June 14, 2024

Shocked! Shocked! Reading First Plagued by Corporate Welfare, Cronyism and Demonization

Originally published on Wednesday, October 04, 2006 in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

Aside from reducing teachers to script-reading robots and reading to an onerous task, the Federal government’s controversial $4.8 billion Reading First program has been accused of numerous improprieties by the Inspector General of the Department of Education. The scathing report, The Reading First Program’s Grant Application Process – Final Inspection Report, was released on Friday (June 22), employing a common tactic used in the hopes that bad news will escape the public’s attention over the weekend. This is a news story that should not be ignored.

Back in October 2004 I wrote that there was something fishy about McGraw-Hill’s Direct Instruction/Reading Mastery program and the administration’s fondness for it. The Director General’s report details how the Department of Education and Reading First administrators used their influence to benefit the commercial product, Direct Instruction. According to the New York Times, one of the whistle blowers leading to this investigation was Robert Slavin, the creator and director of Success for All, a product many educators find quite similar to Direct Instruction. Slavin told the New York Times, “The department has said at least 10,000 times that they had no favored reading programs, and this report provides clear evidence that they were very aggressively pressing districts to use certain programs and not use others.”

The Inspector General’s report illuminates the corruption involved in the Federal Government’s attempts to micro-manage reading instruction. This should justify caution and vigilance as the President appoints a National Mathematics Advisory Panel that promises to do for mathematics what was done to reading. The report suggests a cozy relationship between the Department of Education and “expert review panels.”

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is spinning the report as ancient history predating her tenure in the position although she was an architect of No Child Left Behind. Reading First was a cornerstone of NCLB.

The report found that the Department of Education

  • Developed an application package that obscured the requirements of the statute;

  • Took action with respect to the expert review panel process that was contrary to the balanced panel composition envisioned by Congress;

  • Intervened to release an assessment review document without the permission of the entity that contracted for its development;

  • Intervened to influence a State’s selection of reading programs;

  • Intervened to influence reading programs being used by local educational agencies (LEAs) after the application process was completed.

The report states, “These actions demonstrate that the program officials failed to maintain a control environment that exemplifies management integrity and accountability.”

My summary of this complex report is already too long, but there are countless reasons for concern. You can read the full report of the Inspector General (http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/i13f0017.pdf)

I would like to call attention to four major issues that should alarm educators and taxpayers alike.

Issue 1) Reading First Favored One Curriculum Product Over All Others

Numerous states had their applications for millions of dollars worth of Reading First grants rejected because they did not plan to use the funds for Direct Instruction. The report also says that states received little if any guidance on why their proposals were rejected. This caused state officials to waste time and resources chasing funding based on elusive criteria

Issue 2) Conflicts of Interest

The No Child Left Behind legislation mandated that a National Expert Review Panel be appointed to review scientifically-based reading materials eligible for Reading First funding. The Inspector General’s Report found that makeup of the panels was inconsistent with the goals of the law authorizing the panels.

The Department Took Action With Respect to the Expert Review Panel Process That Was Contrary to the Balanced Panel Composition Envisioned by Congress

Section 1203(c)(2)(A) states that the Secretary, in consultation with the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), shall convene a panel to evaluate applications and that, at a minimum, the panel shall include: three individuals selected by the Secretary, three individuals selected by NIFL, three individuals selected by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and three individuals selected by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). We have determined that each of the four organizations nominated at least three individuals to serve on the expert review panel; however, the Department failed to ensure that each State application was reviewed by a properly constituted panel.

Section 1203(c)(2)(C) requires a panel to recommend grant applications to the Secretary for funding or for disapproval. After selecting the panelists, the Department created subpanels made up of five panelists each to review the State applications and recommend either approval or disapproval to the Secretary. None of the subpanels possessed adequate representation from each of the organizations identified under Section 1203(c)(2)(A) of the Act.

The Department created a total of 16 subpanels to review the State applications. A majority of the panelists were nominated by the Department for 15 of the 16 subpanels; and 7 of the 16 subpanels consisted entirely of Department-selected panelists. None of the subpanels included a representative from each of the nominating organizations and there is no indication that the subpanels ever met as one large panel to review the State applications and/or recommend approval or disapproval to the Secretary.

If your eyes glazed over by the official mumbo jumbo above, check out this statement from the Inspector General’s report.

…15 of the 16 subpanels had a majority of Department-nominated panelists and none had the balanced composition envisioned by Congress.

Members of the National Expert Review Panels and Reading First staffers had commercial or academic ties to Direct Instruction. These conflicts rose all the way up the Department of Education to then Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, who won an award from McGraw-Hill for his role in the now largely discredited “Houston Miracle” – the basis for No Child Left Behind.

The Reading First Director took direct action to ensure that a particular approach to reading instruction was represented on the expert review panel. Direct Instruction (DI) is a model for teaching that requires the use of Reading Mastery, a program published by SRA/McGraw-Hill, to teach reading. The Reading First Director formerly served as the Executive Director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which has implemented DI in Baltimore City schools since 1996. The Reading First Director personally nominated three individuals who had significant professional connections to DI to serve on the expert review panel.

When asked about potential conflicts of interest and ideological blindness, Reading First officials reacted sarcastically with contempt for Congress and the public.

A Department employee reported to the Reading First Director that the Department had received a question from a member of the media about the panel composition. The response by the Reading First Director suggests that he may indeed have intended to “stack” the expert review panel. The employee stated: “The question is…are we going to ‘stack the panel’ so programs like Reading Recovery don’t get a fair shake[?]” The Reading First Director responded, “‘Stack the panel?’…I have never *heard* of such a thing….<harumph, harumph>[.]”

Doherty responded wrote in a 2002 email. “You know the line from Casablanca, ‘I am SHOCKED that there is gambling going on in this establishment!’ Well, ‘I am SHOCKED that there are pro-DI people on this panel!'”

Issue 3) Ideology Trumps Science and Good Public Policy

The Inspector General’s report documents how the Department of Education and the review panels manipulated the law to support Direct Instruction at the expense of competing programs. Reading Recovery, an remedial intervention strategy employed by schools across the globe, was a particular target of Reading First.

The Assistant Secretary for OESE planned for the Reading First Guidance to include language that was not in the statute and exclude language that was in the statute. After reviewing a revision to the Department’s draft of the Reading First Guidance, the Assistant Secretary for OESE wrote to the Reading First Director, “under reading first plan. i’d like not to say ‘this must include early intervention and reading remediation materials’ which i think could be read as ‘reading recovery’ [a reading program]. even if it says this in the law, i’d like it taken out.”

A few days before the Department publicly announced the panelists it had chosen to serve, one of the Department-nominated panelists contacted the Reading First Director and shared his strong bias against Reading Recovery and his strategy for responding to any State that planned to include Reading Recovery in its application. The Reading First Director responded: “I really like the way you’re viewing/approaching this, and not just because it matches my own approach :-), I swear!” This individual later served as the panel chair for the subpanel that reviewed Wisconsin’s State application and in response to the State’s plans to use Reading Recovery, he included an 11-page negative review of Reading Recovery in his official comments on the application.

The Inspector General’s report includes an email from Reading First Director, Chris Doherty in which he makes his motives and temperament perfectly clear.

“They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.”

Reading Recovery was not the only approach or curricular product to endure the wrath of Reading First officials. Reading First attacked any curriculum product or pedagogical approach determined to have a whiff of “whole language”.

The Department Intervened to Influence Reading Programs Being Used by LEAs After the Application Process Was Completed

After certain States completed the application process and received funding, the Reading First Director became aware that certain LEAs in these States were using the Rigby Literacy (Rigby) and Wright Group Literacy (Wright Group) programs. The Reading First Director worked closely with a Department staff member, a former expert review panelist, who undertook a review of both of these programs.

In e-mail correspondence with the staff member regarding the Wright Group, the Reading First Director stated:

Beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [whole language] apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR, never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.

The Reading First Director forwarded the above e-mail to Lyon and stated:

Confidential FYI. Pardon in-house language I use…with fellow team members and friends. Do you know—on the QT—if anyone has done any good review of the Wright Group stuff, to date? We have beaten Maine on Rigby and this is cut from the same cloth. We are proceeding, of course, but if you knew of a good piece of work dissecting The Wright Group’s stuff, it could further strengthen our hand.

Lyon responded that he would obtain this information and added, “I like your style.” In response, the Reading First Director stated, “Additional firepower…may help us make this a one-punch fight.”

After reviewing the programs, the staff member provided the Reading First Director with notes and talking points critiquing these programs. The Reading First Director used this information to convince States using Rigby and Wright Group to change programs. In an e-mail to Lyon, the Reading First Director wrote, “I spoke to Fred Carrigg [the former New Jersey Director of Reading First]…with a roomful of others on their end and they are HALTING the funding of Rigby and, while we were at it, Wright Group. They STOPPED the districts who wanted to use those programs.”

In a later e-mail to Lyon, the Reading First Director stated:

As you may remember, RF got Maine to UNDO its already-made decision to have Rigby be one of their two approved core programs (Ha, ha – Rigby as a CORE program? When pigs fly!) We also as you may recall, got NJ [New Jersey] to stop its districts from using Rigby (and the Wright Group, btw) and are doing the same in Mississippi. This is for your FYI, as I think this program-bashing is best done off or under the major radar screens.

In a formal letter to Carrigg, the Reading First Director did not specifically name Rigby and Wright Group as not being aligned with SBRR (scientifically-based reading research). The Reading First Director wrote, “It appeared that New Jersey had not fulfilled its responsibility to ensure that all LEAs and schools selected to participate in Reading First…would implement comprehensive reading programs that are fully aligned with scientifically based reading research.” The Reading First Director informed us that he could not definitively say why he did not formally state in the letter that those specific programs were not in line with SBRR.

Issue 4) Bias equals dissent?

The Inspector General’s reports how Reid Lyon, one of the architects of No Child Left Behind and Reading First, viewed dissent. People who disagreed with his agenda were accused of bias, ridiculed and intimidated.

Around the same time, Reid Lyon, the former Chief of the Child Development & Behavior Branch at the NICHD, advised the Reading First Director, the Assistant Secretary for OESE, and the Senior Advisor to the Secretary at the time that one of the panelists had been “actively working to undermine the NRP [National Reading Panel] Report and the RF initiatives.” Lyon further stated, “Chances are that other reviewers can trump any bias on her part.” In a written response to all of the people involved, the former Senior Advisor to the Secretary stated, “We can’t un-invite her. Just make sure she is on a panel with one of our barracuda types.”

The apparent intent of the Reading First Director to include and to give a significant role to panelists who reflected his personal preference in reading programs; his specific encouragement to a panelist who held views similar to his on Reading Recovery; and the intention of the former Senior Advisor to the Secretary to control another panelist raise significant questions about the control environment in which the program was being managed.

How is ignoring competing views part of the “scientific method” Lyon and his colleagues require as the basis for all educational practice?

The Executive Summary of the Inspector General’s report describes the following findings about Reading First.

FINDING 1A – The Department Did Not Select the Expert Review Panel in Compliance With the Requirements of NCLB

FINDING 1B – While Not Required to Screen for Conflicts of Interest, the Screening Process the Department Created Was Not Effective

FINDING 2A – The Department Replaced What the Law Intended to be a Peer Review Process With its Own Process

FINDING 2B – The Department Awarded Grants to States Without Documentation That the Subpanels Approved All Criteria

FINDING 3 – The Department Included Requirements in the Criteria Used by the Expert Review Panels That Were Not Specifically Addressed in NCLB

FINDING 4 – In Implementing the Reading First Program, Department Officials Obscured the Statutory Requirements of the ESEA; Acted in Contravention of the GAO Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government; and Took Actions That Call Into Question Whether They Violated the Prohibitions Included in the DEOA

The Pulse will continue to follow this important story. We will report on what happens to Reading First money already in the pipeline and if government officials are held accountable for their actions. Our teachers, students and taxpayers deserve no less.

For further study:

The Schools Matter blog, while representing a particular point-of-view, offers extensive coverage and analysis of the Reading First scandal.

Susan Ohanian reported (in 2005) on the original concerns that led to the Inspector General’s investigation. Read Special Report: Reading First Under Fire: IG Targets Conflicts of Interest, Limits on Local Control.

Look for news stories involving:

  • Reid Lyon, former Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who infamously proclaimed, “If there was any piece of legislation that I could pass it would be to blow up colleges of education.”

  • Chris Doherty, former Director of Reading First, who recently resigned

  • Douglas Carnine, one of the major proponents of DIBELs and a person involved in assisting Reid Lyon in assembling the Reading First panels discussed in the Director General’s report. Two of his colleagues from the University of Oregon were on the review panel. Carnine consults with the Department of Education and Congress on a remarkable range of topics and with great frequency.

  • Rod Paige, former Secretary of Education

Gary Stager, currently teaching, consulting and speaking in Australia, is Editor of The Pulse and Editor-At-Large for District Administration Magazine. His personal web site is www.stager.org

The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and not the views of The Pulse, District Administration Magazine or Professional Media Group.