First, Reading First: Second, RTI? NOT!

Topics: Literacy

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    About two weeks ago, a very talented evaluation team released a report documenting the findings from their evaluation of the national Reading First initiative. For those who may be unfamiliar, Reading First is the early literacy program that was incepted as part of No Child Left Behind, a few years ago. This program was one vehicle to bring scientific, research-based instructional practice into a large number of schools. The news-making finding from the report was that it appears that Reading First did not make a difference in reading comprehension in the schools from the evaluation study. Major news since we as a country have spent huge amounts of money on the program.

    What does all of this have to do with RTI? Well, a number of important things. For one, many Reading First sites are using a 3-tier model and instructional practices similar to those being advocated in RTI. Also, Reading First was a national-level initiative, just like RTI. And finally, the purpose of an evaluation study is to learn what you can about what is working and what is not so that you can improve your program. There may, in fact be implications for RTI from this study.

    So what are the lessons for RTI?   We know from the empirical research that the scientific, research-based reading instruction, when implemented well, results in significant gains in reading skills, including comprehension.  These findings have been replicated many times, by many different researchers in many parts of the country.  We know a lot about how to create good reading results.  Yet it didn’t seem to work for Reading First.  What gives?

    If you read some of the analyses of the evaluation study, a set of interesting questions get raised.  Were the schools in the evaluation study really implementing scientific, research-based practices as intended by Reading First?  And if so, were they doing them well?  Were they doing them the way they were intended?  The reality, it seems, is that we just don’t know.  While Reading First was SUPPOSED to cause research-based practices to be used in Reading First Schools, there were changes made midstream in Reading First requirements that allowed schools to use a broad array of approaches, some scientifically research-validated, some not.  So, it is not known whether the practices used in the evaluation schools truly were scientifically based.  And if known-effective treatments were not being implemented, why would we expect to see results?

    The implications for RTI are foundational.  As we move forward in our implementation efforts of RTI, we must welcome and invite evaluation of our efforts.  This is a new era in Federal programming and we must accept and encourage systematic examination of our results.  We must ensure that schools are using effective practices as a basis for planning instruction.  And most importantly, we must be systematically monitoring the progress of our students based on our implementation efforts AND changing strategies if what we’re doing is not working.  These are the keys to RTI effectiveness.

    Inviting evaluation of our efforts is scary.  It invites misuse of data and could provide our detractors ammunition for their arguments against RTI practices.  However, the underlying philosophies associated with RTI are outcome oriented.  We must be willing to put our results out in front of us and be willing to be held accountable for them.  Furthermore, we must insist that our detractor’s programs and recommendations be submitted to the same crucible.  For so long as we can force the discussion on to the playing field of outcomes, it is our children who ultimately benefit.

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