Reading First: The Lie of Robert Sweet of Errors and Misconceptions in Washtington Post

Trying to find the truth in education, like in most areas in American society, is fraught with dilemma — most public commentors are either incompetent or bald-faced liars.

Robert W. Sweet, Jr. likely falls into both categories.

See previous posts of regarding his comments on this site, and his letter to the Washington Post here. Robert Sweet’s title is Former Professional Staff Member Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives Committee Staffer for the Reading First law.

First, let’s place all this into context. The Inspector General’s Reading First report (hereafter IGRF), published September 2006, audited the Reading First Grant Application Process and reported problems. Michael Grunwald of the Washington Post wrote an article about the IGRF Report, and Robert Sweet responded to the Grunwald article in a letter to the Washington Post editor. The crux of the Sweet letter was to allege, point-by-point, each significant error made the Grunwald in his article interpreting the IGRF findings.

I’m not going to review either Grunwald’s article nor Sweet’s response point-by-point, and I have not read or studied the IGRF fully, so I’m not prepared to do so. To prove Robert Sweet a liar will only require comparing one, his first, claim of “error” he’s alleged with the actual language of the IGRF.

Here is Sweet’s first alleged error by Grunwald.

1. Grunwald: “The Reading First panels that oversaw state applications were stacked with department officials and other phonics fans.”
Correction: Department officials were not on panels that judged state applications.

Sweet’s comment shows his art of misdirection — his “correction” does not refute Grunwald’s interpretation. It’s true that Department officials were not on the panels, but as the IGRF details, quoted below, it was the Department officials who actually judged the applications from the States’ perspective.
Let’s read the actual language of the IGRF report, at length (with minimal editting).

Section 1203(c)(2)(A) states that the Secretary, in consultation with the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), shall convene a panel to evaluate applications and that, at a minimum, the panel shall include: three individuals selected by the Secretary, three individuals selected by NIFL, three individuals selected by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and three individuals selected by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). We have determined that each of the four organizations nominated at least three individuals to serve on the expert review panel; however, the Department failed to ensure that each State application was reviewed by a properly constituted panel.
After selecting the panelists, the Department created subpanels made up of five panelists each to review the State applications and recommend either approval or disapproval to the Secretary. None of the subpanels possessed adequate representation from each of the organizations identified [as required by law].
The Department created a total of 16 subpanels to review the State applications. A majority of the panelists were nominated by the Department for 15 of the 16 subpanels; and 7 of the 16 subpanels consisted entirely of Department-selected panelists. None of the subpanels included a representative from each of the nominating organizations and there is no indication that the subpanels ever met as one large panel to review the State applications and/or recommend approval or disapproval to the Secretary.
The Department created the Reviewer Guidance for the Reading First Program (Reviewer Guidance), which describes the process by which panelists will review applications and provide their comments. The Reviewer Guidance, which the Department provided to panelists, states that it is the reviewer’s responsibility to provide a rating for each review criterion and constructive strength and weakness comments on the Technical Review Form. The guidance states that the panel chair will complete an additional summary sheet, called the Panel Chair Summary, which will reflect a consensus rating and supporting comments for each criterion. The guidance also states that the Panel Chair Summary will provide an overall consensus recommendation for approval or disapproval of the application.
The Reading First Guidance also states that SEAs “will have an opportunity to address the issues and concerns raised by the expert panel reviewers.”
The panelists adequately documented their reasons for stating that an application was unready for funding. The panelists recorded their individual comments on the Technical Review Forms, and then met to discuss these comments. The panel chair then entered a consensus rating on a Panel Chair Summary, which was submitted to the Department’s Reading First office. The Panel Chair Summary appeared to contain constructive comments to support the panel’s ratings.
After the panel chair submitted the Panel Chair Summaries to the Reading First office, the Reading First Director and his assistant created what they called an “Expert Review Team Report.” This report was provided to the States. No other documents reflecting the expert review panel’s comments were provided to the States.
The Reviewer Guidance states: “the conference call between the panelists and the SEA that will take place after the review of the SEA’s application has been established so that the State may receive direct feedback from the expert review panel.” In actuality, only the Reading First Director and his assistant conducted these calls. By conducting these conferences and writing the document that was sent to the SEA, the Reading First Director and his assistant cut off any direct contact between States and the expert review panelists and effectively controlled the feedback States received on their applications.
According to the Reading First Director, he and his assistant created the Expert Review Team Reports to give States a distilled, organized version of the panel’s comments that would show them which areas they needed to address. However, we found the Department’s Expert Review Team Reports were not always accurate representations of the expert review panelists’ comments. The Reading First Director and his assistant changed panelists’ comments, left off others, and added comments of their own. In a number of cases, the Department generalized or omitted specific questions or suggestions. In other situations the Department’s Expert Review Team Report exaggerated or misstated the panelists’ concerns.

The IGRF then preceded to give examples of how this process affects the States. The example states were Nevada, New York, Georgia, Virginia, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Here’s what the IGRF says about the Wisconsin experience:
Wisconsin submitted its application four times prior to receiving approval. The Panel Chair Summaries for Wisconsin’s submissions often included comments that ran several pages for each criterion. One Panel Chair Summary was 88 pages long while the Department’s Expert Review Team Report was only 4 pages and failed to capture most of what was prepared by the panel chair. Further, the Department’s Expert Review Team Report often did not include any of the panel chair’s specific concerns and simply restated the application criteria requirements instead.
Q.E.D. The proof is complete. Without question, Robert Sweet is a liar. It only required reading the first 14 pages of the IGRF to prove that. That he lied regarding a clear statement in Audit, should we assume mistake only, and argue that “Okay, he made a mistake there, but his other points are true”? I think not.
I remember a famous H.L. Mencken story which is apropos. Understanding that Mencken was a misogynist doesn’t change its effect for me. As the story goes (in the 1930’s), Mencken was to have said to others, that he can get any woman to sleep with him for enough money. So at a dinner party, he asks a woman across the table if she would sleep with him for $10,000. She thought about it a little, then said “yes”. Then Mencken asked if she would sleep with him for $5. “What kind of woman do you think I am?”, she retorted. To which Mencken replied, “I’ve already established that. Now we’re just negotiating the price.”
I’ve already established the character of Robert Sweet. Further discussion of his character and views is a waste of time.