Voyager Sails Into Market for Reading
But Questions Abound Over Secrets of Success
The timing couldn’t have been better when Randy Best decided to get into the education publishing business. The Voyager Universal Literacy core reading program he unveiled in 2000 aligned closely with the research findings that were beginning to guide state and federal reading policy. The privately held company appeared poised to gain a foothold in the reading market just as public funding for research-based instructional materials was skyrocketing.
“We were absolutely at the right place at the right time,” Mr. Best said.
Use of the program has since spread to 1,000 districts throughout the country, and several studies, financed by Voyager, show evidence that it is helping to raise reading achievement in selected schools and districts.
But its success has drawn questions about how a reading program with no independent track record could advance so far, so fast, and whether its rise has been accelerated by its effect on student achievement or by the political influence of Mr. Best and the researchers he hired who designed the program.
“This was sheer entrepreneurship on the part of the author team and Randy Best,” said Richard A. Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and a former president of the International Reading Association.
Mr. Allington and others have charged that Voyager’s success is more about gamesmanship in getting a share of the market than in finding a solution to reading problems.
It was no accident that the Voyager design team incorporated the research study by the National Reading Panel, whose 2000 report, emphasizing the need for explicit instruction in basic reading skills, has served as the model for the $1 billion-a-year federal Reading First program. That was his intention, said Mr. Best, who has dyslexia and describes himself as a poor reader. After a string of successes in industries as varied as oil and specialty foods, he said he wanted to ensure that children didn’t struggle with learning to read the way he had.
In building his company, Voyager Expanded Learning, Mr. Best also sought the help of researchers who were advisers on the Texas Reading Initiative under then-Gov. George W. Bush and worked on studies financed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, at the National Institutes of Health.
Most of the designers of the Voyager reading program went on to play central roles in the planning and implementation of the federal Reading First initiative.
FOUNDER: Randy Best
DESIGN TEAM: Roland H. Good III, developer, with Ruth Kaminski, of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, a series of assessments of reading skills; an adviser to the U.S. Department of Education on the Reading First initiative
Current post: Associate professor of school psychology, University of Oregon
Edward J. Kame’enui, former director, Western Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center, University of Oregon
Current post: Commissioner, National Center for Special Education Research, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education
Jeri Nowakowski, executive vice president of product development, research, and marketing for Voyager Expanded Learning
Deborah C. Simmons, former associate professor at the University of Oregon, and an adviser on Reading First
Current post: Professor of educational psychology, Texas A&M University
Joseph Torgesen, director, Eastern Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center and the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University
Sharon Vaughn, former director, Central Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center, University of Texas at Austin
Current post: Professor of special education, University of Texas at Austin
The Texas initiative became a model for Mr. Bush’s federal reading program once he became president. The design team for Voyager included researchers Sharon Vaughn, Edward J. Kame’enui, Roland H. Good III, and Joseph Torgesen. Those respected scholars in reading and special education went on to become pivotal consultants to the Reading First program, a connection that some critics said might give Voyager an unfair advantage in gaining entree to Reading First schools.
Such predictions, however, have not panned out. Fewer than 5 percent of the nearly 5,600 schools in the federal grant program use Voyager, according to the U.S. Department of Education. By comparison, Open Court, enjoys as much as one-quarter of the market.
Voyager, however, has snagged federal funding through the controversial practice of congressional earmarks.
Mr. Best points out that the Voyager researchers were not as well known during the program’s design phase, and the federal push for research-based instruction had not yet taken off.
“The government came and got our people,” Mr. Best said, not the other way around. “When we started working with them, nobody had heard of them, but they had been doing research for 30 years.”
In 2003, Mr. Kame’enui, Ms. Vaughn, and Mr. Torgesen were named directors of Reading First’s three regional technical-assistance centers, which helped states and local grantees implement the federal initiative. The centers are now the subject of an investigation by the department’s inspector general into complaints that federal employees and their representatives pressured grantees to use certain texts, assessments, and consultants. ("Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First,'" Oct. 4, 2006.)
The investment paid off for Mr. Best, who sold Voyager last year for $360 million to the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based ProQuest Co.
With its scripted, skills-based lessons, ongoing assessments of students skills, and a data-management system to track results, as well as an intensive intervention component for struggling readers, Voyager fits snugly with the requirements of Reading First and several state reading-improvement plans.
But Mr. Best’s efforts to promote the use of Voyager have triggered charges that the political savvy of the 63-year-old Dallas businessman has played more of a role in the program’s proliferation than its design and research-based lessons.
From early on, Mr. Best set out to persuade state leaders to try the program. He did so in Georgia, where officials agreed to spend $1 million on a pilot using Voyager as the core reading program in the 35,000-student Richmond County district in the 2001-02 school year. Later, Mr. Best held fundraisers for the state’s 2002 gubernatorial candidates, including Linda Schrenko, a Republican, who was the state schools chief at the time of her unsuccessful bid for her party’s nomination and had a hand in the Voyager decision, and the Democratic incumbent.
Mr. Best has held fundraisers for other candidates as well, including Mr. Bush when he was running for his first term as president in 2000.
Lawmakers in Texas issued an unusual mandate in 2003, setting aside $12 million for school districts to buy a reading-intervention program to help struggling students. The legislature required that the money be used to purchase programs that passed a state review, in this case only the Voyager programs.
Some educators questioned whether Voyager was the strongest and most cost-effective choice of interventions for struggling schools, according to news reports.
Voyager Expanded Learning donated money to several candidates for state and federal office between 2000 and 2005. U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu issued a press release in 2001 touting her role in gaining so-called earmarks in federal spending for her home state of Louisiana in the omnibus appropriations bill, including $700,000 to pilot Voyager in the New Orleans public schools, and $2 million in the District of Columbia public schools.
The Democrat’s top contributor between 2002 and this year is Voyager Expanded Learning. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog group that tracks campaign finance, Voyager executives and their family members have donated nearly $30,000 to Ms. Landrieu since 2001.
Ms. Landrieu said in a statement that in her fight for education reform she has “worked with many like-minded people and groups, including Voyager Expanded Learning and the Best family.”
Mr. Best said he and Ms. Landrieu became friends after he worked with her to pilot Voyager in two school districts, and he has continued to support her.
Voyager has won earmarks in subsequent appropriations bills—an unusual occurrence for a commercial publisher, according to Tom Schatz, the president of the Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste, which advocates greater transparency in such allocations.
Earmarks typically are added late in the process at the behest of individual lawmakers. Over the past two years, Congress has approved spending bills that contained more than $2 million to pay for the Voyager program in public schools in Cleveland and several Texas districts.
In New York City, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s decision to spend $31 million to implement Voyager in the city’s low-performing schools in 2003 drew criticism from the city’s public advocate, who questioned the no-bid contract and the program’s lack of evidence of results. The purchase came after some reading experts complained that the city’s new literacy curriculum did not focus enough on basic skills.
But Mr. Best argues that Voyager executives began documenting the program’s effectiveness from very early on.
Voyager has worked hard to build credibility through studies in several districts using its built-in assessment—similar to the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, developed by Mr. Roland and now widely used in Reading First schools—as well as a number of standardized tests. The program provides intensive instruction in skills tested in the early grades, particularly alphabet knowledge and word reading. Its cost starts at $185 per student for the full core program and support services.
“The bottom line is that the program looked very, very effective compared to the control schools in terms of basic-literacy stuff that you cover in grades K-1,” said Joy Frechtling, the principal investigator for Westat, a research company in Rockville, Md., that studied Voyager’s impact on student achievement in four public schools each in Cleveland and the District of Columbia.
Students in the schools that used Voyager showed significantly greater gains on tests of word recognition and other basic skills than those in similar schools within the districts. Reading comprehension was not tested. Voyager sponsored the research, but Ms. Frechtling was given control over the study.
“Some [teachers] swore by the program and were great advocates, while other teachers were very turned off by the scripted nature of it,” she said.
Ron Klausner, the president of ProQuest Education Businesses, which oversees Voyager, said the proof in the quality or success of the program is the reorder rate.
“At the end of the day in this era of accountability, … customers’ renewing at 90 to 95 percent is a pretty impressive factoid,” Mr. Klausner said.
In Richmond, Va., for example, officials have expanded the program since it was purchased in fall 2002 to 19 of the district’s 30 elementary schools, said Yvonne Brandon, the 25,000-student district’s associate superintendent for instruction and accountability.
Best’s New Venture
Mr. Best called suggestions that the program’s value was built on his political connections “absolute nonsense.” When he started Voyager Expanded Learning in the early 1990s as an after-school program, Mr. Best said, it was unprofitable. “The market wasn’t there,” he said.
Since the sale of Voyager, Mr. Best has ventured further into the education market, starting up a teacher education program.
Again, Mr. Best turned to some prominent names in the field to design and carry out his plan. Last year, he hired G. Reid Lyon, who was the chief of the NICHD’s reading-research branch and a key adviser to President Bush. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Mike Moses, who was commissioner of education in Texas, also work for the venture.
“I started an oil and gas company one time. It was 1986, and I knew nothing about oil,” Mr. Best said. After he hired a top executive in the field, it went on to become one of the top five independent oil and gas companies in the country.
“I did absolutely nothing,” Mr. Best recalled, but pick the right product and hire the right people. “We believe that success in any venture, for profit or not profit, depends on the quality of people.”
Vol. 26, Issue 09, Pages 1, 20Published in Print: October 25, 2006, as Voyager Sails Into Market For Reading