Reading & Literacy

Reading First Doesn’t Help Pupils ‘Get it’

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 01, 2008 7 min read

The $1 billion-a-year Reading First program has had no measurable effect on students’ reading comprehension, on average, although participating schools are spending significantly more time teaching the basic skills that researchers say children need to become proficient readers, a major federal report finds.

The long-awaited interim report from the Reading First Impact Study, released last week by the Institute of Education Sciences, says that students in schools receiving grants from the federal program have not fared any better than their counterparts in comparison schools in gaining meaning from print.

That central finding in the first national study of Reading First’s effect on student reading achievement, however, does not necessarily signal that the program, or the evidence-based instructional model it is based on, isn’t working, federal officials said.

“There are at least four possibilities for the results. One is that scientifically based reading instruction … doesn’t work,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the institute, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. “Another possibility is that the instruction works, but it was not sufficient enough to have an impact on reading comprehension” even if it improved decoding skills, reading fluency, and vocabulary, he said.

Many states have reported gains on tests measuring those basic skills. But these results could be muted by other factors as well, Mr. Whitehurst said, such as variations in how the program is being implemented and the extension of the program’s practices to nonparticipating schools.

Reading First was authorized under the 6-year-old No Child Left Behind Act to help improve reading instruction in the nation’s struggling schools. It requires schools receiving the federal grants to incorporate scientifically based reading research, which was defined by the National Reading Panel, in an influential 2000 report, as explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

While the reasons for the results may be unclear, the report is likely to provide supporting data for both proponents and critics of the program, Mr. Whitehurst said.

The reading panel’s recommendations became the basis for state policies shortly after they were issued, and were then incorporated into the Reading First legislation. But critics of the 2000 report say it was too narrowly focused and based only on a limited number of studies that met the panel’s rigorous review standards.

“Yes, Reading First is a failure,” said Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and a vocal critic of the program. “We know from a number of very reputable scholars that there are serious flaws in the National Reading Panel report,” he said, “and now we have experience implementing [the panel’s recommendations], and the application confirms that the critics were correct.”

Issues of Funding

Federal officials disputed such claims. “Secretary Spellings has traveled to 20 states since January. One of the consistent messages she hears from educators, principals, and state administrators is about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools and their disappointment with Congress for slashing Reading First funds by 60 percent this year,” said Amanda Farris, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives.

Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the federal Reading First Advisory Committee, called the results “disappointing.”

“It’s a lot of money, and a lot of hard work being done by teachers and others, and you would hope to see some progress from that,” said Mr. Shanahan, a consultant on the report and a member of the national Reading Panel.

He believes that Reading First should continue, but suggests that there be more discussion about how it can be implemented better.

Some of the findings of the Institute of Education Sciences’ report suggest that further investment in Reading First could prove fruitful. Districts that spent more per student from their Reading First money showed greater gains in reading-comprehension scores. An additional $100 per student, for example, translated into 3 additional points on the comprehension test that was given to students as part of the study.

Impact of Reading First

Students’ understanding of reading material did not change significantly whether or not they were in Reading First schools. In this example, researchers estimated what would have happened in Reading First schools absent the federal funding during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years.

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Source: Institute of Education Sciences

Congress cut the budget for the program, however, from the $1 billion it had received each year since it was rolled out in 2002 to $393 million for the 2008 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The cuts came amid a backlash on Capitol Hill after a series of federal reports suggested conflicts of interest had occurred among officials and contractors who helped implement the program. Some had ties to commercial reading programs used in participating schools. In his budget for fiscal 2009, President Bush—a major champion of the program—has proposed restoring the money.

In a harshly worded statement, Rep. George Miller, the chairman of the House education committee, lashed out at the Bush administration and called for the program to be re-evaluated.

From the outset, Mr. Miller said, the Reading First program, has been plagued “by severe mismanagement, poor implementation, and gross conflicts of interest.”

“Despite these serious issues, I had nevertheless hoped that the program would produce better results than these,” the Democrat from California said. “Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent administering this program over the years. This report makes it shamefully clear that the only individuals benefiting from this significant investment were the president’s cronies—not the school-children this program was intended to serve. ... That may explain why we are seeing these results today.”

The report, “coupled with the scandals revealed last year,” Rep. Miller continued, “shows that we need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students.”

Content Neglected?

Many observers have praised Reading First for drawing attention to the need for better reading instruction and the potential for using research findings to move more students to proficiency in the subject. But educators have also raised concerns that the extended blocks of instructional time devoted to reading in many participating schools have focused too much on basic skills, at the expense of reading literature and nonfiction.

One finding from the impact study suggests that students in Reading First schools are not getting as much exposure to a variety of reading materials as they may need. The program, the study says, has “reduced the percentage of students engaged with print.”

Such results may reflect an emphasis on the most elementary skills over others, some experts say.

“There’s been a very strong focus on the decoding side of things, and not nearly enough focus on critical thinking and understanding,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del. “I hope this report stimulates people to pay attention to reading instruction much more comprehensively.”

The reading panel’s report eight years ago did not address the importance of background knowledge in building students’ reading skills and their ability to understand subject-area texts. But some scholars argue those areas are essential as well.

“It’s been the neglect of content, is my hunch, that accounts for this lack of significant progress in comprehension,” said E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While teaching basic skills is necessary and, done efficiently, can help teachers in presenting subject matter, he added, “the teaching of content and interesting content has been much neglected.”

Extra Time

Reading First has resulted in schools’ devotion of increased time to reading instruction, the study found. Students in participating schools receive as much as an additional hour of instruction each week over non-Reading First schools, which is considered significant. Previous federal studies on Reading First’s implementation have found that teachers are spending more time teaching the skills outlined by the National Reading Panel, and that they are receiving more professional development and coaching to help them do so.

But schools may not have spent enough time teaching all the essential skills, said Richard Long, the IRA’s government-affairs director.

“The emphasis in most Reading First classrooms was only on some of the five critical elements,” he said. “As important as working on specific skills is, you can’t just do that and assume the other skills will emerge by themselves.”

Critics of Reading First said the study shows the extra time has not been well spent.

“The children in Reading First schools are getting a lot of extra reading instruction, and even if this additional instruction were mildly effective, it should show up [in test results] and it’s not,” said Mr. Krashen of USC. “That’s time that’s being robbed from recess and science class, and the children are getting nothing in return.”

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