Study: Bush's Reading First program ineffective
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By Greg Toppo
A $1 billion-a-year reading program that has been a pillar of the Bush administration's education plan doesn't have much impact on the reading skills of the young students it's supposed to help, a long-awaited federal study shows.
The results, issued Thursday, could serve as a knockout punch for the 6-year-old Reading First program ΓΆ€” Congress has already slashed funding 60%. Reading First last year was the subject of a congressional investigation into whether top advisers improperly benefited from contracts for textbooks and testing materials they designed, and whether the advisers kept some textbook publishers from qualifying for funding.
Advocates of Reading First, an integral part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, have long maintained that its emphasis on phonics, scripted instruction by teachers and regular, detailed analyses of children's skills, would raise reading achievement, especially among the low-income kids it targets. But the new study by the U.S. Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) shows that children in schools receiving Reading First funding had virtually no better reading skills than those in schools that didn't get the funding.
The large-scale study looked at students in first through third grade from 2004 through 2006. For each of three samples, researchers studied 30,000 to 40,000 students, says IES Director Russ Whitehurst. "This is a big study."
On the plus side, researchers found that Reading First teachers spent more time emphasizing phonics and other aspects of what many experts consider solid instruction ΓΆ€” about 10 minutes more a day, or nearly an hour more a week. "Teachers' behavior was changed," Whitehurst says.
But for all their effort, the study shows, their students' reading scores on standardized tests were nearly indistinguishable from those of students in other schools; in many cases, they may have been using the same materials, but their teachers may not have received the same training.
"For all intents and purposes, the kids read at the same level in each grade," Whitehurst says.
Congressional Democrats were quick to point out the program's ties to President Bush. In a statement, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the Bush administration "has put cronyism first and the reading skills of our children last and this report shows the disturbing consequences. Instead of awarding scarce education dollars to reading programs that make a difference for our children, the administration chose to reward its friends instead."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who presided over the April 2007 hearings, 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."
While critics will likely say the data portray Reading First as an expensive failure, Whitehurst speculates that the study may simply suggest that schools need to spend even more time on phonics and the like.
But he also notes that states that got Reading First money earlier in the program's history actually got worse results than those that more recently got their federal funding. The difference may be unrelated to years spent in the program, Whitehurst says, as schools in more recently funded states tend to spend more per student to implement the program.
He also says school districts may have spread their cash thin ΓΆ€” they can use up to 20% of their Reading First funding outside of Reading First schools to improve reading skills districtwide. Eligible schools have high numbers of students from low-income families.
Education analyst Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports Reading First, says the study was poorly designed and "certainly not the last word on Reading First's effectiveness."
For one thing, he says, researchers looked at "lackluster" Reading First schools that just barely qualified for grants, comparing them to schools that just barely missed getting grants.
Whitehurst stands by the research, saying researchers vetted the schools in advance. "It's not a valid criticism."
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings had no immediate comment, but in a statement, Amanda Farris, the deputy assistant secretary who oversees Reading First, said Spellings consistently hears from educators and administrators "about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools and their disappointment with Congress for slashing Reading First funds."
"We know ΓΆ€” and this IES study further proves ΓΆ€” that Reading First funding has an impact on teaching practices," she said.
Thursday's results are part of an interim study; a more complete analysis that followed students through the 2006-2007 school year could show more promising results when it's released in November.
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