For the last six years, the federal government has subsidized an elementary-level reading program called Reading First, making it available for free to public schools that apply. But a study released today found that the program did not improve elementary students’ ability to understand what they read. It did help first graders with the more basic reading skills of identifying and sounding out words, the study found.

Reading First is currently used in more than 60 public schools in New York City, serving primarily low-income students. No New York City schools were part of the study, a spokesperson for the city Department of Education told me.

Will the New York City schools that use Reading First drop it? I was hoping to ask principals that question today, but the DOE press office hasn’t returned my request for a list of their names.

A lot depends on whether Congress renews funding for Reading First. The results of this final version of the study were similar to those of an interim report published by the federal Department of Education in May, which led to sharp criticism of the billions of dollars spent on the program and proposals in Congress to eliminate it in the 2009 budget.

In her statement about the study, out-going Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that she hopes the program will be improved, not cut. But what the next administration will do is anyone’s guess.

Supporters of the program have questioned the study’s methods, suggesting that the the control group teachers may have borrowed Reading First teaching strategies, reducing differences in outcomes. But one of the lead researchers on the study refuted that, saying there were important differences in teaching practice between Reading First and comparison classrooms, according to an article in EdWeek.

Correction: As a reader correctly pointed out, I should not have called Reading First a “curriculum” in the lead to this story. It is a program, not a curriculum.