Reading failure

Our view: A federal reading program needs a major revision

May 07, 2008

The federally supported Reading First program received another bad report card last week - an unsatisfactory grade in effectiveness from its principal supporter, the Department of Education. At least two other studies have found the program awash in cronyism. Even though it is hardly a universal failure - the program has enjoyed some success in Maryland and other places - Reading First needs to be overhauled or scrapped.

Created in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind law, Reading First is supposed to use instruction methods that are scientifically based with a record of effectiveness to improve reading skills among low-income students in the earliest grades.

Two previous studies found that the process of awarding $6 billion in grants to nearly 5,900 schools was tainted by conflicts of interest among the department's contractors, who often recommended teaching materials based on personal ties to publishers rather than sound data.

The latest study - an interim team report from the Institute of Education Sciences, a division of the Department of Education - examined whether youngsters could understand what they read and found, on average, no significant difference between students in Reading First and those in other programs, although results from later uses of the program were more positive than those from earlier ones. In Maryland, where the program is being used in about 45 schools in eight districts, including Baltimore, state education officials say that it has generally helped raise scores by providing targeted intervention to slower readers.

Such exceptions may argue for retaining some of the program's principles. But federal officials don't need any more reviews to justify retooling this program from top to bottom - or starting over.

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