Reading First, though much maligned, succeeds in teaching kids to read. . . .
A comprehensive study by an outside evaluator will appear in 2007, measuring Reading First’s influence on student achievement nationally. But some states and districts are already seeing significant improvement. When the relevant congressional committees hold hearings on NCLB reauthorization, they might start by looking to neighboring Virginia, where they’ll discover a dramatic example of Reading First’s power. With apologies to Dickens, we might call it a tale of two school districts—one welcoming Reading First, the other disdaining it.
The first, Richmond, offers a classic profile of an inner-city school district. Of its 25,000 students, 95 percent are black, more than 70 percent are poor enough to be in the free-lunch program, and 44 percent change schools during the year. Until 2001, Richmond’s student test scores were among Virginia’s worst. Only five of the district’s 51 schools achieved the status of full state accreditation.
But 2001 is also when Richmond school officials embarked on an ambitious reform, whose centerpiece was a standardized reading program based on evidence from the NICHD studies. By the time Reading First funds were available in 2002, Richmond was already up and running with a phonics-based reading program called Voyager Universal Literacy. The district channeled the modest $450,000 Reading First grant into a handful of its lowest-performing schools. But the principles of scientific reading instruction took hold throughout the district.
Since then, Richmond’s test scores have skyrocketed. By 2003, the number of the district’s schools achieving full state accreditation had climbed to 22. The next year, it rose to 39 and has now reached 44.
Because NCLB requires disaggregation of student performance data by race, we can further appreciate the extent of Richmond’s turnaround by comparing the district with the Fairfax district, just across the Potomac from the congressional committees due to review Reading First.
Fairfax, one of the richest suburban areas in the U.S., consistently draws in new residents because of the perceived quality of its public schools. SAT scores for Fairfax’s high school graduates stand well above the national average, and 90 percent of those grads go on to some form of higher education. But 17,000 of Fairfax’s 164,000 students are African-American, and they’re not doing so well; in fact, they’re performing far worse than Richmond’s black students. In 2004, only 52 percent of black Fairfax kids passed the state’s third-grade reading test, compared with 62 percent for Richmond’s black students. In 2005, the gap widened to 15 percentage points, with 59 percent of the Fairfax black students passing compared with 74 percent of their Richmond counterparts.
Even more remarkable, Richmond’s third-grade reading scores are closing in on wealthy Fairfax’s scores for all its students, 79 percent of whom passed the third-grade reading test in 2005. Since enacting its reforms, Richmond has moved from 114th in the state in reading (out of 132 districts) to 50th, compared with Fairfax’s 36th.
Fairfax officials have said publicly that they’re mystified by the low performance of the district’s black students. It certainly has nothing to do with money. Millions of extra dollars for remediation programs have poured into the district’s schools with higher proportions of blacks. One thing the district proudly refused to do, though, was take money from Reading First. The then-superintendent said that he didn’t want the federal government dictating how his district taught reading and that he preferred the reading programs he already was using. One of these, costing the district $10 million per year, is Reading Recovery, the same whole-language program that the inspector general accused Chris Doherty of trying to keep from getting Reading First grants—which suggests that Doherty did something right after all.