Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

"Reading Czar” Served as Conduit Between ED, White House

An examination of e-mails show Reid Lyon as a crucial behind-the-scenes figure in Reading First.

By Andrew Brownstein

In June 2003, Chris Doherty invited Reid Lyon to Chicago to speak at the first national conference for Reading First, President Bushâs multi-billion dollar national reading initiative.

An e-mail message from Doherty, then the programâs director, laid out a series of talking points for Lyon to address:

âWe want you to stress to this important group at this important juncture that we cannot collectively allow/afford any let up...They need to keep fighting the good fight and they must be aware thatâin the coming months, most likelyâone or more of them will hit various bumps in the road and it is quite likely that people will come out of the hills (where weâve banished them, in away) to shout, âSee, we knew this was never going to workâ...Despite all of our hard work and success to date, there really are many out there who are waiting for us to fail, so that we can go back to ânormalâ as far as reading instruction is concerned...We cannot let up or lose ground because if we do, millions of American school children will fail to learn to be successful readers, like so many before them.â

Lyon was the ideal person to deliver that message. At the time, he was chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). But he was also, as Doherty put it in a joking message, âthe presidentâs reading czar and scientifically-based reading researcher par excellence.â In California and Texas, and later at the federal level, Lyon championed the idea that illiteracy was a public health problem that could only be eradicated by focusing resources on programs grounded in evidence. Reading First bears his imprint, perhaps more than that of any single person, including Doherty.

Close Relationship
The relationship between the two men is significant in light of the nearly completed investigation into the program conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). In a report released in September, the OIG focused almost exclusively on Doherty for what it called âa lack of integrity and ethical valuesâ in the stewardship of the program. As a result, Doherty was forced to resign and ED Secretary Margaret Spellings agreed to a host of recommendations to make the program more transparent.

The OIG report mentions Lyon only in passing. But in hundreds of pages of recently released e-mail, it is clear that he was anything but a passing presence in the program. The e-mail, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation, one of the organizations that sparked the investigation, add a layer of context to the aggressive language and maneuvering outlined by the OIG. It demonstrates that almost from the start of the program, there was a perception among Reading Firstâs leadership that states were trying to âgameâ the system to take advantage of its funding without adhering to the programâs highly prescriptive mandates. Lyon emerges as a crucial behind-the scenes figure, pressing researchers, peer reviewers, congressmen, governors, and even the White House on the need to boldly implement the new program.

In discussing a program designed to be grounded in science, Lyon could be anything but dispassionate. Noting a meeting with the governor of Kansas to discuss reading policy, Lyon said the state âwill game the system if they can. They think they have already done everything and are getting the RF [Reading First] bucks to shine shit.â

In an e-mail to Susan Neuman, who had just resigned as assistant secretary of education, Lyon lamented that âthe situation for most disadvantaged kids is so bereft of even common sense instructional solutions that even thinking about people resisting NCLB [No Child Left Behind] and RF makes me wonder about the courage, character and self-aggrandizing culture of the academic educational community.â

Controversial Figure
Lyon, 58, is currently executive Vice President for Research and Evaluation at Higher Ed Holdings and the Whitney International University founded by entrepreneur Randy Best and headquartered in Dallas, Texas. Lyon began his career in reading research after two tours in Vietnam and a brief stint as a special education teacher in New Mexico. Most recently, at NICHD, he oversaw a research budget of $60 million and arguably had a greater influence on reading research than the Education Department.
That influence was often controversial. Critics accused him of skewing research for political ends.

Lyon frequently received hate-mail and drew hecklers at national conferences. But in Doherty, as the correspondence indicates, he found a soulmate. During the contentious early years of Reading First, Lyon played the role of cheerleader, confidante and â fitting for a former paratrooper â comrade-in-arms in a struggle often likened to a war.

Following victories in states or districts, it was not uncommon for Lyon to tell Doherty âYouâre a gem,â or âYouâre my hero.â During a particularly low point, Lyon told him, âI will serve in your boat any time, and together we will ride out any storm.â

One of the reasons Reading First was strict was that its authors found previous federal reading programs to be insufficiently rigorous and lacking teeth to ensure policy was enacted with fidelity. In his e-mails, Lyon lavished particular praise on Doherty for his steadfastness in holding states and districts accountable.

In 2004, when a new superintendent in Rockford, Ill., dropped an already state-approved reading program for one deemed out of alignment with Reading First, Doherty pushed state leaders to freeze the districtâs $638,000 in funds. âAs you know, this is as big a boom as EVER gets lowered,â Doherty said. âIn the past, Iâve seen the Department spend years to arrange/justify and effect fines less than a 10th, or even a 20th of this amount...We donât like to do it, of course, but we do it because otherwise RF turns to crap and means nothing â just another funding stream to do whatever is you were going to do anyway.â

âWow,â Lyon told him. âTalk about a guy with smarts, integrity AND balls â Iâm talking about you Chris.â

In an interview, Lyon estimated that he spent more than half of his time between 2002 and 2004 on Reading First. In several instances during that period, he played the role of go-between in communications from the programâs leadership and researchers in the field to the White House.

For example, in the fall of 2003, a lean budget and personnel shake-ups at the Texas education department raised concerns about the stateâs ability to get professional development and technical assistance to its newly funded Reading First schools. Moreover, the shake-up meant the state no longer employed some of its original peer reviewers, raising questions as to whether new screeners would be qualified under the strict terms of the statute.

Texas colleagues of Lyonâs anxiously pushed him to bring the matter to the attention of then Education Secretary Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, Bushâs domestic policy advisor at the White House and later Paigeâs successor.

âI donât think people are clicking onto the fact that this is not just a Texas issue â that what happens in Texas will reflect on the Dept., President, and entire RF effort,â wrote Jack Fletcher, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas-Houston.

The issue also galvanized Sandy Kress, one of the original architects of NCLB. In 2003, he was a lobbyist in the Austin, Tex. offices of legal giant Akin Gump, where his clients included Pearson, one of the biggest publishers in the Reading First market. In an e-mail, he urged Lyon âto make sure Margaret and Rod understand the problem and press the agency hard to get off its duff...and soon!!!â

To Doherty, Lyon later wrote: âCan we fix? What are the solutions? I will need to give Margaret those details.â
âQâs from Higher Upâ
During the same time period, the White House was also drawn into discussions about New York Cityâs attempt to use Reading First funds for Month by Month Phonics, decried by many researchers as lacking scientific foundation.

The discussions between New York and Washington took many months. The cityâs chancellor, Joel Klein, was stubborn about keeping the program, while the state and Reading Firstâs leadership mobilized researchers critical of Month by Month.

Referring to the White House, Lyon indicated in an e-mail that there is âWH interestâ in the outcome in New York, and that he is âgetting Qs from higher up.â

At another point, Lyon forwarded an e-mail he sent to Spellings and David Dunn, who also worked on domestic policy at the White House. The message itself was redacted, but a forwarding note to Doherty highlighted the importance of the issue to the West Wing: âGees, this never stops. We have to win this one.â (Dunn is now Spellingsâ chief of staff at the Education Department.)

Such episodes are likely to fuel accusations that federal officials violated laws prohibiting ED from interfering in local curricular decisions.

The correspondence between Lyon and the White House is also significant in light of Spellingsâ attempts to distance herself from events associated with the early implementation of Reading First. In a letter to the OIG that was published along with its report, Spellings explained that the events depicted âtook place before I became Secretary of Education in 2005.â

In an interview, Lyon said the White House was interested in New York because of the hefty size of its grant and a belief that allowing the largest city in the nation to game the system would send âa message to the rest of the country that weâre not serious.â Spellings had similar concerns about Texas, Lyon added, but the state carried additional baggage. âMargaret, as the domestic policy advisor, would be concerned that the presidentâs own state wasnât doing a good job â and that has political ramifications,â he said.

Chad Colby, an ED spokesman, said the department would not comment on matters pertaining to the OIG investigation until all of its reports are released.

An Aggressive Posture
In the end, the large volume of correspondence between Lyon and Doherty exemplifies many of the very same qualities â combative, uncompromising, hypervigilant â that simultaneously inspire the programâs champions and infuriate its critics.

Critics of the program say this aggressiveness led federal officials to turn a blind eye to potential conflicts of interest, an allegation borne out by the OIG report and independent reporting by the Title I Monitor.

But those searching for evidence of collusion between Reading Firstâs leadership and major publishing companies are unlikely to find it in Lyonâs vast correspondence.

In one e-mail, for example, Doherty explains that his job is to see that Reading First schools adhere to scientifically-based research, ânot to make sure that reading program x, y, and zâs market share goes up.â

But Lyon and Doherty were acutely aware of the perception among many states and school districts that Reading First was dictating programs â a perception they tried to squelch early on.

Before the first meeting of peer reviewers who examined state grants in 2002, Doherty told Lyon that he and Neuman âshould not mention any commercial program names â good, bad, or middling â even if just providing general context, as we would get crucified by those who continue to think that RF is nothing more than a national textbook adoption program.â

Two years later, Lyon recounted a conversation with a White House staffer about an event to highlight successful Reading First programs. The staff member wanted to showcase efforts in Michigan, a tactic Lyon advised against because the state is one of a handful that has an approved list of programs that districts can choose from. He told Doherty that focusing on Michigan âcould bite us because of the perception that Michigan is the poster child for our opponentâs propaganda that NCLB and RF require a list of scripted programs.â

There is nothing, at least in Lyonâs e-mail, to show that either he or Doherty were pushing favored programs. But they knew what they didnât like, and could be uncharitable in their depiction and pursuit of programs deemed scientifically lightweight. Referring to several programs he was trying to get states and districts to avoid, Doherty told Lyon: âI have personally received very angry official letters from the CEO of Rigby and Harcourt, and the DRA [Pearsonâs Developmental Reading Assessment] people constantly threaten to sue. Proof positive we are on the right track â many entrenched forces are furious!â

Reading Recovery
The one program that consistently drew their ire was Reading Recovery, a popular intervention that relies on one-on-one tutoring and has the backing of powerful members of both parties in Congress. Reading Firstâs leadership, along with some researchers, challenged Reading Recoveryâs scientific base. They have also lamented the expense of the program and the inefficiency of one-to-one tutoring.

One of three organizations to have raised concerns to the OIG, Reading Recovery has accused critics like Lyon and Doherty of distorting the evidence in order to favor more traditional textbook programs.

In its September report, the OIG supported a number of Reading Recoveryâs long-standing accusations. It showed that Neuman urged the elimination of statutory language relating to âearly intervention and reading remediation materialsâ from Reading First applications because she thought it might provide an opening for Reading Recovery. âEven if it says this in the law, Iâd like this taken out,â Neuman said, in an excerpt quoted by the OIG.

In another instance, Doherty appointed someone to the peer review panel who was outspoken in his criticism of the program.

Neither Neuman nor Doherty agreed to be interviewed for this article. In earlier comments to the Monitor, Doherty said the OIG âcherry-pickedâ its evidence and collected âall of the worst things from five yearâs worth of e-mail in one place.â

The Lyon correspondence shows that concerns about Reading Recovery dated to the earliest days of Reading First. Just four months after Doherty became director of the program, Bob Sweet, a senior Republican staff member in Congress and a co-writer of the law with Lyon, said, âWe have to deal with RR from a scientific research basis, or they are going to sink RF, Iâm afraid.â

Lyon offered to conduct a review of Reading Recoveryâs evidence himself, but was quickly talked out of it by David Francis, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Houston. Francis told Lyon that it would be âa supremely BAD idea for you to get involved in reviewing any commercial program. Nothing good can come from this for you or the NICHD. No matter what the review actually says, it will hurt you and the institute.â Francis suggested that the department ask Reading Recovery and states that use it to provide evidence supporting of the program.

According to the OIG, one state did just that. Doherty urged Kentucky not to use Reading First funds on Reading Recovery, the report said. When they asked him to put the request in writing, he refused, but invited them to defend the program instead. State officials subsequently provided him with written support, but never heard back.

Jady Johnston, executive director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, told the Monitor that the Lyon e-mail showed that federal officials were âplotting against Reading Recovery.â

âWe think itâs related to market share,â she said. âThey obviously had certain programs and approaches that they wanted, and others that they wanted to get rid of.â

Closing Loopholes?
At the very least, the OIG report appears to show that Reading Firstâs leadership found unpalatable legislative compromises that gave openings to Reading Recovery â and tried to close what they viewed as loopholes in the law. Lyon, in an interview, agreed with that interpretation, although he said neither he nor Sweet would have âsupported any gaming of the system on the Fedâs side.â Lyon said the law was tough enough on its own, and that Reading Recovery should have been examined on its evidence, in the open.

The passage of time, and the recent release of the OIGâs reports, has allowed Lyon to be more introspective about his and Dohertyâs role in getting Reading First off the ground. He cites anecdotal evidence that the program is boosting reading scores, and insists Doherty hasnât been given a fair shake.

âAll in all, I think that Chrisâs passion and aggressiveness interacted in a good way that people will have a hard time seeing because of the bombastic language,â he said. âBut time after time, he is clearly not rolling over under the pressure to treat Reading First like all previous funding programs. He said many times that we are not going there. And many, many people wanted to go there.â

Asked, however, if Lyon played a role in the behavior that got Doherty in trouble with the OIG, he said, âObviously, itâs something Iâve given quite a bit of thought to.â

âA huge regret I have is not pushing for transparency,â he explained. He also lamented missed opportunities to be more inclusive with states and districts that opposed the program.

âI did not like the us-against-them tone and my part in portraying issues in that light,â he added. âI was kind of disappointed in myself in that regard. The program will only work if itâs implemented with fidelity and if people buy into it. There should have been a clearer effort on my part to reach out and explain what we were trying to do.â
--Travis Hicks contributed to this report.

— Andrew Brownstein
Title1 Online


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.