Golden Reading Results in the Golden State

For the past few weeks, Eduflack has been heartened to hear that the Obama Administration and EdSec Duncan are behind a continued federal commitment to reading instruction.  Yes, we all know that there were severe implementation problems with Reading First, and that such problems have led many a RF critic to demand the defunding of the program and the dismantling of our promise to do what works when it comes to reading, empowering every child with the gift of literacy.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week or two knows about my commitment to scientifically based reading.  A few weeks ago, I laid out a basic plan for how the Obama Administration can use the best of Reading First, while learning from its failures, to build a better federal reading effort.  You can see the full thought here — blog.eduflack.com/2009/01/27/whats-next-for-federal-reading.aspx  
I’ve spent much of the past three years or so talking about the need to save RF.  Many times, I’m asked why.  Look at the IG investigation, I’m told.  Look at the IES study.  Look at the fights scientifically based reading research has caused.  Why would we want to save this?  For one simple reason.  It works.  And our kids are too important not to invest in what is proven effective and not to ensure that our teachers are using the very best instructional methods and have access to the most effective PD (rather than the hot flavor of the month or what a salesman is selling on that particular day).
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education released a study that showed the effectiveness of Reading First.  Contrary to the IES study, this Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) study demonstrated real results of evidence-based reading in RF and non-RF classrooms alike.  We’ve talked about the data in Idaho and Ohio and other states that have benefited from an influx of federal reading money and a commitment to proven-effective instruction and professional development.  Now we have even more to talk about.
For those doubting Thomases out there, take a look at the latest research out of the great state of California.  Released more than a month ago, the California Reading First Year 6 Evaluation Report hasn’t gotten much attention (particularly here in our nation’s capital).  But it is worthy of the spotlight.
This is not just a water droplet in the great pool that is education improvement.  This study looks at data involving 157,951 students; 16,442 teachers, coaches, and administrators, 850 schools, and 110 school districts across California.  What did the good researchers out on the West Coast find?  Among the conclusions:  
1) Reading First has had a significant impact on student achievement in California.
2) The Reading First effect is meaningful.
3) Reading growth remains significant.
4) The Reading First effect generalizes across student performance levels.
5) Reading First significantly impacts grades 4 and 5 performance.
6) The Reading First effect generalizes to English learners.
7) Implementation of Reading First principles remains adequate but could be higher.
8) Principal participation and teacher program evaluations are strong predictors of achievement.
9) The Reading First program has led to the development of a sustainable, well-integrated structure and process of providing reading/language arts instruction in California.
10) Most special education teachers use their district’s adopted reading/language arts curriculum.
11) Schools have not yet begun to implement Response-to-Intervention (RtI)
The full report can be found here: www.eddata.com/resources/publications/RF_Evaluation_2007-2008.pdf       

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So why is this important, other than the obvious that with so much RF money spent in California that it is good to see it has been put to good use and has provided?  It provides us with some valuable lessons as we consider how to build the next generation of federal reading instruction efforts.
First, evidence-based instruction works.  It has had an impact across California on virtually all student demographics, including special education and ELLs.  And despite the findings of IES, it is effective with the later elementary grades (as evidenced by its impact on California fourth and fifth graders).
Second, we have clear room for implementation improvement.  California achieved these results while acknowledging that fidelity to the principles could be better.  One can only imagine the true, measured impact if every one of those 850 schools had adopted RF completely and with absolute fidelity.
Third, educators are the key to effectiveness.  Principal and teacher involvement is a predictor of achievement.  There was a reason that up to 25 percent of RF money was intended for professional development.  It was to ensure those involved teachers put the full power of the research to use in their classrooms.  When they do, the results follow.
Fourth, RtI — seen by many an education profiteer as the next great profit center — still has not taken hold in California.  And if it hasn’t taken hold in Cali, it will be slow to truly go to scale across the nation.
Finally, we need federally supported reading instruction based on the core principles of proven research and effective, content-based professional development.  OPEPD showed us that the heart of RF was having a lasting, positive impact on our schools, whether they receive RF money or not.  Data from states like Ohio and now California show the power that evidence-based reading can have on student achievement.  Now is the time to build on those successes, documenting best practice, continuing to train teachers, and getting our classrooms the instructional materials and resources they need to teach reading effectively.
Yes, Reading First is dead (and deservedly so because of its implementation problems, perceptions of programmatic favoritism, and the opportunity for profiteers to sell snake oil under the guise of research).  But now is the time to open up that last will and testament, see what the law has left for policymakers (federal and state), teachers, and students, and use that inheritance to build a better, stronger, more effective program for our nation’s classrooms.  Our work is not done until every child is reading at grade level.  And we still have a long way to go before we get there.  Thankfully, California and others are leaving us the trail markers to help us get to our ultimate destination.

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