Curriculum

Ga. Officials Admit Mistakes on ‘Reading First’ Rules

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 10, 2005 4 min read
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A former state education official who helped design Georgia’s reading initiative nearly a decade ago has filed more than a dozen complaints against the Georgia education department for actions that she claims effectively blocked schools applying for federal Reading First money from using the textbooks she now publishes.

Cindy Cupp, the state’s curriculum and reading director from 1997 to 1999, submitted the complaints to the state inspector general in March.

“In my opinion, the Georgia Reading First grant gave the right of selecting reading programs to the local schools and teachers as long as certain steps were followed,” Ms. Cupp, who publishes Dr. Cupp’s Readers, a K-1 series for teaching early-reading skills, said in an e-mail to Education Week.

Cindy Cupp, right, and her sister, Ginger Cupp Douglas, examine the materials they published for kindergarten and first grade.

“I believe that the national evaluators hired by the Georgia Department of Education to score the grants used their personal bias in the scoring,” Ms. Cupp charged. “It appears that this caused some schools to remove reading programs they had selected and replace them with others that were favored by the national evaluators.”

Since the federal Reading First program was unveiled in 2002, concerns have arisen nationwide that the program appears to favor some commercial reading programs over others. (“Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

‘An Overstep’

In the Georgia case, the grant reviewers’ notes, included in state documents and correspondence Ms. Cupp obtained through the state’s open-records statute, question the quality of the program she publishes. The reviewers, however, were not supposed to evaluate the programs themselves, and at least one admitted to Ms. Cupp’s lawyer that she never saw the product.

Ms. Cupp also contends that the state overstepped its authority in directing some publishers to have their products reviewed by experts at one of the Reading First technical-assistance centers before schools could use them. Ms. Cupp argues that the state’s Reading First plan requires school districts to evaluate the materials themselves, using a selected scoring guide.

Several of the complaints have been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general.

Elaine Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for the federal Education Department, said in an e-mail last week that she could not comment on an ongoing case.

Georgia officials said that the extra restrictions were a mistake, and that they were simply trying to help districts with the onerous task of choosing high-quality instructional materials.

“In our zeal to help these [schools evaluate programs], we required them” to get the materials evaluated externally, said Judson Turner, the department’s lead lawyer. “It was an overstep.” Mr. Turner, however, said there is no evidence that Reading First applicants were prevented from selecting Dr. Cupp’s Readers for use in their classrooms.

At least one district—Butts County—has since received the state’s permission to use Ms. Cupp’s texts. The district had ditched earlier plans to use them in a Reading First school after its application was rejected twice. Once the Dr. Cupp’s series was removed from the school’s proposed materials list, the application was approved.

An Informal List?

In response to complaints in 2002 that the Reading First program seemed to favor some commercial products, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige issued a statement that the grants did not require the use of any specific materials. Still, some states became more prescriptive in their requirements after their applications to the federal program were sent back for revision several times. (“Reading Programs Bear Similarities Across the States,” Feb. 4, 2004.)

The perception of such an informal “list” has persisted. The school division of the Association of American Publishers, based in Washington, has sent a number of letters over the past three years to federal and state education officials and the University of Oregon in Portland complaining that grantees were being misinformed or restricted in the selection of instructional materials. The university houses one of the Reading First technical-assistance centers.

“A lot of people out there are under the impression that if there were not an officially approved list, there’s at least a list that, if selected, your chances of getting a program approved are much higher than if they selected another product,” said the division’s executive director, Stephen D. Driesler.

The federal law requires that schools receiving some of the $1 billion Reading First money use materials that have scientific evidence of their effectiveness. Most states require grant recipients to use the “Consumers Guide to Evaluating a Core Reading Program,” a checklist written by University of Oregon researchers, to determine if materials meet the federal standard.

Reviews Suspended

Researchers with the Reading First technical-assistance centers at the University of Oregon and Florida State University have also been conducting evaluations of instructional materials. But those reviews have drawn complaints, Mr. Driesler said, which he outlined in a letter to the University of Oregon in March.

“Evaluators of unknown credentials used a rating system for which no descriptors have been made available, and in some cases, used criteria for which no research substantiation can be found,” the letter says. “In addition, there is some appearance of conflict of interest, as the most highly rated program on the list was authored at the University of Oregon by researchers now associated with the federal technical-assistance center.”

The university has not responded to the letter, according to Mr. Driesler. University officials did not return phone or e-mail messages from Education Week last week. The Oregon Reading First center has suspended its reviews of instructional materials, citing a lack of resources.

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