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Federal Review of Reading First Identifies Serious Problems

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A long-awaited inspection of the federal Reading First program found today that federal education officials may have steered the grant-application process for the $1 billion-a-year initiative to ensure that particular reading programs and instructional approaches were widely used by participating schools, and that others were essentially shut out.

The final inspection report by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general’s office concluded that department officials may have intended to “stack” the panels of grant reviewers with those who favored a particular teaching methodology. Moreover, the department’s method of screening the panelists for conflicts of interest—particularly panelists with financial connections to commercial publishers—was ineffective. Requirements for receiving grants under the program were expanded beyond what the law required, forcing some states to revise their applications several times to meet them, the audit found.

Federal education officials may also have overstepped provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act that prohibit them from influencing or dictating the curriculum, assessments, or instructional approaches used by schools or districts. Indeed, the Education Department “intervened to influence a state’s selection of reading programs, and … to influence reading programs being used by local educational agencies after the application process was completed,” the audit said.

The findings of the report—released on the inspector general’s Web site on Sept. 22—generally correspond with charges leveled over the last several years by critics of the program, as well as by many reading experts and state officials. The 4½-year-old program is designed to improve reading instruction in the nation’s most disadvantaged schools through the use of research-based methods.

Education Week has reported over the last three years many of the concerns among researchers and educators that the Reading First program favored only a handful of consultants and commercial products, and the potential financial conflicts between them. In an extensive analysis of documents and email correspondence obtained through state and federal open records requests, as well as interviews with state officials, Education Week reported last September a pattern of behavior that suggested that federal employees and their representatives directed or even pressured states to choose specific assessments, consultants, and certain kinds of texts as conditions for getting funding under Reading First. ("States Pressed to Refashion Reading First Grant Designs," Sept. 7, 2005.)

The Success for All Foundation in Baltimore filed such complaints in June 2005. Complaints from a publisher and a reading organization were filed later that year. The Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers had also complained to the Education Department that the program favored some commercial texts and assessments over others.

Investigators found that Reading First Director Christopher J. Doherty nominated panelists with professional connections to the Reading Mastery instructional program associated with the direct instruction teaching method. Mr. Doherty had spent part of his career promoting the use of the program prior to joining the department in 2001 under the Bush administration. Those panelists reviewed 23 Reading First state applications.

“The Reading First director took direct action to ensure that a particular approach to reading instruction was represented on the expert review panel,” the report states.

Mr. Doherty has announced he will be leaving his position with the department Oct. 1 for work in the private sector. He could not be reached for comment on Sept. 22.

Sandi Jacobs, a senior education program specialist who has helped oversee the Reading First program, has been reassigned within the department, according to department spokesman Chad Colby.

In all, six of the 16 panelists assigned to review state applications had “significant professional connections” to commercial reading programs, the audit said. But the department failed to identify those connections in its screening of the applicants for potential conflicts of interest.

The inspector general’s office is still conducting five other audits related to Reading First, including reviews of the grant application process and implementation of the program in several states. The reports could be completed by the end of the year, according to Mary Mitchelson, who serves as counsel to the inspector general.

In a statement, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that some of the actions described in the report “reflect individual mistakes” by federal employees.” She added that she is “moving swiftly to enact all of the inspector general’s recommendations.”

Still, in an Aug. 29 letter responding to a draft of the report, the secretary said, “Reading First is one of the best tools we have to achieve the NCLB goal of bringing every student in America up to grade level in reading and math by 2014.”

Exchange of E-Mail

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., urged Republican members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee to hold hearings on the audit’s findings. He also called for Education Department officials involved in the questioned actions to be fired.

“This was not an accident,” Rep. Miller said in a statement. He was among a bipartisan group in Congress last fall to initiate a separate investigation into the program by the Government Accountability Office. That report is due out in January.

“This was a concerted effort to corrupt the process on behalf of partisan supporters, and taxpayers and schoolchildren are the ones who got harmed by it,” said Rep. Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee.

Jady Johnson, the executive director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, based in Columbus, Ohio, said the audit “validates all our complaints.”

The council promotes an intensive one-on-one tutoring program for struggling readers. Ms. Johnson said hundreds of schools have dropped out of the program, a trend she attributes to the message sent by federal officials that the council’s program was not approved. Ms. Johnson said the council will seek reparations from the Education Department for the clients it lost.

The 34-page audit report is based on information gathered through interviews with state and federal officials, reviews of documents, and a search of e-mails between department employees and consultants.

Some of the e-mail exchanges between Mr. Doherty and other Education Department staff members suggest his preference for promoting the direct instruction method and discouraging the use of Reading Recovery and other programs that did not align with the strict, phonics-based instructional approach.

There were also potential conflicts of interest among members of an assessment committee that reviewed tests suitable for use in Reading First schools. Five of the assessments reviewed by the committee were developed by committee members. E-mail exchanges between Mr. Doherty and Edward J. Kame’enui, the chairman of the committee and who was affiliated with an assessment program that received a favorable review, suggested that the two should work together to ensure the report would be used to guide the review of Reading First applications. That program, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, has become the dominant reading test for Reading First schools nationwide.

Mr. Kame’enui, who was a professor of education at the University of Oregon, now directs the Education Department’s National Center for Special Education Research.

Robert Slavin, the founder and president of the Success for All Foundation, said the findings corroborate the complaints he’s raised with the department over the last several years. He said he is discouraged that the Education Department did not act on these concerns when they were first raised.

“We had this information about what was happening very early on” Mr. Slavin said. “It’s not like they didn’t know it was happening.”

“This is a nice vindication,” he added, “but it’s only symbolic and of no lasting value if some behavior and policy doesn’t significantly change.”

Both Rep. Miller and the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del., asked the U.S. Department of Justice on Sept. 25 to open a criminal investigation of the Reading First program.

Vol. 26, Issue 05

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