The $6 billion reading program at the center of President Bush’s signature education law has failed to make a difference in how well children understand what they read, according to a study by the program’s own champion–the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The program, Reading First, was designed to help boost student performance in low-income elementary schools, but it has failed to improve reading comprehension, says the study from ED’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

There was no difference in comprehension scores between students who participated in Reading First and those who did not, the study found.

The findings, released May 1, threw the program’s future into doubt.

"We need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students," said California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chair of the House education committee.

Reading First was created as part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which aims to get all children doing math and reading at their proper grade level. President Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings have championed the reading program as an important part of the law.

IES Director Russ Whitehurst said the study focused on reading comprehension rather than other aspects of reading, such as whether kids grasp phonics, because comprehension is the ultimate goal when teaching reading.

The study did find that Reading First led to more time being spent by teachers on the various aspects of reading judged to be important by a federal reading panel.

The study also found that among schools participating in Reading First, higher levels of funding led to some improvement in scores.

Congress recently cut funding to the program–over Bush’s objections–owing to budget constraints and controversies surrounding it.

"It’s no surprise that Reading First has been a failure," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., who led the fight to cut the program’s budget following reports about management problems and potential conflicts of interest in the program.

Spellings hailed the program as a success last year when she released data showing scores in Reading First schools were up. However, those scores weren’t compared with schools where Reading First wasn’t in place. The new study compares those using the program to those not using it.

So, while elementary school students appear to be improving in reading across the board, there’s no difference in the gains being made by students participating in Reading First and those who are not, according to the study.

Amanda Farris, ED’s deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives, said Reading First remains popular.

"Secretary Spellings has traveled to 20 states since January. One of the consistent messages she hears from educators, principals, and state administrators is about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools and their disappointment with Congress for slashing Reading First funds," she said in a statement.

Jim Herman, Tennessee’s Reading First director, said he thinks the program works. He said one potential flaw with the latest study is that it doesn’t measure the degree to which schools not receiving Reading First money might be using Reading First practices.

This isn’t the first time supporters of the program have been dealt bad news.

Congressional investigators and ED Inspector General John Higgins previously found that federal officials and contractors didn’t adequately address potential conflicts of interest. For example, federal contractors that gave states advice on which teaching materials to buy had financial ties to publishers of Reading First materials, according to the investigations.

Higgins also testified to Congress that the department didn’t comply with the law when setting up panels that would review grant applications and in establishing criteria for what teaching materials could be used.

Miller said those problems could be behind the findings of the latest ED report.

"Because of the corruption in the Reading First program, districts and schools were steered toward certain reading programs and products that may not have provided the most effective instruction for students," he said.

The new study examining Reading First’s impact has itself been the subject of conflict-of-interest questions, because a contractor that worked on it also was among those that helped implement the Reading First program.

RMC Research Corp. was the contractor hired by the federal government to help with Reading First at the outset of the program under three contracts worth about $40 million. The contractor was subsequently criticized in an inspector general’s report for failing to adequately address conflict-of-interest issues. For example, it did not sufficiently screen subcontractors for relationships with publishers of reading programs, the report said.

RMC also was involved in the study released May 1, developing ways of measuring what was taught in classrooms and training classroom observers. Critics have said the company was, in effect, involved in judging its own work.

Whitehurst said he didn’t think the contractor’s involvement in the study resulted in an actual conflict of interest but perhaps created the appearance of one.

"If we had to do it all over again," he said, "we would have avoided the appearance issue."

The report released May 1 was an interim report. The final version is due out by the end of the year.