Reading First Scandal Under the Radar

spellings+kiss+bush
Bush and Ed. Sec. Spellings kiss

The Bush Administration scandals are so extensive and are erupting so fast it is impossible to keep up with them. In today’s New York Times, columnist Frank Rich points out the problem,

Washington is still having trouble confronting the big picture of the Bush White House. Its dense web of deceit is the deliberate product of its amoral culture, not a haphazard potpourri of individual blunders.

Flying under the radar has been one of the most egregious of the scandals, the “Reading First” illegalities in the Department of Education. Yesterday, Amit Paley had a fantastic article in the Washington Post on the current Justice Department probe. The whole article is well worth reading, but here are some highlights.

The Justice Department is conducting a probe of a $6 billion reading initiative at the center of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, another blow to a program besieged by allegations of financial conflicts of interest and cronyism, people familiar with the matter said yesterday.

The disclosure came as a congressional hearing revealed how people implementing the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program made at least $1 million off textbooks and tests toward which the federal government steered states.”That sounds like a criminal enterprise to me,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, which held a five-hour investigative hearing. “You don’t get to override the law,” he angrily told a panel of Reading First officials. “But the fact of the matter is that you did.”

The Education Department’s inspector general, John P. Higgins Jr., said he has made several referrals to the Justice Department about the five-year-old program, which provides grants to improve reading for children in kindergarten through third grade.Higgins declined to offer more specifics, but Christopher J. Doherty, former director of Reading First, said in an interview that he was questioned by Justice officials in November. The civil division of the U.S. attorney’s office for the District, which can bring criminal charges, is reviewing the matter.

The intricate financial connections between Reading First products and program officials extend beyond issues the committee explored yesterday.Another researcher, Sharon Vaughn, worked with Kame’enui, Simmons and Good to design Voyager Universal Literacy, a program that Reading First officials urged states to use. Vaughn was director of a center at the University of Texas that was hired to provide states advice on selecting Reading First tests and books.

The publisher of that product, Voyager Expanded Learning, was founded and run by Randy Best, a major Bush campaign contributor, who sold the company in 2005 for more than $350 million. Now Best runs Higher Ed Holdings, a company that develops colleges of education, where former education secretary Roderick R. Paige is a senior adviser and G. Reid Lyon, Bush’s former reading adviser, is an executive vice president.

Of course, following the White House mantra, this was just a matter of management mistakes. Again from the Post Article,

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who declined to comment yesterday, has said management problems with Reading First “reflect individual mistakes.”

The Education Department defends the Reading First Program by claiming the program has been successful.

Despite the controversy surrounding Reading First’s management, the percentage of students in the program who are proficient on fluency tests has risen about 15 percent, Education Department officials said.

This data is curious for a couple of reasons. First, as it was released by the Department of Education two days before the House hearings, a cynic might claim it was released for political purposes. But, more importantly, the 15% rise in fluency claim was based upon selective data from various state tests that the Department has rejected as unreliable indicators in the past. Even if we assume the 15% rise is accurate, the gains are not compared with schools who are not receiving Reading First money. As was pointed out in an article in Education Week,

“There are some small gains, yes. But are they larger than gains in non-Reading First schools?” said Richard A. Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “We don’t know whether improvements are related to the Reading First model or to general improvement trends across all schools.”

Even if the Reading First program wasn’t infected by conflicts of interest and cronyism, it is educationally bankrupt. The program’s junk science approach to reading instruction amounts to a socially-engineered form of brainwashing that turns low-income children into passive drones at an early age. If you think I am exaggerating, follow the link here and watch the videos describing the “Direct Instruction” approach to reading. The Direct Instruction model is one of those recommended and supported by Reading First and is similar in almost all respects with the other “approved” programs.

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