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The Bushes and the McGraws

By Jim Trelease, © 2004, 2006

ne of the trademarks of the current reading reform legislation out of Washington is that any district wishing to qualify for government funding must be implementing "scientifically based" reading instruction. Only "approved" reading series/texts/curricula will be funded by the government.
bush-mcgraw 1bush-mcgraw2bush-mcgraw1    By the National Reading Panel's standards, that would mean a heavily scripted phonics program. And who is the biggest phonics publisher? McGraw-Hill, the publisher of Open Court. It was McGraw-Hill representatives and authors who dominated Gov. George W. Bush's Texas reading advisory board. No surprise that Open Court was the program of choice in the Lone Star State. And McGraw-Hill's connections to the National Reading Panel's report is no less transparent: Widemeyer Communications, the Washington PR firm that handled the promotion of Open Court in Texas, was also the firm hired to promote the NRP's report, including the writing of its Introduction, Summary, and video, the three parts that have taken the most flack from critics.
   All of which would be meaningless if McGraw-Hill's and the NRP's findings weren't being billed as "scientifically based." Open Court's crown jewel is its success in the Houston Independent School District. That also has taken on some tarnish in light of the Houston ISD's numbers scandal (see Miracles).
   Stephen Metcalf, writing in The Nation ("Reading Between the Lines," Jan. 28, 2002), is inclined to believe it's based on the "family connections" between the Bushes and McGraw-Hill that go back three generations, beginning when President Bush's grandfather Prescott and the McGraws were among the founding bluebloods of the original Jupiter Island (FL) money circle in the 1930's. Metcalf reports:

he amount of cross-pollination and mutual admiration between the Administration and [McGraw-Hill] is striking:
Harold McGraw Jr. sits on the national grant advisory and founding board of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. McGraw in turn received the highest literacy award from President Bush in the early 1990s, for his contributions to the cause of literacy. The McGraw Foundation awarded current Bush Education Secretary Rod Paige its highest educator's award while Paige was Houston's school chief; Paige, in turn, was the keynote speaker at McGraw-Hill's "government initiatives" conference last spring [2001]. Harold McGraw III was selected as a member of President George W. Bush's transition advisory team, along with McGraw-Hill board member Edward Rust Jr., the CEO of State Farm and an active member of the Business Roundtable on educational issues. An ex-chief of staff for Barbara Bush is returning to work for Laura Bush in the White House — after a stint with McGraw-Hill as a media relations executive. John Negroponte left his position as McGraw-Hill's executive vice president for global markets to become Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.


   None of the above is to suggest that hiring your friends is inherently evil or criminal. Many successful business leaders do legitimate business with their friends (one of the reasons God put golf courses on this earth), while governors and presidents have long hired their friends and colleagues as cabinet members and advisors.

Thus the phonics report became part of the full report of the NRP uncorrected, undeliberated, and unapproved.
       —Joanne Yatvin

   There's nothing wrong with saying, "These are my friends, people I trust, people I've known and worked with for years." Nothing wrong there. But there is something wrong if such hiring practices or endorsements are posed as "scientifically based." This is not unlike someone giving a State of the Union address and stating something as "fact" when several agencies of government know it to be in error or misinformation. (By 2006, the Education Department's Inspector General would discover 51 pages worth of inappropriate behavior and conflicts of interest in the Bush administration's Reading First program—see Reading Scandal.)
   Just how "unscientific" the reform movement can be is described by a dissident member (Joanne Yatvin) of the National Reading Panel who claims that with five months remaining before the NRP report was to be given to Congress, the "phonics" topic was turned over to an independent researcher outside the panel, completed, and then dropped in the lap of the NRP four days before press time. Yatvin wrote: "Thus the phonics report became part of the full report of the NRP uncorrected, undeliberated, and unapproved." Peer review, an essential ingredient in scientific research, was nonexistent here. This also seriously undermines the credibility of Education Secretary Paige's claim that the Reading Panel "screened more than 100,000 studies of reading" in compiling its phonics report, when only 428 actually were examined. For more on the NRP report and Yatvin's findings, click on NRP.

   By 2008, the U.S. Department of Education's research arm came to the same conclusion, just months after the department's Inspector General listed 51 pages of conflicts of interest at Reading First. (See Reading Conflicts.)

   Among many reasons for "grave concern" is the age-old quest for education miracles, the thought that government regulation could possibly be a cure-all. And when government proposes a cure-all but can't come up with the promised results, how much will it bend the rules to create those results? For a look at the desperate bending that took place in Texas, check out:

NEXT: When money talks, is it a miracle?

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