An Interview of

Chris Doherty – No Child Left Behind – Reading First

Chris Doherty was the program director responsible for the administration of the U.S. Department of Education's Reading First Program from its inception in 2002 through October 2006 . The following is a transcript of our 2003 phone interview with Mr. Chris Doherty.  As you will see over the course of the interview, whether you agree with him or not, Chris Doherty is a man who cares about children and passionately believes that reading must come first if we are to ensure that no child gets left behind. Additional bio info

The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.

Personal Background:

David Boulton: Let’s start with a brief sketch of you and your job and what motivates you to do it.

Chris Doherty: Well, I am the program director for the Reading First program here in the Department of Education. I started a day before the president signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law on January 8, 2002. Reading First is a six billion program that is part of No Child Left Behind. It is a kindergarten through third grade reading program. Prior to coming to the department I was the executive director of a not-for-profit organization in Baltimore, Maryland that manages public schools and implements curriculum. I also did a bit of teacher training work.

So, the link there and also to previous work that I did, is through scientifically based reading instruction; the kinds of reading programs that are aligned with the five components of reading as outlined by the National Reading Panel report and that are aligned with the program itself and the assessments that guide instructional decisions and the professional development that go through the year.

It’s something that I’ve been working on and working with for several years. Reading First really is the flagship of programs that try to make sure that all instructional decisions made for kindergarteners through third graders in reading are based on the guiding research.

David Boulton: What would you say motivates you personally? Why did you go into this?

Chris Doherty: Well, it really is both the most obvious and the most important motivation. It’s knowing how intoxicating and how powerful it is when little kids are exposed to good, solid instruction from an early age and they can make such life changing and wonderful achievement gains from their first days of school. There’s really nothing like having a child gain command of reading in a very systematic and confidence building way that opens up all the doors imaginable to those little kids at a very early age. To be part of that on a small scale is absolutely wonderful and life affirming, and to be part of it on a larger scale is that much more rewarding. It’s as good as it gets being part of helping bring effective, solid instructions, techniques, programs and materials to little kids across the country. I can’t think of anything more worthwhile or more exciting.

David Boulton: Well, we’re in alignment. That’s what motivates me too.

Chris Doherty: Absolutely. And as grandiose on one hand as what I said was, it’s…

David Boulton: An understatement.

Chris Doherty: It’s understated. That’s exactly right. It’s actually an understatement.

It’s Not Just About Reading:

David Boulton: It’s so hard for some people to grasp how fundamentally central this reading issue is because it’s not just about reading. It’s so much deeper and more pervasive in the infrastructure of the consciousness of the child and everything that happens to them.

Chris Doherty: It is. It absolutely is. Yes, it’s reading. Yes, it’s learning how to read. But it’s building the infrastructure and the hard wiring of that little guy’s brain that then can be used to build the rocket ship that goes to Mars someday.

David Boulton: Good, I always like to find the heart. I’m glad to find yours, thank you.

Chris Doherty: Oh boy, I tell you there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than working on this Reading First program.

David Boulton: Let me take a couple minutes and give you a sense of my frame of reference on all of this and without imposing on you, some sense of what I think you’re up to as I understand it from my conversations with Dr. WhitehurstDr. LyonMr. Wendorf, and a number of other folks involved in the science side of this.

Afflictions That Endanger Children: #1 Reading Improficiency:

David Boulton: One of the things that becomes clear when you look at the afflictions that endanger children’s opportunities in school and life today, is that reading improficiency is on the top of the list.

Chris Doherty:  Yes it is.

David Boulton: According to our current data models, which are quite open to criticism, but even if you take them as rough ball parks, most of our children are not reading proficiently and, as a consequence, are in various degrees of serious psychological, intellectual, economic, and academic danger.

Chris Doherty: Yes.

David Boulton: In support of this, we’re putting together a table that shows the various things that children born today are at risk of in terms of what can cause them life harm as they develop. The reading challenge is putting more children at risk than everything else combined.

Chris Doherty: Yes, it’s as big a problem as there is.

David Boulton: Yes. And the cost to the nation, as Dr. Whitehurst and others have said, is hundreds of billions of dollars each year. It’s actually greater than the war on drugs, crime, and terror combined.

Chris Doherty: I don’t disagree. The only word that came to mind as you started your sentence was incalculable.

David Boulton: Yes. And for those that want to see it in economic terms, we’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in direct or related costs.

Chris Doherty: Absolutely.

David Boulton: So, we have this as a shared backdrop. We see that our children are at great risk about this. Reading is both this phenomenal enabler of all that is positive that can come from education and the builder of the infrastructure from which to have a good education and to be critically self-reflexive. So many of these things are built on how well they develop early reading skills. On the other hand, if they don’t, the collateral damage that is associated with the reading improficiency is staggering.

Ninety-five Percent Could Read Proficiently:

David Boulton: So, with that as a background, the scientists have come to understand that only about five percent of children are neuro-biologically disadvantaged in reading. In other words, only about five percent of children have some innate difficulty with reading and the remaining ninety-five percent or so could read if they were taught correctly.

Chris Doherty: Right.

David Boulton: So, that means that all of this money, all of these tragedies, what’s happening to children is a consequence of the fact that we’re not doing it right. It’s not them.

Chris Doherty: It’s not them. It’s not the kids.

Collective Misunderstanding:

David Boulton: It’s not the kids. It’s our collective understanding and the way that we think about reading and the way that we instruct children. Enter where we’re both focusing now.

Chris Doherty: Yes.

David Boulton: So, like I said, most of our children are at risk. They are at risk because we don’t understand something that’s critical in this process and as a consequence there’s a whole lot of mythical ideas about what to do.

Over the past twenty years a lot of research has been developed by Reid Lyon and his team at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and also by brain scientists working on many different dimensions of this problem. We’re now realizing this is a radically unnatural act. It is a technological interface process and we can’t just dump it on the kids and hope they get it. That would be like dropping a piano on them.

Chris Doherty: That’s right. It’s not like learning to talk.

David Boulton: It’s not like learning to talk, it’s not like learning to walk. There’s no instincts involved in this.

Chris Doherty: It’s pretty arbitrary to say that that squiggle makes this sound. You have to be taught it.

David Boulton: Right. So we have a technological code processing challenge that requires a systematic way to learn into it. There are some children that due to their brain’s processing frequency, their vocabulary, and the language complexity they’ve dealt with, have the building block foundation to take off in reading and do pretty well regardless of the instruction or we could say less dependent on the instruction. But for the majority of our children, obviously the 64% nationally that are below proficiency in reading, we could say that the degree of systematized instruction is what’s missing.

Chris Doherty: Yes.

The Reading First Initiative:

David Boulton: Okay, with that all as a background we start to move into, what is it that’s animating the No Child Left Behind – Reading First initiative? What my sense is, and again this is just to give you a place to take off from, is that we realize that the ideal situation would be to bring teachers and administrators and the whole school-parent community into a deeper understanding of this and bring about some alignment in behavior based on the depth of that understanding. But in the absence of that, as restricted and inhibited by all of the different philosophies and belief mechanisms in play, the government has decided that this is too important and has decided to develop institutional incentives and structures to move education into focusing here in a different way.

Chris Doherty: Yes, I agree with that.

David Boulton: The consequence of that has been the development of this legislation that you are overseeing the administration of which has created both incentives and penalties to focus educators into this space and to incent them to use the practices that have been affirmed by research and evidence to be working.

Chris Doherty: That’s right. First of all, with the first year of No Child Left Behind and the Reading First portion of it, it tripled the amount of federal funding for kindergarten through third grade reading programs. Just as a mathematical fact, the first year of No Child Left Behind more than tripled the amount of funding at the federal level. So, the conservative estimate of what the funding will be for Reading First alone, over the life of the grant, is six billion. That’s a very serious amount of money in relative terms to what’s been spent in the past. Moreover, it’s significantly more money but for plans that were reviewed and re-reviewed and re-reviewed with expert panels in a way that no other federal program had done. And that’s testament to how much more rigor this program is requiring.

In other words, some of the more recent federal reading efforts have had sections from the states that touched on the research. States would write elegies to the research as if to check the box that says ‘Yes, we’re aware that there’s research that guides reading instruction.’ But that was section one and section two was their plan that didn’t show any understanding of the research. It wasn’t guided by the research. They used assessments that didn’t tell them much of anything and it didn’t guide what actually happen to children in the classroom. This effort is very different from that and yes, it’s a lot more money, and yes, it has a lot more direction from the Department of Education. But more than anything, the actual plans, the actual activities that are going to happen in the classroom and in the Elementary School buildings is really driven by the convergent research in a way that has never happened before. It just simply hasn’t. It bears out any kind of look at what happened before and now.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All:

Chris Doherty: And one example, not to get too quickly into the specifics, but one very kind of distinctive example is different children are in different places at different times and, therefore, need different things. Now it’s particularly outrageous that some people had labeled Reading First a one size fits all approach because anyone at all familiar with scientifically based reading instruction would yell from the rooftops what the research indicates in many different ways is how one size doesn’t fit all, that different children need different things. They might all be five years old, they might all be six years old, but they have different strengths and different weaknesses. What you need to tell you what any particular child needs are valid and reliable assessments that say this child is good, or this child is decoding her letters well and consistently, but she has no fluency and, therefore, no comprehension or might have vocabulary issues.

You need things that help tease these things out rather than just can the child read or not – yes or no like a light switch. And that was too often what was happening – that people were saying they’ll get it, they’ll get it, maybe next year they’ll get it, maybe next year they’ll get it. In a horrible mix of bad instruction and social promotion what it lead to was ever larger, older, more depressed and more demoralized children that never did get it, never ever did get it. And they left school not having gotten it.

The Reading First approach, (and you could just say the scientifically based reading approach not necessarily just the program named Reading First), says when the little guys come in at the beginning of the year, or in a very highly mobile environment like typifies so many of our schools, the first day of that’s kid’s year, whether it’s a Tuesday in February when they just transferred schools or whatever else, find out what that kid can do. Sit down and have a quick and dirty, but fast and reliable mechanism to say whether that kid can decode or not, whether they’re just guessing at words. Just any number of things that determine where a child should be placed to meet his or her needs. So much of that never happened. And now it’s happening across the country in systematic ways.

Now, a key thing that is all too often overlooked is when people start to get their heads around what the National Reading Panel report said and the importance of the five components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. What they can’t overlook is that it isn’t just the presence of those five things because they’re not really things, right?

David Boulton: Right.

Chris Doherty: But it’s that the instructional package of programs and materials and assessments have an explicit and systematic approach to those things. Too often, if we’re not careful, people will say here’s a book and in that book there are the five components. That’s not necessary and sufficient at all. It’s teachers who are trained and supported who know how to use assessments, who know how to give instruction. It’s extremely complex.

That’s why it was so antithetically opposed to reality when people would say that Reading First is a one size fits all. It’s ten thousand times more complicated than that because it has to be because every kid can need different things at different times. I hope I didn’t go off on a tangent there.

David Boulton: No, that’s pretty much the heart of it from my point of view as well. Yes, children come with entirely different profiles of readiness.


Chris Doherty: Yes they do. And you know what? You’re absolutely right. Too often, and it’s going to sound overstated but it really isn’t, too often little kids would come in at the first day of kindergarten and they’d be sat down as a group. And that’s okay, it’s the first day of kindergarten and we’re going to start now and they [teachers] just give this kind of ‘instruction’ where they didn’t know anything about what that five year old knew or could do. They made huge assumptions that were almost always detrimental to the kid that assumed okay, you’re five so implicitly we’re assuming that you must know some stuff.

Well, what happens when they don’t know near 100% of that stuff? What if they know twenty percent of that stuff? The kid is behind on day one and he keeps getting behind and he gets further and further behind, and there’s no attempt to figure out what exactly he doesn’t know and once you do find out what he knows, how to accelerate that kid. If you didn’t know what you were supposed to know on day one you’re already behind and two years into it you need to gain four years growth in two years to get back to zero. And none of these programs, I shouldn’t say that, but by and large the approach was not systematically to find out where children were, to teach them at that level and to get them where they need to go. It just didn’t happen.

David Boulton: To actually have a more granular assessment instrument that has a correlation to a menu of approved evidence based practices that can be focused specifically on the sub-par development of the various components that are required for reading on a per child basis.

Chris Doherty: That’s exactly right. Boy, that’s beautifully stated and it’s exactly right. Another thing to point out with Reading First, across so many of these issues to go from more granular to more general, is that it is not a remedial program for kids that are falling behind. Good instruction is good instruction. It isn’t a matter of there’s one type of good instruction for these kids and a completely different type of good instruction for these kids.

When kids come to an instructional environment for the first time they need to be quickly and reliably assessed to know where they are. If the five year old is coming in and reading at the late first grade level, well that’s a wonderful thing to know. Put that five year old in a small reading group that challenges her, don’t just give her sounds and letters because that’s what you think you should start with. It goes in both directions.

A third grader who’s been fooling people because he’s been in ten schools in four years and he can guess the high frequency words like what, which, and that – he’s a word guesser. And that teacher needs to find out on day one he’s a word guesser and although he’s five foot six inches in third grade, what he needs is phonics and phonemic awareness help. First and foremost they need to know that just as much as they need to know whether he is a late first grade, early second grade reader so that they can find a reading group that challenges without boring him. It goes in all those directions. 


David Boulton: Right. Connected to all this that we didn’t explicitly speak of is that the emerging affect and emotions sciences are saying that once shame starts to creep into the learning to read process it’s consuming the cognitive bandwidth that you need to read. So, we’ve got to change the environment so that in addition to meeting these children in a more granular way with respect to where they are developmentally in all of this, that we envelop them in a shame free environment to not allow their affective response to the feeling of not being good enough at reading to be so undermining.

Chris Doherty: Yes, certainly. I think that there’s definitely many ways to do that, taking into consideration absolutely your point that you want to create an environment where the children can learn, they can catch up, and they certainly don’t get stigmatized or they don’t get stigmatized while they’re doing just the kind of catching up that they need to do. Absolutely. The engagement can be almost immediate. In other words, when a child who has experienced a lack of success in a school setting, when they get the kind of instruction that they need, the positive effects are near instantaneous.

David Boulton: They can feel the feedback coming from themselves, that they’re being successful. It opens up their attention and motivates and detoxes the shame.

Chris Doherty: It really does. Now I certainly wouldn’t want to overstate it in the sense that it can erase years of demoralization, I’m not saying that. But at the same time, it’s amazing how positive and how quick the reaction can be to even children who have had significant lack of success at school when they realize that they are doing something they haven’t done before. And it’s so different from the empty praise of good job Junior, good job Junior, which is one thing.

David Boulton: It’s not an artificial self-esteem pump.

Chris Doherty: No. He knows he just read a page of text that he couldn’t read before. He knows he’s breaking the code. And you can have that and a pat on the back and both of them are better than just a pat on the back.

David Boulton: Absolutely. Well, we’ve only just scratched the surface. In our next conversation I am interested in looking at this from your lens in more detail as far as the structure of how you’re administrating this.

Chris Doherty: Oh boy.

Warring Tribes:

David Boulton: And also, one of the things the Children of the Code project is trying to do is say look, there’s a lot of different tribes at war in this space right now. There’s teachers that are angry and resentful at what they perceive to be a kind of draconian control coming from Washington. They don’t understand because they are not connected at the same depth level to the research and evidence and what it’s pointing to and their experience is based on dealing with these children and wanting to feel good about them as well as themselves.

Chris Doherty: Yes.

David Boulton: There’s a big mess going on in here and what we want to do is connect the dots for parents and teachers so that they understand. I envision you as being part of this group who recognize just how fundamental this is. Like the beginning of our conversation, in terms of the future of the country, the economics, and the suffering and opportunity of all of our children…this is the fulcrum.

Chris Doherty: This is it. There’s no more important work being done, more beneficial to the nation. Nothing compares to this.

David Boulton: I totally agree and I don’t think most people get that.

Chris Doherty: I agree with that.

David Boulton: And there’s a lot of things we don’t get as a society. That’s the mission of the Children of the Code, to bridge these gaps. So, I’d like to continue our conversation if that’s possible.

Chris Doherty: Great. Absolutely.I’ll even leave you with this thought because I was hanging on your every word and I do not deny when, I think you used the term tribes, there’s various kinds of clash points or flash points you might say, although both seem to work. One thing, not in a Pollyanna way, that I’ve found over the last twenty-two months which is when the bill was signed into law and a lot of that was kind of staid work prior to having the program be something that the states could apply for, while the program was on its first legs. One thing that I’ve been encouraged by, knowing about both reading wars and state, local, and federal interactions, is that many, many times I’ve been part of workshops and conferences and meetings and informal get togethers where the leading experts on Reading First and scientifically based reading research kind of elucidate some of these points and people who are sitting in the audience, or shortly thereafter, who might have thought that they were about to hear the voice of the other side react overwhelmingly with comments like ‘What part of that was I supposed to hate?’

When people who are girded for battle really almost because of things that they think, because of conflicts they assume they’re going to have, when they get into the ninety minute, two or three hour kind of elaboration of what some of this means at the classroom level and what some of this means for teachers and kids they really react with ‘Was that the guys that I was supposed to hate? Because gosh, I really found what he said compelling and largely reinforcing of what I’ve been thinking from my thirty years in education.’

They’re not sure often times what part they’re supposed to disagree with because it is so powerful when it’s laid out in an environment of this is what it means for the kids, this is why we do this, this is why we do that. There’s actually wonderfully on the teacher level often times less push back than both sides are prepared for. Like I said, not to make that sound Pollyanna, but we’ve actually found it to be that the message wins on its own merit a lot of times.

Transcending the Polarities:

David Boulton: When people get caught in the dichotomies and polarities it’s to some degree because they don’t realize that both phonics and whole language are both compensations for the underlying technical mess in the code.

Chris Doherty: Yes.

David Boulton: One of the things that we’re doing and having great success with is taking people on a ride through the developmental history of the code and how it came to be the way it is. We want to dispel its mythology and make it really clear that what we’re talking about is most of our children are having their lives mangled because of a technological artifact and learning how to relate to it.

Chris Doherty: Yes.

David Boulton: And that because we don’t put the code in the right perspective and because it’s so confusing to parents and teachers, it gives room for all kinds of pseudo-science things to plug in.

Chris Doherty: Yes, that’s right. That’s absolutely true. I look forward to continuing this discussion.

David Boulton: Thank you.

Chris Doherty: My pleasure.