Scientifically Based Research: 120 repetitions in NCLB by Ken Goodman (2007)

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Redundancy has something to be said for it. In language, redundancy is one thing that makes human communication possible.

But when the exact same phrase is used redundantly in the 670 pages of the NCLB law (strictly speaking the 2002 NCLB revision of the ESEA law) it would seem that there must be a compelling reason for such redundancy. The phrase “scientifically based research” occurs 120 times in the law. Most often it has an additional word and becomes: “scientifically based reading research” which in the enforcement of Reading First, the billion dollar year reading portion of NCLB becomes simply SBRR. 

But why was the phrase inserted redundantly at every point in NCLB where any determination was specified of what and who would be authorized under the law.. On the face, the phrase itself seems redundant. Isn’t research by definition scientific? Ah, but that’s the point!  The term “scientifically based reading research” implies that some reading research must be unscientific.

Sandy Kress who came with Bush from Texas is the one who made sure the redundant use of this phrase occurred as the law was written.  If there was a common agreement in the field of reading instruction on how to differentiate scientific from unscientific research- if there was at least a consensus among researchers-  then surely using the phrase once would have been enough.

The answer is that the phrase “Scientifically Based Reading Research” was put into NCLB over and over as a code phrase for a particular view of reading instruction advocated by a small group centered at the University of Oregon around  Distarr, a forty year old behavioral synthetic phonics reading program originally authored by Sigfried Engelmann. Under its current publisher McGraw Hill it became Direct Instruction Reading.  Douglas Carnine, a U of Oregon professor and Direct Instruction author, coined the phrase, Scientifically Based Reading Research,  first in the so-called “reading wars.”

Carnine now finds himself a trusted education adviser to the Bush administration. Before that, he advised California and Texas, under then-Gov. George W. Bush, on the restructuring of their state reading programs — both of which served as models for Reading First.

At Oregon, he directed the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (NCITE). His goal was not only to create a more welcome climate for reading science in academe, but to win the hearts and minds of publishers — in other words, to create a market for scientifically-based reading research. (Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks. 2005)

Carnine argued that theirs was the scientific alternative to whole language in the reading wars. By using this phrase redundantly throughout the text of the law it signaled precisely whose view of reading instruction the law was designed to mandate for every decision to be made in implementing Reading First.

And those put in charge by the Bush administration understood that the redundancy in the law gave them the green light to have it their way. He who hath the power to differentiate scientifically based reading research from unscientifically  based reading research is justified in deciding which text programs, which tests, which experts, which teacher education programs, which grant recipients, which publishers, which support servers are acceptable under Reading First and which are not. 

The reason for all this redundancy became apparent in the April 2007 hearings conducted by Rep. George Miller’s House Education committee. Those accused by the Inspector General of the Department of Education of flagrant conflicts of interest defended themselves by saying they were following the law’s mandate for SBRR in all their decisions. And in their view they were because they knew the intent of the law. (Brownstien and Hicks 2005) report:

“Our field is a lot like medicine and pharmaceuticals,” said Louisa Moats, the director of literacy professional development for Sopris West of Longmont, Colo. and the author of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), a widely-used program in Reading First schools. “There is a close relationship — sometimes too close — between the people who do research and the people who bring products to the market.”

But Moats said that while there needs to be “checks and balances,” it would be wrong to discourage researchers from developing products.

“What if these people weren’t doing anything commercial, then where would we be?” she asked. “We would be right back where we were 10 years ago, when all this good research was going on and no one ever used it.”

They were given the power to enforce the law by the Bush administration through Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings ( his white house controller and then successor), and Reid Lyon (Bush’s reading Guru). They were centered in special education at the University of Oregon. Oregon faculty involved include Douglas Carnine, Edward Kame’enui, Deborah Simmons, Roland Good and others . Sharon Vaughn in Texas, and Joseph TorgesEn in Florida, and Louisa Moats of Sopris West are also part of the group who profited from the shared power over what is and what isn’t scientific. Sopris West publishes the commercial version of DIBELS. Randy Best, a Texas entrepreneur, parlayed Voyager, using several of the above as authors, into a program he sold last year for almost $400 million dollars.  This group understood how the SBRR phrase is to be interpreted. It’s the view exemplified in Direct Instruction and Voyager. They had the power over Reading First and they needed no one outside their group to make  the decisions involved in implementing Reading First. This was their party and nobody else including other phonics advocates was invited.

The OIG’s first report comments on an internet message from the Reading First director…

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.” (OIG 2006)

Ironically the OIG investigations were begun after complaints from excluded phonics advocates.

No procedures were set up in implementing Reading First to require publishers of reading programs and tests to offer research proof that their offerings were in fact proved effective through scientifically based research. The power group saw no conflicts of interest in pushing their own programs and tests since theirs were the only ones worthy of being considered as conforming to SBRR. And they were the only ones with the expertise necessary to determine SBRR. And it is true that others might not be relied on to make the decisions since their view of what is scientific has little support among reading educators and researchers.

There is however another provision of the NCLB law which only occurs once. It was inserted at the insistence of members of Congress concerned that the law not be used to usurp authority over  education from the states. It prohibits: “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system..” Nothing could be clearer than that about the intention of Congress. The act creating the Department of Education several years ago has a similar prohibition for the same reason.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration gave one man, Chris Daugherty, sole DOE authority for implementation of the billion dollar a year Reading First program with a single assistant.  That assured that their intentions in interpreting the law would be followed. He was well chosen. His prior job was running a Direct Instruction program in the Baltimore school system. His wife is an employee of Direct Instruction. Through him most of the work of Reading First was outsourced. Emails reviewed by the OIG showed that he regularly consulted the others in the power group to decide what did and didn’t conform to SBRR. He ignored the explicit instructions in the law in organizing the review process for state proposals under Reading First. Members of the power group were placed on review panels to assure that their view would dominate. Together they bullied state after state to assure conformity to their view of SBRR. Their emails make clear that this was deliberate and they believed that what they did was approved by the Bush administration. 

Sandy Kress who wrote the SBRR phrase into the law, became a paid consultant after he left the government,  he was the broker between publishers who wanted their materials approved and the DOE according to Title 1 Monitor (2005)

During these early days of the program, various department personnel met with representatives of the major publishing companies — and some of the smaller ones — to urge them to beef up their programs and to reflect a greater emphasis on SBRR. It was a clear echo of Carnine’s earlier work with NCITE. By all accounts, the meetings were informal and well-received.

One of those meetings was a lunch in Washington involving the department and representatives of Scott Foresman of Livonia, Mich., publishers of a major basal textbook. Accompanying Scott Foresman officials was Sandy Kress, a close presidential adviser and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind, who had become a lobbyist for Pearson, Inc., Scott Foresman’s parent company. The meeting was unremarkable save for the appearance of two faces then-relatively unknown in the nation’s capital: Ed Kame’enui and Deborah Simmons, professors and longtime colleagues of Carnine at the University of Oregon. Along with Sharon Vaughn, a reading researcher at the University of Texas, the pair had just signed with Scott Foresman to produce a new basal, scheduled for release in 2007. ( Brownstein and Hicks, 2005)

Kame’enui and Simmons testified at the Congressional hearing that each had received $150,000 a year from Scott, Foresman for their work on the program. 

The OIG found, in its review of Reading First, that states were misled as to the requirements of the law and coerced into including approved programs such as Direct Instruction and tests such as DIBELS during the process of reviewing state proposals. Daugherty and his consultants assumed that they had a free hand in interpreting the law.

A contract went to Kame’enui and his colleagues at Oregon through a grant to the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL)  to review materials in terms of SBRR. They produced a list of favored programs and tests prominently featuring DIBELS produced with federal funding at the University of Oregon. It’s principal author is Roland Good. Though NIFL never gave approval to release the report under this contract, it was posted on the Oregon web site with Daugherty’s assent and frequently referred to in reviewing state proposals. 

The DOE contracted for a series of Reading Leadership Academies and required recipients of Reading First grants to attend. The OIG reported:

With regard to the RLAs, (Reading Leadership Academies)  we concluded that the Department did not have controls in place to ensure compliance with the Department of Education Organization Act (DEOA) and NCLB Act curriculum provisions.  Specifically, we found that: 1) the “Theory to Practice” sessions at the RLAs focused on a select number of reading programs; and 2) the RLA Handbook and Guidebook appeared to promote the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) Assessment Test. (OIG 2007)

A contract went to RMC Research Corporation’s (RMC) to setup technical assistance centers to insure that states followed the law as their contracts indicated. Contracts for the technical assistance centers went to Kame’enui in Oregon, Vaughn in Texas and Torgeson in Florida with no consideration for conflicts of interest. The OIG in their investigation concluded:

With regard to RMC Research Corporation’s (RMC) technical proposal for the NCRFTA contract, we concluded that the Department did not adequately assess issues of bias and lack of objectivity when approving individuals to be technical assistance providers before and after the NCRFTA contract was awarded. (OIG2007)

The Department of Education has claimed that Reading First is successful and that it is due to the pedagogy it has imposed on the schools. There is considerable dispute from a wide range of reading authorities about these claims.  The results reported by the DOE rely to a considerable extent on DIBELS which tests for speed and accuracy on such things as nonsense word identification but not for the quality of reading comprehension. (http://dibels.uoregon.edu/) One factor that contributed to the conflicts of interest is that the view of reading instruction it imposed has little support among teachers and reading educators. 

But two things are clear about the implementation of Reading First regardless of the issue of the quality of the programs and tests it imposed:

  1. The prohibition in the law against the DOE interfering in curriculum was flagrantly and deliberately violated.
  2. The conflicts of interest of those involved in implementing Reading First resulted in huge personal gain for them and their publishers which they continue to receive.

What needs to be done. 

Secretary Spellings and her assistants have admitted that mistakes were made in the early days of Reading First implementation. But those “mistakes” are still yielding handsome profits to those who made them, not only in terms of royalties but in terms of on-going contracts they were illegally awarded.  Not only do those guilty of criminal acts need to be punished, but the results of their illegal acts need to be reversed. For example, contracts for the assistance centers need to be cancelled and the recipients required to refund the money illegally awarded to them. State contracts need to be renegotiated or they are likely to involve the DOE in endless law suits contesting their legality.

The guilt clearly goes beyond the one government employee forced to resign. Sec. Spellings should be asked to resign and the role she and her predecessor played in violation of the law needs to be investigated.

It is not sufficient to establish more stringent rules for the implementation of the Reading First law. to avoid the possibility of the same kind of illegal activity in the future. The law itself needs to be rewritten to remove every instance of the use of the phrase Scientifically Based Reading Research. Congress should make clear that it did not intend to impose a single one-size-fits all mandate or endorse a small number of commercial materials. 

The intentions of Reading First to improve the literacy of America’s young people are laudable. And federal support can make a major difference. But the law needs to be refocused as a positive, not punitive, collaboration between local, state, and federal authorities. And there needs to be a much wider involvement of professionals at all levels in planning and implementing the objectives of increased literacy.

References

  • Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks, Thompson Title 1 Monitor , August 2005            
  • Roland Good, Official DIBELS website  http://dibels.uoregon.edu/ 
  • U.S Department of Education.   Office of Inspector General.  The Reading First Program’s Grant Application Process  Final Inspection Report  ED-OIG/I13-F0017.  September 2006  Washington, D.C. 
  • U.S Department of Education Office of Inspector General. The Department’s Administration of Selected Aspects of the Reading First Program Final Audit Reported- OIG/A03G0006. February 2007.  Philadelphia, PA.

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