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Testimony alleges mismanagement of federal reading program

This could get interesting. Or Congress could continue to roll over and pretend to be dead. Stay tuned.

By Greg Toppo

Federal advisors mismanaged President Bush's $1 billion-a-year reading program and profited from close ties to the Bush administration, according to testimony released Thursday ΓΆ€” in one case repeatedly rejecting one state's funding proposal until state officials dumped a successful reading test and bought one written by a top Bush advisor.

In the first of two expected hearings, scheduled for Friday, House lawmakers will probe alleged mismanagement of Bush's $1 billion-a-year Reading First program. The U.S. Education Department's inspector general found that early implementation of the program ΓΆ€” a key part of Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind education reform ΓΆ€” was plagued with conflicts of interest on the part of top advisors, several of whom are authors of reading textbooks or tests; they also advised states on what materials to buy.

According to prepared testimony to be delivered on Capitol Hill Friday, Starr Lewis, Kentucky's associate commissioner of education, says that when she and others pointed out what they considered a clear conflict, a deputy to then-Education Secretary Rod Paige told them there were "no conflicts of interest."

Lewis' written testimony was released late Thursday by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education Committee.

In her testimony, Lewis says it was only after more than a year's worth of rewriting that federal officials approved Kentucky's Reading First grant ΓΆ€” and only after the state agreed to drop a favored reading test in favor of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, which was developed by University of Oregon researcher Roland Good, who served on a federal committee that reviewed reading tests. She also notes that one member of a team assigned to help Kentucky with its proposal trained teachers to use DIBELS.
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While printed copies of DIBELS are available free online, Lewis notes in her testimony, they are unwieldy, difficult to use and don't lend themselves to "fast turnaround of results." So Kentucky purchased handheld computers that run DIBELS software ΓΆ€” paying a contractor nearly $725,000 over the past three years for the tests alone. Good and another Oregon researcher, Edward Kame'enui, helped develop the handheld system. Both are scheduled to testify today. Federal disclosure forms show that in 2005, Kame'enui, now a top Bush administration education official, earned between $100,001 and $1 million on royalties from reading materials he developed.

Miller has cited Kentucky problems as a model of how badly managed Reading First was in its early stages. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has already told lawmakers that she's bringing more oversight to the program, and a few evaluations have suggested that schools are benefiting from its materials and training.

But Friday's hearing is expected to bring to light the extent to which Good, Kame'enui and others profited from their association with the program they helped develop.

The U.S. Education Department on Thursday released three-year test results for schools participating in Reading First, saying the percentage of students whose reading skills improved grew sharply. But department officials offered no comparable data on schools that did not use Reading First, saying that comparison is not expected until next year.

In the study from 2004 to 2006, the percentage of first-graders meeting or exceeding proficiency standards on reading fluency grew from 43% to 57%. The percentage of third-graders improving grew from 36% to 43%.

"We feel like these are very impressive gains," said Amanda Farris, a deputy assistant secretary of education, who oversees the program.

But Farris offered no data on students attending schools that don't receive a portion of the $1 billion Reading First annual grants, saying a comparison to schools outside the program is "a little bit of a difficult question to answer" because states use a variety of tests to assess reading, even within grades.

Control group comparisons are expected to be part of a larger Reading First evaluation due out next year, Farris said.

Thursday's data release brought a rebuke from Miller, who said his committee asked the Education Department for state-by-state breakdowns of Reading First funding and assessments on Feb. 27 and again on March 29, with no reply until Wednesday.

He said much of the information he requested is the same as that now being released to the media.

"It is inconceivable to me that the department withheld the requested information from committee investigators who have been conducting a formal Congressional inquiry," he said in a letter to Spellings.

Miller asked Spellings to tell him whether department staff "deliberately withheld" the information from the committee and when the department "first possessed the information" on types of reading assessments used by the states.

In a terse reply sent late Thursday, Spellings told Miller, "My staff has not deliberately withheld any requested information."

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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