September 28, 2006

So Which Reading First Scandal Is It?

I remain confused by the Reading First Scandal. Once you probe an inch below the surface you quickly start seeing that OiG's findings contradict reality. (See my handy-dandy Reading First glossary for a description of the acronyms involved).

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...

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

So, should we now go and see what political "connections" the other companies have so we can then rule out their effectiveness?

Is the connection with McGraw-Hill just this one person or are there more? Don't most companies and corporations donate to a political party, or even both? And I don't know if that's what McGraw-Hill did. (You may have mentioned it in an earlier post.)

Maybe they should all identify themselves politically so we can get on with it.

Molly Ivins has a blurb in the Trib today focusing on the Doherty email only. So, of course, it's a scandal and all involved are guilty.

It really is never about the children, is it?


Anonymous said...

Your discussions about this Reading First issue make it very clear that you know little-to-nothing about government, the Inspector General's role in government, and the purpose of the IG reports.

The role of the IG, who is likely a Republican since he works for and is appointed by the Secretary, is to help promote the effectiveness, efficiency, and integrity of the government programs. I highly doubt that anyone in the OIG knows anything about the reading wars, DI, Reading Recovery, whole language, phonemic awareness, etc. This report is not some whole language plot to attack the Bush Administration.

The facts are the facts. And the OIG reports them. And, in this case, the facts aren't pretty.

KDeRosa said...

Anon, your comment demonstrates you know very little about politics.

KDeRosa said...

Susan, the chairman is a political donee and friend to Bush.

Anonymous said...

"Anon, your comment demonstrates you know very little about politics."

Huh? That doesn't even make sense.

I'm telling you that you might do yourself a favor and learn a little bit more about what an OIG really does. Read a bunch of OIG reports. Ethics and integrity, compliance with laws and standards, and GAO's internal controls are the types of things that get an IG auditor all jazzed up. These guys are accountants and program/financial analysts. The point of their reports are to expose fraud and abuse in the government. They don't care about what's the best way to teach reading -- that's left to the experts. The OIG is around to make sure that the people in charge of the money aren't breaking the rules.

This report just happens to have political implications because the findings address some touchy/controversial issues and because the Department of Education appears to have been so incredibly careless/stupid in the way they conducted their business. If the Department had been improperly promoting some curriculum other than Direct Instruction, the IG would have nailed them for that as well.

IGs in other agencies are exposing similar ethical problems with this Administration. It can't all be some vast left-wing conspiracy, can it? That excuse is getting mighty tired.

KDeRosa said...

Anon, there is a difference between a political agenda and VLWC.

As I've pointed out, but you fail to either understand or have ignored, is that the fatcs that OIG laid out as to fiscal mismangaement don't jibe. DI is objected entitled to have been included in every state's RF application asa one of only two programs that qualify as having SBRR. Yet it was excluded from many state's RD appliction and has only received less than 3% of RF funding. The audit even points out that there is no evidence that any of the DI panelists ever served on a panel where DI was up for consideration. That would have been a scandal. It was the panelists job to rightly exclud programs not having SBRR and there is no evidence that they did anything but that.

In fact, as I've also pointed out the alleged conflicts upon which the supposed ethical violations are based are phony because every panelist had a connection to some program that was up for consideration. If you understod the underlying issues, you'd have understood that.

The only way the audit is consistent with your simplistic interpretation is if every reading program was eligible for consideration and the panelists forcably excluded some in favor of others. But, to do that you'd have to read out the SBRR requirement of the statute, Unfortunately, it's in there.

Like I've said there might well be some violations and a real scandal in there somewhere, but the OiG didn't lay one out.

Anonymous said...


As to VLWCs, as I see it that's off point.

The vast Washington bureaucracy leans left of center. Not far left of center, but left.

They're highly protective of their turf, and if OIG is part of the DOE (see! I can play!) they're going to be ed-school-ish in orientation. Programs like Direct Instruction and Success For All are not simpatico with DOE folk.

After all, remember the image from Michael Moore's movie of President Bush listening to the goat story just after he's learned of the attacks. That story is from DI; the classroom is in FL, Jeb's state. Although Englemann himself is fairly far left, you could probably count the number of leftists who cotton to his program on one hand.

George Bush is a thorn in everyone's side, including, I would argue, establishment Republicans. And big bureaucracies loathe being bossed around by Presidents, regardless of Party.

What's the saying?

"Stay out of my knickers." I think that's it. Bureaucratic sentiment towards whoever happens to be President.

Bush is a natural target.

Anonymous said...

The states had every encouragement to select SFA - it was on the official formulary of RF. The SFA program, although effective, is much hated by teachers, who feel that it smothers teacher initiative and creativity. That is probably the problem Slavin should be attending to, instead of complaining that the deck, stacked right up the ceiling, was not stacked well enough.