Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; A06
Students in the $6 billion Reading First program have not made greater progress in understanding what they read than have peers outside the program, according to a congressionally mandated study.
The final version of the study, released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education, found that students in schools that use Reading First, a program at the core of the No Child Left Behind law, scored no better on comprehension tests than students in similar schools that do not get the funding.
"It is a program that needs to be improved," said Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the department's research arm. "I don't think anyone should be celebrating that the federal government has spent $6 billion on a reading program that has had no impact on reading comprehension."
Whitehurst said the study showed some benefits. First-graders in Reading First classrooms were better able to decode, or recognize, printed words than students in schools without the program. Decoding is a key step in learning to read.
Reading First, though popular with educators, has been tarnished by allegations of conflicts of interest and mismanagement in recent years. Federal investigators have found that some people who helped oversee the program had financial ties to the publishers of Reading First materials.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has assured lawmakers that measures were taken to prevent future management troubles.
"Reading First helps our most vulnerable students learn the fundamental elements of reading while helping teachers improve instruction," Spellings said. "Instead of reversing the progress we have made by cutting funding, we must enhance Reading First and help more students benefit from research-based instruction."
The study, among the largest ever conducted by the department, tracked the progress of tens of thousands of students in 248 schools nationwide over three academic years. The students took a widely used reading comprehension test, and researchers observed classrooms.
Reading First, which requires schools to use instructional techniques supported by scientific research, provides grants for reading instruction. It focuses on five areas: awareness of individual sounds, phonics, vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension.
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