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Reading choices narrow for schools with federal aid

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The start of the school year brought a radical new reading curriculum to schools across New York City. Teachers carved out pockets of time so their students could curl up with well-loved children's books slipped off the shelves of their classroom libraries.

And phonics lessons that relied on simple texts - "Nat and the rat sat on the mat" - to teach children how sounds correspond with letters, were balanced with a focus on teasing out meaning from complex sentences.

Then, earlier this month, the city's education department abruptly decided to abandon its nascent curriculum in 49 struggling elementary schools. In its place - a more traditional phonics program. By doing this, the city hopes to qualify for $34 million in federal funding.

In a letter to the New York Post, Joel Klein, New York City's schools chancellor, wrote: "Officials in the federal and state governments have been putting pressure on districts to adopt a scripted approach to teaching literacy in the early grades. While we disagree with that approach ... we did not want to lose these potential resources."

New York is not alone. Districts from Boston to San Diego have had to weigh whether winning a chunk of the $900 million set aside through Reading First - President Bush's national literacy initiative and part of the 2001 education reform act No Child Left Behind - is worth ceding local control of reading curricula.

To qualify for Reading First dollars, a district must use a reading program supported by "scientifically based research." The catch: The science, according to Washington, points to phonics.

In a time when a dismal 37 percent of fourth-graders are reading below grade level, the Bush administration has pinned its hopes on phonics. But not everyone is hooked.

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