A federal investigation into Reading First will include several broad audits of the policies and procedures involved in implementing the $1 billion-a-year program, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general’s office schedule of reviews for 2006.
The inquiry will scrutinize the contracts awarded for technical assistance to states, how reviews of state and local grant applications were conducted, and whether federal consultants followed conflict-of-interest guidelines and gave appropriate guidance to grantees, says the schedule, made public last month.
The inspector general’s office undertook the inquiry after a series of complaints this past summer from educators and members of Congress alleging that federal officials and their agents may have steered contracts to favored publishers and consultants, and complaints that the program has not adhered to the principles of scientific evidence outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is conducting a separate probe at the request of a bipartisan group of senators.
Another Round of Letters
As a result of the ongoing complaints, Education Department officials sent letters last month to state education officials and federal contractors to clarify the requirements of the program and reiterate, as in several previous letters, that no particular commercial reading programs or products are mandated under Reading First.
A letter from Christopher J. Doherty, the program’s director, to the Portsmouth, N.H.-based RMC Research Corp., which has been awarded contracts of more than $40 million to provide technical assistance for states, says that “it is essential that the [National Reading First Technical Assistance Center] avoid all conflicts of interest among employees, subcontractors, and consultants who may have connections to particular instructional programs or materials used under Reading First.”
Such perceived conflicts have prompted criticism that has dogged Reading First since its inception in 2002. The program promotes research-based reading instruction as a means of raising achievement in the nation’s most disadvantaged schools, a goal of the No Child Left Behind law, which authorized the initiative.
A number of state officials, for example, have complained that they were pressured to adopt specific textbooks and tests devised by key consultants to Reading First. (“States Pressed to Refashion Reading First Grant Designs,” Sept. 7, 2005.)
RMC Research sent consultants to work with states in drafting their grant proposals and, through the three Reading First Technical Assistance Centers, provides ongoing help in carrying out each state’s approved plan. Both the RMC consultants and panelists convened by the Education Department to review state grant applications have been criticized for allegedly overstepping their authority in advising states on the commercial products they should require participating schools and districts to use.
Formal complaints filed with the inspector general by several publishers charge that Reading First reviewers and consultants essentially fixed the competition to exclude their products. (“GAO to Probe Federal Plan for Reading,” Oct. 12, 2005.)
The Education Department letters sent last month, while welcome, are inadequate, according to publishers, their representatives, and at least one former federal official.
“Certainly it’s nice to reiterate that [policy] and talk about the conflict of interest, but it’s a bit like shutting the barn door after the horses are out,” said Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers. “We’ve been raising these concerns for years now, and unfortunately, a lot of the damage has already been done.”
Mr. Driesler said the Education Department has endorsed certain programs by virtue of the reviews conducted by researchers associated with the technical- assistance centers. Moreover, he said, hope is scant that publishers who were unsuccessful early in the grant process will be able to break into the market midway through the six-year program.
Reading expert Susan B. Neuman, who oversaw the rollout of Reading First as the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education during President Bush’s first term, said federal officials should do more to convince educators that they are pushing evidence-based instruction.
“Usually, where there is smoke there’s fire. Even the perception of a problem is a problem,” she said. “Perhaps reiterating the same message again and again [that there is no list of approved programs] is not as efficacious as putting in place very active processes to help people understand that it’s about … using what we know about the science of reading.
“It’s not just about selecting the status quo basal textbook [that has all] the critical ingredients, almost like baking a cake.”
The inspector general has already begun interviewing federal consultants and complainants. Both that investigation and the one by the GAO are expected to last through early next year.
RMC President Everett Barnes said he welcomes the inquiry.
“It will put an end to urban legends that are floating around about Reading First and Reading First technical assistance,” he said, “or at least dilute some of the credibility, perhaps, of those statements. It’s an external party looking at how we operate, … and if they come back and say there are ways of strengthening our operation, we’ll incorporate those.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Inspector General to Conduct Broad Audits of Reading First