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Reading First to be Run “By the Book,” ED Says: Officials Cite New Guidance, Staff Changes in Responses to OIG Report

Of course here you must accept the major premise--that Reading First is worth preserving.

One is left wondering how a district can accepting a Reading First grant can follow both Reid Lyon and Joe Conaty.

By Andrew Brownstein

Declaring that they wanted to ârun this program by the book,â officials at the U.S. Department of Education outlined steps they are taking to preserve Reading First in the wake of a highly critical investigation that led to the resignation of its former director.

Phil Rosenfelt, deputy counsel at the Education Department (ED), told an audience assembled at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Title I Directors in late January that the goal was to âmake sure we werenât going to lose all of the effectiveness of the Reading First programâ while making efforts to âtake care of any problems immediately and effectively.â

In a session entitled âLessons Learned,â new Reading First Director Joe Conaty said the department needs to ensure that when it uses external experts as peer reviewers or technical consultants that those experts donât have real or perceived conflicts of interest. The department, he said, needs to be âextremely carefulâ in asking whether âthe people in charge of giving awards [are] directly or indirectly in a place to benefit from the awards.â

Further, he said that when the department employs a peer review process, âyou need to follow the results, whether you like them or not.â If that doesnât happen, he added, âit undermines the whole system of peer review.â Conaty acknowledged âleakages of that processâ during the early administration of Reading First.

Questions about conflicts of interest and the misuse of peer review are central to ongoing investigations of the program by EDâs Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Congressâ Government Accountability Office. In September, the OIG accused Reading Firstâs former leadership of a âlack of integrity and ethical valuesâ in their administration of the program.

The unusually harsh report accused the programâs former leadership of, among other things, âstackingâ the peer review panel that evaluated state grants with representatives who had professional ties to one program, and removing statutory language from Reading First applications that could have aided another program. The report said the programâs former director, Chris Doherty, fostered a lack of transparency by âbashing programs off-radar,â to use his words, and not responding to states in writing. As a result, he was forced to resign.

After months in which the department has remained largely silent on the subject, the Long Beach talk provided the most detailed explication yet of what ED officials think went wrong with the program and what they are doing to fix it.

A Torn Image

But several weeks later, a familiar sense of disconnect emerged when the Office of Management and Budget released its annual evaluations of federal programs. Reading First was the first No Child Left Behind program â and one of only four at the entire department â to receive OMBâs highest rating, âeffective.â

The result is something of a torn image, with two different arms of the federal government viewing the same program from widely diverging vantage points.

The OMB said the program âhas a strong program design and good management practices, and appears to bring about improvement in studentsâ reading abilities.â

Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Foundation and a former ED official who worked with Doherty, said it is impossible to separate the two pictures.

âItâs exactly because of Chrisâs aggressive management of the program that itâs getting results,â Petrilli said. âIf Reading First turned into just another âanything goesâ federal program, it would have been as ineffective as the rest of them.â

Reading First is President Bushâs $6 billion reading initiative, designed to fund instructional programs that employ scientifically-based research. Grants are awarded to states based on peer review, and then subgranted to local school districts. Though a formal evaluation of the program has yet to be completed, early anecdotal evidence shows that it is achieving positive results for students.

A separate session at the Long Beach conference highlighted some of those results, in the form of âExpanding the Reach,â a pilot program launched in 2004 designed to transfer the lessons of Reading First into Title I schools. To date, the project has served 26 Title I schools in three states: Tennessee, Washington and Massachusetts.

The program brings typical Reading First strategies â for example, the use of literacy coaches, an uninterrupted 90-minute block of reading time, and an emphasis on scientifically-based research â into Title I schools, and offers assistance to those schools on how to find the resources and staff to make them work without additional federal funds.

Tennessee officials who spoke at the conference say they have anecdotal evidence that âExpanding the Reachâ is paying off, but wonât have hard data for another year.

âThat Line We Cannot Crossâ

The debate about how aggressive Reading First needs to be in order to stay effective is likely to gather steam as investigations of the program continue and federal officials face more intense scrutiny.

While noting that ED wanted to âget problems behind us,â Rosenfelt made it clear he felt the issues went beyond aggressive management. âWe cannot dictate curriculum,â he said. âWe cannot be involved in the day-to-day operations of local programs. The OIG report shows that Reading First was headed toward that line we cannot cross, and perhaps crossed it.â

The department agreed to a host of OIG recommendations to make the program more transparent. The most obvious change is the selection of Conaty, a career civil servant at the department for more than 25 years who has widespread respect for directing several ED programs. Rosenfelt quoted Conaty as saying, âI want to run this program by the book. The program will be transparent and we will properly document.â

In other changes, Reading Firstâs program staff has expanded from two to seven. Sandi Jacobs, a former senior reading specialist who worked with Doherty, has since resigned from the department.

Rosenfelt explained that Reading First âwas a massive program basically run by two people, who were really hard working,â a situation that nonetheless âmade it very hard to implement the proper control environment.â

Among other actions related to Reading First, Rosenfelt said the department has:

* Sent an internal memo to staff from ED Secretary Margaret Spellings on the need to cooperate with the OIG on future investigations.

* Provided additional guidance, and set up meetings with all assistant secretaries, chiefs of staff and program directors on internal control issues. (âWe heard about problems we otherwise would not have heard about,â Rosenfelt said.)

* Distributed internal guidance on the need to make sure peer reviews are âas fair, objective and transparent as they can be.â Rosenfelt said that peer review is an area that âwill be getting a lot of attentionâ outside of Reading First and may be the subject of future audits by the OIG.

* Sent internal guidance to staff on the proper use of government e-mail, noting that such messages are viewed as government documents. The OIG report frequently cited bombastic e-mails from Doherty as proof of a lack of objectivity.

Will Enforcement Weaken?

One of the original architects of the program, while buoyed by the departmentâs attempts to preserve Reading First, said he worried that federal officials would seize upon the OIGâs work to weaken their oversight of states and school districts.

Reid Lyon, former head of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and once President Bushâs unofficial âreading czar,â co-wrote the legislation with Bob Sweet, a former senior Republican staff member in the House. Both he and Sweet believe the lawâs requirement for scientifically-based reading research trumps legal safeguards protecting the local control of curriculum.

âIn my mind, the effectiveness of the Reading First program to date is in part due to ensuring that states and local districts did not put in place inferior programs,â Lyon said. âIf a local district wants to use funds to pay for a program that does not meet criteria, they certainly can, but they canât receive taxpayer funds to do that. That was the clear intent of the law.â

While noting âan inherent tensionâ in the law, Conaty said the department would continue to monitor state Reading First policy while leaving it up to states to review local decision-making.

âWe absolutely will not interfere with local determinations of curriculum,â he said.

— Andrew Brownstein
Title1 Online


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