Reading & Literacy

House Panel Grills Witnesses on Reading First

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 24, 2007 4 min read
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The former director of the Reading First program denied in a congressional hearing late last week that there were conflicts of interest in the implementation of the $1 billion-a-year federal initiative. He also denied that he and other officials and consultants had overstepped their authority in directing states and school districts on the curriculum materials and assessments that would meet the strict requirements of the grants awarded under the program.

“A distorted story has been written over the past few months based on the worst possible interpretation of events that occurred during the early days of the Reading First program,” Christopher J. Doherty, who oversaw the program from 2002 until last fall, told the House Education and Labor Committee during the April 20 hearing.

In exchanges that were sometimes contentious, Mr. Doherty disputed suggestions by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the committee’s chairman, that he and other federal officials had drafted the Reading First guidelines to institute “extralegal requirements”—as Mr. Doherty had once put it in an e-mail—that were not specified in the No Child Left Behind Act to essentially compel states to adopt certain commercial reading programs and assessments over others.

“We thought and think those [additional] components [written into the program’s guidelines but not outlined in the law] emanated from the guiding research,” Mr. Doherty said. “In no way was [the guidance] designed to lock in” one particular program, he added.

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Rep. Miller scolded Mr. Doherty at one point.

“Was your mantra, ‘Mistakes were made’?” Rep. Miller said. “You don’t get to override the law because you’re turning the law into a program.”

Mr. Doherty responded: “We thought then, and we think now, we did abide by the law.”

Rep. Miller referred to a report by the Department of Education’s inspector general last September that concluded Mr. Doherty may have stacked expert panels assigned to review state Reading First grants with colleagues who advocated direct instruction, a scripted and highly structured approach to teaching reading. Some panelists, and consultants assigned to help states revise their grant proposals, had professional ties to commercial reading programs and assessments as well, the report stated.

The hearing was the first of two that are expected in Congress in the wake of reports by Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. and the Government Accountability Office that found federal officials had mismanaged the program.

“We found that the department obscured the requirements of the statute by inappropriately including or excluding standards in the application criteria,” Mr. Higgins told the committee.

Advisory Panel’s Role

Starr Lewis, an associate state education commissioner in Kentucky, told the committee that state officials felt pressured by Mr. Doherty to change their choice of assessments for participating schools, and later refused to follow his request to prohibit schools from using two commercial reading programs that were approved for use in those schools.

Ms. Lewis noted that one of the consultants providing assistance during the grant-review process had financial ties to the assessment, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS. Kentucky was asked to revise its Reading First grant proposal three times.

“We were repeatedly advised to replace our current assessment tool with DIBELS,” Ms. Lewis said.

Three members of a federal advisory committee also testified about their role in reviewing reading assessments that would meet the program’s requirements. Edward J. Kame’enui, who is on leave from the University of Oregon while he directs the Education Department’s National Center for Special Education Research, said that the assessment committee provided states with a resource to help state officials choose research-based materials and tests for participating schools.

The advisory committee, which included current and former Oregon researchers Roland H. Good III and Deborah K. Simmons, who also testified at the House hearing, was criticized in the inspector general’s report for having real or potential conflicts of interest. The advisory committee reviewed more than two dozen assessments, some of which the panel’s members had helped develop. DIBELS, the most widely used test in Reading First, was designed by Mr. Good.

“At the outset we took steps to avoid any conflicts of interest,” said Mr. Kame’enui, who also served as the director of one of three regional technical-assistance centers for the Reading First program. He added that, in hindsight, stricter controls against real or perceived conflicts of interest should have been instituted.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the education committee, introduced legislation last week that would require the Education Department and its contractors to screen Reading First peer reviewers for potential conflicts of interest, among other provisions.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as House Panel Grills Witnesses on Reading First

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