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U.S. Senate Education Leaders Seek Investigation Into Reading First Program

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The Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. Senate education committee have asked the watchdog arm of Congress to investigate the Reading First program.

The request to the Government Accountability Office follows allegations that federal officials and their agents may have steered program contracts to favored publishers and consultants, and complaints that the program has not adhered to the principles of scientific evidence outlined in federal law.

It also comes on the heels of at least three requests to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education this past summer to scrutinize the implementation of the $1 billion-a-year reading initiative administered by the department.

In a Sept. 23 letter to the comptroller general of the GAO, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and the panel’s ranking minority member, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., asked for a review of the requirements for states and districts receiving grants under the program, which was authorized by the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Reading First has had a significant impact on the application of scientifically based reading research on applied instruction at the elementary school level,” the letter says. “However, numerous concerns have been raised regarding implementation of the program, including concerns regarding guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on the approach to teaching reading used by states, districts, and individual schools under the program.”

A spokeswoman for the Education Department said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Many reading experts have praised the program—which promotes the use of scientifically based reading instruction, materials, and teacher training to improve achievement in the subject in struggling schools—but critics say that federal officials have placed too many restrictions on how the money can be spent. What’s more, a number of state and district officials have reported that the Education Department and federal consultants pressured them to require the use of specific products and researchers as conditions for receiving Reading First money. ("States Pressed to Refashion Reading First Grant Designs," Sept. 7, 2005.)

Officials of Success for All, a popular Baltimore-based reading program, filed complaints with the Education Department’s inspector general in June, alleging mismanagement, restriction of the organization’s ability to trade, and lack of adherence to scientific evidence of what works in improving reading instruction. The Reading Recovery Council of North American, based in Columbus, Ohio, and Cupp Publishers, of Savannah, Ga., filed similar complaints. All three say they have lost clients who have been told the groups programs do not fit Reading First requirements.

“We’re glad the GAO is moving on this,” said Success for All founder Robert E. Slavin. Selected teaching materials, assessments, training programs, and instructional models, he contended, “have been relentlessly pushed on states and on districts in a way that is very inconsistent with the intention of the law and the expectations of [members of Congress] who promoted the law.” But Robert W. Sweet, who helped write the Reading First legislation as a senior staff member for the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the investigation may be “much ado about nothing.”

“During the writing of the Reading First bill through its implementation, all parties, on both sides of the aisle, including the [Bush] administration, vetted all the issues satisfactorily,” he wrote in an e-mail to Education Week. “If there are problems with the implementation, which I tend to doubt, then they should be looked into by whatever appropriate body can do so. If problems are brought to light, then they should be resolved consistent with the law,” he added.

Staff members from Sen. Enzi’s and Sen. Kennedy’s offices are scheduled to meet Oct. 10 with representatives of the Education Department and the GAO to “develop the contours of the study,” according to Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for Sen. Kennedy’s office.

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