The OiG audit was initiated, in part, by Bob Slavin, co-creator of Success for All (SfA), who complained that his research based reading program was being excluded from Reading First funds. Here's how he put it in a press release from earlier this year:
Programs Excluded by Reading First Top List of Research-Based Programs
Two programs largely excluded by the federal Reading First program received the highest rating for research on reading outcomes given in a recent review. The review, issued by the Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center (CSRQ) at the respected American Institutes for Research, identified Success for All and the Direct Instruction Full Immersion program as having the strongest evidence of effectiveness for reading among 22 comprehensive school reform programs.
Despite the strong emphasis on evidence of effectiveness in the Reading First legislation, intended to help low-achieving children in grades 1-3 learn to read, the $1 billion a year Reading First program has instead emphasized traditional basal textbooks lacking evidence of effectiveness. Only 3% of Reading First grants have gone to schools using either of these programs.
Robert Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and Chairman of the non-profit Success for All Foundation said, "The CSRQ report used rigorous standards. It found 31 studies of Success for All and 10 of Direct Instruction that met its standards. If the same standards had been applied to the basal textbooks favored by Reading First, not one would have had more than a single qualifying study. Most have no research base at all."
The Success for All Foundation and other reading reform organizations have submitted complaints to the U.S. Department of Education'’s Inspector General, and the General Accountability Office is investigating at the request of Congress. The investigations are looking into allegations that the Department of Education failed to implement Reading First as intended and that there are serious conflicts of interest, as key Reading First contractors are authors of the commercial programs favored by Reading First. (emphasis mine)
The critical fact here is that only 3% of the Reading First grants have gone to SfA and DI, the only reading programs that, in Slavin's opinion, have sufficient scientifically based reading research (SBRR) support. As Slavin makes clear in this speech given to the Education Writer's Association, he believes that there were Reading First panelist who had ties to the commercial basal textbooks and it was these commercial basal textbook publishers that were impermissibly allowed in the Reading First program. Both SfA and DI would have been adversely affected by allowing these non-SBRR programs in, and, in fact, they were. Given an option between selecting a real SBRR reading program, like SfA or DI, and the more warm and fuzzy commercial basal programs, states overwhelming chose the latter.One real scandal is why are the State departments of education excluded from their RF applications the only two reading programs, SfA and DI, that have been validated to be effective in teaching at-risk readers to read. Owen Engelmann, who is associated with DI, echoed Slavin's concerns recently when he wrote this on a educator's mailing list (no link):
The intent of the Reading First legislation was to provide funding to at-risk schools for implementing Reading Programs with strong scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness. There are only 3 reading programs with strong scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness --– Reading Mastery, Open Court and Success for All. Reading Mastery has more scientific data supporting its effectiveness with at-risk students than the other 2 programs combined...As the OiG audit makes clear DoE and the Reading First panelists had to play hardball with the states in order to enforce the RF law. The states were not only excluding the only two legitimate reading programs they were also trying to get funding for their existing failed whole language/balanced literacy reading programs.
Since Reading Mastery is the most effective program, if it didn't make a state's Core list, then the state couldn't have been operating within the intent of the law. Why aren't those states being investigated for incompetence, negligence or misconduct for not selecting the most effective program? Instead, the Attorney General's Office is persecuting the Federal Reading First Office for enforcing the law.
This hardball playing would come back to haunt DoE.
The OiG audit was not directed to Slavin's complaint (which he confirmed in this recent press release) that both SfA and DI were excluded from RF funding, that commercial basal textbook publishers were impermissibly permitted funding, or that state's were also not selecting SfA or DI in favor of reading programs that were not research based. The facts support these contentions. Whether there is an actually a scandal to be had is unknown -- it depends on how broadly or narrowly the provision defining SBRR can be interpreted. Certainly, however, at-risk children are being adversely affected. Yet, no one seems to care about this angle. No, what OiG did was mangle the facts to fit a political agenda to attack the Bush administration and the Republicans two months before the mid-term elections.
What OiG did was capitalize on DoE's need to play hardball with the states and take advantage of the reading war battle raging behind the scenes. E-mails were selected showing DoE fighting with the states to exclude their non-SBRR whole language programs, which arguably is not only permissible but the intent of the Reading First statute, and bootstrap that to imply that SfA was also impermissibly excluded from RF funding by DoE when it appears that it was the states that were, arguably impermissibly, doing the excluding in their application (and as Slavin points out they were also excluding DI).
Then OiG capitalized on the fact that almost every RF panelist had connections to one or more commercial programs and concocted a conflict test "significant professional associations" that would have ensnared almost every RF panelist. But, OiG didn't use this contrived conflict to go after the publishers of the commercial basal textbooks that Slavin originally complained of. No, they had bigger fish to fry.
There was one reading program publisher, McGraw-Hill, that published a reading program under consideration, DI, who had political connections to the Bush administration. In addition, some of the reading researchers on the RF panels had professional associations with DI. So OiG used the DI connection to connect McGraw Hill with the Bush Administration. And, thus a scandal was born. Nevermind, that Slavin himself, believed that DI rightfully should have been included inthe Reading First program or the fact that DI only received less than 3% of the RF grants which means they didn't benefit from the "stacked panels" as alleged by OiG.
It is ironic that given the choice to go after the scandal that affects school children or the scandal that hurts the Bush administration, OiG chose the latter.