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Kennedy Report Details Ties Between Publishers and Reading First Contractors

By Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks

A recent report by the chairman of the Senate education committee underscored the murky ethical terrain occupied by Reading First contractors in the absence of federal rules regarding bias and conflicts of interest.

Early in the report by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., it states âthat presently, no federal law requires [Education] Department contractors, subcontractors, and consultants to be vetted for bias, conflicts of interest or impartiality.â

Nonetheless, an analysis of the document and further reporting by the Title I Monitor shows that the committee occasionally overreached or provided insufficient context in an attempt to judge Reading First officials by standards that, by its own admission, did not exist at the time.

For example, the report questions why Doug Carnine, the director of the programâs Western Technical Assistance Center (TAC), ânever indicated that he wished to be removed from the payroll of Houghton [Mifflin] or any other publisher.â What the report does not say is that his work for Houghton was devoted to English Language Arts material for grades 6-12 and to middle school science. Reading First is geared solely to K-3 reading.

In one instance cited by the committee, Carnine was asked by Houghton to discuss reading research and state standards at the Texas State Boardâs Reading Study Day. In an e-mail, Carnine asks a Houghton representative if âthere is content [he] should present to support changesâ in Texasâ reading standards. The report lambastes Carnine for âseeking directives from a publishing companyâ on policy matters and calls the companyâs offer to sponsor the trip of a Reading First TAC director â that is, Carnine â âwholly improper,â but does not include the fact that Carnine never attended the meeting.

âItâs hard to determine there would be a conflict of interest for meetings that never took place and that would not have involved Reading First,â said Carnineâs attorney, Elliot Berke. âIt kind of strains credulity.â

Kennedyâs staff did not return phone calls seeking comment on the report.

Brand Loyalty?

Reading First is President George W. Bushâs $6-billion reading initiative designed to ground K-3 reading instruction on scientifically based research. But from its inception, the program has been dogged by accusations of conflicts of interest and bias because the small pool of experts involved in consulting for the program often had materials of their own that could be purchased for use in it.

There is an implicit suggestion in the Kennedy report that connections to publishers on the part of TAC directors was inherently corrupting, perhaps because large companies with lucrative contracts might exert a kind of âbrand loyaltyâ from their authors. But the report never states whether this would apply to authors of any scholastic publication or just those pertaining to K-3 reading. It merely says that in the future such officials âbe subject to full disclosure of any financial ties to publishers, entities, private individuals, or organizations that stand to benefit from fundsâ from education programs like Reading First.

Robert Slavin, chairman of the Success for All Foundation, which lodged some of the first complaints surrounding the program, said the report raises âa question of degrees of conflicts of interest.â

âIf you are an author of instructional materials for grades other than K-3, youâre still beholden to that publisher, but this is less of a conflict than if you are a K-3 author,â he said. âHowever, when you are actively advocating for a given publisher, as the new e-mails make apparent, then itâs no longer appearance of conflict of interest, itâs the real thing.â

Balancing Act

A careful reading of the report and its 42 exhibits shows that in the absence of explicit guidelines, the TAC directors exhibited varying levels of care in navigating the twin worlds of commerce and federal policy.

For example, two TAC directors were members of the design team for reading products created by Voyager. But when Voyager began talking to Florida education officials about conducting statewide trials for one of its products, Joe Torgesen, the head of the Eastern TAC, indicated in an e-mail that he resigned from the design team due to âwhat could be a developing conflict of interest in Florida that might end up embarrassing both me and Voyager.â

Through his attorney, Carnine said that he receives no royalties for any K-3 reading program that could be purchased with Reading First funds. But his wife, Linda Carnine, who works as a consultant for the Western TAC, has a long-standing publishing contract with SRA-McGraw Hill that includes products sold to Reading First schools.

One thing the report makes clear is that Reading First was big money: Some of the TAC directors made hundreds of thousands of dollars from programs that could be purchased with Reading First funds. The program was supposed to be about evidence, but potential profits were bound to attract intrusion from the forces of lobbying, marketing and politics.

From the beginning of Reading First, this required some tricky judgment calls. The committee report shows that concerns about conflicts of interest were expressed early on at the highest levels of the Education Department (ED).

Washington Meeting

In September 2005, the Monitor reported on a 2002 meeting in Washington, D.C., involving Susan Neuman, then an ED-assistant secretary and two new authors for Pearson Scott Foresman, Ed Kameâenui and Deborah Simmons. Also in attendance were Sandy Kress, a lobbyist for Pearson, and several Pearson officials.

By June 2002, Kameâenui and Simmons were already important people in the world of Reading First. Kameâenui headed an influential panel that evaluated the technical adequacy of assessment instruments to be used in the program, and both professors took part in the Secretaryâs Reading Leadership Academies, which introduced state and district officials to what would be required of them in Reading First. Kameâenui would go on to become the first director of the Western TAC.

According to e-mails cited in the report, Neuman was concerned that researchers so closely tied to Reading First were embarking on a major publishing deal for a core reader to be used in the program.

Three days after the meeting, Carnine wrote Kameâenui and Simmons explaining âwhy Susan was upset,â indicating that afterwards, Chris Doherty, then Reading Firstâs director, âfrantically tried to reach me over the weekend at her request.â

âShe regards the two of you so very highly that being an author is quite possibly a conflict of interest in terms of leading national professional development for RF,â Carnine wrote.

Kameâenui left with a different impression of the meeting. In an e-mail to company representatives, he said: âI think Pearson is in a favorable position to exact influence [on Neuman] through Sandy Kress. Weâll need to keep a presence with her regarding access and informed participation.â

Neuman, now a professor at the University of Michigan, declined to comment.

Kress, the Pearson lobbyist, was no stranger to the department. He was one of the key architects of No Child Left Behind, of which Reading first was considered the cornerstone.

In a statement, he said, âI was not in government when the meeting...took place, and my representation of Pearson was perfectly ethical. Simply put, Pearson wanted to be sure its materials were consistent with the requirements of NCLB.â

Through an attorney, Kameâenui explained that the âinfluenceâ he sought from Neuman was to make sure she was sufficiently committed to scientifically based reading research (SBRR). At a conference years earlier, Neuman challenged him, which suggested to him that âshe was not a supporter of SBRR, especially involving the research support for teaching phonics in Kindgarten and Grade 1.â His attorney, Lizette Benedi, said in an e-mail that after the Washington meeting, he âdid come away reassured.â

Moreover, according to Benedi, Neuman ânever addressed the conflict of interest concern that was ostensibly represented in the e-mail.â If his work for Scott Foresman represented a conflict that prohibited him from performing duties related to Reading First, Kameâenui assumed that âDr. Neuman herself would have made this explicitly known to him.â

More Pearson Lobbying

This was not the first time, nor the last, that Reading First officials tangled with Pearson lobbyists over policy.

Before the Eastern TAC was created, Torgesen said, he took part in a statewide review of programs in Florida that found Pearsonâs Scott Foresman program deficient in several respects. In a later e-mail cited in the committee report, Torgesen recalled when the company âwas notified that they would not be approved for RF schools, they brought out the big lobbying guns, and were âledâ by the Florida department of education to allow them if they would write a supplement, which cost them several million [dollars] to do.â

In an interview, Torgesen explained that the companyâs ire was aroused because the Pearson textbook had already been adopted for use in Florida. The state was able to provide the supplement free of charge to all schools that had adopted the program, which, he said, âwas a lot of schools.â

Pearsonâs lobbying was not always successful, however. The companyâs experience in Florida led Pearson to invest in a multi-million dollar rewrite of its core reading program, which resulted in the âReading Streetâ textbook co-authored by Kameâenui and Simmons.

In 2005, when that work was completed, TAC director Torgesen indicated in an e-mail that he was approached by âsome folks in Washingtonâ who ârightly pointed out that we might want to think about rewarding Pearson for significantly strengthening their program (if, in fact, they have).â At that time, the national Reading First office, citing cost and time constraints, had put a halt to TAC reviews of specific programs. According to Torgesen, Maine asked for special permission in this case for the Eastern TAC to evaluate the new Pearson curriculum.

One of those âfolksâ was another well-connected Pearson lobbyist, Beth Ann Bryan. Bryan joined Kress at legal giant Akin Gump when she left the department in 2003, after serving as a senior advisor to then-ED secretary Rod Paige. Prior to joining the department, she helped advise then-Gov. George W. Bush on the Texas Reading Initiative. A close confidante of ED Secretary Margaret Spellings, Bryan currently serves as chairwoman of the Laura Bush Foundation for Americaâs Libraries.

In a statement, Torgesen said that Bryan pointed out that Pearson had acted in âgood faithâ in revamping their program and that âit seemed unfair that they couldnât get their new program reviewed.â But Doherty, then the Reading First director, refused to depart from the new policy against TAC reviews, and so the new textbook was not formally evaluated.

Torgesen harshly criticized the committee report for what he called âgross inaccuracies and distortionsâ for among, other things, suggesting he was trying to give special treatment to Pearson. Bryan did not respond to interview requests from the Monitor.

Utah Trip

The Kennedy report devotes much of its scrutiny to Kameâenui, who is serving as EDâs commissioner for the National Center for Special Education Research until his term expires at the end of June.

âDr. Kameâenui acted and lobbied on behalf of Scott Foresman, from whom he was receiving compensation, while he was team leader of the Reading First assessment committee and as director of the Reading First Western Technical Assistance Center,â the Kennedy report said. âThroughout his tenure as director,...Dr. Kameâenui continued to attend and present at various reading conferences and meetings on Scott Foresmanâs behalf.â

But, as with most things with Reading First â and particularly this report on Reading First â everything is not as it seems.

Take, for example, what appears to be the most egregious episode cited by the committee: Kameâenuiâs appearance at a meeting attended by literacy coaches and Reading First personnel in Utah in November 2003.

Pearson sponsored the trip, which occurred two months after he became director of the Western TAC, which serves Utah.

Sen. Kennedyâs staff could not determine if Kameâenui actually presented at the workshop, but the Monitor has determined that he did.

Wendy Spiegel, senior vice president of communications for Pearson Education, said, âDr. Kameâenuiâs remarks focused only on professional development without mention of any published program.â

That is confirmed by two Utah officials who attended the workshop, Becky Donaldson, Utahâs Reading First director, and Lynne Greenwood, Utahâs curriculum coordinator and literacy specialist. Greenwood went so far as to say that she has attended âmanyâ events in which Kameâenui presented and has ânever heard him promote his programs in any way.â

Nonetheless, a Pearson representative was on hand, providing tote bags and promotional materials to attendees, recalled Donaldson.

So, is this a conflict? If the head of the Western TAC appears at an event attended by Reading First personnel in a state in his jurisdiction, sponsored by a publishing company, is it problematic even if he didnât once mention his curriculum?

Law is Silent

Once again, federal law and department policy is silent on this matter. Sandi Jacobs, a former senior reading specialist with the national Reading First program, said, âMy guess is that had Dr. Kameâenui presented the idea of this trip to us, we would have told him not to go.â Calling it âa serious mistake,â Jacobs nonetheless chalked it up to Kameâenui being new on the job and that he âhad only just gotten his sea legs.â

A top reading researcher who presented at the Utah workshop with Kameâenui said such appearances are problematic even if there is no overt championing of curriculum.

Timothy Shanahan, the former director of the International Reading Association and himself a frequent Reading First consultant, said, âI definitely think Reading First coordinators might interpret a presentation by Ed made in that context as a kind of endorsement of a product.â

âEven if that isnât seen as any kind of endorsement, administrators might think purchasing that product would provide the path of least resistance,â he said. âAdministrators like to avoid difficulty. They might just think: we need to buy a kindergarten intervention, and this one must be qualified, so why take a chance on something else that might get us into approval problems? In such a scenario, there would have been no real endorsement, and probably no intended endorsement either, but it could give the product a boost anyway.â

According to Donaldson, two Utah districts had chosen Kameâenuiâs Pearson intervention program. But, significantly, those decisions were made in the summer of 2003, prior to his visit. It is unclear, then, what effect, if any, his presentation at the workshop could have had on Reading First decision-making.

Benedi, Kameâenuiâs attorney, said the report âdoes not, and cannot, point to one instance where Dr. Kameâenui influenced a state to use one of his products...because he never once did so.â

It is unclear what effect the Kennedy report will have on the future of the Reading First program, which has been under intense scrutiny since EDâs Office of Inspector General launched a sweeping investigation of the program in 2005. The report is certain to boost calls to beef up conflict-of-interest and bias screening for contractors, subcontractors and consultants who work for the program. During a recent House hearing, Spellings, the ED secretary, said she was âdeeply concernedâ about the new revelations.

Not everyone is convinced the outcome will be good for education. âI think this is going to be a challenging issue,â said Everett Barnes, director of the RMC Research Corporation, which oversees technical assistance for Reading First. âThe rules could be set so stringently that the department is literally denied access to the kind of experts ...that weâve been able to access at institutions of higher education, because individuals have had connections with publishers in some form or another. But rules are absolutely neededâand not just for Reading First.

— Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks
Thompson Publishing Group, Title 1 Monitor


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