November 15, 2006

NYT Reading First Hit Piece

The NYT is still milking the Reading First "scandal." This time they're using Cindy Cupp as their willing mouthpiece.

Cupp, who runs a tiny phonics-based reading program, Dr. Cupp Readers® & Journal Writers, filed the first complaint against DoE. I'm not going to go rehash how most of the allegations in this story were not substantiated by the OIG report. I've covered that ground already in detail (Look in the October archives). This time let's focus on Cupp's shaky allegations.

First the NYT sets up Cupp to be a white knight.

Dr. Cupp is a self-described speedboat who spent 19 years teaching children and adults to read. At her company, Cupp Publishers, she visits Georgia schools demonstrating her reading kits, while her sister, a retired guidance counselor, packs them for shipping and handles the bookkeeping.
You'll soon see that Cupp is no white knight. Cupp is merely a grey knight, at best, with limited resources.

When the federal government enacted Reading First in 2002, Dr. Cupp thought her company would surely get a slice of the pie. After all, 90 percent of students in the schools that use her kits had learned to read by the end of first grade.

Lovely sense of entitlement we have here.

To get Reading First funding our little speedboat, Dr. Cupp would have had to have comply with the following requirements:
  1. conduct scientific research validating that her program worked;
  2. show that her program was consistent with the scientifically based reading research conducted on other programs;
  3. managed to convince one or more states to include her program on their Reading First
  4. application; and
  5. have that application approved by DoE's expert panels.
Certainly, nothing on Cupp's "research" page lists anything approaching valid research on her program. At best her program is no better than any of the major publishers' programs that used other people's research to skirt past the lame "consistent with scientifically based reading research (SBRR)" standard of the Reading First law. File this under the two wrongs make a right theory of entitlement.

There is no evidence in the OiG report that DoE Cupp's program was rejected because it lacked SBRR or that states were forced to remove it from their Reading First applications. It could be that states did not include the program in their applications in the first place or voluntarily removed the program from their list after their application was rejected by DoE.

Here is what happened. DoE is not permitted to endorse or disparage any reading program so when a state included reading programs on their list that did not have SBRR, i.e., whole language programs, DoE could only reject applications and offer vague suggestions for the rejections. Many states did not take the hint, so after a few states got their applications approved, DoE started suggesting that to states having problems to take a look at the approved applications for guidance. Cupps program (and SfA) were not on these approved applications, ostensibly because those states chose not to include them in their applications. Frequently, states coming into the process later took the easy way out and just copied the approved programs fromapproved applications. This is how Cupp got screwed. There is no evidence in the OiG report that DoE ever specifically rejected Cupp's program.

The federal program emphasized phonics -- mastering the sounds of letters and letter blends -- as opposed to what officials considered the mushiness of whole-language teaching, which emphasizes grasping meaning through good children's literature. Dr. Cupp's materials also emphasized phonics -- in 60 stories centered on two caped turtles named Jack and Jilly.
This is a nice example of biased and/or sloppy reporting on behalf of the NYT.

The federal program "emphasized" phonics because the Reading First statute mandated that DoE accept only programs consistent with the reading research. Only phonics programs meet this requirement. Whole language programs were considered "mush[y]" because they have no reading research supporting their use because "emphasiz[ing] grasping meaning through good children’s literature" has turned out to be an ineffective way to teach reading.

It is not sufficient that Cupp's program "emphasize[] phonics." Under the Reading First statute reading programs must not only contain the five essential components of reading instruction (phoneme awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) but also teach these components in a systematic and explicit manner. Perhaps Cupp's program meets these requirements, but you have no way of knowing if you get your facts and analysis from the NYT.

Still, schools that used her materials found themselves frozen out of federal money. Dr. Cupp sought an explanation from a friend at the Georgia Department of Education, where Dr. Cupp was director of reading from 1996 to 1999, and was told, she said, that any school listing her reading program “would not be funded.”

After the federal department repeatedly rejected their grant applications, Georgia officials concluded that “this money is available if you follow the rulebook,” said Dana Tofig, communications director for the Georgia Education Department. Dr. Cupp’s reading program “did not meet the benchmarks it had to meet,” he said, adding that the officials who could explain why no longer worked in the department.

Too bad none of this is supported in the OiG report. It could be the case that Cupp failed to meet the burden of showing that her program was consistent with the reading research. It's not like she had any of her own research to rely upon.

Dr. Cupp points out that Georgia chose big textbook publishers, like Scott Foresman and Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, spurning what she called home-cooked turkey dinners like her reading program.

More sloppy reporting. While the Foresman program was approved for Reading First funds, other Macmillan/McGraw-Hill reading programs (by their Wright Group) were denied funds. So much for the kooky conspiracy theories.

The article devolves from there, relying much of the same allegations made in last month's waPo article by Grunvald. See Bob Sweet's takedown here. (take a look at the comments as well.) This latest NYT article demonstrates that journalists know nothing about legal analysis and research and know less than nothing when writing about a "scandal" involving both.


MassParent said...

My reading of the NYT piece is that it is pretty straight up about the consequence of federal regulation strangling small business, whether intentionally or otherwise.

The Reading First scandal, as I see it, is about an ideologically driven, overreaching bureaucracy. As such, it really encompasses the whole of No Child Left Behind.

Our school's Principal said he didn't bother to apply for a Reading First grant, because of the red tape involved for a small rural district and the fact that our parents, teachers, and the principal are happy with the reading program we employ.

When a federal bureaucracy gets into micro-management, it's a sure thing that K-street wins, and small players lose - whether they are small businesses or small school districts.

As for Scientifically Based Research, the whole premise of NCLB hasn't been subjected to Scientfically Based Research. The mandates haven't been proven achievable on a broad scale, and the prescriptions for reforming "inadequate" schools have never been demonstrated able to improve performance for any large district, certainly not capable or bringing an "inadequate" district back into compliance with the AYP mandate for more than a fleeting moment or two.

KDeRosa said...

You can't draw the casual relation between this piece of legislation and its effects on small business. there are too many interventing factors, the most pernicious is the state DoE's that chose what programs to include in their applications and the districts who could have chosen not to select any program on the state's approved list for any reason.

NCLB is not without its flaws, but one flaw it doesn't have is micromanaging. NCLB sets forth the results it wants and a testing regime to ensure compliance. States and schools get to determine everything else: the standards, the tests, teh cut-off points, the curricula, and the like. All they have to do is show improvement.

I'm all for getting the federal government out of education altogether, but that's not going to happen anytime soon. So as long as we permit them to play a role, the feds are within their right to attach whatever strings they want to for their money.

Anonymous said...

"I'm all for getting the federal government out of education altogether..."

And local government too. Give the power (and money) to the parents.

"... is about an ideologically driven, overreaching bureaucracy."

Of course this can't happen on the local level. Right. Local ideology is OK (especially if you agree with it), but federal ideology is not. Is that the idea?