Federal Federal File

Ed. Dept.’s Ethics Are Praised Amid Disclosure Conflict

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 12, 2008 1 min read

The Department of Education won a federal award last year for its “creative, innovative” ethics-training program for employees. Now the department’s inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., has also given a thumbs-up to the department’s ethics-screening procedures for contractors and peer reviewers, some of which were instituted last year after a scathing 2006 review of Reading First found potential conflicts of interest in that program.

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The positive rating aside, department officials are not pleased with one of the IG’s April 21 recommendations for clarifying the ethics procedures. The inspector general concluded that the procedures for peer reviewers are adequate for disclosing financial conflicts of interest, such as connections with commercial publishers. But the procedures do not go far enough to reveal other factors that could impair the reviewers’ objectivity, Mr. Higgins said.

The department should clarify the statement, he recommends, by requiring the disclosure of nonfinancial interests that could impair a reviewer’s objectivity, “such as significant connections to teaching methodologies and significant identification with pedagogical or philosophical viewpoints.”

In its response to a draft of the IG’s report, the Education Department agreed to clarify the procedures, but argued that the recommended language was vague and would cause confusion. Instead, the department suggested that more-general language could be added to the disclosure requirement, such as “significant relationships not otherwise covered … that could give rise to actual or apparent impaired objectivity.”

The inspector general, however, stood by his proposed language, and he suggested the department could define the terms in greater detail.

In a series of reports in 2006 and 2007, Mr. Higgins criticized the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program for using peer reviewers with close ties to specific reading programs, instructional approaches, and assessments that were eventually adopted by local grantees. The controversy led Congress to slash the program’s fiscal 2008 budget by 61 percent.

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