Billions for Inside Game on
October 1, 2006
By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, Page B01
President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act was premised on three revolutionary
goals. The first was to focus on low-performing schools and students; hence, No
Child Left Behind. The second was to beef up the federal role in education,
enforcing national standards through testing. The third was to bring facts and
evidence to the notoriously squishy world of education policy, promoting
teaching methods backed by "scientifically based research" instead of instinct
and fad. This was the least-publicized goal, but arguably the most vital; the
phrase "scientifically based research" appeared more than 100 times in the
landmark 2001 law.
The centerpiece of the new research-based approach was Reading First, a $1
billion-a-year effort to help low-income schools adopt strategies "that have
been proven to prevent or remediate reading failure" through rigorous
peer-reviewed studies. "Quite simply, Reading First focuses on what works, and
will support proven methods of early reading instruction," the Education
Five years later, an accumulating mound of evidence from reports, interviews and
program documents suggests that Reading First has had little to do with science
or rigor. Instead, the billions have gone to what is effectively a pilot project
for untested programs with friends in high places.
Department officials and a small group of influential contractors have
strong-armed states and local districts into adopting a small group of unproved
textbooks and reading programs with almost no peer-reviewed research behind
them. The commercial interests behind those textbooks and programs have paid
royalties and consulting fees to the key Reading First contractors, who also
served as consultants for states seeking grants and chaired the panels approving
the grants. Both the architect of Reading First and former education secretary
Roderick R. Paige have gone to work for the owner of one of those programs, who
is also a top Bush fundraiser.
On Sept. 22, the department's inspector general released a report exposing some
of Reading First's favoritism and mismanagement. The highlights were internal
e-mails from then-program director Chris Doherty, vowing to deny funding to
programs that weren't part of the department's in-crowd: "They are trying to
crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive] out of them in front of all
the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to
see how we welcome these dirtbags."
Doherty has since resigned, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has
pledged to review Reading First, emphasizing that the "individual mistakes"
detailed in the report occurred before she became secretary. Still, Spellings
expressed full confidence in the overall program: "Thanks to Reading First,
struggling students are far more likely to get the help they need from teachers
using scientifically based classroom reading instruction."
But the report barely scratched the surface of the incestuous process that
dominated the formation of Reading First. The initiative didn't promote
scientifically based reading instruction, the third goal of No Child Left
Behind. And it's providing ammunition to critics of the second goal, strong
national standards. The billion-dollar question is whether it may imperil the
first goal: Will some children get left behind?
Bush administration officials frequently say that Reading First does not play
favorites or intrude on local control, that states and districts are free to
choose their own textbooks and programs -- as long as they're backed by sound
science. But aggressive muckraking by the newsletter Title 1 Monitor and reading
advocates at the Success for All Foundation have eviscerated those claims, and
the inspector general's report officially contradicted them, accusing the
department of breaking the law by promoting its pet programs and squelching
others. In his internal e-mails, Doherty frequently admitted using "extralegal"
tactics to force states and local districts to do the department's bidding. A
report by Success for All documented how state applications for Reading First
grants that promoted the preferred programs were the only ones approved.
In fact, the vast majority of the 4,800 Reading First schools have now adopted
one of the five or six top-selling commercial textbooks, even though none of
them has been evaluated in a peer-reviewed study against a control group. Most
of the schools also use the same assessment program, the same instructional
model, and one of three training programs developed by Reading First insiders --
with little research backing.
"They kept denying it, but everybody knew the department had a list," said Jady
Johnson, director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America. "They're
forcing schools to spend millions on ineffective programs."
To some extent, the controversy over Reading First reflects an older controversy
over reading, pitting "phonics" advocates such as Doherty against "whole
language" practitioners such as Johnson.
The administration believes in phonics, which emphasizes repetitive drills that
teach children to sound out words. Johnson and other phonics skeptics try to
teach the meaning and context of words as well. Reading First money has been
steered toward states and local districts that go the phonics route, largely
because the Reading First panels that oversaw state applications were stacked
with department officials and other phonics fans. "Stack the panel?" Doherty
joked in one e-mail. "I have never *heard* of such a thing . . . <harrumph,
harrumph>." When Reid Lyon, who designed Reading First, complained that a
whole-language proponent had received an invitation to participate on an
evaluation panel, a top department official replied: "We can't un-invite her.
Just make sure she is on a panel with one of our barracuda types."
Doherty bragged to Lyon about pressuring Maine, Mississippi and New Jersey to
reverse decisions to allow whole-language programs in their schools: "This is
for your FYI, as I think this program-bashing is best done off or under the
major radar screens." Massachusetts and North Dakota were also told to drop
whole-language programs such as Rigby Literacy, and districts that didn't do so
lost funding. "Ha, ha--Rigby as a CORE program?" Doherty wrote in one internal
e-mail. "When pigs fly!"
Said Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School
Administrators: "It's been obvious all along that the administration knew
exactly what it wanted."
But it wasn't just about phonics.
Success for All is the phonics program with the strongest record of
scientifically proved results, backed by 31 studies rated "conclusive" by the
American Institutes for Research. And it has been shut out of Reading First. The
nonprofit Success for All Foundation has shed 60 percent of its staff since
Reading First began; the program had been growing rapidly, but now 300 schools
have dropped it. Betsy Ammons, a principal in North Carolina, watched Success
for All improve reading scores at her school, but state officials made her
switch to traditional textbooks to qualify for the new grants.
"You can't afford to turn down the federal money," Ammons said. "But why should
we have to give up on something that works?"
The answer lies in the Reading First grant process, which was almost comically
skewed. Michigan was the first state approved, after it simply proposed to adopt
the five best-selling textbooks. But when Rhode Island officials proposed to
require "high-quality reading programs that meet the test of having a scientific
research base," they were rejected. Doherty told them to check out Michigan's
list, so they cut and pasted it into their application, while suggesting that
districts could still adopt other programs justified by research. They were
rejected again. So they limited their program to the textbooks. Only then were
they approved. Similarly, Oklahoma unsuccessfully proposed to require reading
programs backed by three years of longitudinal data before it got the hint and
proposed the Michigan list.
So instead of advocating scientifically based reading programs, Reading First
has promoted programs with "key elements" endorsed by a national reading panel,
which could describe almost any program. It may not be a coincidence that the
initiative was essentially outsourced to a few experts with a dizzying array of
apparent conflicts of interest.
For example, when the department needed reviewers to evaluate reading assessment
programs, it contracted with a University of Oregon team led by Edward Kame'enui,
Roland Good and Deborah Simmons. Good had developed an assessment called Dynamic
Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), and Kame'enui, Good and
Simmons had all served on the design team for Voyager Passport, a remedial
program built around DIBELS. Ultimately, DIBELS was the only assessment used in
Reading First, and Voyager was the most popular supplemental program.
Similarly, the department steered states to just three providers of professional
development services: Kame'enui and Simmons at Oregon, Louisa C. Moats at the
for-profit Sopris West, and Sharon Vaughn at the University of Texas at Austin.
Vaughn was the other member of the Voyager Passport design team, and one of the
four chairmen of the secretary's Reading Leadership Academy, which exerted
enormous influence over Reading First; the others were Moats, Kame'enui and his
Oregon colleague Douglas Carnine. States such as Alabama, North Carolina and
Washington specified in their Reading First grants that every one of their
reviewers for local proposals would have to be approved by one of those
Kame'enui and Simmons also wrote the "Consumer's Guide" that most states agreed
to use to evaluate Reading First programs, and ran one of Reading First's three
"technical assistance centers" at Oregon. They co-wrote one Reading First
textbook, and Kame'enui earned more than $100,000 last year from royalties on
another, according to his financial disclosure when he moved to an Education
Department job. In her 2004 book "In Defense of Our Children: When Politics,
Profit, and Education Collide," Elaine Garan recalled color-coding the various
financial connections running through Reading First; when it came to Kame'enui,
she wrote, "I ran out of colors."
The department declined a request to interview Kame'enui, but Undersecretary
Henry Johnson said the department takes conflicts of interest seriously, and
will adopt all the inspector general's recommendations. "We're going to dig into
this," he said.
But Johnson said states are ultimately responsible for making sure their
programs are scientifically based, which is small comfort for applicants
pressured into adopting programs they didn't want. "It's been very frustrating
for those of us who really believe in evidence-based programs," said Richard
Long, a lobbyist for the International Reading Association, which represents
90,000 reading teachers and specialists nationwide.
Then again, Long thinks spending $1 billion a year on reading is a great idea.
And he thinks it's helping kids to read: "Have there been mistakes in
implementation? Oh yeah. But teachers in Reading First schools believe progress
is being made."
The bottom line, Johnson said, is that Reading First works. A department report
found that teachers in Reading First schools spent 19 minutes more per day on
reading than teachers in other schools, and were more likely to place struggling
students in reading intervention programs. A new report by the nonpartisan
Center on Education Policy suggested that Reading First is having a positive
effect on state reading scores, although Johnson said much more needs to be
"Despite all the problems with Reading First, there's evidence that it's helping
states," said Jack Jennings, the center's president.
Of course, $5 billion over five years ought to help states; the question is
whether it's helping as much as it should. Without the kind of rigorous studies
the law promised but the implementers failed to deliver, it's not clear.
But it is clear that Reading First has been a terrific boon for the textbook
publishing industry, and for the department's favored programs. For example, the
company that developed Voyager Passport was valued at about $5 million in a
newspaper article before Reading First; founder Randy Best, whose Republican
fundraising made him a Bush Pioneer, eventually sold it for $380 million. He
then put Lyon and Paige on his payroll.
Local domination of education is an American tradition, and Bush took up a
storied cause in challenging it; reformers since Horace Mann have promoted
national education policy as a way to encourage common culture and equal
opportunity. But local-control advocates have always warned that empowering
heavy-handed federal bureaucrats would breed self-serving, one-size-fits-all
solutions. Now, Reading First is making them look like prophets.