(Guest Post By Reid Lyon)
I have received many calls from people attending the International Reading Association’s conference in Atlanta informing me that many of the members are celebrating the null findings presented in the Reading First Impact Study Interim Report. But you could have predicted that behavior easily from past behavior. While IRA as an organization has been a supporter of Reading First, many celebrating have wanted the program to fail from day one. But you have to wonder whether the detractors have read the actual interim report or just the press accounts of the evaluation to date? The press coverage overwhelmingly reported the null findings without coverage of the limitations of the study – limitations that should be considered as much as the findings themselves- particularly when drawing any conclusions from the data. There has been little mention of the degree of overlap between Reading First and non-reading First schools and no mention – at least that I can find –of the fact that little time has elapsed since Reading First has been implemented which makes it very difficult to draw conclusions at this time. I am hopeful that these issues will be addressed in detail in the final report given that this information can provide more guidance for improvement. However, in my view and in the whole scheme of things, implementing a program as complex as Reading First will take a bit more time than three years or less.
Indeed, it has been more the rule than the exception that during the first two years of Reading First implementation in districts and schools, teachers were first learning to understand, administer and use the results of assessments to inform instruction.
To jack up the complexity, as they were learning these new concepts, they were also taking part in state reading academies to learn more about the foundations of SBRR (in 5 areas of reading in k-1, in 4 areas of reading in 2-3). To make implementation even more complex, as they were learning and using new assessments and taking part in professional development academies and workshops, they were simultaneously learning how to use new approaches to instruction and how to integrate core program instruction with additional interventions when required to meet individual student needs. This was done at the same time they were learning about center activities, grouping students for instruction and aligning and using supported classroom libraries.
It is important to ask whether any program that has added this amount of new learning to a teacher’s other responsibilities including going to IEP meetings, attending parent conferences, preparing for their instruction in math, social studies and science, serving on school wide committees and a host of other tasks could demonstrate substantial gains after only two years. What is amazing is that despite this unbelievable load, Reading First teachers and their leaders rose to the occasion and have done and are doing a superb job. Also note that the GAO and OMB reports show that they feel that this job is essential and that it is having a major impact.
To be sure, as one of the individuals involved in conceptualizing and drafting the Reading First legislation, it is a no brainer that I am passionate about its potential. That said, the data must speak for the effectiveness of the program. If we wanted to avoid using effectiveness data to monitor and improve the program, we would not have mandated one of the most comprehensive evaluations that have ever been applied to any educational program. The fact that the evaluation plan as written in the legislation was not carried out will require some explanation at some point. More importantly, it is incumbent on both supporters and opponents of Reading First to pay very close attention to the details in the interim evaluation. It is impossible to make informed decisions about improving a program, gutting a program, or reducing the funding for a program on the basis of ambiguous findings. And folks will have to read the details themselves – apparently they will not learn about them from the press.