Federal

Supplementary Reading Programs Found Ineffective

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 05, 2009 3 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions.

A federal study intended to provide insight on the effectiveness of supplementary programs for reading comprehension found that three such programs had no positive impact, while a fourth had a negative effect on student achievement.

In other words, the report concludes that none of the four programs studied—Project CRISS, ReadAbout, Read for Real, and Reading for Knowledge—is effective.

The large-scale randomized controlled study involved 6,350 students, who were all 5th graders, and 268 teachers in 10 urban districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students. The 89 schools in the study were randomly assigned either to use one of the reading curricula being reviewed or to a control group.

“It’s very distressing how hard it is to get bumps in the reading performance of students who are below grade level in reading after the primary grades,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in response to the study. “You do an intervention with a 2nd grader, you’re changing direction on a speedboat, but when you do an intervention with a 5th grader, you’re changing direction on an oil tanker,” said Ms. Snow, a reading expert.

The findings are particularly distressing because the reading programs studied aren’t “just phonological-awareness programs,” she added, but rather seem to embody the right components for boosting reading comprehension.

‘Real Teachers, Real Schools’

Researchers for the study—conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., for the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences—used a general reading test, the Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation, and reading-comprehension tests of science and social studies to measure student achievement. In addition, they factored in students’ composite scores for all tests.

They concluded that Project CRISS, developed by Creating Independence Through Student-Owned Strategies; ReadAbout, produced by Scholastic Inc., and Read for Real, created by Chapman University and Zaner-Bloser, had no effect on reading comprehension. All three programs are already marketed to and used by schools. In addition, the researchers found that Reading for Knowledge, a program adapted for the study from a reading program created and marketed by the Success for All Foundation, had a negative impact on the composite test scores and the science-comprehension test scores for students using that curriculum.

Susanne James-Burdumy, the project director for the study for Mathematica, said the mission of such a study is to “find out what works for real teachers in real schools,” which may be different from how the reading interventions held up in the “highly controlled settings” in which they were initially tested.

Conclusions Disputed

Robert E. Slavin, a researcher and the founder of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation, dismissed the study’s conclusions. In an e-mail message, he contended that “IES-sponsored evaluations repeatedly evaluate programs by imposing them on teachers and school leaders who are not interested in them and are likely to implement them haphazardly, if at all, and then find, over and over again, that nothing works.”

But Phoebe Cottingham, the commissioner for the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance at the federal agency, said “IES has never imposed on any teachers or schools programs, curricula, or new initiatives without their full cooperation.”

Mathematica worked hard during the recruiting stage to attract districts in which administrators and teachers were excited about participating, Ms. James-Burdumy said. Participation means free supplementary materials and professional development for schools. But, she added, not all educators in school districts may agree with the decision to take part.

Ms. James-Burdumy said the study found that 81 percent to 91 percent of teachers in the treatment groups reported they used the supplementary reading materials. Classroom observations revealed that across all four reading programs, teachers implemented 58 percent to 78 percent of the recommended practices.

Mr. Slavin also criticized the study for implementing the reading programs only in the 5th grade, which, he said, meant teachers had little support from colleagues in their schools to carry them out.

Harvard’s Ms. Snow noted that the findings of the study could be a reflection of the kinds of schools that participated more than the quality of the programs. “Highly challenged schools and districts don’t do a very good job of implementing anything,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week

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