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'Reading First' Contractor Neglected Bias Rules

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A federal contractor overseeing states’ implementation of the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program did not take appropriate steps to prevent conflict of interest among its staff members and subcontractors, and may have inappropriately guided at least two states toward adopting a specific reading assessment, a federal report concludes.

The RMC Research Corp., the primary contractor for the reading initiative, did not include the required conflict-of-interest clause in agreements with subcontractors, a number of whom had ties to commercial publishers and products. Moreover, RMC representatives inappropriately advised states to use product reviews conducted by centers associated with Reading First consultants to inform their decisions about textbooks, fueling perceptions that a federally approved list of commercial products existed.

The last of six reports on Reading First by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general, released March 7, supports some of the charges levied by critics of the program’s implementation.

Complaints about potential conflict of interest among Reading First consultants have dogged the program since its rollout in 2002. Federal officials initially dismissed the grievances as the sour grapes of vendors that failed to garner new business from participating schools and districts. In 2005, however, after the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office began investigating the complaints, the Education Department directed RMC to institute procedures for addressing potential conflicts among its subcontractors.

Some researchers question why the department did not act more quickly to provide closer oversight of the Reading First contracts totaling some $40 million.

“The e-mails between [the former Reading First director and other federal officials] illustrate that at least these two people knew which consultants/reviewers were ‘appropriately’ aligned with their vision of Reading First,” Richard A. Allington, a reading researcher and past president of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association wrote in an e-mail. “And they knew they should mask any overt ideological moves to name people or products (as evidenced by their e-mails to each other on this very topic). Are we to believe that [they] didn’t know about the conflict of interest with the center directors and consultants?”

Mr. Allington was referring to e-mails between former federal Reading First Director Christopher J. Doherty and G. Reid Lyon, the former chief of the reading research branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, that Education Week recently revealed in a story. ("E-Mails Reveal Federal Reach Over Reading," Feb. 21, 2007.)

U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said in a March 8 press release that the report confirms “clear instances of bias.”

Mr. Kennedy, D-Mass., has issued a formal request for documents from more than half a dozen of the consultants.

The request asks for the release of correspondence, contracts, and agreements related to Reading First between the consultants, RMC, the White House, the Education Department, and other federal entities.

Product Affiliations

The Portsmouth, N.H.-based RMC received three Reading First contracts, the first two—worth about $3.7 million—for providing early technical assistance to states in drafting and revising their grant proposals. The third, worth $37 million over five years, went toward the creation of the national technical-assistance center for Reading First. The research and consulting firm subcontracted with three universities—Florida State University in Tallahassee, the University of Oregon in Eugene, and the University of Texas at Austin—to house regional centers for assisting the states in implementing their approved plans.

The directors of those centers had served as advisers to the Education Department on the rollout of Reading First. Those researchers—Edward J. Kame’enui, Joseph Torgesen, and Sharon Vaughn—each had contracts with publishers while they were advising states in selecting programs and assessments for use in participating schools.

“We identified two instances in which RMC may have provided inappropriate assistance to [states] while providing [technical assistance],” the report says. “We found that RMC did not consider whether the proposed technical-assistance providers had affiliations with reading-related products or publishers of reading programs, or were authors of reading programs or materials.”

Other consultants and grant reviewers were associated with the centers as well. In at least two states, officials complained that an RMC consultant who was a paid trainer for the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, was pressuring them to adopt that assessment, the report says. Mr. Doherty discussed the complaints with an RMC official, stating that “one of the knocks is that he overly pushes DIBELS.” The test series, created by researchers at the University of Oregon, was eventually adopted by a majority of states for use in participating districts.

Perceptions that there were approved texts for the program may have resulted from other advice states received from RMC consultants, according to the inspector general. Several states, for example, were referred to online textbook reviews conducted by the Oregon Reading First Center at the University of Oregon and the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State. Some states viewed the positive reviews given to some commercial programs as an endorsement for Reading First, even though the analyses were intended only for use in those states. The Oregon Web site also appeared to represent the technical-assistance center there and provided a link to information about DIBELS, further fueling the perception that the information was a federal endorsement, the report concludes.

“Referring [states] to the program reviews appears to have contributed to the misconception that these reading programs were on a list of programs ‘approved’ by the department,” the IG notes.

‘Damage Is Done’

Critics of the implementation process say the series of reports raise questions about whether the problems in the program were mistakes or if the heavy reliance on contractors was to avoid accountability.

“Everyone should be concerned about the possibility that the department used RMC’s consultant status to circumvent conflict-of-interest laws,” contended Jady Johnson, the president of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, whose one-on-one tutoring program was largely rejected under Reading First. The Worthington, Ohio-based council was one of three organizations whose complaints about the management of the program helped launch the federal probe. “Everyone should question whether the entire Reading First program had been structured to promote certain programs.”

In a statement, the Education Department said, "the department expects to issue a final program determination letter after reviewing the IG’s final audit report and any comments received from RMC."

In its response to the report, the RMC Corp. acknowledged that it “was remiss” in not attending to the conflict-of-interest clause for its subcontracts and that the organization had since revised its subcontracts to incorporate the clause and require its current staff members and consultants to disclose any potential conflicts.

Some observers, however, say those measures should have taken place long ago.

“The pattern across all the inspector general’s reports is a recurring theme of conflict of interest,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association. “That perception harms people’s confidence in the ethical nature of the program.”

While the inspector general makes recommendations for preventing similar problems in the future, the audit does not levy any consequences for the errors, according to Robert E. Slavin, the founder of the Success for All Foundation in Baltimore, and another of the complainants.

Mr. Slavin and Ms. Johnson both claim that their programs have lost significant numbers of participating schools as a result of the contractors’ errors.

“They just have to promise to be good in the future,” Mr. Slavin said. “The damage is done.”

Vol. 26

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