The federal effort to bolster emergent literacy skills has yielded some improvement in preschoolers’ knowledge of letters and understanding of print concepts, but has had little effect on other skills deemed critical precursors to reading, an evaluation released last week by the Institute of Education Sciences concludes .
The final report on the Early Reading First program, conducted by outside researchers under contract to the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found the program has had the most significant effect in improving classroom activities and materials, as well as teacher practices related to literacy development.
Teachers in participating classrooms received far more professional development, mentoring, and tutoring on literacy and curriculum topics than their counterparts in nonfunded classrooms, as much as 48 more hours per year, the study found. Children in Early Reading First classes had higher-quality interactions with teachers, greater access to literacy-building activities, more early-writing exercises, and regular screening and assessment of their skills.
But the program appeared to have no effect on the preschoolers’ oral-language skills, social or emotional development, or phonological processing—awareness of the sounds that make up words.
Some experts say the results show that while Early Reading First is beneficial for improving the field, they raise questions about why the program did not appear to impact some of the central areas it targeted.
“We don’t think we should abandon Early Reading First, ... but we need to think about what we have to do to change it for better outcomes and better professional-development opportunities,” said Adele Robinson, the associate executive director for policy and public affairs for the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Under the Early Reading First initiative, which was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, about 150 local education agencies and public and private early-childhood programs have shared some $450 million in federal grants since 2002 for improving school readiness among disadvantaged preschool children. Grants ranged from $750,000 to $4.5 million over three years.
The evaluation looked at child-outcome data and teacher practices in 28 of the 30 sites that received the three-year grant in fiscal 2003, and compared the results with those at 37 sites that had applied for but did not get funding.
Potential Conflicts Outlined
The report is the first from the IES to include a disclosure of potential conflicts of interest among contractors involved in such evaluations. In this case, it outlines the role of a subcontractor and consultant in the evaluation, and their connections to assessments used to gauge the program’s progress.
The institute has always required contractors to disclose professional and financial ties that might conflict with their role in such evaluations. But IES officials decided to publish such disclosures as a result of reports by the Education Department’s inspector general and subsequent congressional hearings that highlighted potential conflicts of interest in the federal Reading First program, according to IES Director Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Evaluation Indicates Limited Effects Under Early Reading First Program