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Reading First
UGA experts evaluating the state's Reading First program include (from left) Donna Alvermann

Education college team evaluates state’s Reading First program

A team of experts in assessment and reading education in the College of Education has begun a three-year project to determine whether Georgia’s Reading First program, one of the major initiatives of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, is effective, both in its implementation and in its impact on student achievement.

The UGA team, led by Dorothy Harnish, associate research scientist and co-director of the Occupational Research Group, received a $1.17 million contract from the state Department of Education to serve as external evaluators of the program, which is aimed at students from kindergarten through third grade. The contract began this past fall and is renewable annually.

Georgia is receiving nearly $200 million in federal funding over the next six years to support schools and teachers in applying the Reading First program, which aims to ensure that all children learn to read well by the end of the third grade.

Program requirements

The program, based on reading research carried out by the U.S. Department of Education, requires K-3 students in participating schools to spend three hours a day on reading. It includes an emphasis on explicit reading instruction (particularly for phonics), a program of professional development and student assessment, and the provision of classroom materials and reading tutors.

More than 3,000 Georgia teachers were trained in the methods in week-long work sessions hosted by the state this past summer. There is also a pool of 100 literacy coaches, one or two per school, who have been hired under the federal grant to monitor and help implement the work of the teachers.

The evaluation project involves four UGA faculty members and seven doctoral students from three units of the education college: language and literacy education, the Educational Research Laboratory Test Scoring and Reporting Services, and the Occupational Research Group.

Faculty members include Harnish; Donna Alvermann, Distinguished Research Professor; Michelle Commeyras, professor both of language and of literacy education; and Steve Cramer, associate director of the Professional Assessment Group, a testing and evaluation service based in the college.

The instruction being implemented in Reading First consists of methods that have been found to be successful, as measured by experimental and quasi-experimental reading research. The methods address five components of reading that the National Reading Panel decided were key: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

“We have been teaching pre-service and in-service teachers in reading education courses the methods of instruction recommended in Reading First for years,” says Commeyras.

“We have also taught other methods of instruction that have been shown to be effective through other research methods, such as descriptive, ethnographic, correlational and case studies,” says Alvermann.

Classroom observations

UGA doctoral students in reading education, trained with the observation process and rating instruments, have spent many days this past fall in K-3 classrooms in 38 counties that are implementing the Reading First program to see how the strategies are being used. Next spring, classrooms in another 38 counties will be observed.

“We developed and administered a teacher knowledge survey so we can use a baseline data on what teachers know about reading instruction prior to beginning to use the new strategies in the classroom,” says Harnish. “Then we’ll use that again at the end of the year, and two years and three years, to see if there are changes in that based on the professional development that they’re going to get, which is quite intense.”

UGA researchers will also interview the 100 literacy coaches and collect monthly survey data from the K-3 teachers, administrators and parents.

“Reading First is research-based instruction that studies show works best for teaching reading. What the implementation piece of the evaluation focuses on is to what extent the teachers are actually using the research-based strategies to teach reading in their classroom,” says Harnish. “Then the other question is ‘What impact is it having on students and their ability to read?’ “

At the end of each year, the researchers will look at the difference in the percentage of students who are reading at grade level in each of those grades, based on student achievement in reading on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and student progress on a nationally standardized test of basic early literacy skills called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.

“We are learning a lot about schools across the state and about the dedication of teachers to improving students’ reading,” says Alvermann.