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Published in Print: April 4, 2007, as Reading Probe Will Continue on Capitol Hill

Reading Probe Will Continue on Capitol Hill

States report program is raising achievement.

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The recent wrap-up of an intensive, two-year examination of the federal Reading First initiative is not expected to halt debate over the program.

Given the broad agreement in seven federal reports that serious problems occurred in the oversight of the program’s implementation, the findings have sparked interest on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers continue their own review of Reading First, prepare for hearings on the program this month, and consider the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The problems are offset by reports that the $1 billion-a-year program aimed at improving reading instruction and achievement in low-performing schools seems to be doing just that, and that most states are satisfied with the guidance and support they received from federal officials once their grants were approved.

The latest review of Reading First, released March 23 by the Government Accountability Office, reiterates the findings outlined in six reports by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general: Federal officials failed to safeguard against potential conflicts of interest in administering the program; and they directed some states’ and districts’ choices of reading texts and assessments, despite legal prohibitions.

But the GAO report sets a more positive tone than the critical audits by the inspector general unveiled over the past six months. It highlights the effects that Reading First, which was established under the 5-year-old NCLB law, has had on instruction in underachieving schools, based on survey responses from state officials.

Even the title, “Reading First: States Report Improvements in Reading Instruction, but Additional Procedures Would Clarify Education’s Role in Ensuring Proper Implementation by States,” emphasizes the positive.

“The report demonstrates that states were satisfied with the forms of guidance and technical assistance they received during the application and implementation process for the Reading First program,” Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon wrote in a response to the GAO.

Yet while department officials say that agency policies and procedures have been tightened as a result of the reports, and that Reading First is working well, the program and the actions of federal officials and consultants are drawing greater scrutiny from Congress.

Congressional Digging

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, promised “vigilant oversight of Reading First” in a statement responding to the GAO report. He has hired an investigator to look into allegations of bias and cronyism within the program, and is planning hearings on the subject this month.

“We must continue to investigate how Reading First was implemented to learn from past mistakes and prevent future abuses,” Mr. Miller said.

See Also

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who heads the Senate education committee, has issued formal requests for documents from at least eight individual consultants and RMC Research Corp., the Portsmouth, N.H.-based contractor that provided technical assistance to states for Reading First.

“More information is needed to determine why specific programs or assessments were eliminated under the Reading First program,” Mr. Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement.

A recent review of Reading Recovery, a one-on-one tutoring program that federal officials worked to shut out of Reading First, raised new questions among observers and Reading Recovery supporters about how those officials determined whether commercial materials were suitable for use in participating schools. The review by the federal What Works Clearinghouse found positive effects for the program on students’ reading achievement. Yet several states were told they could not include Reading Recovery in their Reading First proposals because it did not, in the opinion of grant reviewers or federal officials, meet the requirements for scientifically based materials.

Both the IG reports and a review of e-mail documents by Education Week show that some federal officials worked to prevent states from using Reading Recovery in their Reading First plans. ("Easing Rules Over Schools Gains Favor," Feb. 21, 2007.)

In 2005, the Reading Recovery Council of North America was one of three vendors to register complaints that led to the reviews by the Education Department’s inspector general and the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress. The Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation also complained, citing the loss of clients among Reading First schools despite significant evidence that the group’s whole-school-reform program has been effective.

‘Proven and Tested’

Success for All founder Robert E. Slavin is among the educators, researchers, and lawmakers who have called for a clarification of the legal requirements for scientifically based instruction.

“Given the timing of the reports [after the program has been implemented], there’s not a great deal to do about the current program,” Mr. Slavin said last week. “My great hope is that there will be language in the [NCLB] reauthorization that will specify in detail what it means to be research-proven.”

Some members of Congress are looking for such an explanation as well.

Department Safeguards

The U.S. Department of Education says it has taken action on all of the recommendations of its inspector general to ensure that department employees and representatives understand proper procedures and legal boundaries related to the Reading First program.

RECOMMENDATION: Evaluate the office of elementary and secondary education’s processes for assessing potential conflicts of interest when a panel review process is used and make improvements.

ACTION: The office of the general counsel issued guidelines to program managers to help offices avoid conflicts of interest, and to help ensure a fair, impartial, objective, and transparent peer-review process.

RECOMMENDATION: Review all Reading First applications to determine whether all criteria for funding have been met.

ACTION: Review completed, and some additional work on a few state applications was recommended.

RECOMMENDATION: Develop guidance on the prohibitions against federal officials’ mandating or directing state and local curriculum and assessment decisions.

ACTION: Officials’ memoranda to program managers reminding them of the importance of impartiality and outlining steps for ensuring that curriculum is not directed, controlled, or endorsed.

RECOMMENDATION: Ensure that future programs, including those modeled after Reading First, have internal controls in place to prevent similar problems.

ACTION: The office of general counsel will work with department staff members to provide annual training on the issues raised by the Reading First audits.

“The No Child Left Behind Act refers to scientifically based programs over 100 times,” said Mark Hayes, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., who was one of a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers to request the GAO audit. “The senator would like to see a strengthening of that definition and a return to the original intent of the law, that we’re using programs because they are proven and tested.”

Many of the issues surrounding Reading First have already been addressed, said Amanda L. Farris, a deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

The GAO report includes a lengthy chart submitted by the Education Department summarizing the steps officials have taken to address the inspector general’s recommendations.

“This has been more of a process question for those of us at the department who are working on Reading First. It’s a conversation that is very focused on Washington, D.C.,” said Ms. Farris. “At the state level, in most cases, the programs continue to be strong, and it continues to be good for kids.”

State officials agree, according to the GAO, which conducted a Web-based survey of each state and the District of Columbia, in-depth interviews with officials in 12 states, and visits to four. According to the survey results, 69 percent of the respondents reported “great or very great improvement in reading instruction,” while 80 percent said teacher professional development had improved significantly.

Most of the hard data on student achievement under Reading First, however, have not yet been compiled. An independent review of test scores for Reading First schools is due out later this year. But the GAO found that the Education Department’s ambitious plan for monitoring each state’s implementation of the program was muddled by a lack of written procedures. Ultimately, “states did not always understand monitoring procedures, timelines, and expectations for taking corrective actions,” the GAO report says.

Although the problems with the program and the federal reviews have cast a negative light on Reading First, Ms. Farris said the department has tried to use the information to improve its programs.

“We would rather that all of this would not have happened,” she said, referring to the problems with the program and the subsequent reviews. “But we’ve tried to make it as productive an experience as we can, and we continue to want to do everything we can to improve [Reading First], because we know it produces better outcomes for kids.”

Vol. 26, Issue 31, Pages 1,17

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