September 26, 2006

Beware What You Wish For

Bob Slavin, creator of SfA, must be horrified with the findings of the OIG audit. The NewYork Times reported that the OIG investigation "was opened last year after the inspector general received accusations of mismanagement and other abuses at the department" from certain unnamed publishers and Slavin who is named and is quoted as saying:
The department has said at least 10,000 times that they had no favored reading programs, and this report provides clear evidence that they were very aggressively pressing districts to use certain programs and not use others
Since the OIG report only singles out panelists who were associated with DI, the natural inference is that DoE was aggressively pushing DI. The reader is left with the impression that Slavin is upset with the DI people. I believe this impression is intentional on the part of the NYT and the other MSMers who've reported the scandal.

But look at what Slavin had to say at the Education Writer's Association annual meeting in New Orleans, June 2, 2006.
I work at Johns Hopkins University, and am Chairman of the non-profit Success for All Foundation. Our Success for All reading program is one of two reading programs that have been extensively evaluated and found to be effective. The other is Direct Instruction. Both have been successfully evaluated in studies with random assignment to conditions, and the majority of the dozens of studies of both programs were done by third-party researchers. (You have summaries of research on Success for All in your packet.) Hardly anyone denies that Success for All and Direct Instruction have exceptionally strong evidence of effectiveness.

Naturally, advocates for scientifically proven practice assumed that a significant portion of the $1 billion a year in Reading First would go to help schools adopt programs with proven benefits for children. We were idiots. Nothing of the kind took place.

What did happen is that at least 95% of federal money was spent to implement the same commercial basal textbooks that most schools would have used had Reading First never existed. Worse, Reading First has actively pushed out programs with strong evidence of effectiveness, in favor of commercial programs and professional development programs lacking even a shred of evidence.

Reading First has turned out to be a giant step backward in reading reform, not just because it has nearly destroyed research-proven programs, but because it has made a mockery of the idea that scientific evidence should guide educational decisions for vulnerable children.

... [When the legislation passed, they realized that they faced a dilemma. Only two programs, Success for All and Direct Instruction, had extensive evidence of effectiveness. One of the five top-selling commercial basals, Open Court, also had a limited research base. The others had nothing.
Slavin was complaining that Reading First was being overinclusive by approving too many programs that did not have scientifically based reading research support. Zig Engelman the creator of DI, made the exact same criticism in "How Scientific is Reading First?" back in January.

Slavin goes on the say that DoE made the decision to soften the requirements of RF to permit the inclusion of other reading programs that were consistent with the research base on reading.
What Reid Lyon was essentially saying is that once he and other Reading First leaders realized that insisting on proven programs would limit schools to just a few programs, they had to change the rules to emphasize a much lower standard, programs based on good principles of practice. This is a key distinction.
It appears that it was DoE's intent to interpret SBRR to include other commercial basals, programs with no scientific research of their own but which superficially looked like SfA and DI because they taught phonics, phoneme awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension in a systematic and explicit manner. Slavin's opinion is consistent with mine in that under this standard the only programs that would not be eligible for RF funding were "the most extreme whole language basals." But, that isn't going to stop the publishers of those programs from also trying to claim that they were just as consistent with the SBRR as the commercial phonics basals were.

Then Slavin makes this excellent point:

Instead, Reading First leaders did their best to make certain that very few schools would use research-proven programs. From the earliest Reading First academies, for instance, top-selling basal texts were given by name as exemplars of what Reading First was all about. Programs with strong evidence of effectiveness were never mentioned.

Why would they do this? To understand why, put yourself in the position of a major textbook publisher. To them, the very idea that schools should choose programs with strong evidence is anathema. It took Direct Instruction 40 years to build up its impressive research base. It took Success for All 19 years. The commercial basals would be starting from zero. Frankly, their programs would probably not succeed in well-designed studies. Remember, standard commercial basals were the control groups in all studies of Success for All and Direct Instruction.
Slavin goes on to document that many of the panelists in fact had conflicts not with DI but with the commercial basal programs, such as Scott-Foresman and Voyager.
The large publishers could not possibly allow research to have a serious role in textbook selection. So they put enormous pressure on federal officials, congressional staffers, and key leaders in academia. They gave major publishing and consulting contracts to many of the individuals they knew would be influential. I'll come back to the issue of conflicts of interest in a moment.

I can't tell you all the ways the big publishers ensured that evidence of effectiveness would play no role in Reading First, but I can share with you unequivocal evidence that this is indeed what happened.

Back in 2003, when the first states were qualifying for Reading First funding, we were shocked to learn that the earliest-funded states, such as Michigan, restricted Reading First funding to the five top-selling basals: Houghton-Mifflin, Harcourt, Scott-Foresman, Macmillan, and Open Court. The two programs with strong evidence of effectiveness, Success for All and Direct Instruction, were not allowed.
So just in case it's not painfully obvious by now, Slavin was complaining that DoE was subverting reading First by permitting the use of commercial phonics basals which did not have a research base. Slavin, like Engelmann, believed that RF funds should be limited to the programs with an actual research base, namely DI, SfA, and Open Court. Ultimately, Slavin lodged his complaint and the OIG investigated.

Now here's the irony. The OIG report actually comes to the exact opposite conclusion -- Reading First may not have been inclusive enough and should have possibly included the whole language basals also. In the process, OIG manages to take a backhanded swipe at the panelists who had a connection to DI, a program that Slavin believed to one of the few that was truly eligible under RF along with SfA, tarring DI in the process.

Let's look at the winners and losers after the OIG audit.
Winners: all commercial basals that were funded under RF even though they had no research base, if anything they tended to be the losers in the reading research.

Potential Winners: whole language programs, who were even bigger losers in research, which may also get RF funding upon DoE's reinspection of the state applications.

Losers: Success for All and Direct Instruction, the only programs with real research support. SfA only made the approved list in about 28 states. And Owen Engelmann of DI has also said that Reading First "hasn't helped us out much at all." Both he and Slavin say implementation problems threaten to turn a worthy program into ineffective instruction for poor kids at taxpayer expense.


Anonymous said...

"Naturally, advocates for scientifically proven practice assumed that a significant portion of the $1 billion a year in Reading First would go to help schools adopt programs with proven benefits for children."

Well, there was his first mistake.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the provocative post. I am learning a lot about Reading First these days.

The brouhaha helps to emphasize a point I keep pounding: textbooks do matter.

I have heads of big education foundations telling me that "textbooks are dead boring" and they don't really matter when we're talking "education reform."

Textbooks (or "instructional materials" or "instructional programs" or whatever you want to call them) matter a great deal.

They form the core of the curriculum throughout the country. We must take them more seriously.

Thanks for educating me!