Evaluating Reading First

Amber Winkler, Fordham’s new hire, jumps into the Reading First debate on Education Gadfly. Reading First has spread quickly to schools that aren’t offiicially in the program, she writes. That “contaminated” the schools that were supposed to be the control group.

In a different, state-based Reading First evaluation that I helped conduct, we found evidence that our comparison schools/districts were adopting many of the practices of the Reading First grantees, including concentrating on the five essential components of reading, hiring building-level literacy coaches, adopting 90-minute literacy blocks, and using the same core reading programs. (Not surprising since, as I understand it, the RF statute required participating RF districts to spread professional development based on scientifically-based reading research [SBRR] beyond their participating schools.)

Implementation is not a problem, she writes. Reading First schools are doing it right. And, possibly, so are other schools that missed out on funding.

D-Ed Reckoning offers a layman’s guide to the RF controversy.

Update: Sol Stern defends Reading First on City Journal.

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  1. That explanation of Reading First history and politics on D-Ed Reckoning was interesting and informative. It reminds me that I don’t know a lot. I’ve taught math, not reading, so I have no experience to draw on. But I’ve got a question.

    What is a “reading program”? I’m not sure I’m convinced that “reading program” is a valid concept. Wouldn’t a “reading program” basically be materials? And wouldn’t that basically mean textbooks, or literature books, or beginning reading books, or some sort of books? I can well imagine that in those materials would be a lot of instructions written down, and lot of guidance and advice on how to use those materials. But all those materials, instructions, guidance, and advice are not like a computer program, which a computer will execute with total exactness, and total mindlessness. One may certainly hope that a “program” has some coherence, some direction, some logic, and so on. But still it seems to me a “program” cannot be more than materials, a resource to be used. A kindergarten or a first grade teacher, I would hope, is not just an assembly line worker mindlessly doing what she is told to do. Surely she comes her classroom on the first day of a new school year with lots of plans and ideas of her own. She may be constrained in many ways, and subject to many requirements that she doesn’t care for. But still she is a person, not a computer, and not a cog in an assembly line. She will teach her children as best she can. She will try to make the best use of the materials she is given. It is still her show.

    So what is a “reading program”? I can well understand that one set of materials can be much more beneficial than another set of materials. As a math teacher I always have plenty of criticism about the textbook I’m stuck with at the moment. Some texts are better than others. But any text I use is simply a resource. It is a very important resource, to be sure. It can enable some things I want to do and cripple others. It can make my life hard or easy. But it does not come up to the level of being a “program”. Is a “reading program” fundamentally any different? If so, how? And most importantly, why should we expect the imposition of any particular “program” to improve learning? The teacher in the classroom was doing her best before being told that her school will be a “Reading First School”. The kids and the parents are still the same. The administration, whether good or bad, is still the same administration. And, unless I’ve missed something important, the ideas about teaching reading have been bandied about for at least a century.

    On what basis should we expect improvement? I don’t get it.

  2. A reading program can consist of as little as textbooks and related materials. in which case we should not expect much improvement if teachers continue to teach reading as they did before.

    However, the effective reading programs are presecriptive in nature and typically involve textbooks and materials, mastery tests, a system of data collection, multi-level coaching and administration(to make sure the school is implementing the program with fidelity).