Reading First’s success

Reading First is working well, writes Sol Stern in the new City Journal. The problem is huge:

After a century and a half of universal public education, and despite the highest per-pupil expenditure on public elementary and secondary education in the world, 40 percent of U.S. fourth-graders are reading below the minimally acceptable level, according to the gold-standard NAEP test. For minority students in inner-city schools, the reading failure rate is a shocking 65 percent.

Stern contrasts a very poor, nearly all black district in Virginia that used Reading First to fund a new phonics program with an affluent suburban district that refused to change. The black students in the poor district, who started out way behind, now outscore black students in the wealthy district in reading and are closing in on all students in the wealthy district.

Alabama also is seeing dramatic results.

On state reading tests, Reading First students rocketed from 29 percent at grade level in 2004 to 39 percent in 2005 and 46 percent in 2006. On diagnostic reading tests for early-grade children, the Reading First cohort has — astonishingly, since it encompassed the lowest-performing students in the state — almost reached parity with Alabama’s broader student population.

On the other hand, New York City has botched implementation of Reading First, despite getting much more money per student than states like Alabama, Stern writes.

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  1. I always worry when someone says a program is working in one place, then excuses failure elsewhere by saying that implementation was botched.

    Too much opportunity to say “if it works, the program’s good; if it doesn’t work, the implementation is bad.”

    This is not to say that I don’t think NYC schools can mess things up – clearly they excell at that.