Abt Associates
November 2008

It's here. The Final Reading First (RF) Evaluation by the Education Department's very own Institute of Education Sciences (as contracted out to Abt). The headline? Analysts found no statistically significant differences between RF and non-RF schools on student reading comprehension in grades one, two, or three--as evidenced by three years of achievement data. Not good. On a more positive (and unsurprising note), it also found that RF teachers spent significantly more time teaching the five essential components of reading instruction and RF schools did a significantly better job of providing instructional support to teachers (e.g., help for struggling readers, professional development in scientifically based reading instruction, etc). The key to understanding this study is to recall that there are five components of successful early reading as determined by the National Reading Panel: comprehension, phonics (including decoding), vocabulary, oral fluency, and phonemic awareness. It takes all five to learn how to read but this study only studied the first two--and the second of these but for a single year in one grade of the 3-year study. Although Abt found in that one year snapshot that RF did have a positive impact on decoding among first grade students, such last minute antics are not enough to know conclusively. Many in the research community complained (including me) that only measuring comprehension (and decoding, briefly) does not effectively evaluate "reading achievement" (especially with a $6 billion price tag). But excessive cost, contamination, and unrepresentative sample outcries aside (the report claims that statistical differences in instructional practices make the former less likely), the data don't bode well for a program rife with political drama. This study, narrow or not, may administer the coup de grace to this worthy but mortally ill patient. Find it here.

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