Study Questions 'No Child' Act's Reading Plan

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

Students enrolled in a $6 billion federal reading program that is at the heart of the No Child Left Behind law are not reading any better than those who don't participate, according to a U.S. government report.

The study released yesterday by the Department of Education's research arm found that students in schools that use Reading First, which provides grants to improve elementary school reading, scored no better on comprehension tests than their peers who attended schools that did not receive program money.

The conclusion is likely to reignite the longstanding "reading wars." Critics say that Reading First places too much emphasis on explicit phonics instruction and doesn't do enough to foster understanding.

Among Democrats on Capitol Hill, the report also revived allegations of conflicts of interest and mismanagement. Federal investigators have found that some people who helped oversee the program had financial ties to publishers of Reading First materials.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) yesterday called Reading First a "failure." Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate education committee, said the administration "put cronyism first and the reading skills of our children last."

Education Department officials said the study will help them better implement Reading First and said the program has the support of many educators across the country. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently likened the effort, aimed at improving instruction in schools with children from low-income families, to "the cure for cancer."

About 1.5 million children in about 5,200 schools, including more than 140 schools in Maryland, Virginia and the District, participate in Reading First.

Yesterday's report did not diminish the support of some local educators. Michele Goady, Maryland's director of Reading First, said she remains convinced that the effort is producing better readers. "We firmly believe we are having greater success with our beginning readers as a result of Reading First," she said.

The congressionally mandated study, completed by an independent contractor, focused on tens of thousands of first-, second- and third-grade students in 248 schools in 13 states. The children were tested, and researchers observed teachers in 1,400 classrooms.

Reading First was established as part of President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law. It requires participating schools to use instructional techniques supported by scientific research.

Teachers in Reading First classrooms spent about 10 minutes more each day on instruction in the five areas emphasized by the program -- awareness of individual sounds, phonics, vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension -- than colleagues in schools that didn't receive program grants, the study concluded. There was no difference when children were tested on how well they could read and understand material on a widely used exam.

"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."

Researchers said performance was higher in Reading First schools that spent more money per student.

Yesterday's report focused on Reading First instruction and didn't address controversy over management of the program.

A 2006 report from the Education Department's inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., found that some program officials steered states to certain tests and textbooks. Congressional testimony last year revealed that some of those officials benefited financially because of ties to companies that produced those products. Higgins said last year that he had referred his findings to the Justice Department. A spokesman for federal prosecutors said yesterday that an inquiry is pending.

Late last year, Congress, citing concerns about mismanagement, cut Reading First's funding for fiscal 2008 to $393 million. Previously, funding had been $1 billion annually.

Bush's fiscal 2009 budget seeks to restore funding to previous levels. In addition, the Education Department has been coaching states on how to find other federal dollars to preserve the program.

During a speech to educators in March, Spellings said that Reading First was one of most effective education programs she had encountered. "If ever a program was rooted in research and science and fact, this is it," she said.

Amanda Farris, deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in a statement that the department will use the report, along with other data, to better implement the program.

She said, "The department has been encouraged by numerous indicators over the last several months which point to the positive impact this program is having with our young readers."

Yesterday's report included data collected from 2004 to 2006. Researchers are continuing their work, and a final report is expected to be released in the fall.

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