Reading First provides grants to low-performing, high-poverty schools that use “scientifically based instructional techniques and assessments that are valid, reliable and administered in a timely manner.” Where schools and states are following Reading First guidelines, the achievement gap is closing for disadvantaged students in K-3, Barbash writes. There are long-term benefits as well:
The program has elevated universal early literacy as an important national policy goal and weakened the resistance to teach and above all assess reading skills in the early grades. . . .
The program is forging a consensus on how and how often to assess reading skills, and on the need to use the results quickly to reshape instruction. Reading First educators may not always know what to do about their students’ data, but they can no longer ignore it, as they could when it didn’t exist or when it wasn’t scientifically valid. The program is generating a trove of meaningful data on early childhood reading achievement and a serious attempt to make sense of it.
Publishers are improving early readers to match the research, he adds.
The main difference between Reading First and its failed predecessor, the Reading Excellence Act, is that Reading First adds money for external evaluation and allows grants to be cut off if evaluators find a grantee has failed to follow the program’s guidelines or produce adequate gains in student achievement.
There’s still enormous resistance to Reading First, Barbash writes. Just because students are learning doesn’t mean the program will survive.