It's Monday morning and I still haven't seen any original reporting on the Reading First Scandal that actually shows wrongdoing on the part of DoE. Potential wrongdoing, perhaps, but, potential and innuendo do not a legitimate scandal make. There's still no blue dress, no matter how many adjectives the MSM dreams-up to characterize how bad they think the OIG audit will be for the administration.
Let's go through the findings point by point.
Finding 1A: The Department Did Not Select the Expert Review Panel in Compliance With the Requirements of NCLB
This one has a basis in fact. DoE was supposed to convene an Advisory and Oversight Panel to oversee the work of the subpanels that examined each state's RF applications. This was never done and DoE admits that this was a mistake. Nonetheless, OIG failed to show any actual harm that resulted from not forming the panel. DoE points out that the OIG failed to present evidence and they know of none that indicates that DoE's failure to convene this panel "would have met the requirements of the statute, resulted in any inappropriate effects or disadvantage to any State." DoE indicates that they will review all the application to determine if there was any wrongdoing by December 31. So, we'll have to wait until then to find out if this finding has any real merit.
FINDING 1B -- While Not Required to Screen for Conflicts of Interest, the Screening Process the Department Created Was Not Effective
This one is my favorite. DoE was under no obligation under NCLB to perform any conflicts check since RF does not directly issue any grants. Nonetheless, DoE did performed a conflicts check which included a screen for "financial interests in commercial products." No violations of this conflicts check were found or alleged by OIG. OIG's beef is that the conflict screen wasn't "effective" because DoE didn't include a catch-all question recommended by OIG: "Are you aware of any other circumstances that might cause someone to question your impartiality in serving as a reviewer for this competition?" OIG reasons that such a question would have revealed that six panelists had "significant professional connections to a teaching methodology that requires the use of a specific reading program."
This reasoning is specious and contrived at best. Using OIG's catch-all question would have revealed that every panelist had a significant professional connection to some program. That's why the panelists were qualified to sit on the panel in the first place; they were experts in reading instruction. Whether the panelists had ties to a single program or to several programs is not a satisfactory distinguishing characteristic for a conflicts check. In both cases, there remains a "conflict" under OIG's standard and all panelists would have been conflicted. This criterion would have effectively either removed all the reading experts from the panel (not exactly a desirable result) or would have biased the panel to members who had significant professional contacts with multiple programs (also not a desirable result). I see no advantage or heightened sense of impartiality in following OIG's contrived "professional conflicts in a single program" standard. Seems an ex post facto justification for achieving OIG's desired result.
In any event, OIG failed to show that even this flimsy conflict resulted in any of the six conflicted panelists reviewing or favoring the program with which they had significant professional contacts. Again, no real harm proven or alleged.
FINDING 2A -- The Department Did Not Follow Its Own Guidance For the Peer Review Process
OIG's objection here is that DoE departed from their initial plan to have provide the panelists' comments to the states and to have the panelists participate in the communications with the states to facilitate each state's amending of their applications to comply with RF. DoE admittedly diverted from this initial plan and undertook to summarize the comments made by the panelists and communicated with the states directly, supposedly in the interest of efficiency. OIG does not dispute that DoE was permitted to change this procedure since the procedure was not specified in the statute. OIG's only objection is that the initial guidance documents were not updated after DoE amended the procedure as they were entitled to do.
In a discussion list, one of the panelists clarified what actually transpired:
[R]egarding the assertion that the RF administrators did not share subpanel documents with the states, but instead wrote summaries---this is hardly a failing. In fact, it makes good sense. The evaluations sent by Sandi Jacobs and Chris Doherty to the states were summaries of main points in the subpanel reports, and were merely the BEGINNING of continuing conversations between these persons and the states. Ms. Jacobs many times told our subpanel that she worked from our evaluation reports when helping the states to improve their proposals. Can you imagine the demoralization and confusion if states were sent 80 page evaluations from the subpanel after each re-submission? In most cases, no more than four pages were needed to help states to improve their proposals.Moreover, as I pointed out here, most states were hostile to RF's requirement that they use reading programs based on scientific research. Many states wanted to continue using the same un-scientific reading programs that they were currently using and were actively conspiring among themselves in an attempt to subvert the RF requirements looking for creative interpretations of the statute and find a loophole to get their unscientific programs approved -- the same programs that were currently causing millions of children to be unable to read by third grade -- the very result RF was seeking to ameliorate.
[T]he summaries were the beginning of a dialogue with Jacobs and Doherty.
In most cases, a summary plus dialogue was all a state needed. The shortcomings were almost always the same and could be rectified if states read and used the readily available resources that were often cited for them.
OIG again fails to point to any specific instance where DoE substituted their own judgment for that of the panel by endorsing, approving, or mandating any specific reading program.
FINDING 2B -- The Department Awarded Grants to States Without Documentation That the Subpanels Approved All Criteria
This one is particularly lame. OIG alleges that "some applicants were funded without documentation that they met all of the criteria for approval raising a question of whether these States should have been funded." That's it. Only a question is raised. OIG again fails to show any actual wrong doing; just the existence of potential wrong doing. DoE points out that the statute did not require them to provide any documentation. So in the absence of a finding of any wrongdoing on the part of DoE, the lack of documentation is not an infraction. All OIG has here is that some issues with some applications without documentation appeared to be unresolved and characterized them as not being minor -- a judgment call by OIG. At best, this was sloppy work by DoE, until OIG can identify any real infraction.
FINDING 3 -- The Department Included Requirements in the Criteria Used by the Expert Review Panels That Were Not Specifically Addressed in NCLB
OIG complains that DoE required States to comply with three conditions that were not explicitly required by the statute. Here is what the conditions required, "Coherent instructional design that includes explicit instructional strategies, coordinated instructional sequences, ample practice opportunities, and aligned student materials," "Protected, dedicated block of time for reading instruction," and 'Small group instruction as appropriate to meet student needs, with placement and movement based on ongoing assessment." DoE claims that all these conditions are consistent with the scientific research (ed: they are) and OIG does not dispute this. OIG's beef is merely that DoE went above and beyond the minimum requirements of the statute. This seems like a good thing to me, especially since OIG failed to show that these "extra" conditions prejudiced any program or state application. In any event, these "additional consideration" can easily be found to come within the province of many explicit terms in the statute. It's not like those terms have a defined meaning in the art. DoE is free to interpret them as they see fit provided the interpretation has a ratinal basis. Until a court decides that DoE's interpretation was not rational, DoE is entitled to its interpretation.
FINDING 4 -- In Implementing the Reading First Program, Department Officials Obscured the Statutory Requirements of the ESEA; Acted in Contravention of the GAO Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government; and Took Actions That Call Into Question Whether They Violated the Prohibitions Included in the DEOA
This finding is the catch-all that depends on the validity of the previous three findings to be accurate. I've already pointed out that the "validity" of those points is less than compelling. Morevoer, once you aware of the ideological battle being fought in the reading wars, it becomes evident that most of what is going on in this finding is DoE's attempt to prevent some states from subverting RF by their aggressive lobbying to include non-SBRR programs in RF. DoE is entitled to its interpretation of the RF requirements to exclude whole language/balanced literacy programs that, in fact, are not SCRR programs. We'll have to wait until a court decides if DoE's interpretation is inaccurate, assuming some state or publisher complains and wins. Most importantly, OIG fails to show an instance where a SBRR program was denied access to RF funds or that one SBRR was favored or endorsed by DoE. Finding four is merely a series of bootstrap arguments that only sound bad when taken out of context of the reading wars and what actually went on during the RF approval process -- context OIG conveniently leaves out of its vaguely written audit.
This is weak tea at best, which is not to say that it won't be milked for all the political capital it can.
Midday Update: The International Reading Association (i.e., the whole language baddies) chimes in. The wolf trying to act innocent as they take advantage of the hen house scandal.
My trusty Jim "schoolsmatter" Horn anti-compass remains true. Overheated rhetoric plus cut-and-paste skills do not a rational argument make.