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Federal Initiative Boosts Reading, CEP Says

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The federal Reading First initiative has led to improved reading instruction, assessment, and student achievement in schools participating in the $1 billion-a-year grant program, as well as in some of the non-participating schools in districts that have widely adopted the principles of the program, a study released today concludes.

The study by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy is based on survey results from all 50 states and a nationally representative sample of some 300 school districts in the program, as well as case studies of 38 districts and selected schools.

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While hard data, such as test-score comparisons, are still not available, the survey results show that “with scientifically based research, strict requirements [for following research findings], and substantial funding, you can bring about results,” said CEP President Jack F. Jennings.

More than half of the 35 states that reported their reading programs had improved in the last few years identified Reading First as a key contributor. The federal program requires state and local grantees to meet strict guidelines for using texts, assessments, and teaching methods that reflect research findings on effective reading instruction. The initiative also provides funding for intensive professional development for teachers in Reading First schools, as well as other schools within participating districts.

The results mirror those of an interim report on the program released earlier this summer that was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. (“Reading First Schools: More Reading Going On, Study Finds,” Aug. 9, 2006.)

Different Takes on Study Results

Some experts said the report is in line with what they are seeing in their own states.

“When I review the data from our state we see huge [growth] in achievement” in Reading First schools, Diane Barone, a professor of literacy at the University of Nevada, Reno, wrote in an email.

Ms. Barone, a board member for the International Reading Association, said that 21 schools in the Reading First program in Nevada made adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind in English Language Arts for the 2005-06 school year, compared with just six the previous school year. “This was an amazing result,” she added.

But others question whether Reading First is pushing too narrow an approach to reading instruction. With more attention on basic skills, for example, reading comprehension may be suffering, according to Maryann Manning, an IRA board member who is a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“We have every terrible commercial reading program published in use in our Reading First schools,” she wrote in an email. “Narrowing the achievement gap on letter identification and the number of sighted words read in isolation is of no value on reading comprehension.”

Vol. 26

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