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Report Casts Critical Eye on Reading Recovery Program

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A new report questions the success of one of the nation's most popular remedial reading programs for 1st graders.

Reading Recovery, which began in New Zealand in the early 1970's, is used with about 35,000 students a year in this country. The program aims to provide intensive tutoring to struggling young readers, thus giving them the strategies they need to succeed in the classroom.

Numerous studies over the past decade have documented Reading Recovery's success toward that end. Such success has earned Reading Recovery a spot on the National Diffusion Network, a federal program designed to disseminate effective education programs nationwide.

But in an analysis in this month's Educational Researcher, Elfrieda H. Hiebert says such data paint an "inconclusive" portrait of the program's effectiveness in raising the literacy levels of entire grades of students.

"Yes, at grade 1, these children are leaving with better oral performances in reading, but what does that mean by the time they get to grade 4?" Ms. Hiebert, a University of Michigan education professor, said in an interview. "What difference does it make to an entire grade of students?"

Flaws in Studies

Proponents of the approach, in response to Ms. Hiebert's criticisms, say the report is based on old data. They say newer data--both published and unpublished--suggest that the program is becoming more successful.

Ms. Hiebert, in partnership with other reading researchers, has been working with a few schools to develop a reading-instruction program that focuses on tutoring small groups of students and on identifying the key elements for teaching reading to entire classes.

She contends that Reading Recovery demands closer inspection because it requires a substantial financial investment. Two of the program's key ingredients--one-on-one tutoring and lengthy teacher training--are expensive propositions for districts.

The problem with some previous studies, she said, is that they are based on children in New Zealand, where the educational and cultural context differs from that of the United States. And, she said, they tend to compare the program with other remedial programs, such as the federal Title 1 program for disadvantaged children.

She also contends that the program's mechanisms for measuring children's reading success do not pay enough attention to whether they understand what they read.

For her analysis, Ms. Hiebert reviewed a 1990 study of theprogram that tracked children through grade 4; annual reports, made from 1984 to 1992 at three of the training sites that have had the program in place the longest; and a 1993 summary of previous data from all the sites using the program in North America.

By her calculations, an elementary school with three 1st-grade classrooms of 24 students each could expect to have a total of nine additional successful 1st-grade readers as a result of the program. The 4th-grade teachers would then have four additional proficient readers, she said.

Given the program's heavy upfront investment--the cost per student may be as much as $8,333 for one successful 4th grader--Reading Recovery may be a shaky foundation on which to base policy, Ms. Hiebert said.

She also said preliminary findings from other studies suggest that the program may not be as effective with groups of children from poorer families.

"An alternative route to a call for more tutors should be considered--the examination of the underlying principles of Reading Recovery and their applicability to student-teacher contexts other than tutoring," Ms. Hiebert writes. "Why are the instructional elements that have consistently been associated with high levels of literacy attainment not a given in all Title 1 programs?"

Different Data

Proponents of Reading Recovery said Ms. Hiebert is correct in calling for more research on other kinds of groupings.

But, "in a gas crisis, you don't get rid of the air bags," said Trika Smith-Burke, a co-director of New York University's Reading Recovery project, referring to the program's focus on the most needy 10 percent to 20 percent of students.

"Reading Recovery and classroom instruction are meant to complement one another," said Angela M. Jaggar, the center's other co-director.

Preliminary data from the center's work with New York City schools show that the percentage of 1st graders who receive a full Reading Recovery program and become successful readers increased from 62 percent over the 1990-91 school year to 91 percent in the past academic year.

Its data also suggest that the program prevents large numbers of struggling readers from being referred to costly special-education programs--a factor Ms. Hiebert was unable to account for in the data she used.

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