State officials, publishers, and educators began complaining to one another very early during the implementation of Reading First that the U.S. Department of Education appeared to be promoting particular reading programs, assessments, and consultants over others in their guidance to states.
Few, however, dared grumble in public for fear they would risk losing out on some of the $1 billion in annual funding for the high-profile reading program.
Now, though, Cindy Cupp is satisfied that, with the recent release of a critical report from the Education Department’s inspector general, her own very public complaints are no longer just the uncorroborated accounts of a long-disgruntled independent publisher.
“Finally, somebody [in authority] sat up and said this is really happening,” she said last week. Ms. Cupp’s initial anger and disbelief outweighed any reluctance she may have had to make her gripes with Reading First public in 2004. The publisher of an early-reading series that bears her name, she was once the curriculum and reading director for the Georgia education department. She didn’t expect the federal program to be a boon for her Savannah-based company, but she never thought the Georgia schools that were already using her readers, or those that wanted to, would be pressured into abandoning the texts to obtain federal grants under Reading First. “It wasn’t just unfair to my program,” Ms. Cupp said. “I felt that if you had to use select programs, schools needed to be told that upfront. The restrictions were under the table, and schools weren’t aware of it.” (“Ga. Officials Admit Mistakes on ‘Reading First’ Rules,” May 11, 2005.)
Ms. Cupp tried to find other publishers to join her in asking state and federal education officials to explain or ease up on the restrictions on instructional materials for Reading First schools. But no one else, she said, wanted to jump into the fray.
The Association of American Publishers in 2002 sent a letter to then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige outlining concerns among its members that Reading First was unfairly favoring some commercial reading series over others. But none of the individual companies the organization’s Washington-based school division represents was willing to express those complaints publicly. And the Association of Educational Publishers advised its members to brief state legislators quietly on the effect Reading First was having on their businesses.
“We took more of a grassroots strategy,” said Charlene F. Gaynor, the chief executive officer of the aep, a Philadelphia-area-based organization that represents some 400 publishers of supplemental materials. “But to publicly make a comment about what was going on people thought would somewhat jeopardize their relationships with school districts.”
The Council of State Governments conducted a survey of Reading First directors and compiled their observations on the program’s implementation. But many of the respondents asked that their views remain anonymous, and the Lexington, Ky.-based council did not release the survey results for fear there would be fallout for states that criticized the process.
Similarly, the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy group that publishes an annual report card on the No Child Left Behind Act, which includes Reading First, could not release a complete report on the program early on because much of the information from state officials was off the record.
In April 2005, after gathering binders full of documents from Georgia’s open-records act, Ms. Cupp asked the state inspector general, and later his federal counterpart, to investigate what she saw as unfair practices.
“I was scared,” said Ms. Cupp. “But with me, [the complaints] were not coming from a publisher with 100 employees and a board of directors where the bottom line is how many dollars do you make.”
Several e-mail messages, exchanged early in the Reading First implementation, provide an inside look into how federal employees negotiated, in sometimes forceful and foul terms, their plan for ensuring the requirements were rigorous.
To: Susan B. Neuman, then the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education
“In remarks to groups … or face-to-face meetings about what the Review Panel will/won’t accept the opportunities for BOLDNESS and, perhaps, extralegal requirements are many.”
In May 2002, a Baltimore public school official complained to the Education Department that some federal reviewers were advocates of the direct-instruction approach to teaching reading.
To: A reviewer, marked “Confidential FYI”
“Funny that [the Baltimore city public schools official] calls *me* to inform that there may be some pro-DI folks on *my* panel!!! Too rich!”
“Does he know who you are? Past and present?”
“That’s the funniest part – yes! You know the line from Casablanca, ‘I am SHOCKED that there is gambling going on in this establishment!’ Well, ‘I am SHOCKED that there are pro-DI people on this panel!’”
A department employee reported to Mr. Doherty that the department had received a question from a member of the media about the review panel’s composition.
From the employee:
“The question is … are we going to ‘stack the panel’ so programs like Reading Recovery don’t get a fair shake[?]”
“‘Stack the panel?’… I have never *heard* of such a thing …. [.]”
To: An Education Department staff member regarding the Wright Group, a publisher of reading texts
“Beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [whole language] apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not [scientifically based], never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.”
To: G. Reid Lyon, then chief of a branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and an adviser to the White House and Education Department on Reading First
“As you may remember, RF got Maine to UNDO its already-made decision to have Rigby be one of their two approved core programs (Ha, ha – Rigby as a CORE program? When pigs fly!) We also as you may recall, got [New Jersey] to stop its districts from using Rigby (and the Wright Group, btw) and are doing the same in Mississippi. This is for your FYI, as I think this program-bashing is best done off or under the major radar screens.”
To: Education Department officials
One of the panelists has been “actively working to undermine the [National Reading Panel] Report and the [Reading First] initiatives. … Chances are that other reviewers can trump any bias on her part.”
To: Mr. Lyon, Mr. Doherty, and Ms. Neuman
“We can’t just un-invite her. Just make sure she is on a panel with one of our barracuda types.”
| Note: The inspector general’s office removed the expletives from the e-mails.|
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education Inspector General
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Publisher Who Filed Initial Complaints Gets Some Satisfaction From I.G. Report E-Mail Exchanges