Reading & Literacy

Publishers Question Fairness of ‘Reading First’ Process

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 07, 2005 4 min read
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State grant reviewers gave Dr. Cupp’s Readers a big, fat zero rating on one Georgia school’s Reading First application. Only later did its publisher find out that at least one of those reviewers had never laid eyes on the program.

That experience underscores how some small publishers feel about the federal initiative: They haven’t gotten a fair shake.

Frustrated and furious, Cindy Cupp, who publishes the books bearing her name, set out on a campaign to expose what she sees as unfair practices that give products from big publishers preference over lesser-known products without regard for their offerings’ research base.

She filed complaints this past spring with the Georgia inspector general. He is investigating and found enough merit in them to forward some of the complaints to federal authorities.

Until that point, though, other publishers were reluctant to complain, fearing that doing so would hurt their chances of getting approved for Reading First funding, according to Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers.

Ms. Cupp’s dogged criticism inspired federal complaints by the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation and the North American Reading Recovery Council, in Columbus, Ohio. (“Ga. Officials Admit Mistakes on ‘Reading First’ Rules,” May 11, 2005.)

Benefits for Some

The Washington-based school division of the AAP has complained to the U.S. Department of Education several times that a few commercial programs appear to be favored for use in Reading First schools. And, in a letter this past March to the University of Oregon, the publishers’ organization raised questions about the university’s evaluations of a select group of core reading programs and intervention products. Those reviews were widely distributed to states as a guide for selecting the kinds of research-based texts the federal law requires grantees to purchase under Reading First.

The university did not respond to the letter but has suspended the reviews.

Recent events have renewed some publishers’ concerns, said Mr. Driesler, noting that few are willing to criticize the process publicly. For example, the federally financed Eastern Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center, based at Florida State University, has published guides to help teachers align only selected commercial reading programs to the Reading First provisions.

Georgia officials, meanwhile, offered extra workshops last month for only those teachers who use the selected programs.

Publishers contend that such practices serve as official endorsements by states and the federal government, thus benefiting one publisher over another.

But Christopher J. Doherty, the director of the Reading First program for the U.S. Department of Education, said it is a state’s prerogative to hold program-specific professional development.

“I don’t dismiss the point you make on behalf of the [other publishers],” he said. “But to not provide program-specific professional development and additional training, … we would have to refuse a direct state request” for help.

Stifling Innovation?

Ms. Cupp, however, disagrees. “If the federal government is getting in the business of writing reading programs, they should tell us all, because it is real hard for me to compete with the federal government,” she said. “My taxpayer dollars should not be spent giving an inside edge to my competitor’s product.”

As Ms. Cupp sought answers to why the grant from Daughtry Elementary School in Jackson, Ga., had been denied, she got the run-around from state officials and the technical-assistance center at Florida State, she contends.

Georgia Reading First officials at first told her she had to get outside evaluations before the texts could be used in Reading First schools. Later, they acknowledged that such a review was not required. In the meantime, the grant cycle had waned, Daughtry Elementary administrators had resubmitted their application after removing Dr. Cupp’s Readers as its choice, and the Savannah-based publisher felt she had little chance of penetrating the Reading First market.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which authorized Reading First, was bound to give a competitive edge to offerings that most closely reflected the program’s tenets, said Robert W. Sweet Jr., who helped write the Reading First legislation as a senior staff member for the Republican-led House Education and the Workforce Committee. He recently left his government post to return to the National Right to Read Foundation, an organization that promotes phonics instruction.

“All of these things are commercially driven,” Mr. Sweet said, referring to initiatives to improve education. “There are some people, some groups, some universities who have been involved in trying to promote research-based education long before the Reading First program came about,” and may have had an advantage.

But Susan B. Neuman, the former assistant secretary of education responsible for the Reading First program’s launch, said that she and others working on the $1 billion-a-year initiative had hoped it would open up the marketplace to new and innovative reading programs reflecting the latest research on how children learn to read. Instead, she said, Reading First led to tinkering with commercial products that had been around for years.

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