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Updated 9:00 AM June 21, 2006




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Reading First federal literacy program works in Michigan

A four-year-old federal initiative designed to get all children reading by the end of third grade is working, according to a comprehensive University study of 108 Michigan schools.

The state of Michigan was the first in the nation to sign up for and implement the Reading First program that is part of the No Child Left Behind law signed by President George W. Bush in January 2002. School of Education professor Joanne Carlisle, who has been monitoring and grading the efforts of the programs across the state, declares the program a success thus far.

"Michigan was the first state to start its plan, meaning we have one more year of outcome-based data than any other state," Carlisle says, adding third-year program data now being reviewed look promising.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind law comes up for renewal in September 2007. Reading First grants similarly were approved for six years.

Among the communities involved in the study are 19 schools in Detroit as well as Kalamazoo, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Pontiac and Saginaw. Over the four years, the number of participating schools has grown.

More than 90 of the 108 schools were given green lights to continue with their programs, while 15 got a yellow light, meaning they required some fine-tuning to improve their efforts, she says. She notes in one Dearborn school more than 90 percent of the students speak Arabic, and the school needed extra assistance dealing with the language barriers. Carlisle says one of the best performers was the Romulus district, where all schools made substantial progress.

Researchers studied performance on three reading subtests of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills from the end of year one, when many reform efforts produce early payoffs, to the end of year two, when progress tends to slow. The team has found continuing gains across the board thus far from year to year.

The results show that a significantly larger percentage of first, second and third graders were reading at or above grade level after two years than after one year in Reading First schools. Similarly, a significantly smaller percentage of first, second and third graders were substantially underachieving in reading after two than after one year in Reading First schools.

Researchers also found Reading First programs generally provided the same degree of improvement from the end of year one to the end of year two, regardless of student socio-demographic characteristics.

Other federally supported efforts to improve reading achievement in high poverty schools have not been very successful. But Michigan's Reading First grants, about $28 million a year for six years or about $750 per pupil in the first year, are targeting low achieving, high poverty schools by providing high quality professional development in reading and support for the teaching of reading.

Schools also are required to train teachers to use new comprehensive programs for reading instruction, and to use classroom-monitoring measures to make sure students are receiving the instruction they need to make gains appropriate for their grade level.

For the study, the 108 schools had completed two years of participation in Reading First with data from year three expected to be ready later this summer. Overall, 68 percent of the students in these schools qualified for free or reduced lunch, 10 percent of the student population had limited English proficiency, 11 percent of the students qualified for special education and 70 percent were racial or ethnic minorities.

Carlisle's team looked at the percentage of students reading at grade level or above (above the 40th percentile) also known as an adequate competence level. The second measure was the percentage of students reading well below grade level (below the 20th percentile); who are at substantial risk for long-term underachievement in reading.

"Getting kids up to the 50th percentile when they have been at the bottom 25th—it's magic," Carlisle says. "The slope of progress is at a consistent level for all three grade levels."

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