Reading & Literacy

Latest ‘Reading First’ Study Reports Limited Benefits

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 10, 2008 4 min read
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The basic principles of the Reading First program have been widely implemented in participating schools, but those changes have resulted in limited student-achievement gains, concludes the final implementation report on the federal initiative released late last week by the U.S. Department of Education.

The report describes the extent of the program’s reach to schools not getting Reading First funds. They have reported adopting many of the same practices as participating schools, such as an extended reading block, scientifically based instructional materials, professional development, and use of assessment data.

But the schools that shared in the $1 billion in annual federal grants tended to incorporate those tenets more fully, the report says.

“In general, we find reading practices in [Reading First] schools and non-RF schools are similar in many ways, and have changed similarly over time in ways that are consistent with RF principles,” the study says. “We also find across a variety of indicators, that reading instructional time, professional development, use of reading resources, and supports [are] more widely available or extensively utilized in RF schools.”

Federal officials said the report offers evidence that Reading First is having a positive effect on participating schools and Title I schools more broadly.

“More than ever, our nation’s youngest readers are benefiting from the additional time, resources, and access to research-based support that Reading First has provided,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement. “We know that even Title I schools that are not receiving Reading First funds are applying many of the same strategies as those that are ... and seeing results.”

The evidence of those results, in terms of improvements in student test scores, were statistically significant in some states but “small in magnitude,” according to the report.

The data for 3rd grade state reading assessments, for example, showed limited gains in half the 24 states sampled. On the 4th grade assessments, six of 17 states in the study saw improvements on at least one of four measures. The results were based on state-reported assessment data.

Conducted by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates Inc., the report is the follow-up to an interim one released two years ago. That review found that Reading First schools that are part of the federal Title I program for disadvantaged schools had changed their approach to reading instruction significantly compared with their counterparts not taking part in the federal reading program. (Reading First Schools: More Reading Going On, Study Finds, Aug. 9, 2006.)

The final study, posted on the Education Department’s Web site Oct. 9, takes a closer look at changes in student achievement in participating and comparison schools. It includes data from surveys submitted by more than 1,000 Reading First schools and some 500 Title I schools that are not in the program.

Data Unclear

Nearly seven years after Reading First was launched under the No Child Left Behind Act, with the goal of improving reading instruction and achievement in struggling schools, there is little definitive data on the program’s effectiveness. Moreover, the series of studies conducted on various aspects of the program have often provided confusing and sometimes conflicting data.

An interim federal impact study released earlier this year by the Institute of Education Sciences, the department’s research arm, found that Reading First funding had no measurable effect, on average, on students’ reading comprehension. (“‘Reading First’ Research Offers No Definitive Answers,” June 4, 2008.)

That complex study had a more rigorous design, but was widely criticized for its complicated analysis. A number of researchers said the study failed to consider fully the impact of non-Reading First schools that have largely adopted the tenets of the program. That contamination, critics of the report said, makes it less likely that the two categories of schools would have significant differences in reading performance. The final impact study is expected later this year.

Supporters of Reading First are hoping the final study will provide some ammunition for their efforts to save the program, which was handed a 62 percent funding cut in the fiscal 2008 federal budget. Two congressional panels proposed eliminating the program altogether in 2009.

“There is a real difference in the amount of instructional time across the groups, but the amount of time difference is marginal in terms of likelihood of improving kids’ learning,” Timothy Shanahan, the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in an e-mail. “The differences between Reading First and non-RF schools shrank each year,” he said. “This is partly due to RF requiring all of the changes in [the first year of implementation] and partly due to non-RF schools adopting Reading First strategies” later.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Latest ‘Reading First’ Study Reports Limited Benefits

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