State and local education officials credit the federal Reading First initiative with helping to improve reading instruction and student achievement in participating schools, benefits they say have spread broadly to other schools, according to the third annual survey by a Washington research and advocacy group.
The study by the Center on Education Policy, set to be released Oct. 31, found general satisfaction among respondents. It concludes that despite problems with the implementation of the program—which resulted in several federal investigations and congressional hearings over the past two years—Reading First is worth preserving or expanding.
“You can see that Reading First is really having an effect that’s broader than just those schools that actually get grants,” said Caitlin Scott, the report’s author. “We’ve suspected for a while that many districts are using Reading First techniques in higher grades and non-Reading First schools, and this confirms it.”
Reading First is part of the nearly 6-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which is awaiting reauthorization by Congress. The goal of the program is to improve the reading skills of early-elementary pupils in the nation’s disadvantaged public schools.
Ups and Downs
Most respondents described the professional-development and instructional materials offered through the $1 billion-a-year program as “very” or “moderately” effective.
Titled “Reading First: Locally Appreciated, Nationally Troubled,” the report is based on responses from a nationally representative sample of 349 school districts and case studies of participating schools in nine districts: Boston; Chicago; Clark County, Nev.; Colorado Springs and Weld County in Colorado; Escondido Union, Palmdale Elementary, and Oakland Unified in California; and Kansas City, Kan.
Officials of the Weld district said they dropped Reading First after students’ test scores declined. Several of the districts reported that high teacher turnover and student mobility made it difficult to sustain some parts of the program. In Boston, however, nearly all the district’s 34 Reading First schools have used local funds to expand the instruction and assessment elements of the program into grades 4 and 5.
The federal Department of Education has commissioned several independent studies of Reading First that will review trends in student achievement, instruction, special education participation rates, and teacher preparation. An advisory committee appointed by the department to make recommendations for improving Reading First has expressed frustration with the lack of clear and adequate data on how schools and districts are faring in the program. (“‘Reading First’ Panel Awaits Program Evaluation Reports,” Oct. 24, 2007.)
Some experts in the field agree.
“What is pointed out [in the CEP report] is the perceived value of Reading First, especially in providing professional development,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, in Newark, Del. “But [the pending studies] could give us much more solid information on which to base decisions both about Reading First and the importance of continuing this funding.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as State, Local Officials Again Find ‘Reading First’ Useful