The $6-billion reading program at the heart of President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law has failed to make a difference in how well children understand what they read, according to a study by the program's own champion, the U.S. Department of Education.
Schools that use Reading First, which provides grants to improve grade-school reading instruction, scored no better on reading comprehension tests than peers in schools that don't participate, says the study from the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the Education Department.
The conclusion is likely to reignite the long-standing "reading wars." Critics have argued that the program, aimed at improving reading skills among students from low-income families, places too much emphasis on explicit phonics instruction and doesn't do enough to foster understanding.
The program has been plagued by allegations of mismanagement and financial conflicts of interest, and Thursday's findings threw its future into doubt. The Bush administration has strenuously backed the effort, saying it helps disadvantaged children learn to read. About 1.5-million children in about 5,200 schools nationwide participate in Reading First.
"We need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students," said California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House education committee.
Reading First was created as part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which aims to get all children doing math and reading at their proper grade level. Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings have championed the reading program as an important part of the law.
Institute director Russ Whitehurst said the study focused on reading comprehension rather than other aspects of reading, such as whether kids grasp phonics, because comprehension is the ultimate goal when teaching reading.
The congressionally mandated study, completed by an independent contractor, focused on tens of thousands of first-, second- and third-grade students in 248 schools in 13 states. The children were tested, and researchers observed teachers in 1,400 classrooms.
Researchers did find that among schools participating in Reading First, higher levels of funding led to some improvement in scores. Congress recently reduced funding to the program — over Bush's objections — due to budget constraints and controversies surrounding it.
A 2006 report from the Education Department's inspector general, John Higgins Jr., found that some program officials steered states to certain tests and textbooks. Congressional testimony last year revealed that some of those people benefited financially.
"It's no surprise that Reading First has been a failure," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., who led the fight to cut the program's budget.
Spellings hailed the program as a success last year when she released data showing scores in Reading First schools were up. However, those scores weren't compared with schools where Reading First wasn't in place. The new study compares those using the program to those not using it.
Amanda Farris, deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives at the Education Department, said that Reading First remains popular and that the department will look to the report, along with other data, to "enhance its implementation." President Bush's fiscal 2009 budget seeks to restore funding to previous levels.
Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.