Friday, May 2, 2008

"Reading First" a failure

I think everyone here knows that the “Reading First” program is just another Bush patronage scam, using NCLB rules to funnel money to campaign supporters and loyalists. Now the Institute of Education Sciences – the unit that says all policy must be based on rigorous scientific evidence – concludes that Reading First is a lousy program. Okay, now there’s scientific evidence: so what’s the response?

The Bush Administration has been using the Reading First program to reward political cronies and ideological allies, ignoring a legal mandate to make funding decisions that reflect "scientifically based research," according to federal investigators. These and other findings are detailed in a report by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education, released on 22 September 2006. . . .

The latest:
A $1 billion-a-year reading program that has been a pillar of the Bush administration's education plan doesn't have much impact on the reading skills of the young students it's supposed to help, a long-awaited federal study shows. . . .

While critics will likely say the data portray Reading First as an expensive failure, [IES head Grover] Whitehurst speculates that the study may simply suggest that schools need to spend even more time on phonics and the like.

But he also notes that states that got Reading First money earlier in the program's history actually got worse results than those that more recently got their federal funding. The difference may be unrelated to years spent in the program, Whitehurst says . . .

Education analyst Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports Reading First, says the study was poorly designed and "certainly not the last word on Reading First's effectiveness." . . .

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings had no immediate comment, but in a statement, Amanda Farris, the deputy assistant secretary who oversees Reading First, said Spellings consistently hears from educators and administrators "about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools” . . .

[NB: So, there you have it. The Bush Education Dept condemns policies based on anecdotal evidence – except when their favored program is challenged.]

Kevin Drum comments:
Now, who knows? Maybe RF was poorly implemented. Maybe it just happened to be a bad idea. But it's astonishing how many efforts to improve K-12 instruction turn out not to work. Even the ones that do seem to work usually turn out to fail if you just wait a few years or try to scale them up beyond pilot size.

This is one of the reasons I don't blog much about education policy even though it's an interesting subject. For all the sturm and drang, in the end nothing really seems to matter. After a hundred years of more-or-less rigorous pedagogical research, we still don't know how to teach kids any better than we used to. Early childhood interventions, if they're really early and really long lasting, seem to have some effect, but beyond that the only thing that works consistently is getting poor kids out of schools that are 90% poor. Unfortunately, the former is really expensive and the latter is well nigh impossible in most places.

It must be a discouraging field to work in.

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