Reading First Program Ignored Apparent Conflicts of Interest, IG Says
by Andrew Brownstein
Leaders of the federal Reading First initiative turned a blind eye to potential conflicts of interest and actively sought to favor certain commercial programs, according to an unusually stinging report from the watchdog arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
The report, replete with references to blunt and sometimes foul language gleaned from the e-mail of Education Department (ED) staff members, offers a rare inside glimpse into the inner workings of one of the department's most controversial and highly touted programs.
The report from ED's Office of Inspector General (OIG) does not suggest criminal wrongdoing, but accuses several people integral to Reading First's development of violating federal law by subverting state decision-making when states approved local reading programs deemed out of favor with the department. While the OIG report names several officials, it comes down hardest on Chris Doherty, the former director.
In perhaps the most flagrant example cited, the report said Doherty "personally nominated three individuals who had significant professional connections" to a "particular approach to reading instruction" to sit on the peer review panel that reviewed state applications. The program, called Direct Instruction (DI), requires the use of Reading Mastery, published by SRA/McGraw-Hill. Prior to becoming director of Reading First, Doherty was executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which has implemented Direct Instruction in Baltimore City Schools since 1996.
According to the OIG report, the three individuals were collectively involved in reviewing 23 state applications for Reading First grant money. They served on seven of the 16 subpanels that reviewed state applications and one of them led five of the panels.
When a Baltimore school official contacted the department to express concerns about a possible conflict of interest among the panel members, the subsequent e-mail exchange ensued between Doherty and one of the panelists he selected, according to the report:
"Funny that [the Baltimore City Public Schools official] calls *me* to inform me that there may be some pro-DI folks on *my* panel!! Too rich!" Doherty said.
"Do they know who you are? Past and present?" the panelist responded.
The Reading First Director responded, "That's the funniest part - yes! 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." [Emphasis and punctuation are taken from the original email.]
In its response to the OIG, ED officials said there was "no available information" that "any problematic behavior" ensued as a result of their selection to the review panel. The OIG, however, noted that "the Department anticipated that States would include specific programs in their applications." Because of a faulty conflict of interest screening process, according to the report, "the Department would not have known of the potential conflict posed by having any of the ... individuals review a State application that included Direct Instruction."
While the report appears to indicate an almost cavalier attitude about favoring particular programs in a process that was supposed to be impartial, it also suggests that Doherty could be equally dismissive toward philosophical opponents. When a department staff member asked him if programs like Reading Recovery will get a "fair shake" on the peer review panel, for example, he replied, "'Stack the panel?' ... I have never *heard* of such a thing ...."
In many of Doherty's emails, Reading Recovery-a widely used intervention that targets individual students- comes in for particular venom, as do practitioners of "whole language" instruction, such as the Wright Group Literacy program, once a popular reading instruction vehicle.
According to the report, Doherty instructed one staff member regarding the Wright Group: "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 [based on scientifically based reading research], 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."
In at least two states-Massachusetts and North Dakota-Doherty intervened after states approved districts using Wright and another out-of-favor program, Rigby Literacy, the report said. Districts that continued to use those programs lost their Reading First funding. The OIG said that these examples and others, several of which were first reported in the Sept. 2005 Title I Monitor, may have violated a federal prohibition on endorsement of curriculum.
Just a day before the OIG released its report, Deputy ED Secretary Ray Simon announced that Doherty was leaving the department. Doherty had transferred out of the Reading First program last fall to become Simon's full-time chief of staff. In a statement, Simon said that Doherty was returning to the private sector and that "the children of America are fortunate to have had such a tireless champion."
In documents responding to the OIG report, other ED officials were less sanguine. Henry Johnson, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, acknowledged "mistakes made by a program official," saying they represented "behind-the-scenes bravado, if not loose and inappropriate language on the part of the Reading First director." ED Secretary Margaret Spellings added: "I acknowledge that some of the actions taken by Department officials as described by the draft report reflect individual mistakes. Thus, I am disappointed by what I have read about some aspects of the early implementation of the Reading First program."
In response to the OIG's recommendations, Spellings said she has "reassigned the leadership of the Reading First program," and that the department will be reviewing state applications, guidance and conflict-of interest protocols to ensure they are done appropriately. The department will also seek comments from state directors and will send a memorandum to all ED program managers "reminding them of the importance of impartiality in the performance of their duties."
Doherty could not be reached for comment at press time.
The OIG's investigation comes as Reading First has gotten positive evaluations from organizations like the Center on Education Policy and demonstrated strides in scores on national assessments. Among nine-year-olds, Spellings noted in response to the OIG, "over the last five years, more reading progress has been made…than in the previous 28 years combined."
Nonetheless, the OIG's work may not be over. The OIG's 2006 federal audit workplan envisioned "several audits" to include looks at the role of Reading First subcontractors and technical assistance centers - areas the recent report only touched upon briefly.
Thompson Publishing Group will provide further reporting and analysis on the OIG investigation in its print editions.
Thompson Publishing Group
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