I finished reading the OIG audit and with the exception of some salicious quotes pulled from e-mails it was oddly free of sufficient facts for anyone to make an informed judgment as to the alleged wrongdoing on the part of DoE. In addition, I couldn't find one instance of "balanced literacy" or her ugly step sister "whole language." And, in case anyone has been living under a rock for the past decade, there is a "reading war" raging in this country between the advocates of "whole language" reading instruction and the advocates of "phonics" based reading instruction. It's difficult to understand what's going on in the Reading First program unless you know what's going on in the Reading War.
Certainly the MSM reporting, the AP article and the New York Times article, on this OIG report has been superficial. Their intent, so far, is to report on the potential Bush administration scandal and play it up. Their investigative reporting has consisted of accepting the bad findings in the OIG report at face value and parroting them back to their readers.
My take is that the OIG report is a strong offensive waged by proxy by the advocates of whole language. It is uncertain whether OIG is an unwitting dupe, carrying water for the whole language cultists, or merely taking advantage of a political opportunity (sloppy DoE administration) to take a swipe at the administration. So let's place the scandal in its proper context so we can get a clearer picture of what is actually going on here, and what is not being reported by the OIG and MSM.
Whole language remains the predominate mode of reading instruction in use today. It's not called whole language anymore; it's called "Balanced Literacy" because they added a veneer of phonics on top of a system that continues to teach children how to read by "focusing on meaning" rather than by decoding words using phonics. Phonics is an after thought in Balanced Literacy. The most important aspect of Balanced Literacy is that it continues to fail to teach many children to read and still lacks a research base. Nonetheless, it is used in nearly every classroom in this country and its proponents remain ensconced in the departments of education in many states.
Reading First is the initiative designed to combat the mass reading failure caused by the continued use of Balanced Literacy reading programs. RF was designed to encourage states to adopt reading programs based on Scientifically Based Reading Research (SBRR). When RF began , three reading programs had sufficient SBRR to be funded under RF: Open Court (OC), Success for All (SfA), and Direct Instruction (DI) -- some being more successful than others. It is important to note that these three programs were not only SBRR programs they were also scientifically validated reading programs; each program has a significant research base validating its effectiveness. However, RF only requires SBRR, and, as a result, additional phonics-based reading programs were later found to be qualify.
In order to get RF funding it's up to the states to submit their application for funding. This is where the fun begins.
All the states had to do to claim RF funds was to submit a proposal indicating that they would use one or more SBRR programs, such as OC, SfA, or DI. This did not go over well with many states whose DoE's were infected with whole language cultists and reading curriculum publishers (such as Reading Recovery) whose programs were excluded because they were not SBRR programs. Moreover, this didn't prevent many states from submitting RF applications which included only reading programs that were SBRR free. Reading Recovery, a failed remedial reading program, was a popular choice and the publishers of Reading Recovery mounted an intense campaign to be included in the RF program.
In addition, at this point some states began communicating among themselves in an effort to find a loophole in the imprecisely worded RF statute to get their favored Balanced Literacy programs included in RF. These states used the application process and their ability to amend their applications as often as needed to subvert the RF prohibitions against the Balanced Literacy programs they wanted so dearly to continue to use and get funded.
Here's how the game typically gets played. All a state needs to do is get one Balanced Literacy program approved, it could then include any number of additional SBRR programs in its application knowing full well that most school districts would never use anything but the sole approved Balanced Literacy program. Such is the preferred way to subvert a statute aiming to any reform of education.
Bob slavin appears to not understand how this game gets played and is seemingly upset that SfA has not been selected by more states even though it is eligible for RF funding. The New York Times used Slavin as their "useful idiot" and to run cover for the politically powerful and largely Democrat supporting whole-language-loving educators. (Word of advice to Slavin: states aren't selecting DI for use either; being named as eligible under RF is not the same thing as actually being used.)
This is the context that the harsh DoE emails in the OIG report are best understood. Professor Marin Kozloff, a Reading First Panelist, had this to say about the states' shenanigans in a discussion forum on Saturday night:
[T]he assertive comments found in several of Mr. Dohertys emails are not an example of rejecting certain programs and favoring others. They were emotional responses to the continual harassment and pressure put on Reading First by companies (and by proponents) whose programs were (in my estimation) very badly designed but who wanted their programs accepted, anyway. It must be remembered that Reading First did not occur in a neutral context. It was not merely that certain materials were NOW considered badly designed, untested, and ineffective; it was the case that a whole approach (unsystematic instruction; teaching students to predict what words say) was called to account. Proponents of that approach (whole language and Reading Recovery) were often the very persons writing state RF proposals, and (according to Chris and Sandi) communicated amongst themselves in emails, telling each other how to by-pass the Reading First regulations. That is the context in which Mr. Dohertys remarks must be understood.Right or wrong, Mr. Doherty is certainly politically naive if he thought the diehard whole-language cultists were going to simply roll over and accept the beating RF was intended to inflict on them. That's why he's being made the fall guy in this scandal.
Far from side-stepping the regulations, he was trying to prevent their being subverted, and was frustrated by the chicanery of some states.
Professor Kozloff has "professional contacts" with DI along with at least five other RF panelists. The OIG made much of these contacts in its reports. This was all they had to go on, because even though DoE was under no obligation to conduct a conflict check it performed one anyway for financial conflicts. Nonetheless, OIG drummed up the "professional contacts" conflict conveniently ignoring that every panelist had a professional contact with some reading program, otherwise they wouldn't have been qualified to serve as a panelist. Kozloff explains:
As to the finding that six panelists had some kind of professional connections to DI programs, this does not reveal a bias towards DI. Everyone on the panel must have had a professional connection to SOME program (Open Court, Success for All, Orton Gillingham); that is, they must have used a program; trained teachers to use it; or owned it. Can you imagine an expert in math who has no professional connection to a math text---is not partial to and has never used any? At the time the panel was created there were only three sbrr programs---Open Court, Reading Mastery, and Success for All. If there were six persons with connections to DI in the whole panel, this would be well below chance.It's hard to believe that the OIG failed to see that everybody in education has professional contacts with some pedagogy and/or program. The difference is that some of those pedagogies are backed by scientific research and are effective and others have no such backing and, to boot, are ineffective. Unfortunately, the ineffective programs are the ones in widespread use. Furthermore, OIG seems not to be able to grasp the concept that insisting that states only adopt reading programs with SBRR support is not the same as endorsing or pushing the reading programs having SBRR.
Not unsurprisingly, the MSM has so far failed to get to the bottom of the OIG report. They sense that the report can be played up as a Bush administration failure and are playing it for all it's worth. This is what politics is all about after all and it doesn't help that DoE appears to have been very sloppy with its discoverable communications and its practices.
But let's not lose track of the fact that if the Reading First initiative is permitted to be subverted by the States it will not bode well for the millions of kids who fail to learn to read in a timely basis every year or for NCLB which depends on our schools being able to get kids to read in a timely manner in order to get them to proficiency by 2014.
Update (1:06 pm): Corrected some typos and readability.
See my point-by-point updated analysis of the OIG's "findings" here.