Education Opinion

Fordham Revives Reading First Debate, SFA’s Slavin Replies (Stern Responds)

March 11, 2008 5 min read
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I’ve been following the Reading First scandal on this blog, edbizbuzz (see here), and my podcast School Improvement Industry Week Online (for example here). On March 5, Fordham reopened the matter with the publication of New York’s right of center Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern’s extended essay, Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First. I’ll offer my comments on that when I can.

On March 10, Fordham held a press conference outside the Department of Education’s entrance, asking for a reopening of the Reading First investigation. Among other things Fordham alleges that whistle-blower and Success for All co-founder Bob “Slavin demanded that Reading First’s budget be substantially cut--which (House Appropriations committee chair and education subcomittee chair Congressman David) Obey did.” Fordham President Chester Finn asked for a full disclosure of the relationship between the two men.

Below, I’ve copied a letter of March 7 sent by Slavin to Finn on Stern’s work.

(By way of full disclosure, Success for All was a New American Schools Design Team while I worked there, received a loan from the Education Entrepreneurs Fund while I was its President, and holds a $1500 site license to my firm’s RFP service. K-12Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. Readers of edbizbuzz and listeners of SIIW Online, know that my editorial position has been sympathetic to SFA.)

Dear Checker:

I just read “Too Good to Last”. I hope you will print my response to it, below, in the Gadfly.

“Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First,” by Sol Stern, is a highly selective and misleading recounting of the Reading First. It is correct in two key respects: that the adoption by Congress of a loose definition of “based on scientifically based research” was a key reason for the problems of Reading First, and that Chris Doherty was probably just doing what he was told to by his superiors. However, Stern unaccountably leaves out the most important elements of the scandal.

1. Stern says nothing about the fact, prominently reported by the Inspector General (IG) and the press, that leaders of the Reading First Technical Assistance Centers, Edward Kame’enui, Deborah Simmons, and Sharon Vaughn, were also authors of the Scott Foresman basal text and authors of Voyager Passport, and yet were making key decisions from the outset that favored basal textbooks and Voyager Passport.

2. Stern says nothing about the fact, reported by the IG, that in the early Reading First Academies, when state leaders were learning how Reading First would operate, they were exposed to speakers representing only Direct Instruction and selected basal textbooks, and were given notebooks full of information on DIBELS and no other assessment.

3. Stern says nothing about the fact, reported by the IG and the press, that the Simmons & Kame’enui “Consumer’s Guide,” based in detail on elements of Direct Instruction, was given by Department officials as the de facto official criterion for “scientifically based research”. The Oregon review of reading programs, based on the guide and carried out in part by University of Oregon researchers who were authors of one of the programs, was frequently recommended by the Department as a list of programs to be used under Reading First.

4. Stern fails to mention how DIBELS became the de facto national assessment of Reading First in most states, enriching Roland Good and the University of Oregon, one of the Technical Assistance Centers. Under Department funding, Good and Oregon colleagues reviewed a variety of reading measures and gave positive ratings to DIBELS.

5. Stern claims that schools avoided Success for All (SFA) just because it was too expensive. Yet the Abt Associates’ Interim Report on Reading First found that Title I schools who did not receive Reading First were more likely to use SFA than were Reading First schools, who received an average of $138,000 per year. It’s difficult to see how money could be the limitation when the schools with more money were less likely to use SFA. We have a file drawer full of anguished reports from Success for All schools and potential SFA schools all over the U.S. pressured by state or local Reading First officials to avoid SFA because it was inconsistent with Reading First. Many schools refused Reading First funding to adopt or keep Success for All. If the Department did not directly tell state officials to exclude SFA, they did not correct the national perception that SFA did not fit in Reading First.

6. Stern repeatedly states that Reid Lyon and the Department wanted to focus on research-proven, not just research-based programs, which would have meant Direct Instruction and Success for All, but were thwarted in this by Congress. Yet if this were true, the Department had many opportunities to highlight research-proven programs or at least make certain that they were not discriminated against. It never did so, and in fact highlighted programs without any evidence of effectiveness at the Reading First Academies, in technical assistance activies, in the reviews of state applications, and in many other venues. Oklahoma’s RF application was turned down twice because they proposed to use research-proven programs, as one among many examples.

7. I did not ask Obey to cut Reading First. Any statement to this effect is completely inaccurate. In talking with various congressional staffers, I advocated continuing Reading First but reforming it to return it to its original purpose.

Robert Slavin

Johns Hopkins University and University of York

Stern responds to Slavin here.

More from Edbizbuzz and SIIW Online on the Reading First Investigations:

SIIW Online:

Reading First Offers Investors A Rare Political Opportunity

Reading First Management Mess is Worse Than One Messed-Up Manager

Two Editorials on Reading First: A New Path?: Corporate Culture, Institutional Change, and the Reading First Scandal;Dead End or New Path, Slavin’s Charges Lead to a Fork In The Road


Senate Reading First Report Offers a Glimpse into Old v. New Education Industry

Department of Education Defends the Reading First Program

Reading First Investigations Shine Light on RMC - And the Challenge Facing Lab Contractors

“Political Science": Title I Online Discusses Email Linking Reid Lyon, Major Publishers and Spellings at the White House

Reading First: “Contractor evaluating own reading program”

Can There Be A School Improvement Industry?: nObservations on Friday’s Reading First Hearing

Does Research Matter? Reading Recovery, Reading Wars, Reading First and the Market for Reading Programs

Why Is Edward Kame’ ennui Still Working for the Taxpayers?

Checker Finn Explains Why Investing in K-12 Should Be Like Investing In Russian Oil

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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