NATION IN BRIEF: Reading program gets failing grade
From News Services
Published on: 05/02/08
The $6 billion reading program at the center of President Bush's signature education law has failed to make a difference in how well children understand what they read, according to a study by the program's own champion —- the U.S. Department of Education. The program, Reading First, was designed to help boost student performance in low-income elementary schools but failed to improve reading comprehension, says the study from the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the Education Department. There was no difference in comprehension scores between students who participated in Reading First and those who did not, the study found. The findings released Thursday threw the program's future into doubt. "We need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students," said Rep. George Miller (R-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee.
USA Today: Study: Bush's Reading First program ineffective
The results, issued Thursday, could serve as a knockout punch for the 6-year-old Reading First program — 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."
"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 — 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.