Reading & Literacy

Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 29, 2006 10 min read
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The findings of a scathing report on the federal Reading First program continued to reverberate last week following its Sept. 22 release, fueling debates in Congress, on the Internet, and among professionals in the field about their gravity and potential impact.

Critics of the program’s implementation said the conclusions drawn in the report by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general validate complaints that federal officials may have steered the grant-application process to ensure that particular reading programs and instructional approaches were widely used by participating schools, and that others were essentially shut out.

Some supporters of the program characterized the findings as overblown and charged that they constituted a personal attack on department personnel, rather than a verdict on the $1 billion-a-year program itself, which was rolled out 4½ years ago as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Read “The Reading First Program’s Grant Application Process: Final Inspection Report,” posted by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general’s office.

Many educators and observers said the blistering review of the implementation and management of Reading First, though justified, could damage a program that is showing initial signs of effectiveness.

“There really needs to be a good, hard look at the program ... and a renewed focus on solid, research-based instruction,” said Alan J. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, in Newark, Del. “Reading First can be a more solid program.”

The long-awaited evaluation, which includes excerpts from internal Education Department e-mail marked confidential and sometimes containing vulgar language, concludes that:

• Department officials may have intended to “stack” the panels of grant reviewers with those who favored a particular teaching methodology, and their method of screening the panelists for conflicts of interest was ineffective;

• Requirements for receiving grants under the program were expanded beyond what the law requires; and

• Federal education officials may also have overstepped provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act that prohibit them from influencing or dictating the curricula, assessments, or instructional approaches used by schools or districts.

Reading First, which has already handed out nearly $5 billion in grants to some 1,700 districts and 5,600 schools, is designed to improve reading instruction in the nation’s most disadvantaged schools through the use of research-based methods.

Potential Conflicts

The inspector general’s findings correspond with charges leveled over the past several years by critics of the program, as well as by many reading experts and state officials.

Education Week has reported since 2002 many of the concerns among researchers and educators that the program favored only a handful of consultants and commercial products, and the potential financial conflicts between them. In an extensive analysis of documents and e-mail correspondence obtained through state and federal open-records requests, as well as interviews with state officials, the newspaper reported last fall a pattern of behavior that suggested federal employees and their representatives had directed or even pressured states to choose specific assessments, consultants, and certain kinds of texts as conditions for getting funding under Reading First. (“States Pressed to Refashion Reading First Grant Designs,” Sept. 7, 2005.)

Cindy Cupp, a former state education official and the publisher of a little-known reading series, filed formal complaints in May 2005 with the Georgia and federal education departments. Shortly afterward, the Success for All Foundation in Baltimore and the Reading Recovery Foundation of North America, based in Columbus, Ohio, lodged similar complaints with the federal department’s inspector general.

Investigators for Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. found that Reading First’s director, Christopher J. Doherty, nominated review panelists with professional connections to the Reading Mastery program associated with the Direct Instruction teaching method. Mr. Doherty had spent part of his career promoting the use of the program before joining the Education Department in 2001 under the Bush administration. Those panelists reviewed 23 Reading First state applications.

“The Reading First director took direct action to ensure that a particular approach to reading instruction was represented on the expert review panel,” the report says.

The inspector general also found potential conflicts of interest among members of an assessment committee that reviewed tests suitable for use of Reading First in schools. Committee members themselves had produced five of those assessments.

Although Direct Instruction and Success for All are backed by the most scientific evidence of any reading programs, neither method has gotten a boost under Reading First. Reading Recovery, an intensive one-on-one tutoring program for struggling readers, which has also presented evidence of its effectiveness, was named in several of Mr. Doherty’s e-mails in which he suggested that officials should try to discourage its use among grant recipients.

Reading Time

The controversy over Reading First started to unfold from the very outset of the program.

January 2002: The U.S. Department of Education conducts Reading Academies, workshops to provide guidance for state officials on applying $900 million in Reading First grants.

March 2002: The International Reading Association and the Association of American Publishers write to Education Secretary Rod Paige to request clarification on Reading First. The letters raise concerns that state education officials are getting the message that they can improve their chances of receiving their Reading First grants by ordering school districts to use specific products and materials.

June 2002: The first Reading First grants are awarded to Alabama, Colorado, and Florida. Most grant applications are sent back to the remaining states and jurisdictions for revisions.

January 2004: New York City school officials announce that schools seeking Reading First grants will be required to use specific commercial core and intervention programs for teaching reading, not the district’s curriculum in the subject. Several months earlier, the city had been advised by a federal official that its choice of reading text would not meet Reading First requirements for research-based programs.

April 2005: Cindy Cupp, a former state education official in Georgia and the publisher of a commercial reading program, files complaints with state investigators against the state’s implementation of Reading First. Ms. Cupp claims state officials misled districts over whether her textbook series was aligned with Reading First requirements. Two months later, the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation requests a review by the federal Education Department’s inspector general.

June 2005: G. Reid Lyon, the nation’s “reading czar,” steps down as chief of the child-development and -behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to work for Best Associates, whose chairman, Randy Best, founded the Voyager Learning reading program. Mr. Lyon is assigned to help design a teacher education program that emphasizes research-based practice.

September 2005: An Education Week examination of documents and interviews with state officials finds evidence that federal employees and their representatives may have directed or pressured states to choose specific curricula, assessments, and consultants as conditions for receiving Reading First grants.

October 2005: A bipartisan group in Congress asks the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of Reading First.

July 2006: An interim report on Reading First, based on survey findings, is released suggesting that the program is having a positive effect on reading instruction in most states and districts financed under the program.

September 2006: The first of several reports on Reading First by the Education Department’s inspector general is released.

SOURCE: Education Week

Also implicated in the report for their roles in setting requirements for the program were Susan B. Neuman, who served as the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education from March 2001 until January 2003 and G. Reid Lyon, who directed the branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that supports reading research.

Ms. Neuman returned to her job as a reading researcher at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Mr. Lyon now works for Best Associates in Dallas.

In an interview, Ms. Neuman said she was not included in what she described as closed-door discussions between Mr. Doherty, other staff members, and consultants as they drafted guidance for the program and advised state officials on their grant proposals.

Mr. Lyon said his role was simply to explain and clarify what the research says is effective in reading instruction.

It is Mr. Doherty’s role in directing the grant-application process that is outlined in detail in the report, including e-mail exchanges that express in sharp wording his disdain for what he viewed as insufficiently rigorous instructional materials. Just days before the report was released, Mr. Doherty announced that he would be leaving his position with the department Oct. 1 for work in the private sector. He could not be reached for comment.

The handful of remaining Reading First staff members have been reassigned within the Education Department, according to spokesman Chad Colby.

In past interviews with Education Week, Mr. Doherty has maintained that the department only pressed state and local officials to meet the law’s demand for research-based materials, assessments, and practices, and provided counsel on how they could do that.

“In fact, what we’ve said about Reading First is that there is no approved list of programs or assessment, truthfully,” Mr. Doherty said in an interview last year.

Beyond the Law?

Some education experts said the Education Department had no choice but to push hard for states to change their approach to reading instruction. Many states, they said, wanted to continue using failed approaches or programs with no evidence of effectiveness.

In spring 2002, an Education Week survey found that most state officials were generally satisfied with their existing reading initiatives and planned to use Reading First money to expand, enhance, or supplement them without making wholesale changes.

Federal officials, however, said that simply tweaking existing approaches would not satisfy the rigorous demands of the new program. (“Federal Program Will Test States’ Reading Policies,” June 19, 2002.)

“In my view, Reading First is starting to get results, not in spite of the aggressive approach of the department, but because of it,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a former official at the Education Department during the current administration. Mr. Petrilli, now the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said the inspector general’s report does not point to any illegal activity but chronicles how department employees pressed to ensure the law’s intent was followed.

The inspector general, however, suggests that officials went beyond the law, which prohibits federal employees from influencing or directing states’ decisions on curricula, tests, or instructional methods.

Some observers agree.

“The issue is that here are these folks who saw an opportunity to really, fundamentally move the debate on reading instruction,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and the director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector. “That doesn’t allow them to deviate from what the law allows.”

The inspector general’s office is conducting five other audits related to Reading First. The reports could be completed by the end of the year, according to Mary Mitchelson, who serves as counsel to the inspector general.

In a statement, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said some of the actions described in the report “reflect individual mistakes” by federal employees. She added that she was “moving swiftly to enact all of the inspector general’s recommendations.”

The inspector general has recommended that the department review the structure and management of the Reading First office, establish guidelines to ensure staff members understand the prohibitions in the NCLB law, and set up greater oversight of programs as they are implemented.

Spellings’ Involvement

Mr. Petrilli, Mr. Rotherham, and others question Ms. Spellings’ claims that the program was implemented without her input. Although she became education secretary in early 2005, after many of the practices outlined in the report occurred, she was closely involved in the establishment of the No Child Left Behind program overall, and Reading First, while she served at the White House as President Bush’s chief domestic-policy aide during his first term, Mr. Petrilli said.

“Margaret Spellings was involved in this from day one in her role as domestic-policy adviser, and that’s something she should have been proud of because it’s one of the most successful education programs in the history of the department,” he said.

“Instead of defending it and hailing its success, she’s hanging one of her most loyal lieutenants out to dry,” Mr. Petrilli said, referring to Mr. Doherty.

Ms. Spellings has not yet responded to those allegations.

State and local education officials have generally praised the program for focusing needed resources on professional development and materials in reading. And many are reporting that those efforts are having a positive bearing on student achievement. But those successes have not been linked to the curriculum and assessment decisions made by those states. It is also not known whether a greater choice of instructional program, combined with the additional resources for teacher professional development and support services provided to Reading First schools, would have had a similar outcome.

The program’s results do not appease some officials who say the process may have hindered their ability to serve more children.

“The process we had to go through was so excruciating,” said Lisa Y. Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department. Kentucky had to revise its Reading First application at least three times, and officials said they gained approval only after buckling to Mr. Doherty’s demands to change the assessment portion of the plan. Despite the benefits of the program, Ms. Gross said, “still we believe if we had gotten our first proposal accepted, we could have provided many more services for students or at least gotten started a lot sooner.”

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., urged Republican members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee to hold hearings on the inspector general’s findings.

“This was a concerted effort to corrupt the process on behalf of partisan supporters, and taxpayers and schoolchildren are the ones who got harmed by it,” Rep. Miller, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a statement. He was among a bipartisan group that initiated a separate investigation of the program by the Government Accountability Office. That report is due out in January

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., responded to the report in a letter to Ms. Spellings last month. The report “seemed to suggest that the department mismanagement was even worse than expected,” he wrote. But, the senator added, that her promise to implement the inspector general’s recommendations was “a good start.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’


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