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Feds set new Ready to Learn priorities

Originally published in Current, March 28, 2005
By Karen Everhart

New funding guidelines for Ready to Learn challenge public TV to ratchet up the educational efficacy of its children’s programs.

Station-based RTL outreach efforts appear vulnerable to cutbacks, with the Department of Education saying it aims to spend less on outreach and to focus that money on national efforts.

In the next five-year grant period for Ready to Learn, the U.S. Department of Education looks to fund TV programs designed around scientifically proven reading instruction methods to help low-income children and their families, according to its request for proposals. The department will award a separate grant for outreach. Applicants proposing scientifically rigorous evaluations of their projects will receive favorable consideration, the department said.

The department predicted late last year that it would restructure Ready to Learn by awarding separate grants for programming and outreach (earlier article), but the full scope of its overhaul remained under wraps until the department’s request for proposals appeared in the Federal Register March 14.

For the next five years, grants estimated to total $23.3 million will be split among as many as three grantees. (PBS was the sole recipient of the previous grant outlay—roughly $22 million annually for five years.) The RFP estimates that one or two applicants will receive program production grants ranging from $10 million to $20 million. It plans to award $2 million to $4 million to the outreach grantee.

The Bush administration is focusing RTL on helping 2- to 8-year-olds learn to read. Many PBS Kids shows backed with past RTL grants have promoted children’s social and emotional development rather than explicit reading objectives. Target audiences have included children with specific learning challenges, such those who live in low-literacy households or rural areas, have disabilities or are learning English as a second language.

The RFP does not address social diversity as part of the curriculum—or the recent controversy over a diversity theme in a Postcards from Buster episode that depicted children with lesbian mothers [earlier story]. WGBH, producer of the series, said diversity was specified as a curricular area in a separate RFP prepared for producers by PBS and the Department of Education.

To be eligible, applicants must be public telecommunications entities with the capacity to develop “educational and instructional television programming of high quality that is accessible by a large majority of disadvantaged preschool and elementary school children.” Applicants must also be able to negotiate and manage contracts with producers and to localize content to meet state and local needs.

Applicants must declare their intentions by April 13 and file proposals a month later. It’s not known yet whether public TV stations or producers will work up separate proposals to compete for RTL funding. PBS is developing its proposal with CPB and APTS.

Sesame Workshop has a concept for a new literacy-based program but hasn’t determined who its partner will be, according to Gary Knell, president. “We . . . will go in with someone under the rubric of a widely based literacy initiative,” he said.

KCET in Los Angeles, which launched a statewide early childhood education initiative last year, also is weighing its options. “It is too early for us to talk about it,” said Mare Mazur, executive v.p. Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment, declined a request for an interview.

To consult on PBS’s proposal for RTL funding, PBS recently hired Ruth Otte, a former Discovery Channel president with expertise in media branding and educational publishing. Otte will work with Peggy O’Brien, CPB senior v.p. of education, who directed the Ready to Learn program when CPB launched it in 1995. Both Otte and O’Brien began their careers as classroom teachers. APTS, which represents PBS at the department and in Congress on education funding, is also collaborating on proposal development.

“We need to focus everything on reading and getting kids ready to read,” O’Brien said. “Given the reading scores and reading levels in this country, it is a really good thing to do.” National reading scores indicate that only 31 percent of children in the fourth grade can read at or above grade level, she said, citing the “Nation’s Report Card,” a 2003 report by the department’s National Center of Education Statistics.

The stats are even more worrisome for minority fourth-graders: only 12 percent of African-American and 14 percent of Hispanic students can read at or above grade level. “Getting kids reading early is totally key,” she said.

“I think the RFP is actually an excellent stake in the ground for education, which is really what the Department of Education is trying to move [Ready to Learn] more directly into,” said Knell of Sesame Workshop, which produces the PBS Kids series Sesame Street and Dragon Tales. “It really goes back to the roots of Ready to Learn—preparing children for school, promoting school performance and the piece that public TV could own—being an informal partner to formal education.”

The senators who wrote the original legislation authorizing Ready to Learn a decade ago criticized the new priorities. “Certainly, reading readiness is important . . . ,” wrote Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in a March 16 letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “However, the purpose of the Ready to Learn program is to use the readily accessible medium of public television to reach those households that have disadvantages that affect more than reading readiness. Being ready to learn also includes math readiness and development of social skills.”

Since participating public TV stations are required to air six hours of RTL programming a day, focusing the program too narrowly on reading instruction could have detrimental effects, the senators warned. “Frankly, six hours of teaching-to-read aired broadcasting, while laudable in some respects . . . does not appear likely to be engaging television programming.”

Because the department revised Ready to Learn without public comments and “attention to the intent of Congress,” Cochran and Kennedy asked Spellings to recall the RFP and add new criteria.

The Department of Education was crafting a response to the senators’ letter at Current’s deadline.

The department convened a panel of experts in September to review Ready to Learn and suggest changes. The panel included children’s TV researcher Daniel Anderson, Donna Chandler of Sesame Workshop and WGBH producer Carol Greenwald, among others. Many of the panelists’ recommendations made their way into the official solicitation for grant applications: focusing on a single content area, “unbundling” of programming and outreach grants, and hiring a public relations firm to place an RTL segment on Oprah and embed references to the program in popular sitcoms.

Outreach overhaul?

Since Ready to Learn launched in 1995, the program has relied on outreach coordinators on station staffs to lead workshops training day care workers, kindergarten teachers, parents and other caregivers on how to use RTL programs as launching pads for other learning activities. The outreach strategy was to suggest practical ways to promote early learning and reinforce the educational values of the television shows.

Over the past few years, PBS annually awarded $6 million in outreach grants to carry out these activities, according to Charlotte Brantley, senior director of Ready to Learn at PBS.

Two independent studies on the effectiveness of Ready to Learn workshops, commissioned by PBS as part of its RTL duties, turned in mixed results. One found no difference in school-readiness skills between kids whose parents or caregivers participated in workshops and those whose parents didn’t, although it did find that the adults who received the training were more likely to engage in RTL-recommended activities with their children. The second found that children whose teachers received RTL training and used the curriculum in a day care setting showed greater improvements in early literacy skills than children whose teachers didn’t.

“The department has been clear that, for their taste, there’s not enough real learning or measurable learning going on in the workshops,” O’Brien said.

The new guidelines aim to pack more educational value into the TV programs instead of workshops that supplement the TV shows.

The request for proposals for the outreach grant calls for a national campaign with “unified RTL messages and strategies” carried out through collaborative partnerships with educational agencies, early-childhood development programs or entities, public libraries and faith-based groups, among other potential partners listed in the RFP. The national outreach plan also must include websites tied to RTL programs; national marketing through other television series, movies or videos; and an advisory board.

The department also wants applicants to propose “targeted local campaigns” that use appropriate new technologies to deliver RTL curricula and ancillary materials, an advertising campaign to reach low-income children and families, and an evaluation of whether parents and educators reached by the campaign watched RTL programs with their children. The department estimates that the RTL outreach grant will average $3.5 million, 42 percent less than PBS is now spending.

Knell contends that the department’s more targeted approach will be more effective. Splitting outreach funds among so many Ready to Learn stations diminished the overall impact of the program, he said.

Lynne Christian, outreach director for KCET, said the current approach to RTL outreach is too inconsistent from station to station, because many cannot afford to give printed materials recommending RTL activities to parents and caregivers.

“If you’re looking for certain outcomes, the materials and the workshop models need to be consistent across the country, with the same goals and objectives and materials supporting what we want people to do when they leave the session,” she said.

CPB and PBS invited a group of Ready to Learn coordinators and general managers to a meeting March 29 in Washington, D.C., to brainstorm about the stations’ role in RTL under the new guidelines. “We want them to consider: Could there be a different role and what could it be?” O’Brien said.

Web page posted March 30, 2005, revised April 4, 2005
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee

O'Brien brings teaching experience to RTL work.


CPB proposes federal aid for Ready to Learn initiative, 1993.

PBS expands Ready to Learn, 1996.

Feds will watch as PBS measures literacy effects of RTL, 2003.

Education Department will subdivide RTL for next five years, January 2005.


Full text of RFP from Federal Register in Word document or PDF file.

RFP for the last round, May 2000.