Understanding Reading First: What We Know, What We Don't, and What's Next

Will Compernolle

Corinne Herlihy, James Kemple, Howard Bloom, Pei Zhu, and Gordon Berlin
MDRC
June 2009

MDRC, one of the contractors that worked on the Institute of Education Sciences' final impact study of Reading First (RF), takes a second look at said study in these eight pages. In sum, RF may have been more successful than IES let on. First, MDRC explains, the timing of RF's grants made it harder for the program to show an impact. The first sites to get their RF money were also the sites that happened to be already using curricula in the mold of RF, which meant that the schools that had the longest window for RF to have an effect were already using RF materials. In fact, many districts were already using RF-recommended curricula by the time the program was fully implemented, thus limiting the effects that could specifically be attributed to RF. These schools, unsurprisingly, showed little improvement as a result of RF. The schools that were not already using RF-like curricula typically got their money later. These schools, which usually served disadvantaged students, had much greater room for improvement with RF's help. Unfortunately, IES's study methodology didn't account for the differences between these "early award sites" and "late award sites." Second, the actual 7-10 minute increase in "core elements of scientifically based reading instructional time" seen in most RF schools was too small to have a significant impact. (But, in schools where the time increase was substantially greater than average, the program did see gains in reading comprehension.) Overall, MDRC concludes that RF taught us three things: The recommendations of the National Reading Panel, which advocated the use of scientifically-based reading instruction, remain valid; it is possible to change teachers' instructional practices; and that improving student reading comprehension is difficult, and RF may have not been intensive enough. Despite the untimely and tragic death of RF, we should not be hopeless about the effects of quality reading programs, and perhaps some states and districts will see fit to spend part of their stimulus largesse on these effective initiatives. Read it here.

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