Reading & Literacy

Ed. Dept. Allowed Singling Out of ‘Reading First’ Products

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 23, 2007 6 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education erred from the outset of the Reading First program in focusing on selected reading programs and a single assessment in training sessions for state officials applying for a share of the $1 billion-a-year program, a report by the department’s inspector general concludes.

Federal officials also failed to screen a contractor for potential bias and conflicts of interest, says the report unveiled this week.

Those errors led to widespread confusion over the program’s requirements and fueled perceptions that there was an approved list of commercial texts and tests for use in Reading First. Moreover, the department did not ensure that employees and representatives followed legal restrictions that prohibit them from directing or influencing curriculum and assessment decisions.

“The Department’s Administration of Selected Aspects of the Reading First Program” is available from the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general.

The report, the fifth in a series on Reading First, provides further evidence of questionable management practices in the program.

“The content of what [the inspector general’s auditors] were finding, to me anyway, seems awfully damning, particularly since it seems [department officials] had an opportunity to recognize their error and correct it any number of times,” said Robert E. Slavin, the co-founder of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation, whose allegations of mismanagement of Reading First helped launch the federal investigation last year.

The first report offered a scathing critique last fall of the Education Department’s oversight of the grant-application process. It concluded that federal officials seemed biased toward a particular instructional approach, direct instruction, and did not screen consultants for potential conflicts of interest.

That lengthy review by Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. was punctuated by e-mail exchanges between federal officials that suggested extensive interference in state grant proposals and implementation. (“E-Mails Reveal Federal Reach Over Reading,” Feb. 21, 2007.)

Education Department officials “have completed or are in the process of completing every one of the IG’s recommendations,” Press Secretary Katherine McLane wrote in a Feb. 23 e-mail.

A ‘Sell Job’

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which authorized Reading First five years ago, 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.”

But it appears that officials skirted that rule from the outset. As the Education Department rolled out the program, it held seminars to help state officials understand the grants’ strict requirements. Three Reading Leadership Academies, held in winter 2002, included workshops, keynote addresses, and panel discussions on reading research, assessments, and instructional materials. The speakers at some of those sessions, as well as the guidebook distributed at all three academies, specified products and approaches. (“Some Educators See Reading Rules as Too Restrictive,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

A panel discussion that was part of the academies, for example, featured educators and administrators who discussed certain programs, primarily direct instruction, created by a researcher at the University of Oregon, and Open Court Reading, published by the New York City-based McGraw-Hill Cos.

Those materials were also discussed in other sessions, which caused some participants to complain that they were being subjected to a “sell job.” Another quipped, “I think I’ll go buy shares in Open Court.”

More than half a dozen pages in the inspector general’s report summarizes comments from those who attended the academies.

Inspector General’s Reports

The U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general has released five reports in response to complaints about mismanagement of the federal Reading First program.

Sept. 22, 2006: An inspection of the U.S. Department of Education’s oversight of the grant-application process for Reading First finds that officials may have stacked panels of grant reviewers with advocates of a specific teaching method, and that federal officials may have overstepped their authority in advising states on the types of materials and assessments they could use as part of the $1 billion-a-year initiative.

Oct. 20, 2006: An audit of Wisconsin’s implementation of its Reading First grant concludes that state officials did not hold grantees to the program’s strict requirements.

Nov. 3, 2006: New York state improperly issued grants to nine districts, including New York City, the inspector general finds. The report recommends that the state return much of the money that was awarded.

Jan. 18, 2007: Georgia’s mismanagement of some aspects of its Reading First grant resulted in confusion over policies and procedures, the hiring of underqualified grant reviewers, inconsistencies in how local proposals were reviewed, and the unfair treatment of some vendors.

Feb. 22, 2007: The U.S. Education Department failed to restrict federal employees’ and representatives’ direction or influence over curriculum and assessment decisions as prohibited by law. The department also did not properly screen for potential bias or lack of objectivity before issuing a grant to a contractor to provide technical assistance for the program.

SOURCE: Education Week

In the thick binder that was handed out to participants, there was a lengthy article on a reading assessment, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS. The test was developed by researchers at the University of Oregon, who also served as advisers on the reading academies and later were consultants on implementing Reading First.

DIBELS was “one of many screening tools on the market that could have been used to perform Reading First assessments,” the inspector general writes, but “only DIBELS was featured in” the academy materials.

That test was later included in most state grant applications, and no other assessment is used as widely in Reading First schools. (“States Pressed to Refashion Reading First Grant Designs,” Sept. 7, 2005.)

Some of the feedback offered by the participants praised the speakers and content of the academy seminars; some scolded officials for including specific product information.

“Please do not promote a program (Open Court) (Direct Instruction),” one participant wrote in comments collected at the end of the first academy, according to the report. “That is not the Department of Education’s place to do.”

The complaints compelled federal officials to clarify for participants in the first academy that there was not an approved list of programs, but the texts and tests were also discussed in subsequent sessions.

Then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige issued a statement in April 2002 to dispel the perception of an approved list. But that view persisted throughout the grant-application process.

Several vendors of programs perceived as not having federal approval began complaining that they were losing business because of the misconception, and last year asked the inspector general to investigate.

Presenting Examples

In responding to the latest report, Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon wrote that “it is reasonable that the department should be able to present information on certain programs, as long as it is made clear that the programs presented are merely examples of the types of programs that might be supported with Reading First funds and that the presentation was not intended to be an endorsement or promotion of a specific program.”

Whether intended or not, Mr. Slavin said, the content of the workshops appeared to do just that.

“They said there was no recommended list,” he said, “but then they kept doing these things that to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention indicated that there was a list.”

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also launched a review last year. Its report is expected in the coming weeks.

The Education Department’s inspector general is set to issue one more report on Reading First, an audit of a contractor’s administration of technical assistance for the program. The Portsmouth, N.H.-based RMC Corp. was involved in the leadership academies and gave technical assistance to states as they prepared and revised their grant applications. RMC also oversees the National Reading First Technical Assistance Center and its regional centers at Florida State University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Texas at Austin.

In issuing the RMC contracts, the Education Department did not put in safeguards against the contractor’s potential bias or conflicts of interest, the inspector general found. Some of the experts employed by RMC, for example, were connected to specific programs or assessments, and may have served as advisers or reviewers for states that included those products in their applications.

A Washington watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, said the latest report supports its complaints against the department. It is also suing the department for the release of documents. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration has been sacrificing the education of children to financially benefit a select group of loyalists and donors,” Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the nonprofit organization, asserted in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Allowed Singling Out of ‘Reading First’ Products

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