March 09, 2007

Reading corruption?

When I recently posted about wordwide arguments over how to teach reading ("The globalization of educational fads and fallacies", 3/2/2007), I noted with sadness that the issue has become politicized. Reading instruction has been adopted by partisans in broader culture wars, and also has become the focus of alleged influence-peddling and patronage in the context of struggles over the federal Reading First program.

A story in today's NYT (Diana Jean Schemo, "In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash") seems to endorse, at least by implication, the idea that pressuring schools to use phonics is a conspiracy on the part of educational publishers and contractors, abetted by corrupt federal bureaucrats.

In my earlier post, I quoted the invocation of this theme in an article by Stephen Metcalf in the Nation almost five years ago ("Reading Between the Lines", 1/10/2002): teach phonics you need a textbook and usually a series of items--worksheets, tests, teacher's editions--that constitute an elaborate purchase for a school district and a profitable product line for a publisher.

I also quoted in response a letter by David Pesetsky:

The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written language can be acquired naturally. But whole language contradicted what linguistics and cognitive psychology teach us: that written language is a subtle code for spoken language; learning to read is unlike learning to speak; and explicit instruction--phonics--is essential for many.

Reading instruction one of the most important public policy issues of our time, and it's all too easily seen as a mythic struggle: tradition vs. innovation; science vs. stupidity; central vs. local; coercion vs. freedom; honesty vs. corruption. The trouble is, all sides of the debate see in themselves the positive aspects of every one of these oppositions, and cast the opponents in the corresponding negative roles.

I'm not straddling the fence on the pedagogical issues here: I strongly agree with the anti-whole-language position of K. Rayner et al., "How Psychological Science Informs the Teaching of Reading", Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2(2) 31-74, 2001 (published in a popular version as K. Rayner et al., "How Should Reading be Taught?" Scientific American, 2002). But that makes it all the more important to give serious consideration to the charges in Schemo's article.

Here's the article's core:

According to interviews with school officials and a string of federal audits and e-mail messages made public in recent months, federal officials and contractors used the program to pressure schools to adopt approaches that emphasize phonics, focusing on the mechanics of sounding out syllables, and to discard methods drawn from whole language that play down these mechanics and use cues like pictures or context to teach.

Federal officials who ran Reading First maintain that only curriculums including regular and systematic phonics lessons had the backing of “scientifically based reading research” required by the program.

But in a string of blistering reports, the Education Department’s inspector general has found that federal officials may have violated prohibitions in the law against mandating, or even endorsing, specific curriculums. The reports also found that federal officials overlooked conflicts of interest among the contractors that advised states applying for grants, and that in some instances, these contractors wrote reading programs competing for the money, and stood to collect royalties if their programs were chosen.

After spending a couple of hours looking into these charges, I couldn't find a great deal of fire behind the smoke. Schemo's article highlights the case of the school system in Madison WI, which decided to pass up $2M in federal Reading First money because of difficulties in getting its preferred curriculum approved. But I couldn't figure out whether this was because the curriculum genuinely didn't meet the criteria, or because of bureaucratic bungling and obfuscation at one level or another, or (as the article implies) because the Education Department is really trying to push certain particular commercial programs for corrupt reasons.

Many people -- including me -- think that the American tradition of state and local control of curriculum is in general a good thing; and so the Reading First law contained the expected tightrope-walking provisions to respect local educational autonomy while mandating "evidence-based reading policy". If the issues with the Education Department's implementation were just somewhat heavy-handed attempts to counter decades of Whole Language political entrenchment at the state and local level, I'd be inclined to file the complaints under "turn about is fair play". But an article by Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post last October ("Billions for an Inside Game on Reading", 10/1/2006) made the problem seem more like conventional graft and patronage, decoupled from support for any particular pedagogical approach:

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 Success for All website asserts that their program "meets and exceeds all of the requirements for Reading First", and offers a set of "resource documents that may help you in writing your Reading First grant", along with a promise of "assistance with writing grants for Reading First or other federal grants". I don't know why SFA was "shut out of Reading First", or whether this has continued. More important, I couldn't tell whether the broader implications of Grunwald's article were the result of valid whistle-blowing, or just intellectual politics presented as anti-corruption activism.

No matter which educational theories are implemented, grade-school textbooks are big business. Although in principle local school districts usually make the choice, there are complex constraints and influences at every level, especially in the form of state-government mandates -- that's what the infamous Kansas evolution-teaching fuss was about. In the U.S., the national government plays an unusually small role in such matters, and the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (ED-OIG) is assiduous in guarding the boundaries of its influence. That seems to be mainly what's behind what Schemo called "a string of blistering reports" from ED-OIG about the implementation of Reading First.

ED-OIG reports and resources are available here. Looking through them, I'm not sure that "blistering" is the word I would have chosen. For example, "The Department's Administration of Selected Aspects of the Reading First Program", ED-OIG/A03G006, February 2007, says that

As part of the U.S. Department of Education's (Department) efforts to equip states with the information and resources needed to implement the Reading First provision of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB Act), the Department and the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) sponsored three major reading academies, the Secretary’s Reading Leadership Academies (RLAs). The RLAs were held in Washington, D.C., in January and February 2002, and hosted policymakers and key education leaders from every state and territory in the nation. The academies were designed to help state leaders gear up for the implementation of Reading First, the Department’s program to improve the quality of reading instruction in kindergarten through third grade. The Department also provided support to states and districts in their Reading First program implementation by funding the National Center for Reading First Technical Assistance (NCRFTA) contract.

The objective of our audit was to determine whether the Department carried out its role in accordance with applicable laws and regulations in administering the RLAs and related meetings and conferences, the NCRFTA contract award process, and its website and guidance for the Reading First program.

Our audit disclosed that the Department generally administered its Reading First website, and its Guidance for the Reading First Program, dated April 2002, in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. With regard to the RLAs, we concluded that the Department did not have controls in place to ensure compliance with the Department of Education Organization Act (DEOA) and NCLB Act curriculum provisions. Specifically, we found that: 1) the “Theory to Practice” sessions at the RLAs focused on a select number of reading programs; and 2) the RLA Handbook and Guidebook appeared to promote the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) Assessment Test. With regard to RMC Research Corporation’s (RMC) technical proposal for the NCRFTA contract, we concluded that the Department did not adequately assess issues of bias and lack of objectivity when approving individuals to be technical assistance providers before and after the NCRFTA contract was awarded.

One way to translate this might be: "The Reading Leadership Academies were not vague enough".

The RMC Research Corporation's role is addressed in more detail in "RMC Research Corporation’s Administration of the Reading First Program Contracts", ED-OIG/A03F0022, March 2007; but again, the report seems to me to be far from "blistering":

Our audit disclosed that RMC did not adequately address COI issues. As a result, we identified two instances in which RMC may have provided inappropriate assistance to the SEAs while providing TA during the first two contracts. We also found that RMC did not include the required COI clause in its subcontracts and consulting agreements, did not adequately vet TA providers for reading product relationships and affiliations, and did not have formal COI policies and procedures (including the subcontractors). Except as noted above, our audit disclosed that RMC generally provided appropriate guidance and information to the TACs during the third RF contract.

In addition, we found that the referral of states to the Oregon Reading First Center (ORFC) and the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) reading program reviews, and the lack of TAC websites may have led to some states’ perception that there was an approved list of reading programs for use in the Reading First program. We also found that consultant agreements were not obtained from all consultants and some agreements were not signed.

Again, the impression is that there were some irregularities, some of them technical and some of them substantive, but no evidence of big-time corruption.

I'll freely confess that I don't know much about the byzantine world of U.S. federal, state and local education bureaucracies, either in general or with respect to the issue of reading instruction. If you do, and have some personal experience or recommended reading to offer, tell me.

For a survey of the political history as well as the intellectual issues, I recommend G. Reid Lyon, Sally E. Shaywitz, Bennett A. Shaywitz, and Vinita Chhabra, "Evidence-Based Reading Policy in the United States: How Scientific Research Informs Instructional Practices", Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2005.

Liz Ditz has an interesting collection of posts and links here, from the point of view of a parent.

[And Ken DeRosa at d-edreckoning makes a persuasive case for the title of his post, "Schemo gets pwned":

...the Madison school district has the audacity to claim that their reading program is actually boosting student performance.


It should have taken Diana Jean Schemo, this article's author, about half an hour on the internet to figure out that the "Madison officials" were spinning the "reading scores."

DeRosa argues that the test results show that Wisconsin state-wide reading scores remained basically unchanged, and that kids in the Madison school system slipped back slightly relative to the state as a whole.

The argument is a bit complicated, since Wisconsin changed its tests and its reporting procedures during the crucial period. But DeRosa's argument seems pretty persuasive to me. If he's right, then I'd consider a different evaluation -- was Schemo bamboozled by the Madison school authorities, or did she pick Madison, and spin the story as she did, in order to make an essentially dishonest point, suggesting that the mean old federal bureaucrats are trying to stop the dedicated local educators from continuing to use the methods that are helping their children so much? ]

[Update 3/11/2007 -- EW writes:

I've been going to school in the Madison Metropolitan School District for almost 12 years now, and I can affirm that the reading instruction is at best mediocre. My memories of early elementary school are, to say the least, a bit fuzzy; however, I was recently discussing that article with my mom, and she remembers being unsatisfied with reading instruction in schools -- she basically taught me and my brother to read herself, so in elementary school we were both reading at ridiculously high levels, but she did used to volunteer in the classrooms, and she says she was definitely told not to tell kids to sound words out when they had help reading them. And even in high school, a lot of pople don't have very high reading levels, and kind of freeze when they're reading aloud and come across an unknown word. Of course, this is all anecdotal, and I don't have a lot of examples off the top of my head. However, as has been said several times, a kid who guesses "pumpkin" for "pea" in the third grade has not recieved adequate reading instruction.

(And on a snider note, I'm surprised that Madison didn't change the policy to get the money -- they've made quite a lot of changes for the worse to get grants, and this change looks like it might actually be for the better . . . Madison, WI: We don't teach abstinence-only or phonics, but other than that, we'll bend over backwards to get your money. Although school funding in Wisconsin pretty much sucks, so it's rather excusable.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 9, 2007 10:06 AM