Little solid evidence is available to gauge whether the federal government’s multibillion-dollar Reading First initiative is having an effect on student achievement, but many states are reporting anecdotally that they are seeing benefits for their schools.
Among those benefits are extensive professional development in practices deemed to be research-based, extra instructional resources, and ongoing support services, according to an Education Week analysis of state performance reports.
The program forged under the No Child Left Behind Act is expected to pump $6 billion into reading programs over six years. Already, more than 4,700 schools have received grants, though a small number of schools have been dropped from the program for failing to fulfill its implementation or accountability requirements.
Hard data on the program’s effectiveness are still a year or more away, but many state officials say they have received widespread reports from schools and districts of improved morale, more effective instruction, and, in a few cases, higher test scores.
The optimism is tempered, however, by the problems some states have encountered in recruiting enough qualified reading coaches and staff members to help push the program along. And some in the field continue to maintain that the initiative has restricted local control over curricular and instructional decisions.
Findings from the Education Week review coincide with a study from the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, released last week.
While many states responding to the center’s national survey on the subject praised the measure for promoting greater rigor in reading instruction, others said it is too inflexible. Reading instruction has been affected significantly in participating schools and districts, according to the CEP study, but many respondents were uncertain about whether carrying out the Reading First agenda has led to improved instruction.
Moreover, concern is widespread that the program is being implemented too strictly, that it favors a handful of consultants and commercial products, and that the assessment of schools and students may be inappropriate.
“The main message is that this is a very important program and not enough attention is being paid to it,” said CEP President Jack Jennings, a former longtime education aide to House Democrats. “We can say Reading First is having an impact—districts are changing their reading programs—but we don’t know yet if that’s for the better or for the worse.”
The annual reports from Reading First coordinators in each state, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories were submitted to the U.S. Department of Education last fall, but were made available for review only recently.
“The program is being implemented very well at the state and local level,” Sandi Jacobs, a senior education program specialist for the Education Department, said in a recent interview.
“Reading First provides a linking mechanism among state reading programs and initiatives. Reading First also helps the state build on the infrastructure necessary to ubiquitously promote scientifically based reading research as the foundation for K-3 assessment, progress monitoring, intervention, curriculum, and core basal acquisition programs.” — Texas
“From the end of 2003 to the end of 2004, the percentage of students achieving at the lowest level on the [Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test] decreased by 3 percentage points, while all schools in Florida showed a 1 percent decrease. At the same time, the percentage of students performing at grade level on the FCAT in Reading First schools increased by 5 percentage points, while all schools increased their percentage of students reading at grade level by 3 percentage points.” —Florida
“The implementation challenges in the first year of Reading First have centered on the difficulties in recruitment of highly qualified professional staff at the regional and district level to fill the roles of Reading First coordinators, coaches, and assessment specialists. The available level of expertise to support Reading First goals was found to be less than optimal.” —New York
“Staffing has been a problem from the beginning. We presently have no field coordinators, no content coordinator, and no professional-development coordinator. We have experienced delays in processing subgrants due to these staffing issues.” —New Jersey
“The student population at Calcedeaver Elementary School is 95 percent Native American, with 86 percent of the students receiving free or reduced lunch. Calcedeaver is proud to have ranked second in the state (first among K-3 schools) on the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessment.” —Alabama
“Coaches point to changes in teacher behavior after attending training or modeled lessons. Coaches have also stressed the use of student-assessment data to plan and drive instruction. Assessments have provided valuable in-depth information about students’ skills and instructional needs, particularly those students who are at risk or in need of additional support.” —Illinois
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, State Performance Reports, Fall 2004
Indeed, some states, particularly those that have been taking part in the program for several years, credit Reading First with driving dramatic changes.
Florida has trained some 16,000 of its 35,000 K-3 teachers in research-based methods and has already seen some gains in 3rd grade reading scores; teachers in Colorado have been learning to use assessment results to design more immediate intervention plans for struggling students; and California officials are continuing to adapt principles from Reading First—adherence to a prescribed instructional program and additional training in using those materials—to nonparticipating schools statewide.
“We have made a commitment to touch as many teachers and students and principals with Reading First as we can, whether they are eligible [or not],” said Mary Laura Openshaw, the director of Florida’s reading initiative, which has opened up Reading First training sessions to all K-3 teachers and administrators in the state. Just because their school doesn’t participate, she said, “we don’t want to deny the services to the kids.”
Those training sessions, which often last several days and may be offered several times a year, have proved challenging in many states, where officials report that qualified presenters are hard to find. In some cases, a dearth of candidates to conduct professional-development workshops forced delays in implementation.
Michigan, one of the first states to win Reading First money, continued to have difficulty getting consistent and adequate materials to trainers and teachers. Costs for the training and materials—provided through a contract with Sopris West, a Longmont, Colo.-based company that sells assessments and training services—also went up unexpectedly.
Overall, however, Michigan’s report says that schools in the program are making “noteworthy progress.”
“By and large, it’s going really well,” said Faith Stevens, who oversees Michigan Reading First. “I wouldn’t say it’s been completely smooth sailing, but the program has grown, … and the grantees feel really proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Kicked Out, Dropped Out
It was not smooth sailing for several Michigan schools. Six schools—three in Detroit, two in Muskegon, and one in Saginaw—were dropped after failing to make the progress outlined in the grant requirements.
Throughout the country, a small number of other schools have been cut from the program primarily because of changes in leadership or because of consolidation. A handful of other schools, however, lost their grants from the voluntary program after failing to show sufficient progress on standardized tests. Participating schools, many of them enrolling predominantly disadvantaged children, agreed to follow detailed plans for improving reading instruction and must show progress in student performance within two years.
Other schools bowed out of Reading First after administrators determined it was not meeting expectations.
The superintendent in Madison, Wis., withdrew five schools in the 24,000-student district from Reading First after a federal reviewer suggested its literacy program gave teachers too much leeway in using their judgment over instruction and focused too much on teaching children to read for meaning.
The reviewer—from the Western Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center at the University of Oregon—recommended that the district abandon its existing literacy program and adopt a commercial series, according to Superintendent Art Rainwater.
“It is not reasonable nor would data support [the district] in following [the reviewer’s] suggestion to eliminate our current program and purchase a single published program,” Mr. Rainwater wrote in a memo to the Madison school board in October. The district could have qualified for an additional $2 million in Reading First grants over the next several years.
In the months since, Mr. Rainwater has not regretted the decision, he said last week. Ultimately, he said, teachers need the knowledge and skills to decide the best approach for teaching their students. “They demanded that we have daily scripted lesson plans for teachers,” the superintendent said, “but that violates one of the basic tenets of what we believe is important for reading instruction.”
Other schools’ grants have been discontinued because the recipients refused to change instructional programs. Several California schools, for example, lost their grants after deciding to continue with the Success for All program.
“When our district applied for and brought in Reading First, we thought at first we would be able to mesh the two programs,” Kathy Stecher, the principal at Moreno Elementary School in Montclair, Calif., said, adding that the school attributed significant student progress to Success for All.
Three schools in her Ontario-Montclair district, in fact, were dropped from Reading First. Although the district intended to combine Success for All with Reading First, Ms. Stecher said, “we were told no, we could not” by Reading First officials.
Success for All, which takes a schoolwide approach to bolstering learning and preventing reading difficulties in young children, has perhaps the strongest research base of all the commercial reading programs. (“Long-Awaited Study Shows ‘Success for All’ Gains,” May 11, 2005.)
Despite such evidence, some Success for All schools have been denied grants under Reading First, according to Robert Slavin, a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University and a founder of Success for All. Others, he charged, were pressured to switch to other commercial programs in order to get the money.
“Schools are being discouraged. … If they do apply [using Success for All], they are not getting funded,” Mr. Slavin said. “If they happen to get Reading First funding, they are put under enormous pressure to drop it or make modifications to gut it.”
“Reading First,” he said, “has really turned into a major disaster for us.”
According to an Education Department spokeswoman, Elaine Quesinberry, “many” Reading First schools use Success for All,
The California schools dropped from the program did not meet state requirements that one of two state-approved commercial programs—Houghton Mifflin and Open Court—be used in Reading First schools, according to Patricia Webb, a consultant with the state’s professional-development and curriculum-support division.
About 100 Success for All schools are in Reading First, Mr. Slavin said.
Telling the Tale
Complaints that the federal program tends to favor a handful of reading texts and experts have persisted since the program was rolled out in 2002. Federal officials have tried to dispel misconceptions that an “approved list” of products or consultants exists. Over the past several years, however, educators and publishers have continued to complain that the program is overly prescriptive.
Just last month, a former state education official in Georgia filed complaints with the state inspector general charging that officials had added requirements that resulted in texts she publishes being unfairly left out of the running for Reading First funds. (“Ga. Officials Admit Mistakes on ‘Reading First’ Rules,” May 11, 2005.)
Mr. Jennings, of the Center on Education Policy, said that policymakers and federal officials should be taking a closer look at those issues.
But federal officials say that states have chosen to be prescriptive in order to ensure that teachers adhere to proven practices.
“We’re looking forward to getting the next set of data from the [current] school year,” the Education Department’s Ms. Jacobs said. “It’s going to tell the tale.”