TOPICS > Education

Report: Federal Program Fails to Improve Reading Skills

May 2, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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An Education Department report disclosed the ineffectiveness of No Child Left Behind's $6 billion student reading program. State education officials Douglas Christensen of Nebraska and Michele Goady of Maryland debate Reading First's merits.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a multibillion-dollar reading program for struggling students comes under fire. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea of the Reading First program is to improve elementary school reading, particularly for low-income children. And it now reaches about 1.5 million students in 5,200 schools nationwide.

The program requires students to spend additional time each day on a set plan emphasizing several skills, including phonics.

In 2001, President Bush described it as a cornerstone of the federal No Child Left Behind effort.

GEORGE W. BUSH, president of the United States: We’re making great progress on what I’ve called a Reading First initiative. The budget I submitted triples the amount of money to help fight illiteracy in schools.

It says that, if a state wants, you can access the federal money. But you develop a K-2 diagnostic tool to make sure kindergarten teachers through second-grade teachers have got the ability to discern which children need extra help.

It means you’ve got to develop a curriculum that works. By the way, phonics needs to be a part of our curriculum in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is it working? A new study from the Department of Education found the program has had no measurable effect on students’ reading comprehension.

The program has also been under fire over concerns about conflicts of interest in the awarding of contracts. As a result, Congress has reduced its annual budget.

Perils of legislating from afar

JEFFREY BROWN: We get two views now. Douglas Christensen, commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Education, and Michele Goady, director of the Reading First program for the Maryland Department of Education.

Well, Ms. Goady, starting with you, first, help us understand this program. How is it different from traditional means of teaching reading?

MICHELE GOADY, Maryland State Department of Education: Well, Reading First is not just a program, but it was a federal initiative to provide funds to the states, to provide an intensive reading program for children who were traditionally struggling in reading.

So we selected both school systems and schools that traditionally needed a lot of support in reading. We went in and provide a comprehensive reading program.

So it includes providing support for teachers through what we call coaching, or mentoring, being with teachers, supervised support. It does include a clear, systematic instruction.

And that instruction would include the full complement of a reading program, a core reading program we want to call it, provide services for children that continue to have problems in reading. And we would call that supplemental and intervention services.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mr. Christensen, what's wrong with that? Why do you think it's been ineffective?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN, commissioner, Nebraska Department of Education: Well, I think from the beginning it's been a policy disaster, in the fact that there was no evidence to support heading down this road in the first place.

It seems to me that the reading panel that was convened prior to this made it very clear that there were multiple methods of reading instruction that were supported by evidence and there was no one particular methodology that came out above the rest.

And yet, Reading First came out to look at direct instruction as just about the only way in which phonemic awareness and phonics and those, structure of language, comprehension, could be taught.

And I think, secondly, it fails from the standpoint of any notion that you can transform practice from such a remote place from the classroom as Washington, D.C.

Geographically, certainly the distance is huge, but from the standpoint of practice, you couldn't get any more -- any further away from the classroom than you do there.

And then, secondly, or third, the idea that you can prescribe a practice and that you can create compliance conditions and, therefore, teachers will simply become perfect or best teachers they can possibly be, that notion has never been established and is offensive to me as an educator that we would try to be that prescriptive about a program.

Effectiveness of system debated

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me get a response from Ms. Goady. Have you found specific results that you can -- positive results that you feel you can point to?

MICHELE GOADY: In Maryland, we have had good results. When we look at our Maryland state assessment scores of our children in reading before Reading First, up until last year, we see growth in all of our Reading First school districts and in all of our schools. So test scores is one way that we measure that.

But more importantly, when we go into classrooms and we see teachers who feel more confident about their skills, who are better able to teach a variety of readers with a variety of needs, differentiated needs, and we're able to see them be successful, and we're able to see children reading, and reading successfully, we're making success. We're moving forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wonder, Mr. Christensen, is this a debate over defining what we mean by reading or reading comprehension or what kids can actually read? What exactly is the problem in how to determine success in something like this?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think that is one of the issues, that's at the heart of that, is that the measurement of reading looks more at the sub-skills of reading than the actual outcome of reading, which is being able to comprehend, being able to place meaning in the words that are being used, and then to turn around and be able to write on the basis of what you have read.

And I see no evidence that Reading First has done that. In fact, the sole and almost exclusive use of DIBELS, in my opinion, prevents Reading First from accomplishing what it could accomplish.

DIBELS is certainly an indicator that kids are developing some degree of fluency in the ability to recognize and pronounce words, even nonsense words, but it has nothing to do with grasping meaning, or understanding, or being able to take an idea and make it your own.

And I think that, as a result, we've prescribed reading to a point where we're certainly meeting the prescriptions. The indicators are clear, but the outcomes simply are not there. And confusing indicators with outcomes is a guarantee of failure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Goady, how do you account for the results of this study that came out yesterday from the Department of Education's research center?

MICHELE GOADY: Well, when you look at the study, first of all, it looked at growth for the first part or first two years of Reading First. This is an interim report, not a final report. So we're very anxious to see what's going to happen as we look at the final report.

However, even looking at the report -- it looked at about 18 schools, I believe, which is a small set of all of Reading First -- it did point to -- certainly, the report pointed to things that we can begin to review and we can even look at, in terms of giving more emphasis, more work on.

But more importantly, it did say that teachers understood scientifically based reading research in more comprehensive way. The report did say that there was more time spent in reading instruction, as compared to before Reading First.

So even the report pointed to some advancements that have happened because of Reading First.

DIBELS' focus too narrow, some say

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Christensen, as I said in the introduction, President Bush clearly tied this to his larger No Child Left Behind effort. And that, of course, has been criticized by some for its approach and the testing and the standardization. Is part of your problem with this particular program tied up in that larger critique, as well?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN: Well, in some sense, yes. In another sense, no. In the sense that you can standardize what our students are to learn and how they are to be taught simply, in my opinion, flies in the face of what it is that we're trying to teach and what our schools should be about.

We're trying to produce worthy citizens. And fourth-grade math scores or second-grade DIBELS scores are not an indicator of the degree to which we're producing kids who are competent, and capable, and self-reliant, and so forth.

I certainly don't want to ignore those things. But to make those indicators be outcomes is a perversion of both Reading First and No Child Left Behind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did I hear you say -- did I hear you use the word "DIBELS"?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN: Yes, I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is that?

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN: DIBELS is a test -- and I don't know exactly what it stands for -- but it's a test that's used to determine the student's speed and accuracy in recognizing words that are commonly appropriate for a first-grader, a second-grader, and so forth.

But, again, it's a word recognition. It may be primer to fluency, but it doesn't in any way constitute a measure of understanding or the ability to purport meaning to it. And almost all the projects are required to use DIBELS as its outcome measure, and DIBELS is not an outcome. Comprehension is an outcome.

And I think that's the other part of it. When you try to change practice from so far away from our classrooms, you use indicators as outcomes and it becomes a practice of remote control.

And I'm going to oppose anything, whether it's a No Child Left Behind, Reading First, Math First, or whatever else comes along, when it begins to diminish the professionalism and judgment of teachers, I simply can't support that. We should be informing them, not taking that away from them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ms. Goady, we have time for a brief response to all of that.

MICHELE GOADY: OK. Well, I think DIBELS, just to answer that, is one of the measures that we use to take a snapshot, to look at where children are at a point in time in their reading.

Teachers use that information. We talk about using data to inform instruction, to inform the instruction that a child is going to receive.

So based on what we see from DIBELS, it helps direct, to some extent, what we're going to do next. And I think that's important.

When we think about progress monitoring, DIBELS is one progress monitoring instrument. There are many. There's also the SAT 10 and other kinds of outcome measures that are used across the state.

What to me is the real story of Reading First is that we have teachers that, because of the systematic training we've provided, are better able to teach children, coaches that are able to support teachers.

In Maryland, we have a system of community colleges, universities, institutions of higher-ed, which are getting some of the same information so that it can help train our pre-service and our in-service teachers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michele Goady and Douglas Christensen, thank you both very much.

DOUGLAS CHRISTENSEN: Thank you.