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NCLB Outrages

OIG Refers Reading First To U.S. Justice Department

Former Director Doherty Criticizes âDistortedâ Picture of Program.

Again, kudos to Andrew Brownstein for providing an in-depth look at what's happening.

Chris Doherty insists that Reading First is "greatly appreciated" across the country. I wish he could be forced to read my e-mails--and then try to sleep. I get insider stories--from parents and teachers--of how children's lives are ruined, how teachers' professions are destroyed. These stories weigh very heavily on me, making me wonder how Chris Doherty and his pals sleep at night.

Much of the testimony here reminds me of that famous line in Casablanca when Captain Renault says, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" These fellows are shocked, shocked to hear of any suggestion of conflict of interest.


What the congressional committee fails to see, though, is that what is even worse than conflict of interest is the fact that the reading model Reading First pushes hurts children. This point is lost in the shuffle. Never mind that congressional committees don't want to hear it. We've been trying to tell them for years, and they refuse to listen.

By Andrew Brownstein

The former head of the embattled Reading First program told a congressional committee that federal investigators had painted a âdistortedâ picture of the program, even as the head of the investigative team testified that he referred some of their findings to the Justice Department.

Chris Doherty offered his first extended comments on the controversy since he was forced to leave the Education Department (ED) in the wake of a sweeping investigation by the departmentâs Office of Inspector General (OIG) that found mismanagement, conflicts of interest and other ethical lapses in the Bush administrations $6 billion reading program.

âI think itâs hard to overstate the contrast over Reading First here in Washington and the appreciation and support for Reading First in the vast majority of states throughout the country,â Doherty said. âIt was and will remain the highlight of my professional career. ...The net effect of these six [OIG] reports is to have mined thousand and thousands of e-mails and documents to create a very unrepresentative picture of a program that is very successful.â

It was one of several comments that drew a sharp response from the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. âThe problem is that youâre looking at a panel that supports Reading First,â he said. âThatâs why weâre concerned with the integrity of the program.â

John P. Higgins Jr., the departmentâs inspector general, said he had made several referrals to the Justice Department, but declined to go into specifics. The civil division of the U.S. attorneyâs office for the District of Columbia, which can bring criminal charges, is reviewing the matter. In comments to USA Today, Doherty said he was interviewed once by Justice officials in November, but he did not offer further details.

In his testimony, Higgins denied Dohertyâs characterization of the investigation, noting that ED officials have agreed to adopt all of the OIGâs recommendations.

âA Certain Ironyâ

It was not the first time those examining this very unusual scandal have had to acknowledge a disconnect as they try to get to the bottom of what went wrong with a program they also acknowledge went right.

While noting that âitâs hard for me to conclude anything other than the fact that there were some conflicts of interest [and] some ethical lapses here,â Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., said, âthere was a certain irony in all of this.â

âIn my own state of Delaware, everyone basically praises this program,â he said. âWe hear a lot of negatives about No Child Left Behind, but this is one program where you hear virtually all positives.â

Although labeled an âinvestigative hearing,â the committee elicited little in the way of new information. However, it tapped a rich vein in the OIG reports pertaining to the small cadre of reading experts who created content for the program, advised states and districts on it and, in some cases, profited from it. Supporters of Reading First have claimed that the pool of experts in the nascent field of scientifically based reading research was small and that conflicts were therefore inevitable; the OIG, in its reports, said the department did not do enough to prevent the process from becoming incestuous.

Three of the six witnesses who testified at the hearing were current or former professors from the University of Oregon, which also featured prominently in the OIGâs investigation.

Assessment Committee

Among its findings, the OIG concluded that:

*An influential committee that reviewed assessments that were later used in the program â a committee headed by an Oregon professor and that pulled four of its eight members from the university â released its report on the universityâs Web site without the permission of the organization that paid for it with taxpayer funds, the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). A NIFL official told the OIG that the organization had not signed off on the document out of concerns about âendorsing specific products.â Of the 29 testing tools reviewed, the committee found 24 to be technically adequate, including all seven of the instruments designed by or linked to committee members. While members did not review their own assessments, they did judge the work of their competitors.

*The creator of one of the selected assessments, committee member Roland Good, wrote an article about his product that was included in the handbook and guidebook for the Reading Leadership Academies in 2002, which were designed to help state officials understand the complex requirements of the statute. The product, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills or DIBELS, has become the most widely used assessment in Reading First schools. While 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, âonly DIBELS was featured in the academy materials.â

*Officials from two states said they were pressured to use DIBELS by Reading First technical consultants. One of those consultants was a paid trainer for DIBELS.

*The former leader of the Western Regional Technical Assistance Center had ties to commercial reading programs created by Pearson Scott Foresman.


The co-authors of the Scott Foresman program, Edward Kameâenui and Deborah Simmons, as well as DIBELS creator Roland Good, were called to testify before the House committee. Kameâenui, who led the Western technical assistance center, also co-authored with Simmons a widely used âConsumerâs Guideâ to evaluate core reading programs that would later be used by states, districts and schools under Reading First.

Good said the company he formed in 2003 to market DIBELS, of which he owns 50 percent, earned $1.3 million in royalties from 2003 to 2006.

The assessment can be downloaded for free, but many schools pay the University of Oregon $1 per child to score the results. About a quarter to one-third of schools that use DIBELS, Good testified, buy a published version of the test available from Sopris West of Longmont, Colo. His company also collects 40 cents per child per year from Wireless Generation of New York City, which markets a hand-held device to score student progress on the test. One witness testified that her state had paid Wireless Generation nearly $750,000 since 2004. Good also receives royalties from numerous products with tie-ins to DIBELS, including the popular Voyager Universal Literacy program.

In previous interviews, Good has said that he donated all DIBELS royalties through 2005 to the University of Oregon Foundation, to conduct further research and development on the product. He has, however, received a substantial income for training and professional development on DIBELS; according to documents he submitted to the committee, he earned at least $56,000 annually from these activities.

Kameâenui, who has a temporary appointment as EDâs commissioner of Special Education Research, and Simmons, now a professor at Texas A&M University, said they received $150,000 last year in royalties from the Pearson Scott Foresman Early Reading Intervention, first published in 2003. That does not include royalty income from a 2006 core reading program they co-authored for Scott Foresman called âReading Street.â Marketing materials for both programs show that they are sometimes packaged with DIBELS, although both professors testified that they had no knowledge of the arrangement. (Although Reading Fist schools may have provided a sizeable portion of the income for these products, particularly DIBELS, it did not come exclusively from them.)

âNo Real Conflictâ

Kameâenui, providing his first public comments on Reading First, said that while he regretted the appearance of a conflict of interest stemming from his work, there was âno real conflict.â

âWe took traditional academic steps to avoid any conflicts of interest in providing technical assistance to states,â he said in written testimony. âFor instance, as the author of a reading-intervention program for kindergarten children, I never promoted or provided technical assistance on that program.â

That explanation didnât satisfy some members of the committee. Miller, who angrily chastised Doherty several times during the hearing, said Reading First was âcooked from the very beginningâ and âseemed close to a criminal enterprise.â

Another committee member, Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said she was skeptical of claims that there werenât enough qualified people to advise and administer the program. âIt seems like youâre telling us that thereâs only a small group of experts in this country that would be qualified to write the rules, provide the overview of the programs, to train, to review and possibly to profit from this very positive No Child Left Behind-mandated program,â she said. âIâm having the hardest time thinking that thereâs only a small group who could do all this, and that there was no room for independent oversight, and that there were no experts out there that didnât have their finger in the pie in one way or another.â

Key Figures Absent

The committee hearing was notable for the absence of some key figures in the Reading First story. Susan Neuman, the reading specialist who served as assistant secretary at ED and who coordinated the Reading Leadership Academies, was not there. Nor was Sandy Kress, an architect of No Child Left Behind who, as a lobbyist for Pearson Scott Foresman, helped arrange the deal with Kameâenui and Simmons that resulted in âReading Street,â the core reading program released in 2006. (In an e-mail to the Monitor, Kress said he was not in government when the deal took place, and that âmy representation of Pearson was perfectly ethical.â)

Perhaps most notable was the absence of ED Secretary Margaret Spellings, who has characterized as minimal her involvement with the program when she was a domestic policy adviser in the White House.

Thomas Kiley, a spokesman for Miller, said the witnesses at the hearing were the âappropriate witnesses to provide the information the committee was looking for at this point in our investigation.â But at press time, Miller asked Spellings to appear before the committee to discuss ethical abuses in the departmentâs oversight of Reading First and the student loan industry. Spellings agreed to appear on May 10.

Mike Petrilli, a senior vice president of the Fordham Foundation who worked with Doherty as a senior ED official during President Bushâs first term, called the committeeâs tactics during the hearing âdisgusting.â

âNot satisfied with Margaret Spellings throwing Chris Doherty under the bus, Chairman Miller decided to run him over a few times too,â Petrilli said. âI think itâs clear that Miller is interested in attacking the administration while at the same time protecting his friend the secretary; he needs her help to get NCLB reauthorized. Thatâs a conflict of interest.â

The Role of Superiors

Speaking in soft, measured tones, Doherty appeared unflappable as he faced tough questions, particularly from the committeeâs Democrats. He repeatedly insisted that he broke no laws and only once in the hearing suggested that his actions were sparked by superiors.

When Miller questioned him about e-mail exchanges with an ED official concerning toughening the Reading First application package, Doherty responded, âI was being criticized for not being bold enough. ...The directive that was given me was to take such-and-such out [of the package]. I indicated, as you read, that we were unable to do that.â

âThe pressure came from whom?â Miller asked.

âThe woman you mentioned.â

âMs. Neuman?â

âYes, sir.â

Miller did not follow up on the question. Neuman, now a professor at the University of Michigan, declined to comment on the hearing.

State Gains Announced

Toward the end of the hearing, Doherty accused the committee of showing bias of its own. âI know that some state directors wanted to testify at this hearing today and offer a more positive opinion, and they were told that the panel is not interested in positive information about Reading First,â he said.

Some of that positive information came the day before the hearing. ED released data from about half the states â the ones that reported baseline data from their participating schools â showing a 15 percent improvement in the proportion of first-, second- and third-graders who can read fluently. In measures of comprehension, those states showed a 12 percent increase in the number of third-graders who were proficient.

While the preliminary data are positive, a definitive assessment wonât be made until the state gains in Reading First schools are measured against a control group, those in non-Reading First Title I schools. Such a study is expected to be released in 2008.

The announcement of the state gains came soon after the release of a report from Congressâ Government Accountability Office that said a majority of state officials think Reading First is having a positive impact on reading instruction.

Tension in the Law

At the hearing, Doherty testified that much of the controversy surrounding the program results from a âstructural tensionâ in the law between the need to keep the federal government out of local curricular decisions and Reading Firstâs mandate to provide instruction based on scientifically based research.

That dichotomy was underscored when Doherty was asked about the most infamous e-mail cited by the OIG, in which he referred to those pushing an unfavored reading program as âdirtbagsâ who were âtrying to crash our party.â

While voicing regrets for his choice of language, Doherty offered the following explanation: âThe party I was referring to was the statutory fact that only scientifically based instructional materials could be funded by Reading Fist. We were trying to enforce that law and keep programs that were not aligned with scientifically based research from getting into the program, [so it didnât become] watered down like so many other programs. We feel the program has been successful because of our energetic implementation of this good law.â

— Andrew Brownstein
Thompson Publications


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