THE BLOG
05/07/2008 11:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Reading First a Flop?

"Reading First] focuses on putting proven methods of early reading instruction in classrooms. Through Reading First, states and districts receive support to apply scientifically based reading research--and the proven instructional and assessment tools consistent with this research -- to ensure that all children learn to read well by the end of third grade." Thus speaks the U. S. Department of Education's web page on Reading First. The program has cost taxpayers $6 billion.

"Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and President Bush have consistently extolled Reading First as a highly effective program." On the basis of what is hard to say. Until recently there were no data. Spellings she had heard it from state and local administrators. Well, sure. We'll take the money and say it's a good thing. Unlike NCLB, the RF (I know, it can stand for something else, too) money, spent in grades 1, 2, and 3 doesn't come with a series of graduated nasty punishments if goals are not met.

Now, some data have arrived from a study of 30,000 to 40,000 students in each of three years. On a measure of reading comprehension, Reading First students didn't do any better than students in similar schools without the program.

How come?

My guess is a mismatch between the program and the outcome measure. RF was supposed to include five "essential elements" in reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. From what I have heard, though, and from what a number of reading experts said in articles about the study, the program concentrated on the first three. Well, if you emphasize decoding and fluency and then test for comprehension, well, duh, why would you expect improvement?

There are other possibilities. Some of the non-Reading First schools used the same curricula and Reading First schools. We don't know how well the program was implemented. In the lore of education, many a fine program has failed because of implementation problems.

Finally, a new instrument was developed to observe teachers teaching reading. Teachers' behaviors were coded in three-minute intervals. A behavior during the interval was coded only once. Although observers showed great interrater agreement on what behaviors were taught, in, say, ten three-minute intervals, a teacher who taught comprehension skills one minute in each interval would look identical to a teacher who taught comprehension for the entire 30 minutes. Could make a difference.

Reading First also came with a lot of political baggage after the Department's Inspector General found evidence of conflicts of interest. Said Rep. George Miller about the latest study, "This report makes it shamefully clear that the only individuals benefiting from this significant investment were the president's cronies--not the school-children the program was intended to serve." (Congress had already cut the 2008 budget by 60% predicated largely on the earlier scandal).

Russ Whitehurst, director of the Department's Institute of Education Sciences, which directed the study, said one possible explanation of the results is "that scientifically based reading instruction doesn't work." I was taught psychology both as an undergraduate and graduate student by people who held that psychology could be a science. But, as someone who learned to read primarily by lying on the kitchen floor under the sink eating potato chips from a can resting on newspapers (full explanation to anyone interested), and the father of a daughter whose reading skills declined when she entered school and hit phonics, my intuition is that with 25 first graders and a teacher, the scientific teaching of reading is impossible.