Chairman George Miller of the House of Representatives HELP Committee has promised that three F’s will guide changes in the reauthorization of NCLB, the 2001 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act including Reading First. The three F’s are fair, flexible, and finance.

Within the past two years the Inspector General of the Department of Education has issued a series of alarming reports on conflicts of interest and violations of the NCLB law that occurred during the implementation of Reading First by Department of Education staff and its consultants and contractors. In a subsequent Committee hearing several of these contractors and consultants admitted to making huge personal profits from requiring the use of tests and texts that they themselves had authored or otherwise profited from.

The perpetrators justified these conflicts of interest by citing the requirement in the Reading First law that state proposals must use materials and tests representing “Scientifically Based Reading Research.” A small group of consultants and contractors, mostly affiliated with the University of Oregon, was given the power to decide which tests and programs were and were not acceptable under SBRR. They concluded that only tests and materials that they themselves had produced met that criterion. Even if that were true their actions would have still been illegal since another provision of the law expressly prohibits the DOE from using NCLB to impose methods and curriculum on the states. And of course they should have reclused themselves from decisions from which they personally profited.

But their claim to a scientific base for their materials is not valid. In fact it is as if the astrologers had been put in charge of the space program. None of the specific programs anointed by the DOE as SBRR has any scientific research on its effectiveness. DIBELS, a test funded by the US government and now sold for profit .has been rejected by a wide range of psychometrists and test makers. The Inspector General’s reports cite this test specifically as one forced on states. An official of the Kentucky Department of Education testified at the committee hearing that their state proposal was turned down several times until they agreed to include DIBELS. Ironically, results on DIBELS are being used by Sec. Spellings to claim successes for Reading First which are spurious. Instructional materials published by Sopris West which were approved as scientific are not just poorly written: they are inane, racist, and sexist. Two programs pushed by the DOE staff and consultants are published by McGraw-Hill which includes several of the consultants and contractors as authors on the programs. A recommended program published by Scott, Foresman was developed by DOE consultants and contractors and SF used these same people to gain acceptance for the program in several states. All this is in the files of the House Committee.

Secretary Spellings has herself justified the strong arm approaches used by her staff on state negotiators by claiming that Reading First has been a success. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress data shows that bilingual fourth grade reading scores have been flat since a down and up ripple in the two years before NCLB took effect.

1999: 174
2000: 167
2001: 183
2002: 186
2003: 187

Since its inception Reading First has been used as a device for controlling reading curriculum and limiting use of materials not developed by those given the power to interpret the law. And it has had a devastating impact on teacher morale, forcing effective teachers who could not accept its narrow control out of the classroom in droves. This is not a simple “reading wars, phonics vs whole language” issue. Everyone from publishers of other phonics programs ( who filed the original complaints with the OIG) to traditional basal publishers, so-called balanced programs, and whole language programs have been excluded. In some cases DOE staff threatened specific school districts with loss of funds if they used Reading Recovery or Rigby, programs they had blacklisted. That’s not fair. Reading Recovery, a holistic remediation program, is actually the only program that has been certified by a government agency as having research support for its effectiveness.

To date no action by the DOE or Secretary Spellings has done anything to correct this narrow, unfair and inflexible application of the law.

To achieve fairness and flexibility the law must be rewritten to make it impossible for any narrow group to impose their own biases on states and LEAs. There must be a level playing field for all publishers and programs. The blacklists that were created by the DOE and its contractors on programs, tests and people must be abolished. Much more progress would be made from encouraging a wide range of approaches and then requiring them to provide unbiased research evidence that they are successful. In several cases contracts were given to groups to monitor their own programs under Secretary Spellings.( As documented in the OIG reports)

Specifically the following revisions need to be made in the Reading First law:

  • It should be stated up front that the law is not intended to impose tests, methods or materials on any states or LEAs. The phrase SBRR should be eliminated from the bill as having no common accepted meaning in the field of reading. While schools may be held responsible for achieving success in reading, the law should be interpreted flexibly to allow them to choose their own methods and materials. Specific definitions of reading, reading research, and reading instruction should be taken out of the law since they are scientific matters which are not susceptible to legal definition.
  • School districts should not be required to contract with outside agencies for tutoring services which often employ unqualified staff. Teacher education programs should be supported to produce the needed number of qualified teachers for all classrooms including those in rural and inner city areas traditionally unserved..
  • For Reading First to be fair and flexible the DOE should be required to renegotiate all state contracts under Reading First which were illegally negotiated. And the procedure for reviewing new proposals should be fair and flexible. A much broader range of experts in the field of reading should be involved in the review process. Conflict of interest policies should be much more fully spelled out. And there should be prosecution of those who made illegal profits from past enforcement.
  • The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that funds for Reading First should be dramatically reduced until there is evidence that the law has become fair and flexible. That’s essential to the law regaining the respect it has lost among the public and the educational community. Only when the law is made fair and flexible should it be fully funded.

Reading First can make an important difference in raising the literacy levels of those less well served by their schools.. But that requires positive, fair and flexible support of teachers and schools. The narrow punitive approach of the current law can only compound and obscure the real issues.

The inspector General of the US Department of Education has documented flagrant conflicts of interest and illegal impositions of curriculum in negotiating the NCLB state contracts. Here are my views on what is needed to even partially undo the damage done.

Contracts and Sub-contracts with those guilty of conflicts of interest.

It’s not enough for Secretary Spellings to promise to not do it again

All contracts with faculty, employees and entities at the University of Oregon should be reviewed and cancelled if they involved conflicts of interest. Any products of those contracts should be withdrawn and recalled.

Contracts for Assistance Centers should be reviewed and cancelled if they involve conflicts of interest and all products of those conflicts should be withdrawn and recalled. All state and LEA contracts issued under advisement of those with conflicts of interest should also be cancelled and renegotiated.

State contracts in which implementers with conflicts of interest exerted undue influence or acted coercively should be cancelled and renegotiated. That essentially means all state contracts.

Indictments and repayments

The Justice department should be requested to investigate causes for indictments and recovery of illegally gained profits resulting from conflicts of interest by individuals and publishers. The following companies should be investigated: McGraw Hill, Pearson (Scott Foresman), Houghton Mifflin, Voyager, and Sopris West. Specific attention should be paid to DIBELS, a focus of several issues raised in the Office of Inspector General reports.

Disqualification

Persons and companies found guilty of conflicts of interest and illegal acts in implementing Reading First should be disqualified from further participation in any NCLB funding initiatives

Resignation

Margaret Spellings and any of her staff involved in illegal imposition of curriculum as prohibited in NCLB should be asked to resign. Actual crimes may have been committed under NCLB.

Two scandals involving our government and the young people of this country broke in the last few weeks. One involved the internet antics of an important Republican Congressman with current and former Congressional pages. His indiscretions shocked the nation, have brought suspicion on the House Republican hierarchy who appear to have covered up for him, and may well effect the mid-year elections. The second scandal involved millions of children in schools throughout the country. Yet, after a few newspaper reports and an occasional mild editorial, there have been no noticeable repercussions

I’m talking about the amazing report of the US Department of Education Office of Inspector General involving the Reading First portion of the No Child Left Behind. The OIG found that the DOE personnel:

  1. deliberately obscured the requirements of NCLB
  2. imposed conditions on the states which are not in the act, 
  3. were totally indifferent to blatant conflicts of interest of persons appointed to panels reviewing state proposals, 
  4. ignored the law in illegally constituting review panels
  5. and interfered in the selection of curricula, texts and tests by states and school districts illegally, according the provisions of NCLB itself and the Department of Education Authorizing Act (1979).

That sounds a lot more damaging to a lot more kids than what the reprehensible representative did. When George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Work Force expressed his outrage and called for immediate hearings in the House, the Republican leadership said no. 

NCLB, including Reading First, is a major program of the Bush administration which had bipartisan support not only from Miller but from Senator Kennedy as well. School administrators know that Reading First has been a disaster for schools in every part of every state.

State and local schools administrators have been caught in the middle between the bureaucrats in the DOE and parents, students and teachers, forced to enforce absurd programs like Direct Instruction Reading and DIBELS and to defend them as “scientifically based”. Now the ugly truth is revealed: those who authored and profited from these programs were illegally employed to review state proposals and insist on including these absurdities as a condition of approving them.

Chris Doherty, the Reading First Director is the chosen fall-guy. It’s already been announced he is leaving DOE . His only original qualification for the job is that he directed an unssuccessful Direct Instruction program in Baltimore. His assistant Sandi Jacobs has ben transferred to another job. The OIG report contains emails between Doherty and Ed Kame’enui (mentioned as having conflicts of interest}, and others boasting about how they were pushing some programs on states while harpooning others. While not as salacious as Foley’s emails they are much clearly illegal. Doherty even boasts he forced school districts in a number of states to drop blacklisted programs after their state proposals had already been approved.. Rigby and Reading Recovery are mentioned by name in the emails.

The OIG report has asked for the review of all state Reading First contracts with DOE. There is little doubt that there is a basis in what has already been revealed to declare them all illegal according to the NCLB law itself and the law establishing the DOE.

So why isn’t this scandal causing the repercussions that the Foley missteps have caused? Why did TV news virtually ignore it? With NCLB up for renewal for another 7 year sequence in the next Congress, why isn’t this becoming a major issue in the mid-term elections?

Maybe it’s because some very powerful interests have put a lid on it. Maybe the Reading First scandal has the potential for being a lot more embarrassing for some very important people than Foley’s Follies.