Reading & Literacy

In Crowd Gets Large Share of Contracting Work

September 22, 2004 6 min read
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The spells of reform that have characterized the field of reading over the past several decades have often showered favor on their respective heroes and shunned others with rival views.

“It’s politics. There are ‘innies’ and ‘outies,’ ” as one former federal education official puts it.

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Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy

In the current drive for “research based” reading instruction, there can be no doubt that Ed Kaméenui is an “innie.”

As one in a seemingly exclusive group of researchers whose work corresponds closely with federal officials’ vision for applying scientific principles to the teaching of reading, he has been the target of both praise and criticism from the field. Though the tools he’s designed for teachers are now widely used, some in the field wonder if it’s his professional alliances more than the value of his programs that account for their increased demand.

Ed Kaméenui

Mr. Kaméenui and a small cadre of other researchers have landed millions of dollars worth of grants and contracts to help states and districts implement the strict mandates of the federal Reading First initiative.

“There is a feeling among many folks that there is a club of folks whose work is being privileged right now,” said P. David Pearson, a reading researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

A professor of education at the University of Oregon, Mr. Kaméenui has become one of the most sought-after consultants and conference presenters in the country. His expertise in training teachers to craft skills-based instructional programs has taken him throughout the Pacific Northwest to consulting gigs in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington state, and Wisconsin.

Mr. Kaméenui, 56, is a favored son across the country in the other Washington as well, where federal officials have all but deputized him in their endeavor to standardize the teaching of reading.

He helped coordinate and deliver workshops and academies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education in the rollout of President Bush’s reading legislation. He has become a regular recipient of federal grants for Reading First and for special education projects, bringing in more than $2 million in 2003 and 2004 alone, according to university financial reports. And he is the director of the Western Regional Technical Assistance Center for Reading First, which will share a $36 million federal grant to help implement the program in 22 states.

The Hawaii native’s work has been influential in less direct ways as well. While he may not be a household name, teachers and administrators throughout the country are likely familiar with his work.

“The Consumers Guide to Evaluating Core Reading Programs,” which he wrote with his University of Oregon colleague Deborah C. Simmons, is now a required resource for Reading First grantees. Only a handful of commercial reading programs seem to meet the criteria outlined in the guide.

Nonsense Words

The success has also touched his University of Oregon colleagues Roland H. Good III and Ruth Kaminski. They’ve landed important consulting work with the Education Department as well.

The practical assessment tools that the two have developed for teachers have also gained national recognition and regular classroom use. The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Reading Skills, or dibels, is a set of quick, skill-specific assessments to gauge students’ phonemic awareness, word recognition, and reading fluency. The pair recently added dibels (pronounced “dibbles”) assessments for reading-comprehension measures.

As a required tool under most states’ plans for the $6 billion, 6-year Reading First program, dibels has become the most widely used ongoing assessment among grantees nationwide. Although the basic assessments are free when downloaded from the Internet, school administrators can opt for participation in a sophisticated data-management system, which Mr. Kaméenui was instrumental in creating, that tracks student progress on the tests at a cost of $1 per student per year. So far, more than a million students are tracked through that system.

Despite its widespread use, critics question whether dibels makes good sense, primarily because its main measurement is a test of nonsense words. A main part of the test features words made up of random vowels and consonants, such as “sig,” “rav,” and “ov.” Pupils are asked to say the individual sounds for each letter or to read the whole word phonetically, even though the words have no meaning.

The children are scored on the basis of how many words they can correctly read in a minute. The test is given twice in kindergarten and three times in 1st grade.

“You use [a test of] nonsense words if you want to know how far kids’ phonics skills extend. It’s pure and simple decoding,” said Mr. Pearson, the dean of the college of education at Berkeley. “It’s not an assessment of everyday reading. So what does it mean to say one kid could name letters [and letter sounds] twice as fast as other kids?” Still, the dibels brochures claim that results on the test are good indicators of how well children’s reading skills will progress.

“Dibels is a way of sampling behavior as quickly as possible,” Mr. Kaméenui said. “Does it tell us everything about reading? Absolutely not. But it’s a good index to a potential reading problem.”

‘Technical Expertise’

Mr. Kaméenui has also consulted with publishers seeking to align their products with the much-touted research base. He and Ms. Simmons write for Scott Foresman, a commercial publisher based in Glenview, Ill. whose main reading series has been widely approved for use in Reading First schools.

Those connections have led some experts to ask whether he and others now in favor among policymakers are leveraging their advisory positions to promote their own products and services.

Those few researchers have landed much of the professional-development and consulting work around the country—work that often leads to greater use of their programs and assessments.

Mr. Kaméenui is surprised by those suggestions. He says his success is on the back of his highly specialized experience, as well as 20 years of results working in the field.

The former reading professor at the University of Montana and Purdue University in Indiana served on the National Research Council’s committee on preventing reading difficulties.

“This requires a lot of technical expertise . and the credibility to go into schools, work with principals, and show how you can correct the problem,” Mr. Kaméenui said. “You can’t fake your way on this.”

Edward J. Kaméenui has been a professor of education at Oregon since 1988. Subsequently, he became the director of the university’s Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement, which has brought in some $50 million in grants and contracts since his arrival. He has also written dozens of journal articles and published dozens of books and textbooks on reading.

A number of state coordinators for Reading First grants have praised Mr. Kaméenui’s work as a consultant to their programs. He inspires teachers while informing them, according to Debbie Hunsacker, who oversees the federal grant program in Montana.

G. Reid Lyon, the director of the branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that underwrites reading research, is unapologetic that some researchers have not found a niche in the current policy environment.

If there is an “in” crowd, Mr. Lyon said, it is made up of researchers who are committed to the tenets of the federal legislation and have been effective in helping teachers and administrators translate those policies into practice.

“What I do know is that Ed Kaméenui [and others] are very talented researchers, and they have a common history and track record of ... asking questions and applying the right methods to those questions.”

Ed Kaméenui is among those who have benefited from “research based” strategies.

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