Reading recovery

May 17, 2007

Areport released last week has reinforced that the reading improvement program that has been part of the federal No Child Left Behind law has been awash in cronyism and conflicts of interest. The report, prepared by staff members for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, attests to the level of congressional interest in the problems with the program - and underscores the need for changes in the law as soon as possible. In addition, the Department of Education needs to be able to show Congress and the public that its procedures are transparent and above board.

The program, Reading First, tries to improve the reading skills of first-, second- and third-graders through instruction methods that are supposed to be scientifically based with a record of effectiveness. But a report last year by DOE's inspector general confirmed complaints from some reading specialists that the process of awarding almost $5 billion in grants to nearly 5,000 schools has been corrupted by conflicts of interest and a propensity by some DOE officials to push for teaching methods that they happened to like, regardless of any scientific underpinnings.

Mr. Kennedy's report goes even further in demonstrating how a group of DOE subcontractors, who offered guidance to school districts on specific reading programs that could be purchased with Reading First grants, also had substantial financial ties to the handful of publishers who produced books and other materials associated with the recommended programs.

These cozy and lucrative relationships resulted in some effective programs being downplayed or shut out entirely. One such program, Success for All, was developed by Robert Slavin, a professor of education and school reform expert at the Johns Hopkins University. They also probably cheated some poor-performing students of the best methods to improve their reading abilities and perhaps their chances for overall academic success.

Mr. Kennedy, with some bipartisan support, would impose broader financial disclosure requirements on contractors and subcontractors and further restrict their ability to influence local curriculum decisions. Beyond legislation, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who has shaken up leadership of the Reading First program, has vowed to continue working with her inspector general's office to correct problems. Better legislative and administrative controls will be needed to get this program back in focus.

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