The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (PL 107-110) established the Reading First Program (Title I, Part B, Subpart 1), a major federal initiative designed to help ensure that all children can read at or above grade level by the end of third grade. Reading First (RF) is predicated on scientifically researched findings that high-quality reading instruction in the primary grades significantly reduces the number of students who experience reading difficulties in later years.
A. Key Provisions of the Reading First Program
The Reading First program's overarching goal is to improve the quality of reading instruction— and thereby improve the reading skills and achievement of children in the primary grades—by providing substantial resources at both the state and local levels. The intent is to ensure that teachers in kindergarten through third grade use reading programs and materials that are research-based. Additionally, Reading First intends to increase access to and the quality of professional development for all teachers of these grades, including special education teachers, to ensure that they have the necessary skills to teach these researched-based reading programs effectively. An important provision of the RF legislation is that professional development be made available to all schools, not only schools that received RF funding. A third emphasis is on using assessments, both to monitor progress and to identify students' reading problems early on. Reading First is intended to help prepare classroom teachers to screen for, identify, and overcome barriers to students' ability to read at grade level by the end of third grade. More specifically, the programs and the professional development provided to school staff must use reading instructional methods and materials that incorporate the five essential elements of effective primary-grade reading instruction, as specified in the legislation: 1) phonemic awareness; 2) decoding; 3) vocabulary development; 4) reading fluency, including oral reading skills; and 5) reading comprehension strategies.
All 50 states and other jurisdictions1 have been awarded Reading First grants. To date (April 2006), states have awarded subgrants to approximately 1,550 local school districts and, in turn, these districts have provided funds to approximately 5,200 schools nationwide. Because grants to states were awarded over an extended time period and states differed in the amount of time they allotted to their competitive subgrant processes, districts and schools are at various stages of implementing their Reading First programs.
B. Overview of the Evaluation
The enabling legislation for RF requires the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to contract with an outside entity to evaluate the program's implementation (Section 1205). To meet this requirement, the Department contracted with Abt Associates in October 2003 to design and conduct the Reading First Implementation Evaluation, which addresses the following questions:
- How is the Reading First program implemented in districts and schools?
- How does reading instruction differ between Reading First schools and non-RF Title I schools?
- How does reading instruction differ between Reading First schools and non-RF Title I schools as RF schools' implementation efforts mature over time?
- Does student achievement improve in schools with Reading First funds?
- Is there any relationship between how schools implement Reading First and changes in reading achievement?
The five-year study has produced this interim report based on data collected during the 2004–05 school year as well as analyses of extant data sources; it will also produce a final report in 2007 based on data from the 2006–07 school year and updated extant data. This interim report addresses questions 1 and 2. Question 3 requires an analysis of longitudinal data and will be addressed upon completion of the second wave of data collection in 2007, as will questions 4 and 5. Below we summarize key findings from the evaluation, using the following data sources:
- Surveys completed in spring 2005 by 6,185 K–3 teachers, 1,574 principals, and 1,318 reading coaches in nationally representative samples of 1,092 Reading First schools and 541 non-RF Title I schools;
- Interviews with Reading First state coordinators, and reviews of states' applications for RF awards;
- The Reading First Awards Database that lists all RF districts and schools as well as their baseline measures of K–3 reading performance and poverty rates (as measured by percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches); and
- ED's School-Level State Assessment Score Database (SLAD) that provided measures of reading achievement and poverty for all school districts nationwide.
The non-RF Title I school sample was constructed purposefully to provide a context for understanding how reading programs in a sample of Reading First schools differ from those in schools serving similar populations of students.2 The non-RF sample includes only Title I schoolwide project (SWP) schools with at least 40 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced price lunches, which is comparable to the RF school population. The two groups of schools are demographically similar in staff experience, attendance rates, mobility, and stability of enrollment. RF schools are, however, on average, larger than the Title I schools, and have larger proportions of K–3 students reading below grade level.
We can make comparisons between RF and non-RF Title I samples, but because the two samples are not matched they cannot be assumed to be equivalent. Thus, the differences between the groups discussed in this report cannot be attributed to the Reading First program.