReality permalink
    October 18, 2010 4:11 pm


    It is sad to read that we have lost another great teacher who puts students first, not politics or grant money. In my school, we also used Reading First. As I became more familiar with it, I noticed that we were not moving students enough. I also noticed that our core reading program, Success For All (SFA) was not very effective. I voiced my opinions and concerns and now find myself excluded from decision making and leadership roles. In addition, I am “moved around” every year and am out of the communications loophole. I didn’t know that was how the game was played….that I was to just go along with whatever curriculum was chosen for us. I thought I was part of a team that was to work together and move students forward. This was and still is not the case. Today, I expressed to our Reading Coach that our new Phonemic Awareness program was subpar. Her response to me was that she agreed, but to just “go along with it”. Sounds so similar to what you went through. Makes me wonder how many teachers across our nation have voiced their professional opinions only to be silenced and/or harassed. In the end, it’s not about raising academic skills; it’s really all about money.

    Kelli Reyes

  2. October 18, 2010 6:22 pm

    Actually, the research conducted over more than a decade, by the National Institutes of Health was/is sound. But there was/is a disconnect between a collection of research studies and the product/protocols (popularly termed “programs” that are used in the classroom. Publishers didn’t change their old programs that were Whole Language oriented. They just added a smattering of “Phonics” and invented a new term, “Balanced Literacy.”

    Sarah Wagner’s story is very sad, both from the perspective of the teaching force and from the perspective of kids who are being turned into “specific learning disabled” kids in Special Education or who limp through life blaming themselves or their genes rather than the inadvertent mis0instruction. Even worse is that the Federal Government has concluded that teaching all kids to read was an “unreasonable expectation.” The soft bigotry of low expectations has been turned into a hard bigotry against teachers, students, and parents.

    The new national (masked as Common Core) standards bury reading instruction in English Language Arts and string it out from K to 12. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the UK coalition government is committed to teach all kids to read by Year (Grade) 2, and to administer a simple Alphabetic Code test to 6-7 year-olds to confirm that the job has been done.

  3. October 18, 2010 6:59 pm

    Sarah Wagner, thank you for telling your story. Yes their loyalty is to the grant, those money tree grants called NCLB. That failed education reform policy that reduces our children, their teachers, and our schools to test scores. This policy has no moral compass, no real mission except to raise test scores. They don’t care about character, all that matters to them is does a child make the grade. Many of our nation’s serial killers had high test scores. They would all fit well within their reform agenda.
    Judas took 30 pieces of silver, and Reading First took 6 billion dollars. Keep the faith Sarah I bet you’ll end up in a better place in the end. We need teachers who care, and we need caring teachers to tell their stories, and children need teachers like you. Again thank you for sharing your story.

  4. October 20, 2010 9:36 am

    Dear Sabrina,

    ICOPE (Independent Commission on Public Education) really like your CRAP video! We would like to have a chance to talk with you about the work we do. See our websites:,,…

    You’ll get a sense of how we are on the same track as you.

    In Struggle,

    Sam Anderson

  5. Sarah Wagner permalink
    October 20, 2010 11:13 am

    Thanks for all your kind remarks. I agree with Dick that the NIH research is sound. My biggest fear is that by sharing my story young teachers will never stand up for fear of losing their jobs. So Kelli, hang in there! Don’t be sad for me, get mad!!

  6. Frederika permalink
    October 25, 2010 6:26 pm

    Teachers in my district have complained for years about Reading First–the curriculum, the delivery, and the interference from visiting OBSERVERS who seem to pick apart everything the teachers do. Someone caught on a few years ago to the connection between Reading First, Pearson Education, and the Bush family. Money maker for some very powerful people. Disgusting idea, if you think about it–making BIG Bucks on the backs of teachers and children.

  7. July 24, 2011 7:44 am

    The research is NOT sound. Ironically, Mr. G. Reid Lyon himself (head of NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the nation’s “reading czar” at the time) edited a very important collection of research in the 1990s, compiled in a book entitled Attention, Memory, and Executive Function. How is it possible that he could edit text which clearly stated that short-term/working memory can only hold 7 bits of information (plus or minus 2) before it clears completely and starts over again and subsequently embrace phonics, decoding, and individual word identification as the miracle solution to prevent reading difficulties? Children cannot add up 7 sounds, 7 syllables, or even 7 individual words and make sense of 3rd or 4th grade text. It’s not possible–because working memory “clears” the info. Not only that, but there are at least two types of memory — declarative and procedural. The method of instruction embraced by the National Reading Panel focuses almost exclusively on aspects of reading that relate to declarative memory. Procedural memory operates, for the most part, implicitly–below the level of conscious awareness. If Mr. Lyon had been a truly unbiased researcher, he would have brought what he knew about memory (both the limitations and the two distinct memory systems) to the table as the National Reading Panel performed its work. But he didn’t. Why? Two reasons, perhaps: (1) A well-developed understanding of how human memory works makes reading through decoding and individual word identification inefficient and even illogical and, (2) there was a foregone conclusion before the National Reading Panel ever began its work: to promote explicit, systematic phonics instruction as the “miracle cure” to prevent reading problems. By his own admission, as published in a U.S. Department of Education “community” newsletter, as a teacher, Mr. Lyon failed to be able to teach his 3rd grade students how to read. He blamed lack of phonics instruction by teachers in earlier grades. Mr. Lyon began his work with a clear and documented bias. As a parent and a peripheral member of the education community, I am saddened by the mess that grew out of Mr. Lyon’s and the National Reading Panel’s work. One last thought: In what educated nation is it appropriate for a medical researcher (specifically, an M.D.) to lead a National Reading Panel — please note that the medical doctor had a vested interest in having her own research accepted as better than all other education research?? That’s what happened when Mr. Lyon placed Sally Shaywitz, M.D. on BOTH the Committee for the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children and the National Reading Panel (the only person to serve on both committees). It was HER theory of “phonemic awareness” that was supposed to be the “new and improved” component of phonics-based reading instruction. There was nothing new in that; it was just smoke-and-mirrors. Again, the research is NOT sound. It never was and the evidence that it was and is flawed is mounting.


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