Literacy lapses

September 28, 2006

It's often hard to keep politics out of decision-making on education. But when it came to selecting reading curriculums as part of a No Child Left Behind literacy program, some Department of Education officials didn't even try. A report released last week by the Department's inspector general shows that the reading improvement program has been shamefully mired in favoritism and conflicts of interest. Department officials need to clean up the mess as quickly as possible.

The Reading First program aims to help first-, second- and third-graders read better as a way to boost broader academic success. Grants totaling almost $5 billion to nearly 5,000 schools were supposed to be used for scientifically proven reading instruction.

But the IG's office verified complaints from some reading specialists - including Robert Slavin, a professor of education and school reform expert at the Johns Hopkins University - that the process of awarding grants was tainted. An investigation found that, among other things, state grant applications were not always properly reviewed and that the DOE's methods of detecting conflicts of interest in the program were inadequate.

It also found that Christopher Doherty, who was in charge of Reading First grants at DOE and who had previously directed the Baltimore Curriculum Project, systematically pushed for certain teaching methods, such as Direct Instruction, with which he agreed. The report noted that Maryland education officials once included Direct Instruction on a list of acceptable curriculums submitted to the DOE, although there was no suggestion of wrongdoing. Mr. Doherty has since announced his resignation.

Beyond the fact that some good reading programs lost out because of a corrupt process, some low-income children may have lost much more by not getting help early enough to improve their chances of academic success. Department officials must adopt transparent, fair procedures to ensure that such monumental lapses won't be repeated.

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