A Textbook Case

Billions for an Inside Game on Reading

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, October 1, 2006

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 Department promised.

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 . . . ." 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."

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