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No Child Left Behind suggests the ravages of poverty can be overcome by vouchers, magnet schools, or more qualified teachers, along with more
testing for accountability.

Not so, say the experts, who equate poverty with gravity — it drags everything down. Read "The Elephant
in the Room"

by Jim Trelease.

 



Reading First: Unraveling the Web of special interests in the reading circleReading First: Unraveling the Web of special interests in the reading circle


A collection of national news articles and editorials about the corrupt practices that provoked the Ed Department's Inspector General to investigate and the subsequent scathing report on the appointees at Reading First and their favored friends in the textbook/testing industry. The most recent items can be found on higher pages, older items on the lower pages.

Entry p. 2 p. 9 p. 10 p. 11

 

Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’

Education Week, September 29, 2006

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Federal officials encouraged use of specific programs, inspector general finds.

The findings of a scathing report on the federal Reading First program continued to reverberate following its Sept. 22 release, fueling debates in Congress, on the Internet, and among professionals in the field about their gravity and potential impact.

Critics of the program’s implementation said the conclusions drawn in the report by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general validate complaints that federal officials may have steered the grant-application process to ensure that particular reading programs and instructional approaches were widely used by participating schools, and that others were essentially shut out.

Some supporters of the program characterized the findings as overblown and charged that they constituted a personal attack on department personnel, rather than a verdict on the $1 billion-a-year program itself, which was rolled out 41⁄2 years ago as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Many educators and observers said the blistering review of the implementation and management of Reading First, though justified, could damage a program that is showing initial signs of effectiveness.

“There really needs to be a good, hard look at the program ... and a renewed focus on solid, research-based instruction,” said Alan J. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, in Newark, Del. “Reading First can be a more solid program.”

The long-awaited evaluation, which includes excerpts from internal Education Department e-mail marked confidential and sometimes containing vulgar language, concludes that:

  • Department officials may have intended to “stack” the panels of grant reviewers with those who favored a particular teaching methodology, and their method of screening the panelists for conflicts of interest was ineffective;
  • Requirements for receiving grants under the program were expanded beyond what the law requires;
  • Federal education officials may also have overstepped provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act that prohibit them from influencing or dictating the curricula, assessments, or instructional approaches used by schools or districts.

Reading First, which has already handed out nearly $5 billion in grants to some 1,700 districts and 5,600 schools, is designed to improve reading instruction in the nation’s most disadvantaged schools through the use of research-based methods.

Potential Conflicts

The inspector general’s findings correspond with charges leveled over the past several years by critics of the program, as well as by many reading experts and state officials.

Education Week has reported since 2002 many of the concerns among researchers and educators that the program favored only a handful of consultants and commercial products, and the potential financial conflicts between them. In an extensive analysis of documents and e-mail correspondence obtained through state and federal open-records requests, as well as interviews with state officials, the newspaper reported last fall a pattern of behavior that suggested federal employees and their representatives had directed or even pressured states to choose specific assessments, consultants, and certain kinds of texts as conditions for getting funding under Reading First.

Also implicated in the report for their roles in setting requirements for the program were Susan B. Neuman, who served as the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education from March 2001 until January 2003 and G. Reid Lyon, who directed the branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that supports reading research.
Ms. Neuman returned to her job as a reading researcher at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Mr. Lyon now works for Best Associates in Dallas.

In an interview, Ms. Neuman said she was not included in what she described as closed-door discussions between Mr. Doherty, other staff members, and consultants as they drafted guidance for the program and advised state officials on their grant proposals.

Mr. Lyon said his role was simply to explain and clarify what the research says is effective in reading instruction.

It is Mr. Doherty’s role in directing the grant-application process that is outlined in detail in the report, including e-mail exchanges that express in sharp wording his disdain for what he viewed as insufficiently rigorous instructional materials. Just days before the report was released, Mr. Doherty announced that he would be leaving his position with the department Oct. 1 for work in the private sector. He could not be reached for comment.

The handful of remaining Reading First staff members have been reassigned within the Education Department, according to spokesman Chad Colby.

In past interviews with Education Week, Mr. Doherty has maintained that the department only pressed state and local officials to meet the law’s demand for research-based materials, assessments, and practices, and provided counsel on how they could do that.

“In fact, what we’ve said about Reading First is that there is no approved list of programs or assessment, truthfully,” Mr. Doherty said in an interview last year.

Beyond the Law?

Some education experts said the Education Department had no choice but to push hard for states to change their approach to reading instruction. Many states, they said, wanted to continue using failed approaches or programs with no evidence of effectiveness.

In spring 2002, an Education Week survey found that most state officials were generally satisfied with their existing reading initiatives and planned to use Reading First money to expand, enhance, or supplement them without making wholesale changes.

Federal officials, however, said that simply tweaking existing approaches would not satisfy the rigorous demands of the new program. ("Federal Program Will Test States' Reading Policies," June 19, 2002.)

“In my view, Reading First is starting to get results, not in spite of the aggressive approach of the department, but because of it,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a former official at the Education Department during the current administration. Mr. Petrilli, now the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said the inspector general’s report does not point to any illegal activity but chronicles how department employees pressed to ensure the law’s intent was followed.

The inspector general, however, suggests that officials went beyond the law, which prohibits federal employees from influencing or directing states’ decisions on curricula, tests, or instructional methods.

Some observers agree

“The issue is that here are these folks who saw an opportunity to really, fundamentally move the debate on reading instruction,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and the director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector. “That doesn’t allow them to deviate from what the law allows.”

The inspector general’s office is conducting five other audits related to Reading First. The reports could be completed by the end of the year, according to Mary Mitchelson, who serves as counsel to the inspector general.

In a statement, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said some of the actions described in the report “reflect individual mistakes” by federal employees. She added that she was “moving swiftly to enact all of the inspector general’s recommendations.”

The inspector general has recommended that the department review the structure and management of the Reading First office, establish guidelines to ensure staff members understand the prohibitions in the NCLB law, and set up greater oversight of programs as they are implemented.

Spellings’ Involvement

Mr. Petrilli, Mr. Rotherham, and others question Ms. Spellings’ claims that the program was implemented without her input. Although she became education secretary in early 2005, after many of the practices outlined in the report occurred, she was closely involved in the establishment of the No Child Left Behind program overall, and Reading First, while she served at the White House as President Bush’s chief domestic-policy aide during his first term, Mr. Petrilli said.

“Margaret Spellings was involved in this from day one in her role as domestic-policy adviser, and that’s something she should have been proud of because it’s one of the most successful education programs in the history of the department,” he said.

“Instead of defending it and hailing its success, she’s hanging one of her most loyal lieutenants out to dry,” Mr. Petrilli said, referring to Mr. Doherty.

Ms. Spellings has not yet responded to those allegations.

State and local education officials have generally praised the program for focusing needed resources on professional development and materials in reading. And many are reporting that those efforts are having a positive bearing on student achievement. But those successes have not been linked to the curriculum and assessment decisions made by those states. It is also not known whether a greater choice of instructional program, combined with the additional resources for teacher professional development and support services provided to Reading First schools, would have had a similar outcome.

The program’s results do not appease some officials who say the process may have hindered their ability to serve more children.

“The process we had to go through was so excruciating,” said Lisa Y. Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department. Kentucky had to revise its Reading First application at least three times, and officials said they gained approval only after buckling to Mr. Doherty’s demands to change the assessment portion of the plan. Despite the benefits of the program, Ms. Gross said, “still we believe if we had gotten our first proposal accepted, we could have provided many more services for students or at least gotten started a lot sooner.”

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., urged Republican members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee to hold hearings on the inspector general’s findings.

“This was a concerted effort to corrupt the process on behalf of partisan supporters, and taxpayers and schoolchildren are the ones who got harmed by it,” Rep. Miller, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a statement. He was among a bipartisan group that initiated a separate investigation of the program by the Government Accountability Office. That report is due out in January

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., responded to the report in a letter to Ms. Spellings this month. The report “seemed to suggest that the department mismanagement was even worse than expected,” he wrote. But, the senator added, that her promise to implement the inspector general’s recommendations was “a good start.”

Education Week, Vol. 26, Issue 06, Pages 1, 24-25

 

PDF copy of the Inspector General's report:
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/i13f0017.pdf
.

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