Former Reading First Director Draws Fire — and Defenders
Kudos to these reporters for their detailed account of a complex, bizarre scandal. A companion piece, detailing the rats leaving the sinking Reading First ship, is linked within the article below.
Doherty Says He Used ‘Bad Judgment,’ But Upheld the Law
By Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks
Washington, October 30, 2006 — Chris Doherty began his job as director of Reading First on Jan. 7, 2002, the day before President Bush signed the sweeping federal initiative into law.
For almost five years, he was the public face of one of the most ambitious and controversial programs in the history of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). But as colleagues gathered for a recent well-attended goodbye party at the department, there was a palpable silence about the $6 billion program he helped create. In a speech, Ray Simon, the department’s deputy secretary and Doherty’s boss, never uttered the words “Reading First,” according to several attendees.
In large part, that is due to an unusual investigation run out of a building a few miles away on the banks of the Potomac River, headquarters of the department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). Just a week before, the OIG had released a blistering report blaming Doherty and others for “a lack of integrity and ethical values” in their stewardship of the program. The report, one of six on Reading First the office is planning to release before the end of the year, matches the program in scope and intensity. One of the largest OIG investigations in recent years, it has already sparked dozens of editorials critical of the department as well as a sizeable backlash from supporters of the program who believe Doherty has been made into a scapegoat.
In his first interview since his resignation on Oct. 1, Doherty, 40, insisted he did nothing improper. He said the OIG “cherry-picked” its evidence and collected “all of the worst things from five years’ worth of e-mail in one place.”
“Oh boy, do I wish I could take back some of those colorful internal e-mails that I sent,” Doherty said. “Did I show bad judgment? Probably. But it wasn’t bad judgment in contravention to the law. It was bad judgment in an attempt to uphold the law.”
Not everyone agrees. The OIG report has provided ample fodder for critics who believe the program was awash in favoritism and lacked adequate safeguards to protect against conflicts of interest.
The report said that Doherty took “direct action” to ensure that Direct Instruction, a specific instructional program, was represented on the panel that reviewed state grant applications for Reading First. Moreover, he took those actions at a time when his wife was employed by Direct Instruction, the Title I Monitor has learned.
The OIG documented that an almost cavalier attitude about favoring and bashing particular programs pervaded an atmosphere that was supposed to be impartial. When, for example, a department staff member asked Doherty if programs like Reading Recovery would get a “fair shake” on the peer review panel or if the panel would be “stacked,” the OIG indicates that he replied, “‘Stack the panel?’ ...I have never *heard* of such a thing.....”
Skepticism of Government
Reading First, as depicted by the OIG, highlights a contradiction at the heart of President Bush’s education agenda: One of the most sweeping and prescriptive federal programs was implemented by an administration mistrustful of government, skeptical of bureaucracy and classically impatient with process.
This is demonstrated in many of the actions cited by the OIG, actions that appear to have been chiefly fueled by a mix of expedience and ideology. They include:
* Eliminating statutory language from Reading First applications related to “early intervention and reading remediation materials” because it could provide an opening for funding Reading Recovery, a widely used program that targets individual students. “Even if it says this in the law, I’d like this taken out,” Susan Neuman, a former ED assistant secretary and the official who hired Doherty, told him in an e-mail.
* Requiring peer reviewers to judge states by criteria not included in the statute, including the use of “a protected, dedicated block of time for reading instruction.” Although he noted that very little of this section can be “pegged to legislative language,” Doherty explained in an e-mail that he was motivated by a desire to strengthen the program. “We want all of those ... characteristics to define ALL RF [Reading First] classrooms, not just the star RF classrooms,” he said.
In a discussion of the initial Reading First guidance, Neuman is quoted as saying, “I think we’ve lost our voice in this guidance, and returned to a business as usual, bureaucratic ... kind of voice.”
Neuman acknowledged in an interview that she “encouraged an aggressive approach.” Nonetheless, she said, nothing went out without approval from ED’s attorneys. “The lawyers scrubbed everything we did,” she said.
That view is belied, however, by several exchanges in the report that show the program’s leadership attempting to circumvent the department’s lawyers and to craft applications and guidance that would hide the fact, in Doherty’s words, that “the law does not really require what we are quite literally requiring.”
“Such examples are manifold and [ED lawyers] may catch some, many or all of them,” he said, according to the report.
Insisting that he did “not want to seem insufficiently bold,” Doherty advised Neuman to press their case in face-to-face meetings with state officials in which “the opportunities for BOLDNESS and perhaps, extra-legal requirements are many.” In another instance, he said that “program bashing is best done off or under the major radar screens.”
The environment has fueled criticisms that Reading First lacked sufficient transparency for a government program.
“It was not the typical government entitlement program,” said Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association (IRA). “Even so, it’s not like there are no rules to the game. It looks like Chris took some short cuts, and they are seriously problematic. They could represent a restraint of trade to some companies and a benefit to others.”
Shanahan is an unusual critic, having served on the National Reading Panel that laid the philosophical groundwork for Reading First and as a technical advisor on the program to a handful of states and school districts. As such, his positions have alienated both supporters and detractors of Reading First.
The IRA, along with Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the House education committee, has asked the U.S. Attorney General’s office to open a criminal investigation based on the OIG’s conclusions.
“Congress gave Chris a tough order: force schools to change or improve their curriculum, but don’t tell schools what that curriculum can be,” Shanahan said. “No doubt, that is a recipe for lots of violations of law or policy. Unfortunately, the OIG makes it evident that Chris didn’t just stray across the line occasionally, but went way over at times. I’d like to say it was all done for ideological reasons, but I’m just no longer sure.”
Doherty Assails Report
Doherty came to the department with an unusual résumé. After growing up in Boston, he graduated from Stanford and entered the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, where he served in Warsaw, Vienna and Washington. He and his wife, Laura, oversaw the first year of the Baraka School, which transplants “at-risk” Baltimore middle school boys for two years of education in Kenya. Doherty later earned an M.B.A. from Northwestern, where he graduated in the top 4 percent of his class, before heading the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which implements Direct Instruction in the city’s schools.
But it is his work as Reading First director that he has called “the highlight of my professional career.”
In a goodbye e-mail sent to Reading First state directors, Doherty said the collaboration on this “bold, ambitious program” had brought him “deep personal joy and professional fulfillment.”
His passion for the goals of the program is one reason he told the Monitor that he has “so many problems” with the OIG report — so much that he won’t keep a copy in the house he shares with his wife and four young children in Baltimore. While he declined to go into detail about many of the report’s conclusions, Doherty indicated that until “fairly recently,” he and Sandi Jacobs, a senior Education program specialist who helped oversee the program, “thought we were two meetings away from getting the OIG to understand” their concerns. Subsequent to the report’s release, Jacobs was re-assigned to a different position in the department.
Doherty took particular issue with the way the OIG portrayed his nomination of three people with “significant professional connections” to Direct Instruction (DI) to the panel that reviewed state applications. Echoing comments made by others, he noted that the universe of people familiar with scientifically-based reading research was small: Given that the best researchers in the reading world typically have ties to commercial programs, it was inevitable that such people would be on the panel.
Moreover, he stressed, researchers steeped in DI were particularly qualified.
According to the Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center and the American Institutes for Research (AIR), Direct Instruction is one of just two reading programs — along with Success for All — to reach the “gold standard” under the law’s definition of scientifically-based reading research: It improved achievement significantly in repeated trials against a randomly assigned control group, with the results published in peer reviewed journals. A report from AIR of all schoolwide reform models indicated that 32 of 34 qualifying studies demonstrated a positive effect of Direct Instruction on student achievement.
DI is a highly scripted basic reading program that focuses on phonics and uses techniques such as frequent assessment, grouping according to ability, and coaching to ensure that children learn the relationship between letters and sounds considered crucial to early reading.
No Windfall for DI
Doherty said that the OIG failed to note one of the many ironies surrounding the implementation of Reading First — namely that Direct Instruction, like Success for All, appears not to have fared well under the initiative.
Nonetheless, the handling of the curriculum is perhaps illustrative of why critics charge that the program was run without proper controls for conflicts of interest and sufficient transparency.
The three people Doherty nominated with connections to DI reviewed 23 state applications, according to the OIG. When a Baltimore school official complained to the department about possible conflicts, the report said, Doherty e-mailed one of the panelists he had selected, “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!’”
Based on this and other e-mail exchanges with the panelists, the OIG concluded that Doherty’s actions exhibited an “apparent intent to include and give a significant role to panelists who reflected his personal preference in reading programs.” In fact, said the OIG, Doherty’s response to a similar internal e-mail discussing Reading Recovery “suggest[s] that he may indeed have intended to ‘stack’ the expert review panel.”
In another instance, the report said, Doherty worked to ensure that a commercial reading program that relies on DI was featured more prominently in Maryland’s list of reading programs used by the state’s districts and schools to qualify for Reading First funds. Reading Mastery, published by SRA-McGraw Hill, is the most widely used reading program to utilize DI. Doherty said in an e-mail that “we need to ENSURE that when MD *does* do its application ... that Reading Mastery is NOT relegated to supplemental status, which would be HORRIBLE for so many ... schools in Balt[imore].”
Subsequent to Doherty’s intervention, according to the OIG report, Reading Mastery became one of Maryland’s seven core reading programs, raising “a question as to whether he was acting with the restraint envisioned by Congress.”
Screening for Conflicts
The OIG found that the department’s process for screening conflicts of interest among panelists who reviewed applications was flawed (see related story, ED Ignored Early Warnings on Reading First Conflicts), but it did not touch upon the issue of potential conflicts among Reading First’s leadership. While noting that Doherty worked with DI as head of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, the OIG did not mention his wife’s ongoing employment with the National Institute for Direct Instruction and the Association for Direct Instruction.
A spokeswoman for the inspector general declined to comment, saying “Our report speaks for itself.”
Laura Doherty has worked for the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI), based in Eugene, Ore., from 1997 to the present, encompassing the entirety of her husband’s four-year tenure with ED. She has been an “implementation manager” in Chicago and Baltimore responsible for direct on-site support to several schools and, for the past two years, has been project director for NIFDI’s efforts in Baltimore, according to Kurt Engelmann, the institute’s president. She also frequently conducts workshops on the curriculum for the Association for Direct Instruction and was listed as a presenter at institute conferences in recent years in Eugene and Baltimore.
Office of Government Ethics standards state that an executive branch employee should not engage in activities “likely to have a direct and predictable effect on the financial interest of a member of his household” if that activity would cause “a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts to question his impartiality in the matter.” An exception to the rule occurs if the employee got prior authorization from ethics officers at his agency to proceed.
Executive branch employees above a certain pay grade are required to disclose the source of their spouse’s income if the amount earned annually is more than $1,000.
A review of Doherty’s financial disclosure forms, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that he listed his wife’s employment upon entering government in 2002, but not in subsequent years. “I honesty spaced that it had to do with spousal employment,” Doherty said of the later omissions. “It was an absolute honest mistake.”
In a memo entitled “Conflicts of Interest: Disqualification,” sent to Neuman in March of 2002 and provided by Doherty to the Monitor, he wrote that he would not participate “in any particular matters involving” NIFDI “as long as my wife provides consulting services to them.”
Doherty said he didn’t think anything the OIG found ran afoul of what he agreed to in the memo. “I openly talked about my wife’s employment,” he said. “In no way, shape, or form was I trying to hide this. I haven’t gotten any benefit from people from any of that.”
His wife has never worked in a Reading First school and more recently, he said, she has only been a “one- or two-day-a-week consultant” while she raised their children.
Chad Colby, an ED spokesman, declined to address questions related to the connections of Doherty’s wife to NIFDI. Colby said that the department accepted all of the OIG’s recommendations and would not comment further until the inspector general releases the remaining reports on its investigation of Reading First (See "OIG Recommendations").
Engelmann, NIFDI’s president, called Laura Doherty “one of the leading DI trainers in the country,” a person who is “dedicated to helping children succeed.” He does not think that Chris Doherty’s actions related to the program represent a conflict of interest because “I don’t see that he was pushing the program.” Even if he had, Engelmann said, it had “zero effect” on DI’s fortunes.
The e-mail Doherty sent about Reading Mastery in Maryland was based upon a tip from Jerry Silbert, then a consultant to the RMC Research Corporation, which was contracted by the department to handle technical assistance for the program, according to the OIG report. Doherty’s e-mail went to Doug Carnine, a professor at the University of Oregon who helped advise President Bush on reading policy.
After receiving Doherty’s e-mail, the OIG said, Carnine wrote Edward Kame’enui, another Oregon professor who later became co-director of the Western Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center. In that e-mail, Carnine warned that Maryland “for all the wrong reasons, left to its own devices could well shunt [Reading Mastery] off to the side with the kiss-of-death as a ‘supplemental’ or ‘intervention’ program.”
Everyone involved in the e-mail chain documented by the OIG had a connection, past or present, to teaching methodologies associated with Direct Instruction. Doherty had implemented DI in the Baltimore schools and his wife was actively employed by NIFDI. Carnine was a co-developer of the Direct Instruction program and, along with Silbert and Kame’enui, co-authored Direct Instruction Reading, a guidebook on the curriculum for teachers.
In an e-mail to the Monitor, Silbert said their efforts stemmed only from a desire to ensure that Maryland had “the correct information about Reading Mastery.”
In an interview, Carnine acknowledged that he, Kame’enui and Silbert had worked on teaching methodologies associated with Direct Instruction, but said that “nobody had financial ties to Reading Mastery.”
“This wasn’t endorsing a program, but rather just getting information out, like telling people the Honda CR-V has four-wheel drive,” he said. “It would have been different if we had been telling people to go out and buy Reading Mastery. That isn’t what happened.”
ED officials declined to make Kame’enui, now commissioner of ED’s National Center for Special Education Research, available for comment.
Not everyone affected by Reading First’s implementation felt the technical assistance process was even-handed. Bob Slavin, chairman of the Success for All Foundation, one of the groups that requested the OIG investigation, noted that “state and local officials were very concerned about keeping Reading First leaders happy.”
“They typically had had their state applications turned down by [the department] one or more times, and later learned that Reading First would take back the money if schools were found to be doing things they didn’t like,” Slavin said. “To build on Carnine’s analogy, if your friend or your Honda dealer says that CR-Vs have four-wheel drive, that’s information. If you are a car buyer for a car rental agency and your boss’s boss mentions that CR-Vs have four-wheel drive, you think carefully about buying CR-Vs.”
Colleagues Defend Doherty
Those close to him say Doherty was not motivated by financial gain, but rather by an almost missionary zeal in his belief in the right way to teach children to read. Even so, some say they have trouble reconciling the man described in the OIG report to the colleague they worked with.
“I was surprised by the tenor of the e-mails cited and the ferocity of his Direct Instruction partisanship,” said a former ED official who worked with Doherty. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “I’m surprised at the extent to which he was asked to be a pit bull and to which he was willing to be a pit bull.”
The release of the report has generated a backlash from Doherty’s former co-workers, many of whom have taken some political risk to suggest that he has been scapegoated by those he once worked for. ED Secretary Margaret Spellings has distanced herself from the controversy. In an interview with National Public Radio, Spellings acknowledged that “mistakes were made in the administration of this program,” but added that “this happened in the 2002-2003 time frame,” before she became secretary.
Critics claim that Spellings closely tracked the program from the White House when she was President Bush’s first-term domestic policy advisor.
“This was a billion-dollar-a-year program that was key to the administration’s domestic policy agenda,” said Ron Tomalis, who served as an aide and later acting assistant secretary to then-ED Secretary Rod Paige. “To suggest that these decisions were made solely at the director level is inconsistent with the way things happened.” Tomalis is now director of the Chartwell Education Group, an education consulting firm.
That assessment was supported by four other members of Paige’s administration. Mike Petrilli, a former Paige aide who is now vice president for policy at the conservative Fordham Foundation, said, “There were people with longstanding ties to Margaret Spellings who were put in there to make sure Reading First was implemented as intended.”
One was Neuman, a noted early reading researcher who had no prior experience in government administration. Another was Beth Ann Bryan, a senior advisor to Paige who had worked with Spellings on the Texas Reading Initiative under then-governor George W. Bush. Petrilli said “most people saw Beth Ann as Margaret’s person at the department.”
Several former Paige officials said reading policy was a major topic of discussion at Wednesday night dinner parties they attended at Bryan’s high-rise apartment in Crystal City, Va., frequented by Neuman, Reid Lyon, Bush’s “reading czar” at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and, occasionally, Spellings.
“Beth Ann Bryan was all over it with both feet,” said a third former ED official, who asked not to be named because of ongoing business with the department. “There were a number of instances, in relation to Reading First and Early Reading First, where she said ‘This is dear to Margaret’ or ‘This is important to Margaret.’ It became clear to me early on that reading was the critical piece. It was Beth Ann and Susan who made that point over and over again, that if we didn’t get the reading piece right, everything else would fall apart.”
Bryan now works as a senior education advisor for the Austin, Texas offices of legal giant Akin, Gump and serves as executive director of the Laura Bush Foundation For America’s Libraries. In an e-mail to the Monitor, Bryan said that as Bush’s domestic policy advisor, Spellings “cared a great deal about all aspects of NCLB [No Child Left Behind], including Reading First.” But it was not Bryan’s impression that she “micromanaged or was involved in day-to-day activities.” She said that the dinners at her apartment were “mostly just fun,” but that “best as I recall, Margaret Spellings did not attend” them.
A Flurry of Irony
In terms of Doherty, the department’s response has been “pretty bipolar,” in the words of a former colleague. Just a day before the OIG released its report, Simon announced Doherty’s resignation in a statement saying “the children of America are fortunate to have had such a tireless champion.” The next day, Spellings agreed to all of the recommendations in the report and said she was “disturbed” by its findings.
The mixed messages are further underscored by the fact that the department, long after the OIG launched its investigation in September of 2005, entrusted Doherty with major new responsibilities. In addition to helming the three-person office of Reading First and serving as Simon’s chief of staff, he was, for six months, acting head of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, a key department position, and was ED’s point person for its $1.8 billion Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Perhaps no better demonstration of the department’s mixed signals is that it held a well-attended going-away party for Doherty after forcing his resignation. “It was just surreal,” said a current department official in attendance, who asked not to be named.
“I think he was a sacrificial lamb,” said Bob Sweet, who helped write the Reading First legislation as a senior staff member for the House of Representatives. “Chris was faced with a daunting task: pressure to get money out the door, a staff of two, highly reluctant state officials, and the duty to explain a challenging new reading paradigm. Do I think Chris got a raw deal? Yes. He should be given a medal, not a pink slip.”
Following the release of the OIG report, Lyon, himself no stranger to controversy, sent Doherty a personal letter accompanied by a piece of shrapnel that clipped him when he was a soldier in Vietnam. The message, Lyon said, was that even though it stings, “at least they are not shooting you with real bullets.”
In an interview, Doherty accused the OIG and the press of treating him unfairly. Asked if he would add the department to that list, Doherty took a long pause and sighed. “I’m going to have to take a pass on that,” he said. “It is what it is.”
So, like so many aspects of Reading First, Chris Doherty’s tenure ended in a flurry of irony. ED announced that his replacement as Reading First director would be Joe Conaty, a career civil servant who had headed Reading Excellence, the Clinton-era program that so many of those involved in Reading First’s implementation criticized as too lax.
Further, several people connected to Reading First said that prior to the OIG’s report, the program was slated to receive the top rating under the Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment Rating Tool — the first No Child Left Behind program to do so. Doherty declined to address the possibility, saying, “I am almost desensitized to the ironies.”
Finally, a recent survey from the Center on Education Policy (CEP), released only two days prior to the OIG’s report, found that nearly all school districts receiving Reading First grants cited the program as an “important” or “very important” reason for increased reading achievement. Likewise, 19 of the 35 states reporting gains on the survey claimed that Reading First programs were an important or very important cause for the progress.
Jack Jennings, CEP’s executive director, said the findings were “so striking” that the organization decided to separate them from its annual analysis of NCLB and issue a separate report.
Jennings, a former Democratic staff director for the House education committee, said, “I think it’s ironic to have a program that appears to have been so poorly administered — and so unethically administered — have such good results.”
For Further Information
To obtain a copy of the OIG report, “The Reading First Program’s Grant Application Process (I13-F0017),” visit the following Web site: http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports.html, and scroll down to O.E.S.E.
OIG Recommendations for Reform of Reading First Administration
* Develop internal management policies and procedures for Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) program offices that address when legal advice will be solicited from the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) and how discussions between OGC and the program staff will be resolved to ensure that programs are managed in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.
* In consultation with OGC, evaluate OESE’s processes for assessing potential conflict of interest questions, when a panel review process is used, and make those improvements necessary to strengthen the processes.
* Review all Reading First applications to determine whether all criteria for funding have been met.
* Review the management and staff structure of the Reading First program office and make changes, as appropriate, to ensure that the program is managed and implemented consistent with the statutory requirements of No Child Left Behind.
* Request that OGC develop guidance for OESE on the prohibitions imposed by §3403(b) of the Department of Education Organization Act [prohibiting federal supervision or control of curriculum except when authorized by law].
* When similar new initiatives are approved by Congress, rely upon an internal advisory committee, which includes representatives from other OESE programs, OGC, and the Department’s Risk Management Team, to provide feedback on program implementation issues and ensure coordination in the delivery of similar or complementary Department programs.
Source: Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Education, The Reading First Program’s Grant Application Process (I13-F0017), Sept. 22, 2006.
Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks
Title 1 Online
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES