Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Bias in Reading Program: ‘It Just Did Not Happen’

April 10, 2007 4 min read
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To the Editor:

Richard A. Allington is quoted in the March 14, 2007, article “‘Reading First’ Contractor Neglected Bias Rules” as stating that e-mails between myself and Christopher J. Doherty indicated that we “knew which consultants/reviewers were ‘appropriately’ aligned with their vision of Reading First,” and that we “knew [we] should mask any overt ideological moves to name people or products.” I was never contacted by Education Week to provide a response to this inaccurate assertion.

In point of fact, I was not involved in any capacity in selecting the contractor for the Reading First program, the technical-assistance centers, or any consultants involved in the program. As mandated by Congress, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute for Literacy, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation were required to submit the names of three reviewers to the Reading First program for potential service on panels reviewing state Reading First applications. That task was carried out by the NICHD immediately following passage of the law.

These are the facts. At no time did I ever endorse a reading program at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level, or in any venue. At no time did I recommend any individuals to serve in any capacity within the technical-assistance centers. At no time did I consult with or interact with the technical-assistance centers in the conduct of their Reading First responsibilities.

What I did do was work with congressional staff members to ensure that the legislation was based on the best science available and that funding would be contingent on programs’ demonstrating evidence of effectiveness, a criterion that then was amended within the congressional negotiation process to require programs to be based on scientifically based reading research. Within this context, several criteria were established, but two were paramount: (1) any program must be comprehensive in its coverage of reading elements established by the National Reading Panel, and (2) instruction must be systematic, direct, and explicit.

The Reading First legislation required that the program be monitored for fidelity to these (and more specific) criteria. It was the responsibility of the Reading First director to ensure that federal funds were provided only for programs meeting the criteria. It was the case, whether intentionally or inadvertently, that some states and local districts indicated that they would abide by the criteria, but then selected programs that did not meet those criteria. The Reading First director then had to work with state education officials to correct this error.

A major issue that no one has addressed adequately is the tension that exists between the requirements of Reading First and the requirements for ensuring local control of education. Consider this scenario, which actually occurred several times. A state application was approved on the basis of its alignment with Reading First criteria that are established in law. The state did not have to provide a list of programs—in fact, the majority did not. What they did have to clearly articulate was how their program-selection process aligned with Reading First criteria, and how they would review applications from local districts to ensure local educational agencies met the criteria.

Federal funds were then awarded to the state, which, in turn, provided funds to local districts. In some cases, a decision was made at the state or local level to then fund and implement programs that clearly did not meet scientifically based reading-research criteria.

In a stark analogy, suppose a state or local district promised that it would implement effective instruction based on the best science to date, but in actuality implemented leeches or apricot pits to improve reading. Its decision to do this was wrong, it did not adhere to the requirements of the law, and it placed students at risk for continued reading failure. The Reading First director then would have to take corrective action and inform the state that it was out of compliance, as the Reading First legislation mandated him to do. In fact, it would be an outrage if he did not monitor compliance with the law.

The ultimate policy decision that will have to be addressed is whether local control enables a state or local educational agency to accept federal funds on the basis of meeting criteria established in law, but then eschew that promise in favor a local district’s preferences—evidence-based or not. To do that returns us to business as usual, where over 50 percent of our most vulnerable disadvantaged students fail to learn to read. And a majority of them have failed to learn to read when taught by programs based on nothing but fads, sheer guesswork, and untested philosophies and assumptions.

There has been much made about federal officials “pushing” particular programs and curricula. I am very interested in who did that. I never witnessed any direction or advice given to a state or a local district to use a particular program or curriculum. That just did not happen—at least in my presence. Indeed, the Education Department was completely transparent in stating that requirement.

In the end, the conspiracy theories will be disproved. While the investigations continue to get to that truth, it is important to begin to think about whether it is a good idea for the federal government to spend taxpayer money to fund leeches and apricot pits at the local level. If the decision is yes, the adults get what they pay for. The kids lose. Just look at how well our poorest students have fared for the last 30 years when following that plan.

G. Reid Lyon

Dallas, Texas

The writer was the chief of the child-development and -behavior branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development from 1996 to 2005. In that post, he played a leading role in developing federal policy on reading education.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as Bias in Reading Program: ‘It Just Did Not Happen’

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