Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

The following opinion column from the October issue of District Administration Magazine caused the owner (and Editor-in-Chief) of the magazine to publish an apology in the very next issue. The mea culpa was published before any reader or advertiser complained. None did. This column never appeared on the magazine’s web site, so it is published here.

In August 2004, District Administration Magazine published my harsh critique of Senator John Kerry’s education plan. It may be read here.

In other words, the following fact-checked article was deemed unfair when an article critical of the political opponent two months earlier was fair game.

I remain incredibly proud of this article because it was timely, witty, and predicted the ultimate disaster caused by the policies I criticized.

Gary Stager on Direct Instruction

Perhaps it’s time to end political social promotion
From the October 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine

Michael Moore got it wrong.

In his film, Fahrenheit 9/11Moore shows President Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The film’s narration said that while America was being attacked, the president read the book, My Pet Goat, to a room full of young children. This is factually inaccurate in three important ways.

  1. The story is actually titled, The Pet Goat.
  2. It is not a book, but an exercise in a heavily scripted basal.
  3. The president did not read the story to the children.

Any perceptive educator watching this would quickly realize what was going on. The president was not in that classroom to demonstrate his love of reading. Being read to is a powerful literacy experience. Having a wonderful story read to you by the president of the United States could create a memory to last a lifetime.

Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration’s radical attack on public education.

The Pet Goat is an exercise from a literary classic called, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite-]sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, “The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices.”

Engelmann told The New Yorker in its July 26, 2004 issue, “We don’t give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels. On the teachers’ own time they can hate it. We don’t care, as long as they do it. Traditionalists die over this, but in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them.” It is easy to see how a man of such sensitive temperament could author more than 1,000 literary masterpieces such as The Pet Goat.

While I am sure the Florida school visited is a fine one and the classroom teacher loves children, educational excellence was not being celebrated. This was a party on behalf of Direct Instruction. While Moore made a documentary [some suggest artful propaganda] about the Iraq war, he could have made a movie about the United States government’s ideological attack on the public schools.

The War on Public Education
Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush’s transition team and the board of his mother’s literacy foundation. The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Direct instruction has become synonymous with the “scientifically based methods” required by No Child Left Behind.

The War on Public Education has ratcheted up parental fear with cleverly designed rhetoric of failing schools, data disaggregation, underperforming students, unqualified teachers and clever slogans like, “no excuses.” If you turn public schools, even the best ones, into single-]minded test-]prep factories where teachers drone on from scripted lessons then more people will want that magical voucher. Repeatedly demonize teachers arid the public will lose confidence regardless of their personal experiences with their local school.

So, how are you doing? Is your job now more about compliance than kids? Are sound educational experiences being sacrificed for test­ preparation? Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, “Is your school better off than it was four years ago?”

Last week, my 7 year-old nephew, (let’s call him) Homer, brought home another stupendous homework assignment. He was required to read a phonics primer to his parents, get his parents to sign that they had been sufficiently tortured by the experience and then answer comprehension questions on a worksheet.

The book was titled, Fawn at Dawn.

Here is an excerpt from this classic tale…

I saw a fawn. I saw a fawn at dawn… I saw a fawn at dawn on my lawn…”

Homer then whipped out his worksheet and assumed the role of literary critic.

Question #1: The story was about?
The story was about a girl named Jenny who saw a fawn, but nobody believed her.

Question #2: Favorite part of the book?
The end because the story was very porly (sic) written

The teacher corrected the spelling of “poorly” despite the mistake being wholly consistent with phonics instruction. Then things began to get a bit ugly.

Question #3: Who else do you think would like this book?
I don’t think anyone would like this book. It’s just aw aw aw awful!

On Homer’s paper the teacher wrote something to the effect of “I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I guess you have the right to your opinion.” (as if she LOVED the book) In class the teacher dismissed Homer’s critique by reminding the kids that this was a phonics lesson so the stories don’t have to be good.

The moral of this story?
Homer has been reading fluently for three years and loves books, but this one-size-fits-all assignment made no allowances for his skill or personal interests. In fact, there would be no time for pleasure reading that night because by the time this second grader gets off the bus at 4:30 PM, does his homework and eats dinner there is rarely any time left to waste on playing with friends, practicing an instrument, visiting with his parents or reading a good book.

Couldn’t Homer read a real book and make a list of the “aw” words he encountered?

If I were to suspend my disbelief and stipulate that every child learns to read by systematically mastering 43 phonemes I am left with a simple question. Once a child can read shouldn’t phonics instruction end? Why has phonics become a separate subject rather than a decoding strategy?

Why should Homer and his literate friends be subjected to crummy reading materials until middle school when a bumper crop of high-quality high-interest literature is available?

Originally published Sunday, March 18, 2007 in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

The following opinion column from the October issue of District Administration Magazine caused the owner (and Editor-in-Chief) of the magazine to publish an apology in the very next issue. The mea culpa was published before any reader or advertiser complained. None did. This column never appeared on the magazine’s web site, so it is published here.

In August 2004, District Administration Magazine published my critique of Senator John Kerry’s education plan. It may be read here.

In other words, the following fact-checked article was deemed unfair when an article critical of the political opponent two months earlier was fair game.

I remain incredibly proud of this article because it was timely, witty and predicted the ultimate disaster caused by the policies I criticized.

Gary Stager on Direct Instruction
Perhaps it’s time to end political social promotion
From the October 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine

Michael Moore got it wrong.

In his film, Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore shows President Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The film’s narration said that while America was being attacked, the president read the book, My Pet Goat, to a room full of young children. This is factually inaccurate in three important ways.

  1. The story is actually titled, The Pet Goat.
  2. It is not a book, but an exercise in a heavily scripted basal.
  3. The president did not read the story to the children.

Any perceptive educator watching this would quickly realize what was going on. The president was not in that Bush Reading on 9/11classroom to demonstrate his love of reading. Being read to is a powerful literacy experience. Having a wonderful story read to you by the president of the United States could create a memory to last a lifetime.

Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration’s radical attack on public education.

The Pet Goat is an exercise from a literary classic called, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite-]sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, “The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices.”

Engelmann told The New Yorker in its July 26, 2004 issue, “We don’t give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels. On the teachers’ own time they can hate it. We don’t care, as long as they do it. Traditionalists die over this, but in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them.” It is easy to see how a man of such sensitive temperament could author more than 1,000 literary masterpieces such as The Pet Goat.

While I am sure the Florida school visited is a fine one and the classroom teacher loves children, educational excellence was not being celebrated. This was a party on behalf of Direct Instruction. While Moore made a documentary [some suggest artful propaganda] about the Iraq war, he could have made a movie about the United States government’s ideological attack on the public schools.

The War on Public Education
Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush’s transition team and the board of his mother’s literacy foundation. The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Direct instruction has become synonymous with the “scientifically based methods” required by No Child Left Behind.

The War on Public Education has ratcheted up parental fear with cleverly designed rhetoric of failing schools, data desegregation, underperforming students, unqualified teachers and clever slogans like, “no excuses.” If you turn public schools, even the best ones, into single-]minded test-]prep factories where teachers drone on from scripted lessons then more people will want that magical voucher. Repeatedly demonize teachers arid the public will lose confidence regardless of their personal experiences with their local school.

So, how are you doing? Is your job now more about compliance than kids? Are sound educational experiences being sacrificed for test­ preparation? Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, “Is your school better off than it was four years ago?”

I’m writing this column because I’m embarrassed. Joe Hanson

Two recent issues of District Administration have carried columns by Gary Stager that have attacked aspects of the educational proposals/decisions of both presidential candidates.

As editor-in-chief, I feel that I erred in permitting publication of these two articles in the months before the presidential elections. The article in our August issue (Gary Stager on Kerry’s Education Plan) makes an argument against merit pay for teachers. That’s certainly a valid matter for discussion on our editorial pages. What does not belong are Stager’s comments such as, “… the Kerry proposal could suggest either a generous desire to increase teacher pay or a cynical scheme to pander to the electorate.” In another paragraph he paraphrases Seymour Sarason, “… members of both parties seem to increase in ignorance proportionate to their proximity to schooling decisions. After all, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsored No Child Left Behind.

In our October issue (Gary Stager on Direct Instruction), Stager condemns a reading program called Reading Mastery and its inventor, Sigfried Engleman. The article contains some strong arguments against the “controversial pedagogical approach” (although it fails to discuss it’s effectiveness or lack thereof.)

Unfortunately, Stager devotes most of his column to attacking President Bush: Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration’s radical attack on public education. He goes on, Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. … The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, and continues with phrases such as The War on Public Education, single-minded test-prep factories and magical voucher.

When Stager asks, “Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, “Is your school better off than it was four years ago?,” he crosses the line between clever compendium and outright bias.

Stager writes a regular opinion column in District Administration. His opinions are his own. As long as he’s writing about educational matters, I’m delighted to keep running his arguments but we will make every effort to avoid running material from him, or anyone else, questioning the motives of elected officials or candidates.

I take full responsibility for running these two columns. Stager has been a valuable contributor to DA for about five years. I took my eye off the ball.

As always, we at District Administration value the open exchange of ideas about improving public education. I invite you to share your thoughts with me.

Editor-in-Chief
jhanson@promediagrp.com

Originally published in the Novembe 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine.

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.