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Reading Recovery, a support program for struggling first-grade readers, is currently riding high on a wave of success. Originally established in New Zealand over 20 years ago, the program has since taken the United States by storm. Nationwide, over 3,450 districts have implemented Reading Recovery for their students, while 230 of Michigan's districts use it to help children read. Unfortunately, however, Reading Recovery's "success" is less a function of how well children are being taught to read than it is of the program's ability to attract government funding.

How does the program work? When implemented according to guidelines, Reading Recovery attempts to bring the lowest-scoring 20 percent of a school's first-grade students up to their school's average reading level. Extensively trained veteran teachers instruct four to 16 students per year, working with them one-on-one for 30 minutes, five days a week for a total of 60 to 100 sessions. Lessons include reading and re-reading books containing predictable text, cutting up and rearranging self-written sentences, letter identification, and introduction to new books.

Students are taught to rely on context to predict words and learn strategies that include guessing words, looking at a picture to figure out text, or using a similar word in place of the word written (e.g., backpack for book bag.) They are sometimes encouraged to use the sound for the first letter in a word as a clue to what the word may be. Though decades of scientific research have shown that phonemic awareness—the ability to hear and remember all sounds in words—is most predictive of reading skills and learning an alphabetic writing system, this focus is largely absent in Reading Recovery instruction.

Reading Recovery uses an "Observation Survey," a subjective, nonstandardized method that tests students by using the same books read and exercises practiced during remedial training. This method not only is far less likely than a standardized test using new materials to predict reading proficiency, it also defies objective analysis, since its results can't be accurately compared with the reading test results of other, similar programs.

This opens Reading Recovery to critics' suspicion that its developers are reluctant to have their program's efficacy evaluated objectively. Indeed, Marie Clay, developer of both Reading Recovery and the Observation Survey, emphasizes the importance of "systematic observation" of pupils' reading behavior over standardized testing, which all peer review journals and education experts rely upon in order to compare and contrast data from one study to another. Perhaps worst of all, only results from students who finish the program go into the calculation of reading proficiency gains. This means that the outcomes for the 41 percent of children who start the program but never finish are not taken into account when Reading Recovery reports on its own performance. In other words, the program's reported gains in reading proficiency are highly suspect.

Another problem with Reading Recovery is that the program is often overly expensive. A variety of reports and studies show the cost ranging from $4,625 to $9,200 per successful student per year, while the average cost to provide a full year of education to a child in Michigan's public schools is $6,500.

Defenders of the program, however, insist the high price is worth paying because it prevents the need for future intervention. But reports show students released from Reading Recovery often read so poorly that they qualify for other remedial reading programs. A study from Wake County Schools in North Carolina revealed that Reading Recovery students were just as likely as those in a control group to be retained, placed in special education, or served by federal programs for poorly performing students one year later.

In fact, a 1999 report published by Massey University in New Zealand showed that one year after completing the program, reading ability of Reading Recovery graduates "was around one year below age-appropriate levels." The same report, which tracked 152 students for three years, also states, "Reading Recovery failed to significantly improve the literacy development of children considered to have succeeded in the program." Similarly, a 1995 study commissioned by the Ohio State Board of Education and conducted over a four-year period, found that while Reading Recovery graduates showed initial gains in reading proficiency, "the average score advantage was not maintained at the end of 2nd grade," nor was it retained on "tests for 3rd and 4th grade."

Parents notice when their children aren't being helped. Two Michigan parents, Scott and Tracy Bayliss, have a son who graduated from a Reading Recovery program and is now in the fifth grade. "We are still waiting for him to recover from Reading Recovery," they say. They have recently sought help outside their school system because their son continues to struggle and to get poor reading grades. His district no longer uses Reading Recovery. Another parent, a teacher herself, stated flatly of her child's Reading Recovery experience: "It was the worst thing we ever did."

In Michigan alone, over $600 million per year is spent on remedial training for high school graduates who lack basic skills, such as reading. Michigan's education system can't afford the luxury of experimenting on children year after year with programs whose efficacy hasn't been adequately determined through comparison studies and solid research.

Nora Chahbazi is the owner and director of the Ounce of Prevention Reading Center in Flushing.