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Published in Print: October 12, 2005, as GAO to Probe Federal Plan For Reading

GAO to Probe Federal Plan for Reading

Senate Education Leaders Request an Investigation

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Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. Senate education committee have joined the debate over the implementation of Reading First, with a call for an investigation into the federal program by the watchdog arm of Congress.

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 to scrutinize the department’s administration of the $1 billion-a-year reading initiative.

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, along with 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 said. “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.”

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

Elaine Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Many reading experts have praised the program, which is supposed to promote the use of scientifically based reading instruction, materials, and teacher training to improve achievement in the subject in struggling schools. Since its inception, however, there have been numerous complaints 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.)

Dogged by Complaints

Publishers and others in the field have also protested what they see as the department’s endorsement of some products and prohibition on others. Officials with Success for All, a nationally popular reading program based in Baltimore, 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.

Questions for the GAO

In a Sept. 23 letter to the Government Accountability Office, the top-ranking Republican and Democratic members of the Senate education committee asked the congressional watchdog agency to address a number of questions about the Reading First program.

• What requirements related to curriculum and scientifically based research does the U.S. Department of Education require from states and other grantees as a condition for receiving Reading First grant funds?

• What guidance, particularly related to curriculum and technical assistance, does the Department of Education provide to states and other grantees to help them develop successful grant proponents for implementing Reading First programs?

• How does the Deparment of Education select and oversee consultants and contractors that provide technical assistance and other services to Reading First grantees?

SOURCE: Office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

All three contend that they lost clients who were told that the groups’ programs do not fit Reading First requirements.

Researchers and consultants are also alleged to have promoted products in which they have a financial stake or similar interest.

Such complaints have dogged the program since its official unveiling in 2002, when state officials noted that the materials and advice they received at reading academies sponsored by the Education Department included references to specific reading programs and tests. The Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers has written letters to federal officials citing what it says is a lack of consistency and objectivity in the evaluations of instructional materials and assessments in state grant proposals.

Officials at the Education Department have repeatedly denied that any particular publishers or experts are preferred. The onus is on the states, they say, to set up procedures for selecting teaching materials, methods, and services.

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research organization that has released two reports on Reading First based on surveys of state directors, said the impending GAO investigation was a serious step.

“It is a very significant request, because it is bipartisan and signed on by most senior members of the committee,” said Mr. Jennings, a former top education aide to House Democrats. “It asks some serious questions. … There’s weight behind it.”

Problems Doubted

An investigation by the GAO is more significant than the review undertaken by the inspector general, Mr. Jennings said, because the congressional agency is detached from the executive branch, and the GAO’s head, the comptroller general, is viewed as having greater independence in conducting such inquiries. GAO studies generally review actions and policies, he added, and not the roles of individuals or groups.

“The final report is usually a document that creates pressure on the administration to clean something up if there are problems,” Mr. Jennings said.

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 last 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,” Mr. Sweet added.

At least one complainant praised the action requested by Sens. Enzi and Kennedy.

“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.”

Will It Matter?

Others in the field said they welcome the inquiry to help mitigate the continuing controversy over the Bush administration’s flagship reading initiative for which Congress authorized $6 billion over six years.

“There have been a lot of questions raised [about Reading First], and it’s really important to get these things resolved as quickly as possible,” said Richard Long, the director of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association, referring to the complaints. “Finding out what’s fact and what’s urban legend will help.”

But Cindy Cupp, who has charged that Georgia and federal consultants unfairly shut out the reading texts she publishes from the competition for Reading First funds in that state, said she wonders if such an investigation will have any immediate impact. It won’t undo the damage to publishers whose products are not perceived as preferred, she said, and it will not alleviate the pressure on teachers to limit their instructional approaches, even if they do not meet all students’ needs.

“Educators in all the states now know what reading programs and [which] test must be used to get the Reading First money,” she said. “There will be 4 billion more dollars spent [on them], ... but my hope is that as a result of these investigations, Congress will tighten regulations so that all outsourced researchers and consultants hired to implement future federal programs are held to federal employee conflict-of- interest laws.”

Vol. 25, Issue 07, Pages 1,22

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