Publishers Leaned on Scholars in Reading First Program, Senate Committee's Report Says
By David Glenn
Commercial publishing companies have frequently pressed scholars involved in the Reading First program to intervene on their behalf with state and federal officials, according to a report released on Wednesday by the chairman of the Senate education committee. The report includes dozens of e-mail messages recently unearthed by Senate investigators, which shed new light on the conflict-of-interest allegations that have beset the program.
"The findings in this report underscore the need for the Department of Education to ensure that contractors, subcontractors, and consultants are free from conflicts of interest," the chairman, Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a written statement.
Reading First is a five-year-old, $1-billion-a-year program that provides grants to improve reading instruction at low-income schools in kindergarten through the third grade. The program has recently come under a great deal of criticism, in part because several scholars received federal contracts to advise states about how to spend their Reading First grants, while at the same time the scholars were receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties and consulting fees from publishers whose products were purchased in the program.
The e-mail messages in Senator Kennedy's report "get at the difference between apparent conflict of interest and actual conflict of interest," said Robert E. Slavin, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools. Mr. Slavin is the chairman of the Success for All Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has largely been excluded from Reading First even though, according to many accounts, its programs closely fit the requirements defined in the law (The Chronicle, February 2).
"If you happen to be an author of something that happens to benefit from what you do as a government contractor," Mr. Slavin said, "that looks very bad, but it's not the same as if you seem to be actively promoting your products. Many of these e-mails go to that distinction. These were not authors who were very careful about avoiding promoting their own products."
The new report focuses on four scholars who have directed technical-assistance centers that advise states on how to use their Reading First grants. Those scholars are Douglas W. Carnine, a retired professor of education at the University of Oregon; Edward J. Kame'enui, a professor of education at Oregon who is on leave to serve as the U.S. Department of Education's commissioner of special-education research; Joseph K. Torgesen, a professor of psychology and education at Florida State University; and Sharon Vaughn, a professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin.
According to the report, Mr. Carnine earned approximately $170,000 in 2006 from publishers whose products have been purchased under Reading First. Mr. Kame'enui earned approximately $180,000, and Ms. Vaughn earned approximately $440,000. Mr. Torgesen's publishing income was much smaller, at approximately $16,000.
Not all of that income is tied to specific products that have been purchased under Reading First. In an e-mail message to The Chronicle on Wednesday, Mr. Carnine said that he does not receive any royalties from reading products for students in kindergarten through third grade. The bulk of his royalties, he said, are related to a mathematics textbook published by McGraw-Hill.
But that distinction does not satisfy Mr. Slavin. McGraw-Hill's Open Court Reading series has been widely purchased under Reading First, he pointed out. Even though Mr. Carnine's royalties derive from a mathematics book and not from Open Court Reading, Mr. Slavin suggested, his financial relationship with McGraw-Hill casts doubt on his ability to give objective advice to states about their Reading First purchases. "You're still beholden to these people," he said.
Senator Kennedy's report details several incidents in which publishers appeared to lean on the scholars to intervene on their behalf with policy makers. Twice in 2006, representatives of Houghton Mifflin, for whom Mr. Carnine has written an elementary science textbook, encouraged him to speak to state officials in Texas and California who have influence over reading textbook purchases.
"To be clear," the report reads, "Houghton was ordering Dr. Carnine, whose chief responsibility was to aid state education agencies and local education agencies in their selection and implementation of the Reading First program, to lobby California education officials on their behalf."
The report's reference to "ordering" appears to be overstated. The e-mail message in question uses phrases such as "It would be very helpful if, when you have the opportunity. ..." Mr. Carnine declined to elaborate on the incidents on Wednesday.
Several of the e-mail messages concern the 2002 efforts of Pearson Education, a major textbook publisher, to court favor with Reading First officials. In so doing, the company relied heavily on Mr. Kame'enui and Deborah C. Simmons, a former professor at Oregon who has taught since 2004 at Texas A&M University at College Station. Mr. Kame'enui and Ms. Simmons had recently written a Pearson textbook for struggling kindergarten readers, and, according to Mr. Slavin, they were then among the few Pearson authors with wide experience in the phonics-oriented techniques emphasized in Reading First.
In June 2002, officials at Pearson arranged a meeting with Susan B. Neuman, who was then the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. They brought with them Mr. Kame'enui and Ms. Simmons, who were already working under federal subcontracts to assist with various elements of Reading First.
That tactic may have backfired, at least in the short run. Ms. Neuman apparently became concerned about Mr. Kame'enui and Ms. Simmons's dual roles as federal contractors and Pearson authors. Three days after the meeting, Mr. Carnine wrote an e-mail message to Mr. Kame'enui and Ms. Simmons, saying, "I found out why Susan was so upset at the meeting. She regards the two of you so very very highly that being an author is quite possibly a conflict of interest in terms of leading national professional development" for Reading First.
Ms. Neuman left the department in January 2003, and is now a professor of education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She declined to comment on Wednesday.
Many states ultimately included Pearson Education textbooks in their Reading First plans, but only on the condition that schools use a phonics-oriented supplement that the publisher scrambled to complete in 2002.
The report includes a recent e-mail message from Mr. Torgesen to a colleague, in which he recalls that Pearson "brought out the big lobbying guns, and we were 'led' by the Florida Department of Education to allow them [in the program] if they would write a supplement."
The report also includes a July 2002 message from a Pearson official to Mr. Torgesen in which she made the case for the new supplement. "I understand your concerns about seeing only a proposal and a sample prototype," she wrote, "so I do want to mention that Ed Kame'enui and Deb Simmons will be the authors of record on these additional materials."
The message implied, however, that the two scholars would not actually do much work on the project: "They will review and comment on the new materials, just as they did on the prototype and proposal."
For Mr. Slavin, that incident represents the crux of the problem with Reading First. By spending money on lobbyists and hiring well-connected scholars as authors, he says, Pearson was able to win advantages that no other publishers received. "No one called us up, for example, and said that if you write a supplement, then your program will be accepted in Reading First," he said. "Only Pearson got a second bite at the apple."
Officials at Pearson Education did not reply to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Late Wednesday, Ms. Vaughn released a statement through her lawyer, which read, in part, "I have always been completely forthcoming about any outside sources of income, and at no time was I ever influenced by my financial relationships to publishers, nor were those relationships relevant to Reading First."
Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, released a statement saying agency officials were studying the Senate report "to determine if further actions are necessary" and would "act aggressively if any wrongdoing is found."
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