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Published in Print: May 2, 2007, as Spellings Called to Testify About ‘Reading First’ Complaints

Spellings Called to Testify About ‘Reading First’ Complaints

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Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has agreed to testify before the House education committee about charges of mismanagement and conflict of interest in the Reading First program, in a follow-up to a contentious April 20 hearing featuring several former and current federal officials and consultants.

The hearing scheduled for May 10 will focus on the Department of Education’s oversight of the $1 billion-a-year initiative to improve reading achievement in disadvantaged schools, and the steps being taken to prevent conflicts of interest in Reading First and other federal programs, according to a letter to Ms. Spellings from Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif. She will also be asked questions about the department’s management of federal student-loan programs, the letter said.

After the first hearing, in which Rep. Miller and other House Democrats pressed former Reading First Director Christopher J. Doherty on problems with the implementation of the program, some observers wondered why the secretary and other senior department officials hadn’t also been called to testify. ("House Panel Grills Witnesses on Reading First," April 25, 2007.)

“Some of the key players who have some questions to answer weren’t there,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a former Education Department official who has suggested that Ms. Spellings “micromanaged” the rollout of Reading First while serving as a top aide at the White House during President Bush’s first term. Mr. Petrilli, now a vice president for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said the committee’s grilling of Mr. Doherty was inappropriate, given that he was carrying out the program according to the wishes of the Bush administration.

Justice Dept. Scrutiny

The Education Department’s inspector general has referred some of the information gathered in a lengthy audit of the program to federal law-enforcement officials for further review. Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. told the committee, in response to a question on whether he had recommended any criminal review, that he had made “referrals to the Department of Justice.”

Financial Benefits

Three former and current University of Oregon researchers who served as advisers to the Reading First program reported at a House hearing that they received significant profits from materials they developed that are now widely used in schools receiving the federal grant funding.

ROLAND H. GOOD III
• Developer, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS
• University of Oregon professor
• Member of the advisory panel that evaluated assessments for use in Reading First schools
• DIBELS has yielded more than $1 million in profits for his company, of which he has a 50 percent share

EDWARD J. KAME’ENUI
• Former director, Western Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center
• Member of the assessment panel that reviewed tests for use in Reading First schools
• Now commissioner of the National Center for Special Education Research at the U.S. Department of Education
• Co-author of Early Reading Intervention, a supplemental textbook used in some Reading First schools, which has earned him some $150,000 annually over the past several years

DEBORAH C. SIMMONS
• Adviser to the Education Department on Reading First
• Member of the assessment panel that reviewed tests for use in participating schools
• Texas A&M University professor
• Co-author of Early Reading Intervention, which has earned her some $150,000 annually over the past several years

He declined to elaborate to reporters at the end of last month’s hearing, but Mr. Doherty told reporters that the Justice Department had interviewed him last fall but has not followed up since.

The hearing, which ran more than four hours, mostly repeated allegations highlighted in a series of inspector general’s reports beginning last fall. They concluded that Mr. Doherty and other federal officials and consultants appeared to have favored the use of some commercial texts and assessments over others for Reading First and may have overstepped their authority in directing states in curriculum choices for participating schools. ("Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’," Oct. 4, 2006.)

Some new information about the financial ties between the program’s core advisers and several commercial products also emerged during the hearing.

Edward J. Kame’enui, who is on leave from the University of Oregon while he directs the Education Department’s National Center for Special Education Research, reported that he has earned about $150,000 in annual royalties from an early-reading-intervention program. Deborah C. Simmons, a co-author on that text, reported similar earnings.

Roland H. Good III, who developed the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, reported that he has earned more than $500,000 from sales of the assessment, which is used in a majority of Reading First schools. A panel the three experts served on gave DIBELS a positive review, but Mr. Good said he and his University of Oregon colleagues did not participate in the evaluation.

Mr. Good noted that DIBELS is available free to schools on the Internet. But under questioning from committee members, he acknowledged that many schools purchase neatly packaged versions of the test or spend money on hand-held computers with DIBELS software, all of which add profits to his testing company.

Following the Law

A leading critic of the department’s handling of Reading First charged that Mr. Good’s attempts to discount his earnings made from DIBELS were disingenuous.

“He outlined 12 different ways that he wasn’t making money off DIBELS, until the committee asked the question just the right way, and we find out that in fact it’s making a lot of money,” said Robert E. Slavin, a co-founder of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation, whose complaints helped launch the probe.

Mr. Doherty, who said he had not profited personally from Reading First, maintained under intense questioning that he and his colleagues followed the law in directing states to choose only those programs and tests that he and grant reviewers had judged would meet the program’s strict requirements for being research-based.

“We really implemented the program the way it was intended,” Mr. Doherty said in an interview after the hearing. “This hearing was very unrepresentative of the very successful Reading First program.”

Vol. 26, Issue 35, Page 21

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