RF Works, Just Ask Idaho

If we believe the initial buzz from this month (along with the interim study from IES), the Reading First program just doesn’t seem to do the job it was intended to take on.  By now, those who care have heard all about the IES study, as well as the growing criticism about its shortcomings, most notably its methodology.

Throughout this debate, we’ve heard little from the practitioners who have put RF to work in their states or communities.  From those who have seen the positive effects of scientifically based reading research.  From those who have determined what works for their schools and their kids.  Until now.

Over at www.ednews.org, we’re seeing continued comment on this RF debate.  Of particular note is a comment recently posted by Steven Underwood, the Reading First School Improvement Coordinator for Boise State University’s Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies.  The headline — Reading First is working in Idaho.  Not just working, but really working.  Almost as if RF was designed to help struggling schools boost student reading proficiency.

Rather than summarize Underwood’s contribution to the debate, let’s here directly from the horse’s mouth, with a thanks to Underwood for letting Eduflack use the words originally posted at www.ednews.org.

“I applaud the efforts to help the nation’s most at-risk children by consulting a large body of research and theory, sifting out opinion from facts, and making policies and practices that benefit children. It is unfortunate, but many of the critics of Reading First both here and elsewhere seem to speak foremost of theory and secondarily of students. I am saddened by the number of critics who neither have worked in Reading First schools nor fully understand their practices. To continue the analogy of the car from previous posts, many critics, who undoubtedly mean well in their criticisms, seem to misunderstand the repair work that is being done and seem to be completely unaware of the data that demonstrate that Reading First is having a positive impact on student outcomes. In the criticisms, it seems like people are criticizing the mechanic who is working on the complex engine (of literacy among disadvantaged students) without themselves having ever been truly successful at fixing engines which demonstrate the same types of problems. Literacy among our nation’s needy children has been a nationwide concern for years, and Reading First is the first systemic approach to find success in addressing that concern. Had the [IES] study been conducted more in line with the mandate given to IES, we would be able to better understand the impact of Reading First at the national level. However, since the study was not well designed and did not meet its mandate, being people of reason, we are obliged to evaluate all of the other data that has been provided through systems such as the annual performance reports over the course of the years. As one studies these data, Reading First is arguably the most powerful federal education program to date. As part of No Child Left Behind, Reading First has demonstrated powerful results among those children in our nation who have traditionally been “left behind” in literacy skills.

In support of this, allow me to briefly summarize results from the state of Idaho. To qualify to become a Reading First school in Idaho, a district has to have the highest level of needs (e.g. the largest percentages of free and reduced lunch in the state) and the lowest available financial resources to meet those needs. The reason for this qualification is that student performance has so often been correlated with socio-economic status. Even though Idaho Reading First schools have such high needs, they have not only grown in their data more quickly on state reading measures, but have closed or nearly closed the gap in all grade levels. Idaho has a universal K-3 reading screener, the IRI, which measures fluency and basic comprehension. From 2003 to 2007, Reading First schools in Idaho improved on this measure at a rate that exceeded the state’s growth during the same timeframe and currently have an overall average that is within 4 percentage points of the state average.

More importantly, Idaho’s economically disadvantaged students grew at a rate in Reading First schools that far surpassed their economically disadvantaged peers in state averages. Among this subpopulation, which is a focus in the NCLB legislation, Reading First schools performed at a rate of improvement between 2003 and 2007 that was 12% better than the state average in Grade 1, 10% better in Grade 2, and 7% better in Grade 3. These results are also mirrored in the comprehensive outcome measure for Idaho Reading First schools. Idaho Reading First schools have consistently performed more than 10 percentile points above the national cut-score on the Normal Curve Equivalence for ITBS Reading Comprehension. This average far surpasses the last year in Idaho in which the ITBS was given to all students (2001), which again demonstrates that Reading First is closing the gap among the neediest children in our state. Furthermore, among economically disadvantaged students, Reading First schools have improved ITBS scores at rates between 20% and 24% in Grades 1-3 from 2004 to 2007, which again demonstrates alignment of reading comprehension results with one of the primary missions of Reading First. Lastly, and very importantly, Idaho Reading First schools are demonstrating greater overall gains and closing the achievement gap on the Grade 3 AYP measure for reading, the ISAT.

Whereas in 2003, the participating schools were significantly behind the state average, Idaho Reading First Schools are now within 2 percentage points of the state average. While the IES interim report may show no statistical significance in its study sample, the reality of Reading First in Idaho shows a vastly different picture. As mentioned before, it is unfortunate that some well-meaning educators criticize Reading First based upon political preference, theory alone, opinion, or incomplete and misleading information. The interim study published by IES did not do an adequate job in meeting its mandate, nor was it representative of the nationwide set of Reading First schools, nor did it triangulate multiple sets of reading data, nor did it identify all of the pertinent variables, nor did it operate on the basis of a true pre-Reading First baseline. With these and other criticisms of the impact study in mind, I respectfully ask our critical colleagues who believe Reading First to be ineffective to review the broader set of data that exist. Reading First has set a high standard for our nation’s public elementary schools who serve its neediest children. According to multiple sets of data in multiple states, this high standard is paying off for thousands upon thousands of children.”

There you go.  Reading First is working in Idaho.  In a state where the motto is “Let it be perpetual,” they are making reading instruction improvements that will empower a generation of new readers.  And I’m betting there are a lot more states like it that are showing similar gains and similar benefits from RF and the implementation of SBRR in the classroom.  We should be out there cultivating these positive stories, spotlighting those schools, LEAs, and SEAs that are making a difference and boosting student achievement.  I know that is harder than promoting our failures and explaining why AYP can never be achieved, but we can learn a lot more examining what works rather than volleying around excuses for what doesn’t.

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