Audit Finds Education Department Missteps

Ben Feller:

A scorching internal review of the Bush administration’s billion-dollar-a-year reading program says the Education Department ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted.
The government audit is unsparing in its view that the Reading First program has been beset by conflicts of interest and willful mismanagement. It suggests the department broke the law by trying to dictate which curriculum schools must use.
Reading First aims to help young children read through scientifically proven programs, and the department considers it a jewel of No Child Left Behind, Bush’s education law. Just this week, a separate review found the effort is helping schools raise achievement.

This audit confirms that Reading First is yet another example of rampant cronyism within President Bush’s administration. MMSD was wise to stand up to federal blackmail by refusing to abandon its successful elementary reading program.
US Education Secretary Margaret Spelling’s statement. The complete Inspector General report [2.9MB PDF].

13 thoughts on “Audit Finds Education Department Missteps”

  1. This is outrageous! A sitting president actually appointing people to powerful positions who think they way he does! Why the next thing you know, he’ll appoint judges who actually believe the Constitution is the law of the land.
    Just another hit piece on W. No laws were broken here. Even the article says “suggests” as though laws were broken. There are enough weasel words in there to make a few full length fur coats.
    Pure politics and a few fuzzy-headed snake-oil peddlers upset that the federal teat the’ve been suckling on has dried up.

  2. This article is surprises me — not because it wasn’t clear all along that incompetence and corruption was driving these decisions, but that there is anyone left in Washington who isn’t corrupt.
    I love Reed’s rationale here. “No laws were broken”, therefore this is a hit piece on the saintly George the Psychopath — as long as incompetence is not against the law.
    When MMSD refused the $2M Reading First grant, I reviewed all relevant documents at MMSD over a period of 5 hours, and reviewed much of Reading First research — it was the typical educational research that drives me up the wall.
    Incompetence by the Reading First proponent, whose name I have forgotten, was clear from reading her memos to the District: arguments did not hang together, use of value-laden language over facts, and conclusions that did not follow from arguments. (The “liberal’s” Howard Gardner’s arguments suffer from baselessness).
    MMSD decision to refuse was correct. The arrogance in doing so and without cogent arguments (“we’re the experts” is not a rationally based argument) and the spineless obsequiousness of the Board of Education in not holding a public hearing on the decision was the real problem.

  3. Just a quick clarification to the repeated statements that “no laws were broken.’ Here are findings from the IG report:
    FINDING 1A – The Department Did Not Select the Expert Review
    Panel in Compliance With the Requirements of
    FINDING 1B – While Not Required to Screen for Conflicts of
    Interest, the Screening Process the Department
    Created Was Not Effective …………………………………………………….7
    FINDING 2A – The Department Did Not Follow Its Own Guidance
    For the Peer Review Process ………………………………………………….8
    FINDING 2B – The Department Awarded Grants to States
    Without Documentation That the Subpanels
    Approved All Criteria………………………………………………………….11
    FINDING 3 – The Department Included Requirements in the
    Criteria Used by the Expert Review Panels That
    Were Not Specifically Addressed in NCLB …………………………..12
    FINDING 4 – In Implementing the Reading First Program,
    Department Officials Obscured the Statutory
    Requirements of the ESEA; Acted in
    Contravention of the GAO Standards for Internal
    Control in the Federal Government; and Took
    Actions That Call Into Question Whether They
    Violated the Prohibitions Included in the DEOA ………………….13
    1A, 2B and 4 all seem to me to be violations of law. Of course I haven’t been doing to well with legal interpretations this week.

  4. One slimy bureaucrat does not invalidate more than 40 years of research in how children learn to read – research which underlies Reading First.
    For all of those who are so certain that the superintendent was so right to reject more than $2 million in federal aid and cling to ineffective and expensive Reading Recovery, I hope you’ve done your homework on what works in teaching reading.
    I previously suggested to Tom that he read a few meta-analyses on reading research and a couple of reviews of reading literature. (Since he’s made no comment on his reading, I assume that he hasn’t bothered to understand the foundations underlying Reading First.)
    At a broad theoretical level, I recommended “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential,
    and Inquiry-Based Teaching” at It doesn’t say a thing about reading or but gives an understanding of how the brain learns some types of information and reviews a long list of research to support its main thesis that the brain learns best (at least for novice learners) with direct (not indirect) instruction favored by Reading First because the brain’s short-term memory cannot accomplish what indirect instruction demands. You can get a more general view of the cognitive overload theory used in the above article at:
    What you find are studies that compare pieces of Reading Recovery or other indirect approaches to pieces of direct approaches. You get thrilling articles like “Two letter discrimination sequences: High-confusion alternatives first versus low-confusion alternatives first,” David Carnine, Journal of Reading Behavior, 12 (1), 41-47.
    David, Larry, and Tom, you should also read articles like “Experts Say Reading Recovery Is Not Effective, Leaves Too Many Children Behind: An Open Letter from Reading Researchers, May 20, 2002,” at
    Each of the literature reviews usually includes conclusions such as “There are other first grade programs that are demonstrably efficacious, impact more students because they do not require 1:1 tutoring, are easier to implement, and do a better job than Reading Recovery of improving student reading skills because they do not drop students (Snow et al., 1998; Torgesen, 2000).” Additionally, each review offers pages of references to specific articles, which you can pursue.
    I have an excellent meta-analysis in hard copy (“All Children Want to Learn,” Bonnie Grossen, undated) with nine pages of references, and I’d be happy to photocopy it and send it if you give me a snail mail address by e-mail.
    You can find another excellent meta-analysis (without reference unfortunately) of the research of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and other agencies at The home page has a link to a PDF of the same analysis.
    Though certainly not a peer reviewed article, you could watch the presentation by two Milwaukee principals whose schools found tremendous success with SRA Reading Mastery:
    After all of you have done more extensive reading on how children learn to read, I urge you to post your thoughts.

  5. Leaving aside the local issues, the report makes sense of something that has puzzled me for the last five years. Reading First was support to direct funds to research-based reading programs. Success for All, arguably the reading program with the most impressive research base, has received very little Reading First funding.
    Now an explanation is available. Blatant corruption!!!
    Slavin’s SFA and a DI program that had strong supporting evidence were left in the cold because they weren’t part of Mr. Doherty’s coterie of cronies.
    See here and here for some of the SFA backstory.

  6. Ed
    Please do not rewrite history. I repeatedly asked:
    “‘can you point me in the direction of peer reviewed research that demonstrates that another program working with a similar population would achieve better results?’ in the context that means better than 50-60%.”
    And said:
    “I promise that I will look at whatever you post on this topic, but unless it speaks directly to my question (“Can you point me in the direction of peer reviewed research that demonstrates that another program working with a similar population would achieve better results?”), I see no need to continue this conversation.”
    It is in the context of your failure to provide what I asked for that my silence should be understood.
    The discussion can be found here:
    My only regret about leaving that discussion is that I didn’t take the opportunity to second TeacherL’s comment:
    “**Different schools have turned around performance with different programs (The book “No Excuses” is a nice compilation of vignettes about different poor achieving schools, what they did, and to what end). Some schools successfully used approaches that were antithetical to other schools’ successful approaches. No magic bullet.”
    That’s what I’ve been saying all along.
    I’ll add that I often share TeacherL’s frustration with dueling cites and the demand for peer reviewed research, but for good and bad reasons, they are the coin of the realm.
    So please don’t “assume that he hasn’t bothered to understand the foundations underlying Reading First.” Read what I wrote instead.
    While I’m at it, I think you — like those exposed in the IG report — did misunderstand the foundations of Reading First. Reading First was designed to promote early literacy via federal funding of scientifically based programs. Like the people running the program you seem to think that it was designed to promote Direct Instruction. It was not and that is heart of the IG report. In order to make sure that primarily DI and DI related programs recieved the bulk of the funds, the people running the program ignored the law, did not rely on accepted (and mandated) procedures for the review of research and programs and stacked the deck. They thought of it as their “party,” not a way to help children read.
    If the good of the children was placed above all else and they shared your belief in the superiority of Direct Instruction programs, then I don’t understand why they saw the need to stack the deck.
    For those interested in more on what happened with Reading First, I would suggest:

  7. First, I’ve never said MMSD should have taken the grants. In fact, I oppose the entire federal grant industry. Time after time a grant is awarded to a district or municipality. For example, a town gets a big grant to hire more cops. The hires are made, the grants dry up in a year or so, and the town gets hung with the full expense. Usually, the cops are let go or the town is forced to cut other services to pay for the extra police. In retrospect, the new officers weren’t really needed anyway, but heck, they were free! Right?
    The bottom line is this. If a school or municipality cannot afford to buy, staff and maintain a program with the funds it has, it is fiscally and morally irresponsible to aquire it with the argument that the first year or so is “free” because of a grant. I therefore oppose any grants, whether they are for a program I favor or not.
    TJM and points “1A, 2B and 4 all seem to me to be violations of law”
    1A; Strict adherence to administrative guidelines is not a violation of law.
    2B: So.
    4: “Took actions that call in question…” You’re not going to Levenworth for that.
    Please see:
    For a good analysis.

  8. FWIW, my response to an e-mail to the board re. the Reading First audit. Lest we get to self-righteous about who funds what and to what end, let us all remember that the Reading Recovery “research program” at UW-Madison is funded by, of all things, the Reading Recovery Institute. Any wagers on the whether the research is biased?
    My response:
    While I understand the questions raised by the manner in which the Reading First program was administered, I don’t believe that the administrative issues raised by the audit in any way answer or shed light on the underlying questions of efficacy that are embodied in the phonics vs. whole language debate.
    It is my understanding that the decision to refuse the money was in fact based on the pedagogical debate rather than a commitment to ethics in administration. If that understanding is correct, I am unlikely to criticize people who raised legitimate questions about the reason for the decision or the board’s absence from an active role in the decision-making process.
    Yours truly,
    Lucy Mathiak

  9. Tom,
    I sent you a huge number of citations, literature reviews, and meta-analyses of research. I told you that no “silver bullet” research “proves” what you want proven, but taken as a body the conclusions clearly support direct instruction (in various forms) over the constructivist, discovery methods currently the vogue.
    I’m sorry that you were apparently not sincere enough in your request for citations and respectful enough of my response to pursue any of the references.
    I sincerely ask that you refrain from any comments on reading until you’ve done your homework.
    AND DO NOT arrogantly presume that you know what I think about Reading First. If you ever again make unfounded assumptions about my beliefs, I will never respond to another of your posts.
    I’d be delighted if the MMSD were to adopt Success for All and replace the garbage it calls a reading curriculum.
    I’m extremely disappointed in you, Tom, both as an academician and a leader of the pro-referendum group.

  10. Reading Recovery proponents have nothing to fear. When Hillary Clinton ascends to the presidency in a few years, she’ll turn the spigots back on.
    relevant quote from the article:
    “When a panelist at the education forum in Oneonta talked about an early-elementary remediation program called Reading Recovery, Hillary couldn’t contain herself. “I know something about this program because I’ve followed it and I’ve supported it for, I guess, more than 10 or 12 years,” she began, “ever since I learned about it being pioneered in New Zealand.” It was classic Hillary.”
    Once the federal funds begin to flow back into RR, they won’t be forced to engage in pathetic PR stunts like this from Sioux City:
    “Not many kids can say that a picture they drew in first grade has been printed on bags and is being sold nationwide on notecards.
    But that’s what happened to Brooke Bailey, a second-grader at Smith Elementary School in Sioux City.
    Last year Brooke was asked to draw a picture that showed what the Reading Recovery program meant to her.
    She drew an outdoor scene with a tree, grass, flowers and sunshine, and in the center of the picture, she’s sitting with her mom and grandma on a bench.
    “Reading Recovery is so much fun,” Brooke wrote on the picture. “I learned how to read big kid books to my family every night.”
    Brooke’s picture was entered into a national contest and selected as one of a dozen pictures featured on notecards that will be sold by the Reading Recovery Council of North America, a nonprofit association for Reading Recovery teachers that does professional development, communications and advocacy work. Those notecards will soon be available online at

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