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Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as Reading First Schools: More Reading Going On, Study Finds

Reading First Schools: More Reading Going On, Study Finds

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Schools in the federal Reading First program dedicate more time to reading instruction and teacher professional development, and are more likely to use assessment data to inform teaching, than Title I schools that are not in the grant program, concludes a study on the $1 billion-a-year initiative.

The interim report of the Reading First Implementation Evaluation “absolutely corroborates what we’ve been seeing and hearing from schools: that real change in classroom practice is occurring,” said Sandi Jacobs, who helps administer the program as a senior education program specialist for the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the report, released last month, “the reading programs ... appear to be different in a variety of ways, including instructional time, resources, instructional planning and collaboration, use of assessments, and focus on the [essential] dimensions of reading instruction.”

The study was based on surveys of some 9,000 teachers, principals, and reading coaches in national representative samples of 1,100 Reading First schools and 541 Title I schools not in the program. All the schools in the study enroll large percentages of poor children, but not all the schools receive aid under Title I, the flagship federal program for disadvantaged students. Researchers for the Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates, which conducted the study under contract with the Education Department, also relied on interviews and state descriptions of schools’ Reading First plans to review how the program is being carried out.

Demographic Similarities

The two groups of schools were demographically similar, but the Reading First schools were, on average, larger and had larger proportions of struggling readers among their K-3 students. A footnote in the report cautions that Reading First schools had to demonstrate their motivation to incorporate research-based practices before being awarded grants, a factor that could influence any instructional differences.

To this point, little information has been available about how the 4½-year-old program is working, although observers say Reading First schools and districts have reported anecdotal improvements in teachers’ knowledge and skills and students’ reading proficiency.

Some experts welcomed the study as positive feedback on a program that has been in the news more for its controversy than its role in improving instruction around the country.

“If teachers are doing what they say they’re doing, then this will be the greatest test to date on whether or not the model of reading (as delineated by the National Reading Panel) actually works to improve children’s achievement,” Susan B. Neuman, a reading researcher at the University of Michigan who oversaw the rollout of Reading First as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education during President Bush’s first term, wrote in an e-mail.

Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association, agreed. “It’s encouraging, and now we’re waiting for the hard performance data that will show how it’s working,” he said of the study.

Awaiting Data

The program has been widely praised for providing needed resources for training teachers in how children learn to read and for purchasing instructional materials and support services. But it has been mired by complaints that federal employees and consultants pressured states into using specific commercial reading programs, assessments, and consultants. Investigations have been launched into those allegations. ("GAO to Probe Federal Plan for Reading," Oct. 12, 2005.)

One of those who lodged a formal complaint questioned this latest study’s reliance on survey data, and the lack of information to gauge student achievement in Reading First schools.

“Teachers knew what they were supposed to say on a survey, and they said it,” Robert E. Slavin, the president of the Success for All Foundation, contended in an e-mail. Mr. Slavin has charged that Education Department officials undermined the Baltimore-based foundation’s ability to compete for Reading First funds by discouraging participating schools from using the organization’s well-respected whole-school-reform program.

The final implementation report, due next year, will look at student-achievement data at participating and nonparticipating schools through the 2006-07 school year.

Vol. 25, Issue 44, Page 12

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