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NCLB Outrages

Scandal touches on UO reading program

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By Anne Williams


The University of Oregon College of Education figures
prominently in a blistering federal review that found
breaches of ethical standards - and possibly the law -
by a top official in the Bush administration's $5
billion Reading First program.

The Inspector General's report, released Friday, is
laced with references to the UO and four well-known
reading experts with current or past UO affiliations -
Edward Kame'enui, Doug Carnine, Jerry Silbert and
Deborah Simmons.

The report suggests the first three were involved, at
least peripherally, in Reading First Director Chris
Doherty's attempts to steer states toward adopting
reading assessments and programs he favored -
particularly those aligned with Direct Instruction, a
highly structured, phonics-based teaching model
developed at the UO 30 years ago.
Since its launch in 2002, Reading First, a key
component of President Bush's No Child Left Behind
legislation, has awarded nearly $5 billion in grants -
including $36 million in Oregon - to boost reading at
low-achieving schools with high poverty rates using
research-based programs. No Lane County schools
received Reading First money.

The 33-page Inspector General's report includes
excerpts from e-mail correspondence among Doherty,
Carnine, Kame'enui and Silbert that bolster
allegations of ethical lapses by Doherty and other
U.S. Department of Education officials.
It also underscores the singularly powerful role the
UO College of Education has played in shaping the
Reading First program.

Many of the e-mail excerpts in the report revolve
around the release of a 2002 review meant to guide
Reading First grant recipients and other educators in
selecting and using reading assessments for children
in kindergarten through grade 3.

That review, by the UO's Institute for the Development
of Educational Achievement, was commissioned by the
National Institute for Literacy, a federal agency
separate from the Department of Education that
provides leadership on literacy issues. Kame'enui,
then director of IDEA, led a seven-member Assessment
Committee that researched and reviewed 29 different
assessments.

The report touches on potential conflicts of interest
within the Assessment Committee, and implies that the
review may have been narrow in its scope. It notes
that, while there are dozens of assessments on the
market, the Assessment Committee reviewed just 29, 24
of which were deemed sufficiently effective.
In the case of seven of those 24 approved assessments,
members of the committee had either developed the
programs, provided professional technical assistance
or run the company selling the product.

The report says Kame'enui decided to present the final
review as "a singular effort" on his part, rather than
as the collective work of the committee. One of his
explanations, according to the report, was that
because several of the committee members were authors
of the assessments reviewed, "the perception of a
conflict of interest in shaping the final report was a
concern."

In an interview Tuesday, Kame'enui said he alone wrote
the report and noted that it would have been
difficult, if not impossible, to avoid such conflicts,
given the small pool of national reading experts.
"Unfortunately, the people who you find who know the
psychometrics (measuring mental functions) and who
know the research and know reading are obviously going
to be authors of instruments," said Kame'enui, who has
been on leave from the UO since July 2005 to serve as
Commissioner of the Department of Education's National
Center for Special Education Research in Washington,
D.C.
As for the report's implication that his committee's
review was too limited, "It reflects a supreme naivete
about the time it takes to review a technical
instrument," he said.
According to the report, Doherty inappropriately
pushed for the review's release on the IDEA Web site
prior to approval by the NIFL, which had commissioned
it. In several e-mails, Kame'enui and Carnine sought
advice from Doherty about when and how to release it,
and what to say if asked who initiated and paid for
it.

The extent to which the Inspector General found fault
with actions relating to the review's release isn't
clear from the report. A spokeswoman from the office,
Catherine Grant, said she could not clarify. "The
answer is the report speaks for itself," she said.

In Tuesday's interview, Kame'enui stressed that he, as
an independent contractor, had to defer to federal
officials as to the timing and nature of the review's
release, as well as its sponsorship. He said the
Inspector General's report should not reflect poorly
on the UO.

"On its face, it may appear to be guilt by
association, but what it reveals is the University of
Oregon faculty were important players in this whole
enterprise - important because we did a lot of
research, and we did the work with integrity," he
said.
Both Carnine and Kame'enui, as well as Silbert, are
mentioned in a section of the report alleging that
Doherty intervened in 2003 to influence Maryland's
selection of reading programs. Under the No Child Left
Behind law, the U.S. Department of Education is
prohibited from endorsing curriculum or mandating,
directing or controlling a state's programs.
According to the report, it was a tip from Silbert -
then a consultant with RMC Research Corp., which
contracted with Reading First to provide grant
assistance to states - that prompted Doherty to
contact the Maryland State Department of Education and
try to thwart the state's plans to relegate Reading
Mastery to supplemental status. Reading Mastery is a
Direct Instruction program.

In an e-mail to Silbert and Carnine, Doherty said not
having Reading Mastery as a core reading program would
be "HORRIBLE" for many Baltimore schools.
Doherty asked Carnine and Silbert if they knew Michael
Coyne of the University of Connecticut, who was
working with Maryland education officials. Carnine,
then an associate at IDEA, sent an e-mail to
Kame'enui, asking him to forward it to Coyne; it also
was copied to Doherty.

It said: "Just mention that [Baltimore] has many
schools using RM [Reading Mastery] as a core program
with EXCELLENT results but that [the Maryland
department], for all the wrong reasons, left to its
own devices could well shunt RM off to the side with
the kiss-of-death as a 'supplemental' or
'intervention' program. And, once [the Maryland
department] did something like that, it would be much
harder to have them undo it."

With further guidance from Deborah Simmons - who, with
Kame'enui, wrote the 2003 "Consumer's Guide for
Evaluating a Core Reading Program" - Maryland adopted
Reading Mastery as a core program. Simmons has since
left the UO.

Carnine, a co-developer of Direct Instruction and UO
professor emeritus, declined comment in an e-mail to
The Register-Guard. He said he expected the College of
Education to issue a statement; as of Tuesday night it
had not.

"We're still going through the report right now to
determine what the implications are," UO spokesman
Phil Weiler said.

In an interview Monday, Silbert, a developer of Direct
Instruction writing programs, explained that there had
been a "misconception" among Maryland officials that
Reading Mastery could only be used as a supplemental
program, and that someone from the Baltimore schools
had called asking him to help clarify that that wasn't
the case.

He said the Inspector General's report is off the mark
and praised Doherty's commitment to lifting
achievement among underprivileged children.
"From my perspective, (Doherty) was really very strong
about us not specifying any curriculum, and he kept
saying it over and over again," Silbert said. Silbert
now works for the UO's Western Regional Reading First
Technical Assistance Center, which works under
contract with the state Department of Education to
administer Reading First grants.

Doherty stepped down as Reading First director on the
eve of the report's release and will resign from the
U.S. Department of Education effective Oct. 1, a
department spokesman said.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said last
week that she would follow all the recommendations
included in the Inspector General's report.

While an independent research group recently found
Reading First to be highly effective, last week's
Inspector General's report also alleges, among other
things, that program officials:

Stacked grant-application review panels with experts
who favored Direct Instruction.

Screened panelists for conflict of interest, which
was not required under the law, but then failed to
identify those with professional connections to
favored programs.

Made states meet additional conditions in grant
applications that were not required by law.

Withheld and/or edited the full comments of review
panels, giving states summarized responses to grant
applications.

— Anne Williams
The Register-Guard (Oregon)
2006-09-27


INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES


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