Reading & Literacy

No Effect on Comprehension Seen From ‘Reading First’

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 19, 2008 3 min read
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The $6 billion funding for the federal Reading First program has helped more students “crack the code” to identify letters and words, but it has not had an impact on reading comprehension among 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders in participating schools, according to one of the largest and most rigorous studies ever undertaken by the U.S. Department of Education.

While more time is spent on reading instruction and professional development in schools that received Reading First grants than in comparison schools, students in participating schools are no more likely to become proficient readers, even after several years with the extended instruction, the study found.

Among both the Reading First and comparison groups, reading achievement was low, with fewer than half of 1st graders, and fewer than 40 percent of 2nd and 3rd graders showing grade-level proficiency in their understanding of what they read. On a basic decoding test, however, 1st graders in Reading First schools scored significantly better than their peers in the comparison schools.

The final report of the Reading First Impact Study, released today by the Institute of Education Sciences, is part of the $40 million evaluation process for the program, which was rolled out in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Advocates for the program will be pleased that it’s shown a positive correlation on [improved] decoding skills ... the focus of the program,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the outgoing director of the institute, the Education Department’s research arm. “I don’t think anyone should be celebrating the fact that the federal government invested $6 billion in a reading program that has shown no effects on reading comprehension.”

The study compares Reading First schools with similar schools in the same districts that are not part of the program to determine the effect of the additional funding on reading instruction, students’ reading proficiency, and the relationship between reading instruction and students’ comprehension.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 students in grades 1, 2, and 3 were given a reading-comprehension test four times between fall 2004 and spring 2007. The students attended nearly 250 schools in 17 districts and a statewide jurisdiction, none of which is identified in the report. Half the schools were taking part in the Reading First program and were compared with similar schools within their districts.

The study was also based on extensive classroom observations to identify the instructional practices in both types of schools, as well as surveys of teachers, principals, and reading coaches.

Different Approaches

Some federal officials chose to highlight the positive aspects in the report, while acknowledging the lack of improvement in reading comprehension.

“Reading First helps our most vulnerable students learn the fundamental elements of reading while helping teachers improve instruction,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement. “Instead of reversing the progress we have made by cutting funding, we must enhance Reading First and help more students benefit from research-based instruction.”

An interim report on the findings, released in May, drew scathing criticism from supporters of the program, who suggested the design of the study was flawed because it did not consider the likelihood that Reading First principles and practices had spread to schools outside the program. (“Reading First Doesn’t Help Pupils ‘Get it’,” May 7, 2008.)

Other studies have found that a significant proportion of schools serving struggling students have incorporated explicit instruction in the basic reading skills that have been found to be essential in learning to read—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—and are the foundations of the Reading First program.

But Mr. Whitehurst dismissed those claims yesterday, saying that although there may be some “bleed over” into non-Reading First schools, the classroom observations and survey data show that the schools are not so similar.

“The schools were not doing the same thing,” he said. “There were differences in professional development, there were differences in their use of reading coaches, ... and there were significant differences in classroom practices.”

The program came under scrutiny for management problems at the Education Department during implementation, and later lost nearly 62 percent of its $1 billion annual allocation in the fiscal 2008 federal budget. Two congressional panels have recommended that funding be eliminated altogether in the fiscal 2009 budget, which has yet to be finalized in Congress.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as No Effect on Comprehension Seen From ‘Reading First’

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