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Study Offers New Evidence for an Old Reading Program

A study in the current issue of the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk caught my eye this morning. It's an evaluation of a kindergarten-level language arts program called Superkids.

If you haven't heard of this program, don't feel bad. Neither have I. It's a phonics-based program that was marketed by Addison-Wesley back in the 1970s. Addison-Wesley stopped publishing it in 1981, according to this journal article, but it continued to float around in schools until 2003, when the Rowland Reading Foundation updated it and began to distribute it again. According to this report, Superkids is a little different from typical phonics-based programs in that it attempts to teach a wide range of language skills in concert with reading. Students also get lessons, for instance, on vocabulary, handwriting, spelling, expressive writing, comprehension, and eight other language arts strands.

What interested me about this study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the relatively decent size of the effects. At the end of the kindergarten year, the students in the 23 classrooms using the program were outscoring 60 percent of the kids in the control group on standardized reading tests. The effect size of their test-score advantage ranged from a tenth to a quarter of a standard deviation.

That doesn't sound like much but, according to the researchers, it's noteworthy. They contend that the effect size for Superkids is bigger than most of the average effect sizes for 29 of the most popular comprehensive school-reform programs and big enough to make a good-sized dent in the achievement gaps that separate disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged children at the start of school. Plus, teachers seemed to really like the program. When it came to rating the curriculum they used that year, the Superkids teachers gave far higher marks to their program than did the teachers using traditional curricula.

There are a couple of caveats to keep in mind, though. First, this was a quasi-experimental study rather than a pure experiment. The Superkids classrooms were compared with demographically matched classes where teachers conducted business as usual, but there was no random assignment of students or classrooms.

Second, the Superkids teachers spent an average of 24 more minutes a day teaching reading. The researchers also point out, though, that the Superkids teachers spent less time overall teaching language arts, which might mean that the program was more efficient.

The journal articles are not available online but I found a version of the study on the homepage of its lead author, Geoffrey D. Borman, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis.

In the same issue of the journal, you might also want to check out an evaluation of Baltimore's high school reform efforts by Becky Smerdon and Jennifer Cohen. Among its findings: Schools that start from scratch seem to benefit the most from working with high school reform models with an established track record. At a time when federal policymakers are focusing on turning around the nation's worst schools, that might be a piece of evidence worth considering.


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