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Inspector General's Report Cites Apparent onflicts of Interest at Universities Involved in Reading First Program

Ohanian Comment: This issue is ho hum with most of the press. And of course no one talks about the 'deep' issues of what it does to students and teachers to put them in such a lockstep approach.

Here in Vermont, my education advocacy group held a press conference about Reading First and nobody came.

If anyone is interested in reading my report, it is available for $4.

By David Glenn

The Education Department's inspector general released late Wednesday its sixth, and probably final, report on problems in the administration of the Reading First program. More than any of the previous reports, this one touches on allegations of conflicts of interest at the universities that have helped run the program.

The new report focuses on the RMC Research Corporation, a firm in New Hampshire that has held three major federal contracts to provide "technical assistance" to states and local school districts in navigating the Reading First program. Reading First is a $900-million-a-year program that was designed to improve reading instruction in low-income schools in kindergarten through third grade (The Chronicle, February 2).

Under the most recent contract, RMC has given subcontracts to academic centers at Florida State University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Texas at Austin to offer advice to states.

According to the report, during the first two years of the program, from early 2002 to early 2004, RMC failed to check for conflicts of interest among the academic consultants it hired (many of whom were based at those same three universities). Several of the consultants have had relationships with publishers whose products have been purchased by states and local school districts under Reading First. Others are the creators of assessment tools that have been widely used under Reading First. By early 2004, when RMC began to look at potential conflicts, most states had already made decisions about their major Reading First purchases.

An appendix to the report lists by job title (but does not name) 10 past and present employees and consultants at the three universities with apparent conflicts of interest.

In general, however, the inspector general has not alleged that such people consciously profited from their conflicts of interest or inappropriately pressured states to purchase products that they created. The new report does cite complaints from two state officials who believed that they had been wrongly pushed to buy an assessment tool known as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or Dibels, which was created by two scholars at Oregon.

The report also criticizes certain elements of the three universities' Web sites. According to the inspector general, the sites may have given state-level officials the erroneous impression that the federal government had an official set of approved textbooks for use in Reading First.

In their reply to the inspector general, which is attached to the report, officials at RMC acknowledge having made several errors, but also suggest that in "its vetting of staff and consultants, it erred on the side of emphasizing depth of knowledge, extensive experience, and nationally recognized expertise in scientifically based reading research and Reading First program requirements over concerns related to the appearance of conflict of interest, bias, or lack of objectivity."

An earlier report by the inspector general said the Education Department "did not adequately assess issues of bias and lack of objectivity" during the early days of the Reading First program (The Chronicle, March 9).

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on Thursday that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate committee that oversees education programs, has demanded to see correspondence between the department and its Reading First contractors.

— David Glenn
Chronicle of Higher Education


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