Rethinking Learning: Reading First's problems

President Bush’s Reading First program has had problems from the beginning. There are charges of conflicts of interest, budget fights, and now the Department of Education finds that it doesn’t work any better than approaches already in place. There was no difference in comprehension scores between students who participated in Reading First and those who did not.
"There was no statistically significant impact on reading comprehension scores in grades one, two or three," Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research arm, said in a briefing with reporters. He said students in both groups made gains.
"It’s possible that, in implementing Reading First, there is a greater emphasis on decoding skills and not enough emphasis, or maybe not correctly structured emphasis, on reading comprehension," he said. "It’s one possibility."
Whitehurst said there are other possible explanations. One, he said, is that the program "doesn’t end up helping children read." He said the program’s approach could be effective in helping students learn building-block skills yet not "take children far enough along to have a significant impact on comprehension." (Washington Post May 1, 2008)
The Institute of Education Statistics (IES) study:

Impacts were estimated for each study site and averaged across sites in proportion to their number of Reading First schools in the sample for years 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. Average impacts represent the average study school. On average:

* Reading First did not improve students’ reading comprehension.
The program did not increase the percentages of students in grades one, two, or three, whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level. In each of the three grades, fewer than half of the students in the Reading First schools were reading at or above grade level.

* Reading First increased total class time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction promoted by the
program. The program increased average class time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction by 8.56 minutes per daily reading block in grade one, and by 12.09 minutes per daily reading block in grade two. This implies a weekly increase of three quarters of an hour for grade one and one hour for grade two.

* Reading First increased highly explicit instruction in grades one and two and increased high quality student practice in grade two.
The program increased the percentage of class observational intervals spent on the five dimensions of reading instruction that involve highly explicit instruction by 3.65 percentage points in grade one and by 6.98 percentage points in grade two. The program also
increased the percentage of class observational intervals spent on the five dimensions of reading instruction that involve high quality student practice by 3.67 percentage points in grade two. There was virtually no observed change in grade one.

Reading First had mixed effects on student engagement with print. The program reduced the percentage of students engaged with print by a statistically significant 8.42 percentage points in grade two. The impact on student engagement with print in grade one (4.63 percentage points) was not statistically significant.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. chairman of the House education committee, said the report, "coupled with the scandals revealed last year, shows that we need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students."

Congressional investigators and Education Department Inspector General John Higgins previously found that federal officials and contractors didn’t adequately address potential conflicts of interest. For example, contractors that gave states advice on which teaching materials to buy had financial ties to publishers of Reading First materials. Higgins also testified that the department didn’t comply with the law when setting up panels that would review grant applications and in establishing criteria for teaching materials.

Rep. Millers stated "because of the corruption in the Reading First program, districts and schools were steered toward certain reading programs and products that may not have provided the most effective instruction for students."
RMC Research Corporation was the contractor hired by the federal government to help with Reading First under three contracts worth about $40 million. The contractor was subsequently criticized in an inspector general’s report for failing to adequately address conflict of interest issues by not sufficiently screening subcontractors for relationships with publishers of reading programs. [Thompson, 2006]
The findings “underscore the need for the Department of Education to ensure that contractors, subcontractors, and consultants are free from conflicts of interest,” says Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in the report. “The goal of the Reading First program is to help students learn to read and gain the skills they need for success and a lifetime of learning. Those implementing this program and other federal education programs must put the interests of students and schools before profits and politics." [Kennedy Report, 2007]

Guest contributor Barbara Bray is the President and CEO of My eCoach, an online learning community with collaboration, communication, curriculum, standards, resources, and coaching tools, all in one place. She blogs at http://barbarabray.my-ecoach.com.