The federal Reading First initiative has led to improved reading instruction, assessment, and student achievement in schools taking part in the $1 billion-a-year grant program, as well as in some of the nonparticipating schools in districts that have widely adopted its principles, a study released last week concludes.
“Participating schools and districts have made many changes in reading curriculum, instruction, assessment, and scheduling,” the report by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy says. “Many districts have expanded Reading First instructional programs and assessment systems to non-Reading First schools.”
Titled “Keeping Watch on Reading First,” the Sept. 20 report by the research and advocacy group is based on a 2005 survey of all 50 states and a nationally representative sample of some 300 school districts in the federal Title I program, as well as case studies of 38 of those districts and selected schools.
Some 1,700 districts and more than 5,600 schools receive grants under Reading First, which was authorized by the No Child Left Behind Act.
While hard data, such as test-score comparisons, are still not available, the survey results show that “with scientifically based research, strict requirements [for following research findings], and substantial funding, you can bring about results,” said CEP President Jack Jennings.
Nineteen of the 35 states that reported their reading programs had improved in the past few years identified Reading First as a key contributor. The 4½-year-old program requires state and local grantees to meet strict guidelines for using texts, assessments, and teaching methods that reflect research findings on effective reading instruction. The initiative also provides money for intensive professional development for teachers in Reading First schools and in other schools within participating districts.
More Reviews Coming
The results echo those of an interim report on the program released over the summer that was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. (“Reading First Schools: More Reading Going On, Study Finds,” Aug. 9, 2006.)
That report, by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates, was also based on survey results, interviews, and a review of state grant proposals. Test-score data from Reading First participants will be part of the final report, which is expected next year.
For a report called “Keeping Watch on Reading First,” the Center on Education Policy in Washington surveyed states and school districts about the impact of the Reading First program in the 2004-05 school year:
*Click image to see the full chart.
SOURCE: Center on Education Policy
Other reports on the program are also due out soon, including the results of audits by the Education Department’s inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Those reviews are focusing on complaints alleging mismanagement of the program, particularly early in its implementation, and on alleged favoritism in the awarding of Reading First contracts. (“Inspector General to Conduct Broad Audits of Reading First,” Nov. 9, 2005.)
“I know there is still great controversy with the program,” said Mr. Jennings, who is a former longtime aide to Democrats on the U.S. House of Representatives’ education committee. “But from what we’re being told by the states, it’s having a positive impact on student achievement, instruction, and assessment in reading.”
Some experts said the CEP report is in line with what they are seeing in their own states.
“When I review the data from our state, we see huge [growth] in achievement” in Reading First schools, Diane Barone, a professor of literacy at the University of Nevada, Reno, wrote in an e-mail.
Ms. Barone, a board member of the International Reading Association, said that 21 of the 27 schools in the Reading First program in Nevada made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law in English language arts for the 2005-06 school year, compared with just six the previous school year.
“This was an amazing result,” she added.
But others question whether Reading First is pushing too narrow an approach to reading instruction. With more attention on basic skills, for example, reading comprehension may be suffering, said Maryann Manning, an IRA board member who is a professor of education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“We have every terrible commercial reading program published in use in our Reading First schools,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Narrowing the achievement gap on letter identification and the number of sighted words read in isolation is of no value on reading comprehension.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Reading First’ Appears to Prompt Improvement