New Study Might Spell the End for Federal Reading Program

Schools receiving federal money for reading instruction haven't made significant progress, study finds.

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For the past six years, the federal government has made a $6 billion investment to boost the reading skills of the nation's low-income children. But a new, federally mandated study reveals that students attending elementary schools that receive the funding have not made significant gains. The three-year study monitored the achievement of tens of thousands of students in nearly 250 elementary schools using the reading curriculum Reading First. The curriculum is a major component of the No Child Left Behind law. According to researchers, students in schools that use Reading First performed no better on comprehension tests than students in schools that don't participate in the program. One of the benefits of the program, however, was that it helped improve first graders' decoding skills, or their ability to recognize letters and words, which leads to reading.

Conflicts of interest and poor management on the part of Education Department officials who initially oversaw the reading program had already made lawmakers leery about its effectiveness. Two congressional panels subsequently recommended cutting all funding. The latest findings could spell the end of the program. However, in a statement, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings highlighted the study's positive findings and said the program should continue. "Reading First helps our most vulnerable students learn the fundamental elements of reading while helping teachers improve instruction," she 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."

Other supporters of Reading First questioned the validity of the study. They said it failed to take into account the possibility that teachers shared Reading First strategies with teachers in schools that are in the same district but are not officially part of the program. The study's authors dismissed the criticism, saying their classroom observations didn't support that theory. Conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm for the U.S. Department of Education, the study is said to be one of the largest federal education studies.

"I don't think anyone should be celebrating the fact that the federal government invested $6 billion in a reading program that has shown no effects on reading comprehension," Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the outgoing director of the institute, told Education Week.

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