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Congress Grills Spellings On Reading First Program

Ohanian Comment: Have you noticed how uninterested the mass media is in all this? None of these stories about corruption in Reading First leadership has appeared in the local media, and not many in the national media. Brownstein and Hicks deserve a lot of credit for pursuing this--and continuing to explain it--while the rest of the media yawn.

I wrote a 30-page booklet (with cartoons), A Roadblock in Vermont's Design for Education, laying out how the Vermont state department of education marched in lockstep to U. S. DOE orders in order to obtain Reading First money. VSSE is selling this for $4, hoping it might serve as a guide of outrage for people in other states to examine their own state ed proposals for Reading First money. The U. S. DOE functionaries demanded that all past philosophy/pedagogy/ethics be abandoned and, for the sake of the dollars, department of education operatives obeyed orders.

If you're interested in the booklet, send me $4, and I'll send you a copy.

P. O. Box 370
Charlotte, VT 05445

Office of the Inspector General Investigation Draws to a Close

By Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks

As an investigation of Reading First drew to a close and Congress geared up for hearings, top lawmakers publicly grilled Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings for the first time about her role in the program.

Declaring that the program has âan odor that I donât like,â Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the education appropriations subcommittee, asked her about claims by Mike Petrilli, a former political appointee at the department during President George W. Bushâs first term, that she âmicromanagedâ the program when she was a domestic policy advisor in the Bush White House.

âObviously, I was not micromanaging that program or any other grant program out of the thousands of grant programsâ she dealt with as domestic advisor to the president, the secretary testified.

Spellings reiterated previous statements that problems with Reading First occurred before she became secretary. She said she removed the programâs leaders and accepted all of the recommendations of the departmentâs Office of Inspector General (OIG), which finished its six-part audit of the program with the release of two final reports in late February and March. Saying sheâd âhate to throw the baby out with the bathwater,â however, Spellings cited anecdotal evidence and state achievement data showing that the program is improving reading instruction for many of the nationâs neediest students.

âI am hugely concerned about the credibility of the department,â she said. âBut I also know that more students are being taught to read. This is a huge investment in reading instruction.â

Spellingâs appearance at the Senate hearing came two days after a similar reception before the House appropriations committee. Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), chairman of the committee, said that problems with the program âmake it even more difficult to persuade a number of people, including me, to vote to renew programs like No Child Left Behind,â of which Reading First is an integral part.

Spellings and Publishers

Questions surrounding Spellingâs involvement in the early implementation of the program are likely to continue as hearings on Reading First convene in the House and Senate. In a statement, Rep. George Miller,D- Calif., chair of the House education committee, said hearings would begin in April. A report on Reading First from Congressâ Government Accountability Office is expected on March 30.

Despite Spellingâs attempts to distance herself from the controversy, previously released e-mails show that, as domestic policy advisor, she had a role in handling hot-button Reading First issues in Texas and New York City.

Additional e-mails, recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Title I Monitor, suggest that her role extended possibly further. One exchange between Reid Lyon, former chief of child development and behavior for the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, and Beth Ann Bryan, former senior advisor to the secretary at the Education Department (ED), centered on concerns that New York City would use Reading First funds on a program called Month by Month Phonics, which many experts believed was not in line with scientifically-based reading research.

Lyon, also known as Bushâs unofficial âreading czar,â forwarded Bryan a message from a top executive at Houghton Mifflin, a major publisher of reading materials. The executive warned that if New York Cityâs action went unchecked it could jeopardize efforts by the publishing industry to change its textbooks to align with Reading First. âThe actions in New York City have put an enormous chill over our people,â said Maureen DiMarco, a senior vice president with the company. âThey feel they have invested huge amounts of money and effort and have become educated to be true believers ⦠but if NYC is allowed to put in whole language and incidental phonics window-dressing, then they realize that the federal government has thrown in the towel on its effort and it will collapse faster than it took to create it.â

In a forwarding message to Bryan, Lyon said, âCan you forward to Margaret? We have to discuss publishers today with Margaret. We have been meeting with some CEOs from the industry and they want to play ball.â

An ED spokeswoman declined to discuss any aspect of the Reading First program. In an interview, Lyon said he met twice with groups of publishers at the department at the request of the American Association of Publishers to discuss scientifically-based reading research (SBRR) and the kinds of funding mechanisms that were available to them. It would not have been surprising, Lyon said, for him to seek Spellingsâ help in emphasizing the importance of changing the textbook industry. Publishers, he said, âwere a constituency that obviously played a major part in the previous reading failure ratesâ and, due to Reading First, also constituted âa hope for the future.â

Jumping Through Hoops

Among other e-mails obtained by the Monitor are messages that show the pressure some state officials were under to obtain Reading First funds. Previously, Lyon and others have commented that the program required an aggressive approach because many states and districts wanted to âgameâ the system by using the new money for programs that were not allowed under the statute. Other e-mails obtained by the Monitor show that some state officials were pressured by governors and state legislators to do whatever it took to get the money.

In one such e-mail, Chris Doherty, the former head of the Reading First program, summarized for Susan Neuman, a former ED assistant secretary, a meeting he had with the education superintendent of a rust-belt state. Among the main points, Doherty quoted the superintendent as saying:

*â¦[I am] under âan incredible amount of pressureâ [due to] a governor who is ârunning on readingâ and the election is looming

*â¦â[my] Department is on the line hereâ⦠and â[my] job is on the line here, too.â

*âJust tell us what hoops we need to jump through, Chris!â

*The governor is furious about all this!â

*âWe have an incredibly tight time line, Chris!â

While noting that âthe highest levels of the Department are aware of your situation and share your desire to make the necessary changesâ¦as expeditiously as possible,â Doherty said he told the superintendent that the state needed to bring its reading program in line with SBRR and suggested hiring an outside expert consultant to help with its application.

Doherty was forced to resign in September in the wake of the OIG investigation. In its final reports, the OIG focused on the appearance of bias and a lack of objectivity in training sessions for states on Reading First and among subcontractors who provided technical assistance for the program.

A Strong Firewall

The problems surrounding appearance of conflicts of interest were perhaps foreseeable due to two tenets that Reading Firstâs leadership and many of the programâs supporters accepted as axiomatic: namely that there was a limited pool of experts with sophisticated knowledge of scientifically-based reading research; and that, precisely due to their expertise, these scientists would more often than not have ties to commercial programs.

Picking up on this theme, the OIG said, âThe Department did not consider associations with reading program publishers as a potential source of bias because officials thought it would limit the pool of technical assistance providers with expertise in SBRR. Consequently, appearances of bias and lack of objectivity contributed to the complaints surrounding the administration of the Reading First program, and led to the perception that some individuals may have been promoting products they were associated with and may have influenced the products that were being selected byâ states and school districts.

In many ways, Reading First was an attempt to radically transform the market by instantly creating a demand for programs with SBRR. âI agree that the existence of Reading First certainly created a larger market for scientifically-based reading programs,â said Sandi Jacobs, until recently a senior program specialist with the Reading First program. âIt created a situation where suddenly thousands of schools were looking for SBRR programs that would not have before.â

With a small pool of experts, many of whom had ties to publishers, the program leadersâ operating premises created an environment where those who advised states on Reading First and those who created programs to be used under Reading First would often be the same people. According to critics, the system called for a strong firewall to keep the process from appearing or becoming incestuous. Why that didnât happen may also be a question for future hearings.

Bias and Objectivity

The legal issue, however, is complicated. The RMC Research Corporation of Portsmouth, New Hampshire operated three contracts â totaling nearly $40 million â to provide technical assistance to states and districts on Reading First. Its contract with ED contained boilerplate federal conflict-of-interest language designed to prevent âthe existence of conflicting roles that might bias a contractorâs judgmentâ and stave off an âunfair competitive advantage.â

But when RMC later subcontracted the actual operations to three regional centers â at the University of Texas, the University of Oregon, and Florida State University â the contracts did not contain the conflict-of-interest clause. The clause also was absent in consulting agreements between RMC and its technical assistance providers. As a result, the OIG said, âthey may not have disclosed any actual or potentialâ conflicts of interest.

The conflict of interest standard is much more clear-cut, and at the same time, more limited, than the OIGâs suggested standard of âbias or impaired objectivity.â A conflict-of-interest standard would, at the very least, suggest that someone providing technical assistance for Reading First not have a connection to reading programs for students in kindergarten through the third grade, the programâs constituency. But a technical assistance provider who has designed a McGraw-Hill math product, to use a hypothetical example, while perhaps not having a direct conflict of interest in recommending against a Harcourt reading program, might have âan appearance of bias or impaired objectivityâ in connection to any McGraw-Hill product. The OIG acknowledged there âis no federal requirement that contractors, subcontractors or consultants be vetted for bias or impaired objectivityâ but said that not having one damaged the âintegrity and reputationâ of RMC and the department.

Honor System for Consultants?

The complexity of the issues involved actually led RMC in 2004 to suggest to the department that it set up a series of advisories on conflicts of interest, but ultimately, according to the OIG, ED âfound the issues too complicated to lend themselves to advisoriesâ and instead suggested that the centers bring questions to RMC as they arose.

In addition to many technical consultants, the report noted that the leaders of the three regional technical centers all had ties to reading programs, including McGraw-Hill, Pearson Scott Foresman and Voyager, Inc.

Marcy Stein, a professor of education at the University of Washington, served as a consultant for the Western Regional Technical Assistance Center based at the University of Oregon. An author with McGraw-Hillâs Open Court reading series, Stein said she was careful to disclose her authorship and to stay out of program selection. She said did this on her own, and received no instructions from the Western center or RMC. âIt was an ethical consideration left up to each individual how careful we were about negotiating these boundaries, âshe said. âI thought it was common sense.â

Asked, however, if detailed vetting would have helped or hindered the process, she said it would have significantly slowed down the programâs early implementation. âOh my God, I think it would have taken years to get off the ground,â she said. âI donât know where they would have gotten the technical assistance from.â

Pressure on DIBELS

Nonetheless, despite detailing the lack of a clear conflict-of-interest firewall in RMCâs contracts, the OIG only documented two instances where it believed consultants engaged in âinappropriate promotionâ of a product. Both instances were previously reported by the Monitor in September 2005.

Officials from Kentucky and Nevada complained that RMC consultants pressured them to adopt the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), a major assessment used in the Reading First program. One of the consultants was a paid trainer for DIBELS. In its report, the OIG stated that Doherty discussed the behavior of one of the consultants with an RMC official, saying âone of the knocks is that he overly pushes DIBELS.â

Everett Barnes, RMCâs president, said in an interview that Nevada had its application approved without DIBELS â although the state modified the application later to use the assessment. He added, moreover, that since ending his RMC contract, the consultant who served as a DIBELS trainer has not accepted any DIBELS contracts in states where he provided technical assistance.

Barnes said that RMC and the department examined consultantsâ resumes and backgrounds for signs of a âblatant suggestion of exploitation or promotion of a product.â

âWe didnât go lightly into this,â he said, adding that âwe knew there were people who were going to have perceptions of a âplot,â for lack of a better term, on the part of the department or the President.â

Nonetheless, he said, âwe didnât know how to totally eliminateâ those perceptions.

Two Complaints

Jacobs, the former Reading First official, said it was significant that the OIG only turned up two instances in which appearances of conflicts among consultants translated into overt pressure.

âTwo complaints â thatâs all they found,â she said. âAnd you know why? Because thereâs nothing else to find. â¦If, out of the hundreds and hundreds of [technical assistance] contacts, you have a few duds, thatâs a really good track record. Thatâs one of the really frustrating things about the OIG. They look at a couple of incidents, and to them, it proves a pervasive pattern.â

She lamented that the OIG has not focused on âhow much this program has accomplished in a very short period of time when government programs typically donât accomplish anything in any length of time.â
In addition to early anecdotal evidence and state achievement data, Jacobs cited the fact that the White Houseâs Office of Management and Budget recently gave its highest ratingââeffectiveââto Reading First, the only No Child Left Behind program to get such a rating.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, disagreed with Jacobâs characterization that reports of pressure were limited to those two states, saying, âThe problem with Reading First was not isolated to a couple of places.â

Wilhoit said Reading First âwent beyond what I thought was reasonable in [the] federal role.â As superintendent of Kentucky, he complained to ED about the appearance of a conflict due to a consultant to the state advocating for DIBELS while working as a trainer for the test.

Reading Leadership Academies

Accusations of bias related to DIBELS played a part in the OIGâs earlier report on the Reading Leadership Academies, which were chiefly planned and organized by then-assistant secretary Susan Neuman in 2002. The three academies were designed to help state officials understand the complex requirements of the statute.

A handbook and guidebook on the academies both contained articles on DIBELS, which later became the most widely-used assessment in Reading First schools. DIBELS was âone of many screening tools on the market that could have been used to perform Reading First assessments,â according to the OIG, but âonly DIBELS was featured in the academy materials.â

But the most controversial aspect of the academies were âTheory to Practiceâ sessions that offered examples of commercial programs that would be eligible for Reading First funds. The OIG found that the sessions âfocused on a select number of reading programs.â Out of 12 programs that were cited at the sessions over the course of three academies, six were Direct Instruction (DI), a program Doherty, Reading Firstâs former director, championed prior to coming to the department. Open Court was cited three times, and three other products were cited once each.

The apparent narrowness of the choices sparked an immediate backlash. In comment evaluation forms, attendees said things like, âI think Iâll go buy shares in Open Court!â and âI felt like I was in a Direct Instruction sales pitch all day.â

Those opinions were apparently buttressed by officials involved in setting up the academies. A facilitator of the first academy, in an e-mail debriefing Doherty on the event, noted âtoo much emphasis on Direct Instruction,â according to the OIG. An RMC consultant e-mailed Doherty after the first event to tell him âas everyone knows, Open Court and Direct Instruction canât be the only shows in town.â

Doherty and Neuman declined to be interviewed for this article.

SFA Shut Out

Robert Slavin is chairman of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation (SFA), one of three organizations that initially complained to the OIG. Slavin said the academies provided some of the clearest evidence that SFA was shut out of Reading First: SFA, along with Direct Instruction and Open Court, are the three reading programs that are widely acknowledged to have the greatest evidence of effectiveness; yet Direct Instruction and Open Court were amply represented at the sessions, while SFA was invisible.

âI still don't know why, but there is absolutely no way to argue that SFA was not excluded on purpose,â Slavin said. âThey knew the research on SFA, they knew how to find us, and they knew exactly what it would mean if DI and Open Court were given as examples and SFA was not. It would be like giving examples of high-quality Japanese cars and saying Toyota and Subaru. What about Honda?â

Lyon, who does not often find himself agreeing with Slavin about SFAâs treatment under Reading First, agreed. âIf you want to highlight programs based on SBRR, SFA is a prime example,â he said. âFor the life of me, I do not know why they did not.â

The two most recent OIG reports can be found at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/whatsnew.html

— Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks
Title1 Monitor


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