Reading Recovery Program Deemed a Failure

by Katherine Esposito
November 4, 2004

Katherine Esposito is a freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin.

[Reading Recovery] costs the Madison [Wisconsin] school district about $1.5 million a year, with most of the money coming from tax dollars. The cost per successful program participant is estimated at upwards of $8,400. And the Reading Recovery Program, according to a study ordered by the school district and written by staff researcher Tim Potter, “does not achieve statistically significant achievement gains.” The report, unearthed as the result of a request from Isthmus, is the subject of an article in the paper’s Nov. 5 issue. Both the article and the report are included here.

1. The Isthmus article

Reading program not worth the cost, says new study
Remedial effort for struggling first-graders is faulted; Rainwater pledges that it will continue

By Katherine Esposito
After 14 years and more than $15 million spent, Reading Recovery, a remedial first-grade reading program considered a cornerstone of Madison’s school literacy efforts, “does not achieve statistically significant achievement gains,” an internal district report has concluded.

The district would be “well-served to investigate other methods” to reach struggling readers, says the report, commissioned by Supt. Art Rainwater and written by staff researcher Tim Potter.

The study was distributed internally in August, but not released to school board members until October, after Isthmus, through school board member Ruth Robarts, requested any independent program evaluations made of Reading Recovery.

The program, which has a staff of 13 fulltime-equivalent teachers, targets struggling first-grade readers in 24 out of the district’s 27 elementary schools. Classroom teachers identify the kids in early September, then specially trained instructors give them up to 60 one-on-one, half-hour reading lessons. The goal is to bring the children up to the average ability level of their classroom peers, which varies from school to school.

But Potter’s data shows that 52% of the students (159 of 305 in the program last year) failed to reach the success threshold. Over 15 years, he says 43% of the 3,782 students referred to Reading Recovery fell short of the standard.

Moreover, Reading Recovery students as a group actually “performed significantly lower” on many assessment tests, he found, than a demographically matched control group that didn’t participate in the program. The successful students did outperform their peers, Potter acknowledges, but the kids who didn’t graduate dragged down the group performance even further. (For the report, see Document Feed at

“What this shows is that we’ve spent a really disproportionate amount of money to address a very small number of kids’ needs,” says Robarts. “I think the research department put together a good study, and it should change how we fund reading programs.”

There’s no doubt that the program is costly. Potter estimates it costs $8,400 in teacher salaries to produce a successful Reading Recovery student. And, he says, “this amount is probably low,” since it is based on fiscal data from the 2000-01 school year.

For the current school year, Reading Recovery is budgeted at more than $1.5 million, with $1 million coming from the district’s property taxpayers and $534,000 in federal grants. This doesn’t include the cost of materials and training, school officials admit.

Juan José Lopez, chair of the board’s performance and achievement committee, says it may be time to rethink Reading Recovery, though he’s not as convinced as Robarts that a change is needed.

“With our budget constraints, we need to make sure that we’re spending our money wisely,” Lopez says. “And if this program is doing that, then we should continue to support it. If not, then maybe we need to…modify it, or look at other potential reading programs that might be able to serve more kids.”

Supt. Rainwater urges people to keep a balanced view. He says the study results were what he expected, and the program will continue: “Would we walk away from a program that is enabling 50% of our children who are not successful in reading to be successful? No, we wouldn’t. That would be crazy.”

Board member Carol Carstensen, meanwhile, points to the good news on reading: The percentage of third-graders scoring at the state’s lowest proficiency level has dropped dramatically over the past ten years. Among black third-graders, the percentage has dropped from 28.5% to just 5.1% at the lowest reading level.

“I have been very pleased with the progression our district has made as captured by the third-grade reading test,” Carstensen says. “It has not been a one-year turnaround; it has been a very steady progression. And I quite frankly have a lot more faith in that.”

Past district evaluations of Reading Recovery, known as “site reports,” had been largely positive. They were generated by the parent organization, the Reading Recovery Council of North America, a nonprofit group based in Columbus, Ohio, that runs the trademarked program. The Madison district, as a program participant, pays $2,725 in annual fees.

Nationally, Reading Recovery has been the subject of intense criticism by researchers who feel that the council overstates its successes. A 2001 fact sheet, for example, cites 16 years’ worth of results, declaring that of the 851,555 students served, 81% were judged to have successfully completed the program.

The critics dispute this. They question the need for costly one-on-one tutoring, saying there was no evidence to support its superiority. (Similarly, Potter recommends that the Madison district consider teaching in small groups.)

In 2001, the Chicago Public Schools dropped Reading Recovery because it served too few needy students for too much money, says Timothy Shanahan, who was Chicago’s director of reading and who now runs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Shanahan, who reviewed the Potter study for Isthmus, said that it might be time for a change.

“No matter how it looks to the school board, making that large an expenditure on so few kids without any evident benefit is a serious problem that needs to get addressed,” Shanahan said in an e-mail. “I would strongly suggest redeploying these dollars in ways that might be more successful, and to be just as exacting in looking at those efforts.”

2. The Report

Read the internal report by Tim Potter criticizing the Madison [Wisconsin] school district’s expensive first-grade reading program.

Full Text