Reading curriculum changes need evaluation

April 10, 2023 4:30 am

COLUMBUS, OH — JANUARY 31: Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine during the State of the State Address, Jan. 31, 2023, in the House Chamber at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Earlier this month, Education Week reported on a policy trend that Ohio Gov. DeWine has made a central focus of his 2024-2025 budget: reform of reading curriculum standards.

This reform in particular centers around a fulcrum of debate about how to teach reading in schools. In particular, a popular but controversial program called “Reading Recovery” is in the crosshairs of the governor.

Reading Recovery is a program that focuses on one-on-one instruction where a teacher keeps a running list of words the student reads incorrectly. The teacher takes notes about what may have tripped the student up on these particular words.

Reading Recovery had a lot of promise out of the gate. A randomized controlled trial of the program in 2010 showed first grade participants in Reading Recovery far outpacing their peers in reading skills after five months of instruction.

Subsequent evaluations of the program, however, have cast doubt on its effectiveness. A follow-up evaluation of participants in the program done by the same center that conducted the original evaluation found Reading Recovery participants falling a half grade level below their peers in third and fourth-grade reading proficiency tests.

This evaluation as well as others in the field have led researchers to worry that individualized focus helps students in early stages of learning but passes over “foundational” learning. This means that students can learn how to read words that are important for a first grader, but these skills do not help students get to the level of third-grade reading, and can even be detrimental to that goal.

Some who advocate on behalf of teachers, however, have argued that similar approaches to Reading Recovery like “three-cueing,” an approach to learning that emphasizes context over phonics, should be preserved as an option for teachers.

Education researchers are critical of this sort of approach. Chanda Rhodes Coblentz, an assistant professor of education at the University of Mount Union, called three-cueing “a fancy way of saying we’re allowing kids to guess at words.”

Part of what may appeal to educators about approaches like Reading Recovery is the combination of one-on-one instruction and quick results. In this way, Reading Recovery may be like a keto diet: you get results, you get them fast, but you’re not building the fundamentals needed to make sustainable, long-term progress.

On the other hand, the value of leaving curricular decisions up to teachers is that they can tailor educational experiences to their classroom. Theoretically, Reading Recovery could be a bad program for the average classroom but still a useful program for a subset of classrooms, and teachers could be well-suited for identifying whether it is the right curriculum for their classroom.

If there is an argument for these alternative approaches, we need evidence of their effectiveness. Governor DeWine is seeking $162 million for reading reform efforts, hoping to discourage programs like Reading Recovery and approaches like three-cueing in favor of more evidence-supported curricula.

If defenders of three-cueing are right and these approaches are useful for a subset of students, then let’s test it. The state of Ohio should set aside a small portion of these funds for evaluation of pilots of alternative teaching techniques to see if they work. And these pilots should be evaluated out to the third-grade level if possible to determine if impacts are long-lasting.

Ultimately, we can’t rule out of turn that there is no student for which Reading Recovery or three-cueing will be useful. But if we want to keep these around as options in the face of mounting evidence they are hurting child reading outcomes, we need better evidence of their effectiveness.



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Rob Moore
Rob Moore

Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a public policy analysis firm based in Columbus. Moore has worked as an analyst in the public and nonprofit sectors and has analyzed diverse issue areas such as economic development, environment, education, and public health. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Denison University.