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Report Criticizes Education Dept. for Failing to Police Bias in Reading First Program

Ohanian Comment: So when will states start screaming--and dumping Reading First? I've tried to get things rolling with a report on Vermont's grant, but the media refused to cover our press conference.

By David Glenn


The U.S. Department of Education "did not adequately assess issues of bias and lack of objectivity" during the early days of the Reading First program, according to a report issued on Thursday by the department's inspector general.

The report is the latest in a series of critical accounts of Reading First, a $900-million-a-year component of the No Child Left Behind Act (The Chronicle, February 2).

The Reading First program, which provides grants to improve reading instruction in low-income schools in kindergarten through the third grade, places more restrictions on local districts than did many previous federal education programs. States and districts may spend their Reading First grants only on textbooks and other products that are "in alignment with" five major elements of effective reading instruction that were identified in a 2000 report issued by the National Reading Panel, a federally financed committee of scholars.

According to Reading First's admirers, those prescriptive rules have been crucial to the program's success. For example, in the winter issue of City Journal, the policy analyst Sol Stern argues that "we now have a critical mass of educators willing to try the pro-science side of the reading wars." Schools in Richmond, Va., and throughout Alabama, Mr. Stern argues in the article, have already seen impressive gains in reading scores.

Critics, however, have complained that the department and its contractors have sometimes crossed the line by appearing to require the use of specific commercial products, in violation of the Department of Education Organization Act, which forbids federal officials to exercise "direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum or program of instruction of any school or school system."

The new report, for example, declares that a Reading First handbook distributed to state officials in late 2002 "appeared to promote" an assessment tool known as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or Dibels, which was created by a pair of scholars at the University of Oregon. A commercial version of Dibels, which is sold by Sopris West Educational Services, a Colorado company, has been widely purchased under Reading First. (A noncommercial version may also be downloaded free from the scholars' Web site.)

The new report also notes that several scholars affiliated with Reading First's three "technical-assistance centers" -- which are located at Florida State University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Oregon -- had simultaneous relationships as authors or consultants for commercial publishers whose products have been purchased under Reading First.

The report does not name the scholars, and it does not allege that they actually pressured states to purchase their own products. The report declares, however, that the department should have taken those superficial conflicts of interest more seriously.

"Without an adequate assessment of bias and lack of objectivity for individuals proposed to perform department contract work," the report reads, "the department could be placed in a situation where the public could reasonably question and perhaps discount or dismiss the work performed simply because of the existence of a potential bias."

Within the next several weeks, the inspector general is expected to release a more detailed report about the Reading First technical-assistance centers, which were created under a federal contract with the New Hampshire-based RMC Research Corporation. The Government Accountability Office is also expected soon to release an investigative report on the administration of Reading First.

— David Glenn
Chronicle of Higher Education


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