Reading First — There’s More to the Story

(Guest Post By Reid Lyon)

I have received many calls from people attending the International Reading Association’s conference in Atlanta informing me that many of the members are celebrating the null findings presented in the Reading First Impact Study Interim Report.  But you could have predicted that behavior easily from past behavior.  While IRA as an organization has been a supporter of Reading First, many celebrating have wanted the program to fail from day one.  But you have to wonder whether the detractors have read the actual interim report or just the press accounts of the evaluation to date?   The press coverage overwhelmingly reported the null findings without coverage of the limitations of the study – limitations that should be considered as much as the findings themselves- particularly when drawing any conclusions from the data.  There has been little mention of the degree of overlap between Reading First and non-reading First schools and no mention – at least that I can find –of the fact that little time has elapsed since Reading First has been implemented which makes it very difficult to draw conclusions at this time.   I am hopeful that these issues will be addressed in detail in the final report given that this information can provide more guidance for improvement.   However, in my view and in the whole scheme of things, implementing a program as complex as Reading First will take a bit more time than three years or less.

Indeed, it has been more the rule than the exception that during the first two years of Reading First implementation in districts and schools, teachers were first learning to understand, administer and use the results of assessments to inform instruction.

To jack up the complexity, as they were learning these new concepts, they were also taking part in state reading academies to learn more about  the foundations of SBRR (in 5 areas of reading in k-1, in 4 areas  of reading in 2-3). To make implementation even more complex, as they were learning and using new assessments and taking part in professional development academies and workshops, they were simultaneously learning how to use new approaches to instruction and how to integrate core program instruction with additional interventions when required to meet individual student needs. This was done at the same time they were learning about center activities, grouping students for instruction and aligning and using supported classroom libraries.

It is important to ask whether any program that has added this amount of new learning to a teacher’s other responsibilities including going to IEP meetings, attending parent conferences, preparing for their instruction in math, social studies and science, serving on school wide committees and a host of other tasks could demonstrate substantial gains after only two years. What is amazing is that despite this unbelievable load, Reading First teachers and their leaders rose to the occasion and have done and are doing a superb job. Also note that the GAO and OMB reports show that they feel that this job is essential and that it is having a major impact.

To be sure, as one of the individuals involved in conceptualizing and drafting the Reading First legislation, it is a no brainer that I am passionate about its potential.  That said, the data must speak for the effectiveness of the program.  If we wanted to avoid using effectiveness data to monitor and improve the program, we would not have mandated one of the most comprehensive evaluations that have ever been applied to any educational program.   The fact that the evaluation plan as written in the legislation was not carried out will require some explanation at some point.  More importantly, it is incumbent on both supporters and opponents of Reading First to pay very close attention to the details in the interim evaluation.  It is impossible to make informed decisions about improving a program, gutting a program, or reducing the funding for a program on the basis of ambiguous findings.  And folks will have to read the details themselves – apparently they will not learn about them from the press.

3 Responses to Reading First — There’s More to the Story

  1. Dr. Lyon-

    I do not doubt the story about Chris. You know what they say: no good deed goes unpunished in this wicked world.

  2. Reid Lyon says:

    Matthew – I addressed the Chris Doherty issue in depth in a previous interview on April 3rd. It is long, but I thought it may provide greater detail than my previous post.


    An On-Going Interview with Reid Lyon: About Reading First
    Michael F. Shaughnessy
    Senior Columnist
    Eastern New Mexico University

    This is the second installment of an on going series with Reid Lyon about a series of issues relative to the recent Fordham report.

    1) Let’s name names today.- What did Christopher Doherty have to do with the Reading First situation and why was he ” summarily dismissed” ( at least in your opinion) ?`

    I have the highest respect for Chris Doherty as an individual and as an administrator of an extraordinarily complex educational program that required a number of new criteria to be met in order for States and districts to receive funds.I believe he has been beaten up, humiliated, and dishonored through false allegations, ignorance, cowardice, and political malpractice (which is probably an oxymoron)To my knowledge, he responded to all of the OIG’s questions about his role in the management of Reading First and, along with details provided by Sandi Jacobs, refuted the allegations made by both individuals outside the government with their own agendas and the OIG.As others have made mention, the language Chris used in his emails served to titillate the press and made it difficult for him to set the record straight.Given that I have a tendency to not be particularly politically correct, I certainly have no room to criticize Chris on his choice of language.That said, if I had used the same language, I would have made a mistake.

    During the years I worked with Chris on Reading First, his dedication to the program and to the children it served was always paramount in his mind and in his efforts.It was rare that I saw Chris working less than 15 to 18 hours per day.He was given an impossible task – can you imagine managing a 6 billion dollar program with 3 or 4 people?But that is all he was given, and it amazes me that he and Sandi Jacobs were able to respond to the needs of states and districts implementing Reading First in the very competent way that they did. The two of them were greatly admired and respected by the state Reading First directors in the field.

    I think that there are several factors that led to Chris’s dismissal.To be sure, the political fallout from the OIG report, as inaccurate as it was, may at the time have seemed too overwhelming for the Department to handle.Reading First was a program that was developed and implemented under the Bush administration, and there has been no shortage of citizens and politicos who literally hate the man and anything he has done.

    The charges of corruption in Reading First played well with those who wanted to soil his legacy and dismantle any program – no matter how beneficial it was for kids and teachers.In fact, my friends on congressional staffs on both sides of the aisle tell me that the frenzy to drive a stake into the Reading First program reached a fever pitch precisely because it was a popular and beneficial program.

    All this said, I am guessing that the Department felt that Chris was an expendable liability given that he would continue to be a target of the press and the conspiracy theorists.In a way it reminded me of the words of the young officer following the battle of Xuan Loc in South Vietnam:”We had to destroy the town so we could save it”.

    Chris was the town. He and Sandi personified Reading First. It is very disappointing that he was not supported and exonerated by the Department.In the end, I firmly believe his good name will be cleared and the Stern Report and the efforts that the Fordham Foundation is making are helping to initiate that process.

    A second factor was widespread confusion about the purpose and goals of Reading First.Recall that for longer than one would care to remember, over 50 percent of under privileged kept failing in school and dropping out in large part because they did not learn to read.

    And the majority of these kids did not have learning disabilities including dyslexia.They were the victims of instructional practices forged out of superstition, untested assumptions, and the weirdest ideas about how reading develops.Until the mid 1990’s, the majority of reading instructional practices resembled the practice of medicine a century back:virtually any treatment that could be thought up was tried without regard for the patient.

    Reading First was designed to embody the massive amount of converging evidence that had accrued over the past 30 years and that had been reviewed by both the National Research Council and the National Reading Panel.

    On the basis of the data summarized in these reports, Bob Sweet and I recommended that federal funding be contingent on program-specific evidence of effectiveness derived from studies employing appropriate research designs and methods.This criterion of demonstrated program-specific effectiveness was revised through congressional member and staff review and the negotiation process, resulting in less-specific language in the current law – to wit, that funding was contingent on states and districts showing that the programs, strategies, and methods they wanted funded through Reading First had to be based on SBRR.

    The intent of the law, however, remained the same.Federal funds could not be provided if states and local districts did not ensure that the programs they bought using Federal dollars covered all the reading elements established by the National Reading Panel and that the instruction delivered was systematic, direct, and explicit.

    Now here is what Chris was faced with.The law was clear in requiring that the Reading First program be monitored to insure fidelity to these (and other specific) criteria.Chris was assigned the responsibility to ensure that federal funds were provided for ONLY THOSE programs meeting these criteria.

    Let me be more specific using this scenario which actually occurred several times.A state application was approved on the basis of its alignment with Reading First criteria that were established in the law.The state did not have to provide a list of programs to be funded – in fact the majority did not provide such lists.

    What they did have to do was clearly articulate how their program selection process aligned with Reading First criteria, and how the state would review applications from local districts to ensure LEAs met the criteria.

    In some cases, Chris had to inform state and local officials that funding would be withdrawn if non-SBRR programs were implemented.That was his job as defined in the law.At no time did he ever tell states or local districts that they had to use a particular program.

    And whether we like it or not, it was the case that some states and local districts indicated that they would adhere to the criteria, but then selected and, in some cases, implemented programs that did not meet the criteria.In essence, they were breaking the law.Chris then had the responsibility to work with the states and districts to correct the error.

    Let me give you an analogy.Suppose a state or local district promised that it would implement effective instruction based on the best science to date, but actually implemented balance beams, leeches, or apricot pits to improve reading.The decision to do this was wrong, it did not adhere to the requirements of the law, and it placed students at risk for educational malpractice and continued failure.

    Again, Chris’s job was to take corrective action and inform the state that it was out of compliance, as the Reading First legislation required him to do.In fact, we should be outraged if he did not carry out these responsibilities.

    Chris was accused by vendors, the OIG, and Congressional members of pushing particular reading programs.One Congressional member cited an allegation in the OIG that states funding under the Reading First program was contingent on their using a reading curriculum developed by McGraw-Hill or one from a short list of commercial programs.

    You might be as alarmed as I am about this allegation when you look at the actual evidence that is on record.First of all, only 15 states initially had lists of approved programs.The majority of states had applications approved without citing any list of programs.The states that decided to use lists were told clearly that they could select programs NOT ON THEIR LIST , if the programs were based on SBRR.

    Remember, the law required that programs be based on SBRR.The law prohibits the use of RF funds to purchase programs not based on SBRR.For a program to be based on SBRR it had to be comprehensive in coverage of reading elements established by the National Reading Panel and the instruction delivered had to be systematic, direct, and explicit.These criteria are very straight forward.Remember also that states decided on whatever list they used – the Reading First office had little to do with that decision.

    A great deal was made of the allegation that Chris “pushed” the Reading Mastery program published by McGraw Hill.The conspiracy advocates claim that this program was favored because the CEO of McGraw Hill was a close friend of the President’s.

    Well, if this program was pushed, it certainly did no good despite the fact that it has substantial demonstrated evidence of effectiveness.

    Here are the facts.Reading Mastery was on 10 states’ lists out of the initial 15 states that submitted lists. Success for All was on the lists created by 9 states. Following approval, some states that did not have lists in their initial application opted to create lists to guide their LEAs in ensuring that the SBRR criteria were met.In all, 22 states created lists either before or after approval with 8 states having lists BEFORE READING FIRST was enacted.29 states did not have an approved list.It is important to note that in many states and LEAs, individuals making Reading First decisions were not familiar with SBRR, and had virtually no experience in selecting and implementing programs that met ANY criteria.

    If someone had talked to those in states making a decision to use a list or not use a list, they would have learned that the lack of understanding of SBRR was a main reason given for using a list.I still have not learned of any state that was pressured to use a particular list.

    Here is the kicker.Reading Mastery was adopted as a core program in very few states.

    In Oregon, where the program was developed, out of 50 Reading First schools, only 4 used Reading Mastery as a core program and 3 of these schools were using Reading Mastery prior to Reading First.It is the case that Reading Mastery is published by McGraw Hill but so was the Wright program which did not meet SBRR criteria.Why did Chris make the decision to not provide funding for the Wright program if he was beholden to McGraw Hill?

    He had to make that decision because the Wright program, at that time, was not comprehensive nor did it impart instruction in a direct, systematic, and explicit manner.To Wright’s credit, they responded to the reviews of their program and made substantial revisions to meet SBRR criteria.Indeed, the Wright program has now received very high marks in terms of its content and instructional delivery characteristics.This is an example of one of the goals of the law – to improve existing programs.illHill

    What I found very surprising in my discussions with the OIG and congressional staff was their confusion about the intent of the Reading First legislation.For instance, in my face to face meeting with OIG staff they indicated that the entire time that they had been working on the Reading First issue – over 2 years – they still did not have a complete understanding of what the program was supposed to do.In fact, they were hopeful that I could shed light on the issue of intent.

    What was equally strange is that the OIG did not interview Bob Sweet or me until the end of their investigation – we may have been the last ones to be interviewed or close to it.It would seem that the two people who worked hard on developing Reading First and who could have articulated the intent of Reading First very clearly would have been among the first to be interviewed.

    The intent of the legislation is a very critical element in understanding how the OIG arrived at its conclusions.It is my strong belief that the OIG erroneously concluded that Chris and the Reading First office were implementing Reading First in such a way as to violate the restriction on federal control of school curriculum at the local level.But there was no conflict at all.

    Schools were, and are, free to choose any reading program as long as it is grounded in SBRR.As I mentioned earlier – but I want to emphasize again – Chris never mandated, controlled, or directed a choice of a particular program.His job was to ensure fidelity to the law, which required that funding was provided only for those programs that provided systematic and explicit instruction in the five essential components of scientifically based reading instruction.

    Within this context, Chris had the clear responsibility to let states and districts know when their programs were not in compliance with these criteria.And this lack of alignment was discussed with several states when they were either considering implementing a non-SBRR program, or had already implemented a non-SBRR program.

    I could go on for days about the tremendous job Chris Doherty did in ensuring that the most novel and complex education funding program was implemented in a manner congruent with the criteria stated clearly in the law.He was tarred and feathered by vendors who, in my opinion, were motivated by greed and a sense of entitlement.

    Bob Slavin expected to reap substantial market share because his program had clearly been found to be effective. In the best of all worlds his and other programs’ high evidentiary quality should have enabled them to acquire that market share.But recall, program specific evidence of effectiveness as a requirement was overturned by Congress, thus allowing funds to be provided for programs BASED on SBRR.

    Chris did not impede states from using the demonstrated evidence-based programs.They were not purchased at expected levels because many states and local districts felt they did not meet their specific needs.I suspect they thought the programs were too prescriptive and would be unpopular, and that this would put them in the same sort of hot water that Chris and Sandi were putting themselves in every day, by keeping their own standards high. Given that Chris is a strong proponent of using only proven programs, I would guess that he would have great confidence in programs like Success for All or Reading Mastery.But it was a state and local decision to select the programs, contingent on their meeting SBRR criteria.

    In doing research for my book I have talked to a substantial number of state and local decision makers who were involved in the program selection process for their Reading First initiatives.

    One question I asked all of them was whether they were ever pressured, directly or implicitly, to not purchase Success For All.Slavin alleged in his complaint that such pressure was exerted in several instances but did not identify individuals who said they were so pressured.

    Likewise I was told by several reporters that they had tried to track down individuals who stated that they were pressured to not adopt Success For All and they also came up empty.It would seem that the appropriate thing to do would be to have those who were supposedly pressured identify themselves and state and corroborate the facts.

    If they were actually pressured, then I would agree that a wrong had been committed.But, at this point in time I cannot find anyone who supports Slavin’s allegation, which, remember, was what set in motion the entire misguided, uncomprehending investigation. In a discussion with Chris following his ordeals he said that there were times he felt like the character in the Hitchcock movie, The Wrong Man. I can see why!

    Published April 3, 2008

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