“Read”ing All About It

Today, the final shoe dropped on the Reading First era.  The Institute of Education Sciences released the final version of the Reading First Impact Study.  A surprise to no one, the final impact study came to the same conclusions as the interim study.  The summary of summaries, RF schools aren’t doing a better job of making student reading proficient, compared with non-RF schools.

The full story can be found here at Education Week — www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/11/18/14read.h28.html?tmp=1344181825  
When the interim study came out, many, including Eduflack, pointed out the vast flaws in the study’s methodology, chief among them being the issue of contamination, or the impact of RF programs and materials on non-RF schools.  Back in September, the Reading First Federal Advisory Committee issued its review of the interim study, calling for some wholesale changes before the final report was issued.  Unfortunately, little, if any, of the recommendations coming from the Advisory Committee were addressed in the final Study.
I’ve been mulling the issue all day.  As a surprise to many an Eduflack reader, I am not here to once again defend the goals of Reading First and point to the data that demonstrates that scientifically based reading is having an effect on schools, both those receiving RF funds and those that do not.  In the simplest of terms, been there, done that.  I’m a pragmatist.  I know that RF is dead.  It was dead the day the IG report came out almost two years ago, and the find shovels of dirt were thrown on the program with the release of this Impact Study.
And no, we are not here to eulogize RF, to discuss its merits, or to hash out why it failed to meet its promise or fulfill its mission.  Such tasks are best left to the think tanks and the academicians who can give a careful eye to how the research translated into practice, how effective that practice was, and how effective the measurement and feedback of the program was across its lifetime.
The question should not be what happened.  Instead, we must ask what comes next.  How do we move on from here?
The legacy of RF leaves us with three key buckets of policy we must consider — research to practice, a federal reading program, and IES.
At its heart, RF was a thorough attempt to move research into practice.  It was the development part of the R&D equation, an opportunity to take decades of research on literacy and reading acquisition skills and put it to use in the classroom.  How is the research applied to core materials, such as textbooks?  How is the research applied to teacher development, both pre-service and in-service?  How is the research embedded in instruction and in key interventions designed to get all kids reading?  And how does the federal government effectively do it all, guiding SEAs, impacting LEAs, and doing it all without endorsing specific commercial products or approaches?  
On some of these issues, RF provided a blueprint for success.  On others, it provided a clear portrait of federal failure.  Through it all, RF raised the profile of research in the instructional process, better equipped classroom practitioners to deal with education research, and increased the profile of data-based decisionmaking.  All of those are pluses for school improvement efforts moving forward.
Now onto stream two — a federal reading program.  For decades, the federal government has enhanced literacy instruction for K-12 students.  Before RF, we had the Reading Excellence Act. Before REA we had other federal programs.  That commitment is not going to disappear.  Long after RF is forgotten, there will still be dedicated federal investment in reading instruction. The question before us, now, is how do we do it.  How do we transform Early Reading First into a meaningful component of early childhood education efforts?  How do we enhance instruction for struggling readers, particularly in the early grades?  How do we promote literacy skills across the curriculum, using science and social studies in particular to boost reading skills for all?  What do we do for struggling readers in our high schools, those who have fallen through the cracks?  Now is the time to apply lessons learned and build a new federal reading program that delivers instruction to the kids who need it, that provides content-based PD to the teachers in need, and that boosts student achievement and closes the achievement gap for all students, from our urban centers to our rural schools.
And finally, IES.  The RF experiment has clearly demonstrated that IES is not functioning as it was intended.  Was IES tasked with determining the effectiveness of RF or the effectiveness of RF funding?  Has it providing findings that aid in the improvement of federal reading instruction?  is it serving the public good by providing clear research findings that are received, understood, and applied by practitioners in the field?  At the end of the day, IES needs to better serve the consumer — the schools, their teachers, and the students they serve.  It needs to  do a better job engaging the entire community, and not simply serve as a lifeline between educational researchers.  If anything, the RF experience has provided us a starting point for improving IES (and the What Works Clearinghouse) and transforming it into the R&D arm of the U.S. Department of Education, with the D being just as important as the R.
Will we take advantage of these lessons and build some real improvements?  That question will remain unanswered for some time now.  But now is the time we start talking about how we move forward and build on the RF experience.  A new program will rise from the RF ashes.  It falls to the program’s most ardent supporters and most critical adversaries to ensure that what comes remains solidly focused on a singular goal — empowering all kids with the reading skills they need to achieve and getting all kids reading at grade level as soon as possible (and maintaining it).    

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