Published Online: August 15, 2007

Reading Curricula Don’t Make Cut for Federal Review

A long-awaited review of beginning-reading programs by the federal What Works Clearinghouse found few comprehensive or supplemental programs that have evidence of effectiveness in raising student achievement. But what is missing from the review may be even more telling: None of the most popular commercial reading programs on the market had sufficiently rigorous studies to be included in the review by the clearinghouse.

“Some of the very prominent, full-year reading curricula weren’t prioritized for this review,” said Jill Constantine, the principal director of the review. “They tended not to have studies with randomized-control trials or with experimental designs that met the clearinghouse’s evidence standards.”

Most of the programs deemed to have “positive effects” or “potentially positive effects” in the review were supplemental or intervention programs, not core reading series. Moreover, those results were based on just one or two studies that met the clearinghouse’s standards, and just a handful were found to be effective in several areas studied.

Just one program was found to have positive effects or potentially positive effects across all four of the domains in the review—alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. That program, Reading Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program, has drawn criticism over the past few years from prominent researchers and federal officials who claimed it was not scientifically based.

Federal officials and contractors tried to discourage states and districts from using Reading Recovery in schools participating in the federal Reading First program, citing a lack of evidence that it helps struggling readers.

Other popular programs were found to have potentially positive effects as well. Success for All, a whole-school-reform program developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, got the favorable rating on alphabetics and general reading achievement, but mixed results on comprehension. Voyager Universal Literacy System, a product of the Dallas-based Voyager Learning, was found to have potentially positive effects on alphabetics but potentially negative effects on comprehension. Accelerated Reader, distributed by Renaissance Learning Inc., was found to have a potentially positive impact on comprehension and general reading achievement.

Several other products—such as Start Making a Reader Today, Kaplan SpellRead, and Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies, or PALS—also got positive reviews.

Ongoing Reviews

The clearinghouse, which the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences created in 2002 to vet research on “what works” in education, has given few of its coveted positive ratings. So few education studies meet the clearinghouse’s tough research-quality criteria that some critics have dubbed it the “nothing works” clearinghouse. ("‘One Stop’ Research Shop Seen as Slow to Yield Views That Educators Can Use," Sept. 27, 2006.)

The reading review, which has been under way for more than two years, is the first in an ongoing appraisal of reading programs, according to Phoebe H. Cottingham, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, which oversees the clearinghouse. ("Out-of-Favor Reading Plan Rated Highly," March 28, 2007.)

“We expect the What Works Clearinghouse to continue and expand,” Ms. Cottingham said. “We’re not finished with beginning reading by any means.”

In fact, the clearinghouse report lists 36 products that are in the process of being reviewed, but that each have just one study that meets the criteria “with reservations.” Among those products are Open Court and Reading Mastery, both published by the McGraw-Hill Cos., and Houghton Mifflin Reading.

Vol. 27

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