Reading & Literacy

Complaint Filed Against Reading Initiative

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 21, 2005 4 min read

The Success for All Foundation has asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the $1 billion-a-year federal Reading First program for alleged mismanagement and seeming preferential treatment of a handful of consultants and products.

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“We believe that the federal government enabled a small group of individuals to direct significant federal resources to a small group of companies, thus both restricting our ability to trade and subverting the explicit intent and language of the Reading First statute,” the complaint submitted May 27 by Success for All founder Robert E. Slavin says.

While Mr. Slavin calls the Reading First legislation “sound” and “well intentioned,” he contends in the complaint that “the program itself has been badly mismanaged, and as a result, many fewer children are likely to experience reading success.”

Success for All, developed in 1987, is aimed at preventing and remedying reading problems in the early grades through a schoolwide improvement approach. It is used in 1,100 schools in 46 states.

Research-Based

The nonprofit program has perhaps the most extensive research base of any reading program, with more than 50 experimental-control studies. Last month, a federal study found it to be effective in raising reading achievement. (“Long-Awaited Study Shows ‘Success for All’ Gains,” May 11, 2005.)

Despite such scientific evidence—which is a core tenet of the Reading First legislation—Success for All, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has struggled to maintain its hold in schools that applied for federal reading grants under the 3-year-old initiative. While 200 schools signed on in 2001—the year before the first distribution of Reading First money—and the foundation added staff members to support those schools, participation has slipped by several hundred schools over the last couple of years. Only five Reading First schools are new to the Success for All program.

Mr. Slavin said that school officials around the country have told him they felt pressure from state officials and federal reviewers to drop Success for All in order to qualify for Reading First funds, even though the legislation does not require or prohibit any specific texts. The foundation has had to lay off some 300 staff members since Reading First took effect.

The complaint to the inspector general charges that the Reading First program, which is planning to distribute $6 billion over six years, has promoted a narrow definition of “scientifically based research,” encourages the use of basal textbooks by big publishers, requires an unscientific and untested instructional model, and relies on the work of consultants with ties to the commercial products that are being used by participating schools and districts.

“We really believe in what we are doing, and we believe in the power of research to really produce change in reading instruction,” Mr. Slavin said in an interview here last week. “[Reading First] is disassembling, tearing down, not only our program but that concept.”

Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, would not comment on the complaint.

Criticism Widespread

The International Reading Association, based in Newark-Del., and the Washington-based Association of American Publishers have received numerous complaints similar to those outlined in the one submitted to the inspector general.

In 2002, for example, the AAP complained to federal education officials of a widespread perception that states selecting certain reading programs would be more likely to win the grants. Then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige issued a statement saying no approved list of programs or products existed. But the complaints from publishers and educators have continued.

“The way the implementation proceeded, it was, in fact, a boon for publishers, and a select group of publishers, it seems,” said IRA President Richard A. Allington. He has been critical of what he sees as conflicts of interest in the use of advisers in the Reading First program who also earn royalties on the reading texts, assessments, and consulting work that participating schools have used. (“Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

Other experts agree that the federal government seems to favor a small group of scholars. But it is unclear if those experts have been singled out by federal officials or if they’ve simply “gotten their way through persistence,” G. Michael Pressley, a professor of education at Michigan State University and a former editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology, wrote last week in an e-mail to Education Week.

Those experts generally “did their job well and fairly” in working with states and schools in Reading First and recused themselves from conversations about the products they had a hand in devising, he added. Some individuals, however, “did lobby hard for particular products, including ones that they had some connection to,” Mr. Pressley maintained.

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