Reading & Literacy

Tutoring Program Found Effective, Despite Cold Shoulder Under Reading First

By Debra Viadero & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 20, 2007 3 min read
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Reading Recovery, a popular tutoring program for struggling 1st grade readers that has been a target of criticism in recent years from the Bush administration, has received a rare thumbs-up rating from the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.

The positive rating comes after prominent researchers and federal reading officials sought to keep states from using money from the federal Reading First program to pay for Reading Recovery. They had argued in e-mail messages, letters, and in conversations with state reading officials that the program lacked a scientific research base attesting to its effectiveness.

“I think this is good news for all the school superintendents who kept Reading Recovery alive in their schools,” said Jady Johnson, the executive director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, a nonprofit group based in Worthington, Ohio. “I’m hoping this report will signal a change in direction for the department.”

Imported to the United States from New Zealand in 1984, Reading Recovery is an intensive, one-to-one tutoring program that targets the lowest-achieving 1st graders. It is used by more than 100,000 students a year in 7,500 schools across the country, according to the council.

In the What Works review, which was posted online yesterday afternoon, the clearinghouse found that the program had “positive” effects—the highest evidence rating possible—on students’ alphabetic skills and general reading achievement. The reviewers also determined that the program had “potentially positive” effects, the next-highest rating, on students’ reading fluency and comprehension.

That’s high praise from the clearinghouse, which critics have dubbed the “nothing works” clearinghouse because so few education studies have met its strict standards of evidence.

For the Reading Recovery review, analysts reviewed 78 studies and found five that met the What Works criteria to one degree or another. Most of the five studies, which involved a total of 700 students, were experiments in which groups of students were randomly assigned to either a Reading Recovery group or a comparison group.

“Our job is not to weigh in on whether Reading First had the right curricula or not in the programs that districts have chosen,” said Phoebe H. Cottingham, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, which oversees the clearinghouse. “We’re simply giving people research facts so they can decide on their own how much weight they want to put on the findings and make their own judgments.”

Participation Slips

The review by the clearinghouse is not the first report from the Education Department to prompt questions, indirectly or directly, about the department’s handling of the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program.

A scathing report issued last fall—the first of six conducted in a broad review by the department’s inspector general—determined that federal officials had steered the grant-application process to ensure that particular reading programs were widely used by schools. At the same time, the Sept. 22 report found, those officials also actively worked to shut out other programs, such as Reading Recovery, despite their research track records. Reading Recovery was one of three organizations whose complaints to the inspector general prompted the inquiry.

In May 2002, a group of reading researchers also launched a campaign against the one-on-one tutoring program, outlining in a three-page paper arguments against allowing use of the program in Reading First schools. The researchers questioned the program’s effectiveness and what they saw as its high cost. They offered summaries of studies on Reading Recovery that proved, they contended, that “it is not successful with its targeted student population, the lowest-performing students.”

Among the 31 researchers who signed the statement were several who served as advisers to the Education Department on Reading First. They included Sharon Vaughn, who became the director of the Reading First technical-assistance center for the central region, based at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Reading Recovery’s Ms. Johnson, the negative publicity and the department’s efforts made a sizable dent in the popularity of the program. The number of students participating, she said, dropped from 159,000 a year in 2002 to around 109,000 four years later.

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