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Is Reading First Working?

July 14, 2008 3 min read

The debate rages on over Reading First, with supporters trying to make their case for preserving the federal program, which they say is proving itself in higher test results, improved teacher knowledge, and support among educators. The critics are picking through the data and arguing that, at best, there is little evidence that it is effective, and, at worst, is promoting a low-level form of literacy in its skills-based approach.

Over at there are about 60 comments! to this story by Greg Toppo, arguing for and against and otherwise. And the debate continues among researchers like Reid Lyon and Stephen Krashen here andhere.

Patrick Riccards, a.k.a. Eduflack, who helped promote the work of the National Reading Panel and is a longtime fan of Reading First, continues to defend the program and scold some of its harsher critics here.

His posts on Reading First often conclude with: We know it works.

Well, I keep wondering how we know?

Riccards says its effectiveness is “evidenced by the growing number of statements from educators and from recent studies—such as those released last month by CEP—that demonstrate improvement. And RF offices in states from Idaho to Ohio to Alabama have added their voice to save the necessary program.”

I don’t think there is evidence that Reading First is ineffective, despite what some opponents say. If anything, there is a kind of “it can’t hurt” message in the data. Certainly teachers and administrators I’ve spoken with and visited over the last six years provide enthusiastic endorsement of an intensive and organized effort to improve reading instruction and monitor the results. And they feel more prepared than ever to implement just that.

I’m no researcher, and I admit that I could use a bit of tutoring, or more coffee, to absorb the findings of many of the research studies I read, but I haven’t really seen any rigorous evidence that Reading First is working overall. At least not the kind of evidence that I think would have satisfied the powers that be at the Ed Dept. and the NICHD when they were talking tough about the law’s requirements six years ago.

Sure, there are schools that have seen phenomenal results and serve as the poster children of the program. Those stories are pretty compelling and inspiring, but are they representative?

Most of the claims that I’ve seen are based on improved DIBELS scores, on self-reported state data that average results, and, of course, the folks who’ve told Margaret Spellings in her travels around the country how wonderful the program is.

In between his Reading First posts, Eduflack chastises Spellings for pointing to parent surveys in her defense of the D.C. voucher program.

“The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) found that parents of scholarship children express confidence that they will be better educated and even safer in their new schools,” Spellings said.

Eduflack finds that statement “downright funny, and quite a bit concerning.”

“In all of the discussions about scientifically based research, high-quality research, the medical model, double-blind studies, control groups, and the like,” he continues, “I don’t remember public opinion surveys meeting the IES standard for high-quality research. Parents feel better about their children because of vouchers? That’s a reason to direct millions in federal funding to the program?”

But that’s exactly the kind of evidence many of Reading First’s supporters are using to bolster their arguments. Teachers and administrators love it, they say.

All well and good, but hardly the kind of definitive results officials and lawmakers had called for.

Many observers thought the interim impact study released by IES would have provided deeper insights into what has and has not worked in the program. For the money that is being spent, perhaps a special trial study under NAEP, similar to the urban district assessments, would have been useful, or better analyses and comparisons of state data.

I wonder if more and better data would have mattered when push came to shove in the appropriations committees, which have led the death march for the program.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.


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