Education Funding

Striving Readers Pilot Yields Results as Budget Ax Falls

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 04, 2011 5 min read
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Even as Congress eliminated funding for the $250 million Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program in a stopgap spending bill enacted last week, continuing research from the pilot that inspired it is starting to show some benefits for struggling adolescent readers.

The original Striving Readers research project, launched by the Bush administration in 2006 and now in the last year of a five-year grant cycle, evaluates the effectiveness of “research-based” literacy interventions at eight sites nationwide for middle and high school students who read at least two years below grade level.

While an earlier 2007-08 implementation study found little benefit for students who participated in the programs, preliminary year-four results from five of the sites, presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness conference in Washington on March 3, show greater improvements, particularly in comprehension, for students in several of the program sites.

The final reports for year four will not be released by the U.S. Department of Education until summer.

“It was more than a demonstration program; it was a form of policy research,” said Richard M. Long, the executive director for government relations for the International Reading Association and the National Title I Association. “The hope was that Striving Readers [the research pilot] could start building the expectation, the knowledge base, so that the larger program could take advantage of that.”

Yet evaluators admit that the research, while growing stronger, has yet to prove conclusively what helps older students learn to read, and the wide variety in effects and levels of implementation among different sites could make it difficult for policymakers to use the research to inform the next iteration of federal literacy programs.

Expanding the Effort

Concern about low literacy rates among secondary students has only grown since the research project was launched. One in four 8th graders cannot demonstrate even basic literacy, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2009. That was partly why, in spite of lackluster initial results from the Bush-era Striving Readers research project, Congress last year approved President Barack Obama’s proposal for an expanded competitive-grant program of the same name.

The Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program is intended to boost the capacity of eight to 12 states to improve literacy for children from birth through 12th grade. States are just now submitting the initial literacy plans required before the competitive-grant competition was slated to open later this month. It is uncertain how much state officials relied on those initial results of the Striving Readers research project in developing the secondary school portion of their own plans.

Latest Findings

The latest studies differ from evaluations released in 2009 of five of the eight sites, including in San Diego and Chicago, which found students who participated in the programs did not improve significantly more than their peers who did not participate.

The preliminary results released on March 3 cover sites for five grants: five schools in the Springfield and Chicopee school districts in Massachusetts; 19 middle schools in Newark, N.J.; 10 middle and high schools in Portland, Ore.; eight middle schools in an unnamed, large city in the mid-South; and seven youth detention facilities serving secondary school students in Ohio.

While Chicago used a home-grown literacy intervention for its Striving Readers program, those five sites implemented two widely used literacy programs. One of those programs, New York-based Scholastic, Inc.’s Read 180 program, includes a 90-minute instructional block each day in which students rotate between an adaptive computer reading program and small-group instruction. The other, the xTreme Reading program developed by the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, includes collaborative professional development for teachers and 45-minute blocks of differentiated instruction, including teacher-modeled reading and peer-paired reading, which can supplement or replace regular reading instruction.

The year-four results remain mixed, but are more promising. Three out of the four sites that used Read 180—Springfield/Chicopee in Massachusetts, Newark, N.J., and Ohio—found that participants significantly improved in some aspect of reading, usually comprehension, by the third year they participated. The mid-South site found no significant effects. Of the two sites that used xTreme Reading—Portland and Springfield/Chicopee—Portland found significant positive effects for participating students, particularly in middle school.

Ohio faced the most difficult implementation battle and showed the strongest results, according to William Loadman, the principal investigator for the Ohio Striving Readers grant and a professor emeritus of educational policy and leadership at Ohio State University in Columbus. Students who participated in the Read 180 intervention improved their reading score on the SRI Reading Lexile by 57.37 points more than the control group on a scale of 0-to-1,000—a significant difference. Those who stayed in the program for the equivalent of four quarters improved in reading 88 points per year, more than the average high school student gains annually, Mr. Loadman said.

Newark students who participated in the Read 180 program for two years showed significantly greater improvement than peers in reading comprehension, and the effect grew stronger for those who participated for three years, said Jennifer Hamilton, a senior study director for Newark’s evaluator, the Rockville, Md.-based Westat. Participating special education students showed significantly more growth in vocabulary the first year, comprehension the second year and overall language-arts skills in the third year, she said.

By contrast, Jill Feldman, director of evaluation for Research for Better Schools of Philadelphia and the evaluator for the mid-South site, found no significant benefits for students who participated.

“As the research community reflects on these findings,” she said, “I would just put out there that we have some work to do in trying to balance the studies that are disseminated so that we aren’t skewing decisions toward use of interventions for which there’s compelling unpublished evidence that they don’t produce better effects than business as usual.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Results Improving for ‘Striving Readers’ Pilots

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