Closing the Books on Open Court Reading

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Back in the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times was a big fan of the scripted reading curriculum, Open Court, designed to teach reading in the elementary grades through a heavy dose of explicit, systematic phonics. The Times reporters wrote lots of favorable articles about phonics instruction in general, especially then-education reporter, Richard Lee Colvin. Others got in on the act, too, including Jill Stewart of the LA Weekly, whose “The Blackboard Bungle” article should be a case study in the lack of “fact checking” in reporting.*

Open Court ended up being adopted by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), among many other districts around the country – never mind that the evidence for the effectiveness of phonics was (and is) severely lacking. (LAUSD eventually abandoned the program in 2011.)

The latest data on Open Court comes from a large study of more than 4,500 students just published in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness (paywall). The study was conducted in part by an independent research group, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), known for its thorough and rigorous program evaluations in education. Here’s the abstract, with my comments interspersed:

Findings From a Multiyear Scale-Up Effectiveness Trial of Open Court Reading

This multiyear scale-up effectiveness study of Open Court Reading (OCR) involved approximately 4,500 students and more than 1,000 teachers per year in Grades K–5 from 49 elementary schools in seven districts across the country. Using a school-level cluster randomized trial design, we assessed the implementation and effectiveness of Open Court Reading over two years. Implementation study results demonstrated adequate to high levels of fidelity across the treatment schools.

This means teachers did actually implement the program as it was intended, so we can’t blame the results on teachers not doing what they were supposed to do. The randomized design helps ensure (but not guarantee, of course) that the results are due to the treatment and not some other factor. Random assignment is sometimes called the “gold standard” in research design.

Intent-to-treat analyses revealed no statistically significant main effects on students’ reading performance in Year 1 and a small negative effect (d = – .09) in Year 2.

This is the key finding: no “main” effects means that the overall impact of the program on reading scores during the first year of the study was zero, nada. By year two of the program, it was slightly negative. Oops.

There were positive impacts for particular subgroups, including Kindergarten (d = .12) and Hispanic (d = .10) students in the first year.

Effect sizes here are tiny (under .20 is generally considered a very small effect). And the Kindergarten “reading” measure was partly based on “phonological awareness” and decoding tests. Improving these skills in isolation has not been shown to lead to better reading comprehension later on (e.g. Krashen, 2001). Kids who are trained in phonics do better on phonics tests, not on tests of actual reading comprehension.

That’s what makes the next sentence of the abstract so important – once the Open Court kids got to 1st grade, they were actually worse off:

However, there were negative impacts for first grade (d = –.13), females (d = –.11), students who were not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (d = –.19), and non-English language learners (d = –.10) in the second year of the study. Thus, relative to the “business-as-usual” reading curricula, no positive overall impacts of (OCR) and mixed impacts for student subgroups were found.

Translation: Open Court does no better, and often worse, than the alternatives. 

This most recent study is by no means the only evidence against phonics instruction or programs such as Open Court. The list of studies that show the failure of phonics is too long to repeat here, but you can whet your appetite by looking at what happened with the U.S. Department of Education’s spectacularly expensive and utterly ineffective Reading First program (here, here, and here, for starters).

Journalists and politicians get to move on to the next Great Cause, but the teachers and kids stuck in Open Court classrooms often have no such option. Thanks, L.A. Times!

*Full disclosure: I was among those attacked by Stewart in her article, though most of her fact-free diatribes during this period were aimed at my then-advisor, Stephen Krashen.

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