Education Department Study Finds Reading First Schools Spend More Time on the Subject

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Schools participating in the federal Reading First program dedicate more time to reading instruction and 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 released yesterday on the $1 billion-a-year initiative.

"In K-3 classrooms, the reading programs implemented by teachers in Reading First and non-RF Title I schools 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 interim report of the Reading First Implementation Evaluation states. "These findings provide some initial evidence to suggest that Reading First schools are carrying out the objectives of the Reading First legislation."

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 that are not in the program. All the schools in the study enroll large percentages of poor children. Researchers for the Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates, which conducted the study under contract to the U.S. Department of Education, also relied on interviews and state descriptions of schools' Reading First plans to review how the program is being implemented.

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.

Is It Working?

To this point, little information has been available about how the 4-year-old program is working, although observers say that 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 news from a program that has been in the news more for its controversy than its role in improving instruction around the country.

"The Reading First schools, in contrast with other schools … have more time for reading instruction, more assessment, and more professional-development resources," said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. "It's encouraging, and now we're waiting for the hard performance data that will show how it's working."

The program has been mired by complaints that federal employees and consultants pressured states into using specific commercial reading programs, assessments, and consultants. The Education Department's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have both launched probes into those allegations.

One of those complainants 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, wrote in an e-mail. Mr. Slavin has charged that Education Department officials infringed on the Baltimore-based foundation's ability to compete for Reading First funds by discouraging participating schools from using the well-respected whole-school reform program.

Reading First has been viewed as among the most prescriptive federal programs for placing guidelines on states for using so-called "scientifically based" methods and materials. Mr. Slavin and other researchers, however, have questioned whether the tendency of participating schools to use commercial reading programs and assessments that have not been vetted through rigorous research trials meets the program's requirements.

"What is astonishing is that [nearly] five years and $5 billion into this program, we know nothing about outcomes," Mr. Slavin added.

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 43

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This story should have said Alan E. Farstrup is executive director of the International Reading Association.

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