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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."

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 chairmen.

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 done.

"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.

grunwaldmr@washpost.com

Michael Grunwald is a

Washington Post staff writer.

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