Oregon researchers at center of dispute over reading program
At last, the Associated Press acknowledges this story as a news item.
By Julia Silverman
The Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Education researchers affiliated with the University of Oregon are facing growing scrutiny in the coming months over allegations that they financially benefited from their involvement in the Bush administration's billion-dollar-a-year early reading program.
The trouble first surfaced last fall, when the federal Education Department's Inspector General released an audit outlining widespread mismanagement in the federal Reading First program, which gives states grants to boost literary skills in grades K-3, including nearly $50 million to Oregon schools.
The report detailed allegations that several Oregon educators, while they were under contract by the federal government to offer objective advice, instead steered states toward textbooks and materials they'd developed — reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties as a result.
Then, this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education, considered the bible of higher ed insiders, fleshed out the report's findings, in a 5,000-word story headlined: "Reading for Profit: Whistle-blowers allege that U. of Oregon scholars steered bounty from the No Child Left Behind Act to themselves and their colleagues."
And next month, the General Accounting Office, Congress' independent audit agency, is due to produce its own report on Reading First. Congressional hearings are looming, under a Democratic-controlled Congress that's been increasingly hostile to the Bush administration's approach to education.
Phil Weiler, spokesman for the university, declined comment for this article.
The College of Education has long been considered one of the school's crown jewels; its faculty are consistently rated as among the best in the nation at pulling in research dollars.
Researchers affiliated with the university have been credited with developing some of the nation's most widely used reading programs and textbooks, mainly highly structured curriculums and textbooks that tend to stress teaching phonics over reading comprehension.
Such back-to-basics programs have long been in favor with the Bush administration — so much so that according to the report released in September by the U.S. inspector general's office, the former director of the Reading First program allegedly tried to steer states toward adopting Oregon-developed curriculums, though it's against the law for federal officials to make any endorsements.
According to the report, several current and former Oregon reading experts — including Edward Kame'enui, Doug Carnine, Jerry Silbert and Deborah Simmons — were involved in helping the federal government with Reading First's rollout.
Several of the educators advised states trying to draft grants to get money from the Reading First program. And four of the Oregon-affiliated researchers sat on a committee reviewing textbooks to see how they matched up with the guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Education, aiming to give states guidance about what to purchase to meet Reading First's requirements.
In both cases, the inspector general's report said, the educators stood to benefit financially by encouraging the use of programs and commercial textbooks they had a hand in developing or editing.
Sources at the University of Oregon point out that the researchers in question were faulted for work they did in side projects or spin-offs not directly associated with the school. The university has also stepped up training for faculty on potential conflicts of interest, and how to avoid them, sources said.
The University of Oregon is also home to one of three major technical-assistance centers for Reading First. Others are at Florida State University and the University of Texas at Austin. Future investigations of the three centers and their operations are also in the pipeline, said Catherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the federal Education Department's Inspector General's office.
Roland Good III, an associate professor of school psychology at Oregon, sat on the committee to review textbooks and other programs, to give guidance to states. He's also the creator of an early literacy model that lets teachers test their students' progress in phonics and reading abilities on a weekly basis, which won the panel's endorsement.
He said he did not participate in evaluations of his product, now in use in 35 states according to the Chronicle's report, and that he hasn't benefited financially from its wider use, instead donating royalty income to a research fund. His model is also available as a free download, he said.
But he has traveled more widely to teach states how to best use the model, Good said, adding, "I consult, I present, I work for a day, I charge for a day's work."
Good said the Reading First program has helped children make substantial literacy gains.
"I think Reading First has had a remarkable impact," Good said. "I worry that it is going to become a political casualty, if neither the Republicans or the Democrats embrace, own and champion it. It's done some important work, but that work is not done."
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