Reading & Literacy

E-Mails Reveal Federal Reach Over Reading

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 20, 2007 18 min read
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The Reading First initiative’s rigorous requirements have earned it a reputation as the most prescriptive federal grant program in education. Now, an Education Week review of hundreds of e-mail exchanges details a pattern of federal interference that skirted legal prohibitions.

In the midst of carrying out the $1 billion-a-year program, which is part of the No Child Left Behind Act, federal officials:

• Worked to undermine the literacy plan of the nation’s largest school system;

• Pressured several states to reject certain reading programs and assessments that were initially approved under their Reading First plans;

• Rallied influential politicians, political advisers, and appointees to ensure that state schools chiefs stayed on track with program mandates; and

• Pressed one state superintendent to withdraw grant funding from a district that demoted a principal in a participating school.

    In regular e-mail discussions, Christopher J. Doherty, the Reading First director at the U.S. Department of Education until last September, and G. Reid Lyon, a branch chief at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development until June 2005 and an influential adviser to the initiative, closely monitored states’ progress in applying for Reading First money, in issuing subgrants to districts, and in complying with the law’s provisions for scientifically based instruction. They also worked out strategies for intervening where they deemed more federal control was warranted.

    “We ding people all the time in Reading First,” Mr. Doherty wrote in March 2005, after he pressured Illinois education leaders to pull funding from a district. “We don’t like to do it, of course, but we do it because otherwise RF turns to crap and means nothing, just another funding stream to do whatever it is you were going to do anyway.”

    Some former federal officials and supporters of the program argue that such oversight was essential to its success, but a number of state and local officials took offense and questioned whether Reading First staff members exceeded their authority. Some policy experts say they came close to doing so.

    “That’s an unprecedented level of interference,” said Christopher T. Cross, a policy consultant for Cross & Joftus LLC in Danville, Calif. Mr. Cross helped write the ban against federal intervention in curriculum and instruction into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1970s and later served as an assistant secretary in the Education Department under President George H.W. Bush.

    The language was left in when the law was reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. It states that federal employees are prohibited from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system.”

    “The intention when that language was put into the statute,” Mr. Cross said, “was that these were decisions that had to be made at the local level in connection with local standards. I think there’s no question what went on [in Reading First] is right on the border of crossing the line on that provision.”

    Showdown in Rockford

    A highly critical report issued by the Education Department’s inspector general last fall concluded that federal officials may have overstepped their authority in crafting the strict requirements. Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. also said those officials seemed to favor a particular instructional method while discrediting others. (“Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

    The crass and sometimes vulgar e-mail exchanges that underpinned the inspector general’s findings stunned many educators and policymakers. The findings led to a shakeup in the department’s Reading First office.

    But advocates of the program, and allies of Mr. Doherty, protested that the report was overblown and had unfairly selected sensational e-mails to paint a dedicated and effective employee as a rogue operator within the department. The e-mail record, however, shows Mr. Doherty’s aggressive and arrogant tone repeated in messages to Mr. Lyon and other colleagues.

    The e-mails were obtained by Education Week and a complainant in a case against the Department of Education through the Freedom of Information Act.

    E-mail Excerpts

    I am going to review all my [Indiana] files on Monday. Having done no subgrants yet, it may be hard to make something stick, but if they are trying to go soft with the requirements, they are just as good a candidate as any other state to show them/the rest that RF is NOT just another federal reading program that can be flouted.
    —Reading First Director Christopher J. Doherty to G. Reid Lyon, a branch chief for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, citing concerns that Indiana officials may not be taking Reading First requirements seriously enough, March 2, 2003

    Monitoring will be key as usual. They will game the system if they can. They think they have already done everything and are getting the RF bucks to shine shit. How strong should I be with respect to guidance at the highest state level. I will meet with Gov. [Kathleen] Sebelius in the morning. How detailed should I be with respect to the shortcomings.
    —Mr. Lyon to Mr. Doherty regarding Kansas’ Reading First program, April 16, 2003

    I have been in good, regular touch with Everett Barnes, pres. Of RMC Research Corp., which does both [Reading First Technical Assistance] and some [Comprehensive] Center work, too re: the Shaywitz report and I am very happy to learn that you find it scathing and clear in its conclusions/recommendations. Not happy that NYC is doing something this bad, of course, just glad that the report is not the usual equivocating ‘On the one hand,..but on the other…’ kind of stuff.…this is not a ‘dueling experts’ kind of thing. This has the Flat Earth Society on one side and people who own/understand globes on the other.
    —Mr. Doherty to Mr. Lyon, referring to a review of New York City’s literacy plan, Aug. 29, 2003

    Confidentially: …Well, I spoke to [a New Jersey official] with a roomful of others on their end and they are HALTING the funding of Rigby and, while we were at it, Wright Group. They STOPPED the districts who wanted to use those programs. We won in Maine, we won in New Jersey. Morale is sky high across the country. State plans have gone from–on average–crap, to each one being–at least on paper–strong and aligned with [scientifically based reading research], and we have lots of monitoring muscle to flex and [technical assistance] brains to provide. Strong law, great funding, solid, guiding science. We are winning.
    —Mr. Doherty to Mr. Lyon, in reference to the rejection of reading textbooks that they viewed as not meeting federal requirements, Sept. 5, 2003

    Just got off the phone (again) with Randy Dunn. He confirms that [Illinois] has frozen Rockford’s RF remainder of $638,633 and we are working on finalizing this together. Please, close hold. There are/will be be consequences for Rockford’s idiocy. And kids, unfortunately, are paying for the decisions of adults, again.
    —Mr. Doherty to Mr. Lyon, Feb. 15, 2005

    SOURCE: National Institutes of Health

    Some state and local officials said they felt bullied by Mr. Doherty. One such case played out in Rockford, Ill., in early 2005, after federal officials received e-mail messages about a principal at a Reading First school there. The principal was reassigned after battling with district officials over reading instruction at Lewis Lemon Elementary School. The new superintendent, Dennis Thompson, and district director of instruction Martha Hayes wanted the school to supplement its direct-instruction model with more varied reading selections and writing activities after determining that students weren’t being prepared for the more rigorous coursework of the later grades.

    The principal received help from a local supporter of the National Right to Read Foundation, which promotes phonics instruction. Robert W. Sweet Jr., then an influential senior analyst with the education committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and the founder of the NRRF, asked Mr. Lyon to look into the matter. Mr. Lyon corresponded with Mr. Doherty, a direct-instruction advocate, about the need to apply pressure to state leaders in Illinois.

    In March of 2005, after numerous telephone discussions and a meeting with state schools Superintendent Randy Dunn, Mr. Doherty sent a letter to the state, expressing his dissatisfaction with Illinois’ implementation of the grant. Mr. Doherty cited the Rockford case and the state’s hiring of an employee for the Reading First program who he thought did not subscribe to scientifically based reading research. He informed Mr. Dunn that the state was being “designated in need of corrective action,” and would be subject to additional monitoring, consequently risking the loss of millions of dollars in future grant funding.

    “Clearly, there were issues of program compliance in Rockford, and we were working to address them,” said Mr. Dunn, the state schools chief until last month. “But the situation with the principal there had given a great entree to the feds to start wielding a heavy hand. They took an opportunity with a situation that was kind of separate from the Reading First program to get ahold of us, the state, directly by the throat.”

    Mr. Thompson, the district chief, said the issue was a personnel matter, unrelated to Reading First. He said he wasn’t even aware that federal officials were involved and kept apprised of the situation in Rockford until informed by Education Week.

    Mr. Doherty and Mr. Lyon e-mailed each other repeatedly about the situation, sometimes in response to Mr. Sweet’s queries. They expressed outrage at what appeared to them to be mistreatment of the principal and district officials’ undermining of the direct-instruction program with “their ill-fated wrong turn to balanced literacy.”

    Although “balanced literacy” is viewed by many educators as an approach incorporating a variety of skills- and literature-based reading methods, it is considered code for “whole language” by Mr. Doherty and others pushing more explicit and systematic instruction.

    The field of reading instruction has been marked for decades by disputes over the best approach to teaching reading—generally speaking, a phonics-based vs. a literature-based approach. Over the past decade, a consensus has emerged that a combination of approaches is best, although there is still considerable debate over how much skills instruction is needed.

    In response to Mr. Doherty’s demands, Illinois tried to send a monitoring team to investigate Rockford’s Reading First program. Mr. Thompson refused to cooperate with the state officials and federal consultants who visited, saying the short notice would have disrupted schools’ operations. Mr. Doherty then directed the state to freeze the district’s funding, and ultimately to withdraw the grant. Those actions prompted another e-mail from Mr. Lyon: “wow – Talk about a guy with smarts, integrity AND balls,” he wrote. “I am talking about you Chris.”

    The principal at Lewis Lemon Elementary sued the district. District officials said a settlement was reached in the case, but could not discuss the details.

    “They made all these judgments about us when they knew absolutely nothing about what we were doing,” said Mr. Thompson, who added that he was perplexed how the revisions to the reading plan could be perceived as whole language. “We ended up getting into a war of labels.”

    Mr. Doherty would not comment for this story. Sandi Jacobs, who helped administer Reading First as a senior program specialist with the Education Department, said she and Mr. Doherty believed that the Rockford district was “severely and significantly out of compliance.” They then pressed state officials to deal with the matter.

    New York Story

    In New York City, federal officials jumped into the fray over reading instruction months before the state even applied for Reading First money. When city Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein unveiled his plans for a districtwide literacy framework in January 2003, his action drew criticism from a number of reading experts, who argued that a highly structured, phonics-based program would serve students better than the literature- and writing-based plan.

    Rod Paige, the U.S. secretary of education at the time, asked Mr. Lyon to help city officials in understanding the research on effective instruction, according to an account of the events Mr. Lyon sent in an e-mail to a prominent reading researcher. A group of researchers associated with the NICHD, Mr. Lyon’s agency, then wrote a letter to Mr. Klein detailing why they believed his “balanced literacy” program was not sufficiently research-based. The researchers subsequently met with Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam and other district officials to discuss their evaluation.

    “New York City was a big concern, and legitimately so,” Mr. Lyon said in an interview this month. “If you put in place a new program that changes the rules, and you have a city like New York get the money and flout the rules, then everyone else would want to do the same thing.”

    After district officials added a stronger phonics text, one of the researchers involved in the review told Education Week she considered it a sound instructional approach. (“N.Y.C. Hangs Tough Over Maverick Curriculum,” Oct. 15, 2003.)

    Balanced Literacy Rebuffed

    But later in 2003, as New York state was negotiating with federal officials over its final Reading First plan, federal officials and consultants took another stab at persuading city officials to take a different tack on reading instruction.

    In the interview, Mr. Lyon said state officials requested guidance on how New York City could meet Reading First criteria. Sally Shaywitz, a Yale University professor and a member of the National Reading Panel—a congressionally mandated committee that issued an influential 2000 report on reading research—and two other researchers conducted the review.

    Mr. Lyon helped arrange for those researchers to meet with Chancellor Klein to outline their findings and discuss how the city’s schools could benefit from a commercial core program for reading, instead of the customized framework the city had crafted.

    A federal contractor for Reading First oversaw the review and recommended that a task force, consisting of Ms. Shaywitz and other key researchers, be appointed to help the district choose an appropriate program.

    Mr. Lyon regularly checked in with Mr. Doherty of Reading First to ask, “Can you brief me on the status of the NYC RF application as I am getting Qs from higher.” The request continued: “Did they do the right thing?” Later, Mr. Lyon indicated that there was “WH interest.”

    The former NICHD branch chief, who managed the $120 million grant program for reading research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., asked another researcher, an author of the Open Court commercial reading curriculum, to help him make the case for a structured, comprehensive core program. Mr. Lyon said he sought advice from the researcher, Marilyn Adams, because of her long-standing reputation in reading research. He did not consider her link to Open Court a conflict of interest because her commitment was to the research first. “I need good data fast,” Mr. Lyon wrote to Ms. Adams in August 2003, after describing Mr. Klein’s reluctance to adopt “an evidence based program like Open Court” because of the mixed results of the program in other big cities, and the alternative approaches being used in Boston and San Diego. “I think he will listen if we can show gains from evidence based programs.”

    Mr. Lyon also acknowledges in the e-mail that the text was just one of the essential components, “teachers and implementation being as important.”

    In e-mails to Margaret Spellings, who was President Bush’s chief domestic-policy adviser before becoming education secretary, Mr. Lyon discusses “NY City,” according to the subject line. All but one line was redacted under an exemption in the federal freedom-of-information law that considers pending decisions to be confidential. In the end, Mr. Lyon asks, “Let me know if you want me to do anything.”

    In sharing the message with Mr. Doherty, Mr. Lyon commented: “Gees – this never stops – we have to win this one.”

    When the Education Department inspector general’s report was released, now-Secretary Spellings said that the problems cited “reflected individual mistakes.” But at least one former Education Department official has suggested that Ms. Spellings was deeply involved in the program while working at the White House.

    “She micromanaged the implementation of Reading First from her West Wing office,” Michael J. Petrilli, who worked in the department from 2001 to 2005, under Secretary Paige and Secretary Spellings, wrote in the National Review Online last fall. “She was the leading cheerleader for an aggressive approach.”

    Mr. Petrilli, now a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank, has argued that Mr. Doherty did what officials in the White House and Congress expected him to do.

    Ms. Spellings has not responded to the allegations about her role. The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment last week.

    New York state was awarded its Reading First grant in September 2003. In the end, New York City relented and chose a commercial reading program—Harcourt Trophies—for its 49 Reading First schools, but stuck with the balanced-literacy program to guide reading instruction at other schools.

    The 1.1 million-student district’s Reading First funding is considered vulnerable because the inspector general found its grant application should not have been approved, and recommended that the state take back its $107 million grant.

    Chancellor Klein would not comment for this article. But in a August 2003 interview with The New York Times, he said: “I think it’s a ‘less filling/tastes great’ debate. I don’t believe curriculums are the key to education. I believe teachers are.”

    Fingerprints Elsewhere

    Many other Reading First details large and small came to the attention of Mr. Lyon and Mr. Doherty between 2003 and 2005, which they discussed by e-mail. Mr. Lyon also visited states to provide guidance on Reading First.

    In March 2003, for example, he agreed to meet with a handful of Indiana legislators who requested his advice on ways to ensure that state officials adhered to Reading First mandates. Mr. Lyon suggested the state would need extra monitoring because of the potential for noncompliance, which could send a message to other states of the consequences of not adhering to the requirements. The legislators had suggested to Mr. Lyon that state education officials in Indiana were not ready to abandon its existing reading approach.

    After meeting with officials in Louisiana and North Carolina, Mr. Lyon told Mr. Doherty that they needed to discuss various issues of concern, including the assessments and consultants that the states were planning to use under their Reading First grants. The two federal officials discussed Louisiana’s desire to use an assessment for Reading First schools that they did not deem research-based, and Mr. Lyon suggested to a North Carolina administrator that a textbook by a well-known reading researcher was inappropriate for use in Reading First training sessions.

    Local educators, researchers, community leaders, or parents alerted them to some issues.

    One New Jersey parent asked Mr. Lyon for help in July 2003, because state officials were allowing the use of a Wright Group reading program, owned by the McGraw-Hill Cos. She didn’t consider the text research-based. Mr. Lyon alerted Mr. Doherty. The Reading First director recalled that “we forced Maine to drop the bad program.” By September 2003, nearly a year after New Jersey’s grant had been approved, New Jersey officials disallowed funding for the text.

    “As you may remember, RF got Maine to UNDO its already made decision to have Rigby be one of their two approved core programs (Ha, ha – Rigby as a CORE program? When pigs fly!) We also as you may recall, got NJ to stop its districts from using Rigby (and the Wright Group, btw) and are doing the same in Mississippi,” Mr. Doherty wrote in October 2003. “This is for your FYI, as I think this program-bashing is best done off or under the major radar screens.”

    In May 2005, Harcourt Achieve Inc., which owns the Rigby Literacy program, issued a press release outlining changes it made to the program to ensure it aligned more closely with research. The changes were prompted, the company said, by deficiencies that were brought to light by the Reading First grant reviews.

    And when a Texas consultant informed Mr. Lyon and Mr. Doherty of breaches in that state’s Reading First program by the interim state commissioner of education, they debated in a series of e-mail exchanges with a researcher how best to get state officials back in line. They discussed getting influential advisers to the Bush administration, and federal officials with Texas ties, to put pressure on the state education department.

    Hypervigilance Defended

    By many accounts, Mr. Doherty, a former director of a Baltimore-based organization that oversees direct-instruction reading, was a tireless leader for the program. Reading First, which has the support of many educators, was intended to bring research-based instruction to the nation’s underperforming schools. Mr. Doherty and Ms. Jacobs were essentially the only staff members assigned full time to the program.

    Many state officials rallied to his defense when the inspector general’s report was released last fall. Reading First recently received the highest performance rating of all NCLB programs from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

    “It’s not that Reading First was over the top,” Ms. Jacobs said. “It’s much more that many programs [administered by the Education Department] are severely undermonitored.”

    Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and an outspoken critic of New York City’s reading plan, also defends the hard-line approach.

    “If Doherty’s sin was to lean on a state education agency or two to promote a reading program backed by science over one that wasn’t, well, that’s just what the Reading First legislation intended,” Mr. Stern, wrote in the Winter 2007 edition of City Journal, the institute’s magazine.

    Mr. Lyon, who is designing a teacher-preparation program for the Dallas-based Best Associates, said this month that the “hypervigilant monitoring” was necessary, but that he did not anticipate how the Reading First mandates would be complicated by the issue of local control.

    “Here you have local control, which historically has always been there, and then you have Reading First being very prescriptive,” he said.

    “In my mind, Reading First has to carry the day,” he added.

    ‘Shameful Behavior’

    Critics, other observers, and some stakeholders alike, however, say the results do not necessarily justify the heavy-handed management. Some vendors claim their reading programs were not given a fair shake. The nonprofit Success for All program, for example, has lost business under the federal initiative, according to founder Robert E. Slavin, despite its extensive research and documented results. Many of the e-mail documents were obtained recently by Mr. Slavin from the National Institutes of Health, more than 18 months after he submitted the request.

    Some of the commercial programs that have been widely adopted by Reading First schools did not have any more evidence of effectiveness than others that were not as successful.

    “The law said nothing about picking specific programs, it just indicated scientifically based programs. But when we looked at the other programs that were being approved, we saw very little evidence that those were more scientific than the ones we were trying to use,” said Gene Wilhoit, who as state superintendent in Kentucky sent letters of complaint to the Education Department questioning the pressure his agency received to reject certain reading programs and assessments.

    Mr. Wilhoit, now the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said, “We didn’t feel like [the federal oversight] was just an attempt to hold onto the integrity of the program.”

    Susan B. Neuman, who helped roll out the program as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, agrees. Some of the e-mails were also shared with Ms. Neuman, and in a few of the exchanges, Mr. Doherty indicated he was relaying Ms. Neuman’s views on how the program should be carried out.

    But in one e-mail to her, Mr. Doherty suggests that she should not be involved in the talks over state applications and implementation. Ms. Neuman, who left the department in January 2003, has said that she was left out of many discussions with state officials.

    “They far exceeded their mandate,” she said in an interview, referring to Mr. Doherty and other federal officials. “We wanted to figure out ways that we could make Reading First a more powerful intervention [than previous federal programs], but certainly not in micromanaging school districts.”

    “In the beginning,” Ms. Neuman added, “this was an honest effort to make something better, … but this is shameful behavior.”

    A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as E-Mails Reveal Federal Reach Over Reading


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