If words were horses, then students would read.
The Reading First program apparently has negligible effects upon improving reading scores-- or should we say reading ability? Because there is a difference-- of elementary students:
The $6 billion reading program at the center of President Bush's signature education law has failed to make a difference in how well children understand what they read, according to a study by the program's own champion — the U.S. Department of Education.
The program, Reading First, was designed to help boost student performance in low-income elementary schools, but failed to improve reading comprehension, says the study from the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the Education Department.
There was no difference in comprehension scores between students who participated in Reading First and those who did not, the study found.
The findings released Thursday threw the program's future into doubt.
"We need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students," said California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chair of the House education committee.
Reading First was created as part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which aims to get all children doing math and reading at their proper grade level. President Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings have championed the reading program as an important part of the law.
Institute director Russ Whitehurst said the study focused on reading comprehension rather than other aspects of reading such as whether kids grasp phonics, because comprehension is the ultimate goal when teaching reading.
The study did find Reading First led to more time being spent by teachers on the various aspects of reading judged to be important by a federal reading panel.
The study also found that among schools participating in Reading First, higher levels of funding led to some improvement in scores.
Congress recently cut funding to the program — over Bush's objections — due to budget constraints and controversies surrounding it.
"It's no surprise that Reading First has been a failure," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., who led the fight to cut the program's budget following reports about management problems and potential conflicts of interest in the program.
Spellings hailed the program as a success last year when she released data showing scores in Reading First schools were up. However, those scores weren't compared with schools where Reading First wasn't in place. The new study compares those using the program to those not using it.
So, while elementary school students appear to be improving in reading across the board, there's no difference in the gains being made by students participating in Reading First and those who are not, according to the study.
Amanda Farris, deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives at the Education Department, said Reading First remains popular.
"Secretary Spellings has traveled to 20 states since January. One of the consistent messages she hears from educators, principals and state administrators is about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools and their disappointment with Congress for slashing Reading First funds," she said in a statement Thursday.
Jim Herman, Tennessee's Reading First director, said he thinks the program works. He said one potential flaw with the latest study is that it doesn't measure the degree to which schools not receiving Reading First money may be using Reading First practices.
He noted that Memphis was studied as part of the new report, and he said it was in a district where Reading First methods were used in schools not getting Reading First money.
This isn't the first time supporters of the program have been dealt bad news.
Congressional investigators and Education Department Inspector General John Higgins previously found that federal officials and contractors didn't adequately address potential conflicts of interest. For example, federal contractors that gave states advice on which teaching materials to buy had financial ties to publishers of Reading First materials, according to the investigations.
Higgins also testified to Congress that the department didn't comply with the law when setting up panels that would review grant applications and in establishing criteria for what teaching materials could be used.
Miller said those problems could be behind the findings of the Education Department report.
"Because of the corruption in the Reading First program, districts and schools were steered toward certain reading programs and products that may not have provided the most effective instruction for students," he said.
The new study examining Reading First's impact has itself been the subject of conflict-of-interest questions because a contractor that worked on it was also among those that helped implement the Reading First program.
RMC Research Corp. was the contractor hired by the federal government to help with Reading First at the outset of the program under three contracts worth about $40 million. The contractor was subsequently criticized in an inspector general's report for failing to adequately address conflict-of-interest issues. For example, it did not sufficiently screen subcontractors for relationships with publishers of reading programs, the report said.
RMC also was involved in the study released Thursday, developing ways of measuring what was taught in classrooms and training classroom observers. Critics have said the company was, in effect, involved in judging its own work.
Whitehurst said he didn't think the contractor's involvement in the study resulted in an actual conflict of interest but perhaps created the appearance of one.
"If we had to do it all over again," he said, "we would have avoided the appearance issue."
The report released Thursday was an interim report. The final version is due out by the end of the year.
Having spent many years toiling as a teacher, including being a language arts teacher, there are a few things that I have noticed. First of all, the best readers use a mixture of phonics skills and context skills in reading. Sight reading skills are useful for common words, but readers need to know how to sound out words as well. Successful readers also have a good knowledge of the meaning of roots, suffixes and prefixes so that they may decode new words they encounter rather than either skipping over unfamiliar words or stopping to look them up, an activity that is anathema for most students, even with the power of the internet at their fingertips.
Phonics instruction alone will not improve reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is more than just understanding individual words! Reading is interpretation of ideas as well. Phonics is a vital place to start, but it is not the ONLY thing that goes on in the mind of a good reader.
I have also seen the destruction wreaked upon students during the repeated fads for "whole language" instruction, and the problems include inability to spell even common words such as or, are, there, their, or its, a failure to be able to decode new words or understand words with unusual spellings. Students completely give up when confronted with words from other languages, and -- news flash, people-- most words in English are derived from German, French, Latin, and Greek, with a sprinkling of Arabic, Persian, and Danish thrown in for flavor. This has resulted in students having a smaller functional vocabulary, which-- follow me here-- causes reading to be more difficult and less rewarding.
I personally find reading seriously addictive. My students often ask me where I have learned all the weird stuff I know. They think I'm kidding when I reply, "I READ a LOT." One of my pet peeves when I was a middle school teacher was when I was often presented with this claim:
Based on the paper “Learning and Teaching Styles” written by Richard M. Felder and Linda K. Silverman in the Journal of Engineering Education, a study carried out by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company found “that students retain 10 percent of what they read, 26 percent of what they hear, 30 percent of what they see, 50 percent of what they see and hear, 70 percent of what they say, and 90 percent of what they say as they do something.”
I can point to an easily verifiable flaw in the above statement: I know from personal experience that husbands remember far less than 70 percent of what they say, much less 90 percent of what they say as they do something. B'doom-CHING!
But seriously, what is the verifiability of this study? What is its reliability? And yet, this thing was passed around as the most sacred of truths for the entire time I taught at the middle school level-- and in my experience, usually by people WHO DO NOT READ THEMSELVES. It's stuff like this that led to the denigration of literacy skills in our schools and our culture in the first place. As someone who reads constantly, and who has friends who read constantly, I dispute these claims with every fiber of my being.
These are the most sweeping of generalizations, and making generalizations a standard of expectation results in expectations being lowered.
If fixing reading problems were easy, there would be no reading problems. The real problem is that we are inundated by a culture that denigrates intellectual gifts and downplays the truth that education is a difficult and arduous process that requires that you do the hardest thing in the world right now-- PAY ATTENTION. It's funny to make fun of people who spend hours with their faces in a book. They're geeks, nerds, dweebs, brains, walking encyclopedias. They're "out of touch." We don't want our leaders to appear too brainy, or we claim that they don't understand the average person.
Deep down, we know that literacy is the foundation of all knowledge. But how do you get people to want to read better when everything screams that reading isn't cool and isn't "fun?" We understand that to get a great jump shot, one has to practice repeatedly and fail repeatedly and still persevere.
But we aren't willing to do the same thing to become more literate.
You have to read to be better at reading. It really doesn't matter how you do it. But programs like Reading First or Whole Language or whatever else will come down the pike will ALL fail since they try to turn the process of reading into a mechanical procedure divorced from utility, entertainment, or fascination.