School Beat: the Scandals of NCLB

by Lisa Schiff on March 1, 2007

Other than its very existence, one of the biggest scandals regarding No Child Left Behind (NCLB), our federal education legislation, has been the Reading First program. Reading First is another one of NCLB’s typically myopic efforts to improve educational outcomes. In this instance, the approach has been to promote mechanical solutions to the development of literacy skills for K through 3rd graders through programs based on “evidence-based research” and “scientific data.”

Having a sound basis for using a certain method makes sense, but the absolute reliance on the ability to describe outcomes quantitatively is suspect, since meaningful assessments of literacy skills require more than that. As with some other programs NCLB has introduced, such as supplementary tutoring, a primary purpose of the Reading First component seems to have been to create a fast-track to funnel state dollars used to purchase literacy education materials into the coffers of just a few producers of those same materials. Language such as “scientific” and “evidenced-based” simply served to provide the authoritative cover under which to hide this intention.

Many might argue that since NCLB is sufficiently scandalous in the way it reduces education to standardized curricula and tests, narrows the subjects taught and the pedagogical methods employed that there is no need to look further. While there is a certain truth to this, the flagrant and sustained corruption that occurred with Reading First is particularly important to expose. The impropriety not only clearly breached ethical norms, it serves as a clear example of the privatization goals of NCLB and of the underlying philosophy that profit making is of greater importance than educating our society’s kids.

The Reading First debacle, though making few headlines outside of education circles, has come to the fore again as the Department of Education (DOE) has had its internal affairs exposed in two recent high profile publications. The first was in the report by the Commission on NCLB, which amid all the recommendations for even more standardized testing and tracking of teachers gave a pro forma hand slapping to the DOE and called for more measures to prevent internal bias from occurring in the future (http://www.nclbcommission.org).

The Office of the Inspector General, interestingly enough a unit within the DOE itself, is the entity responsible for the second publication, released just last week (http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/auditreports/a03g0006.pdf). This report has received less attention than the Commission’s report, perhaps because of its more narrow focus on malfeasance as opposed to the more “forward-looking” reauthorization.

Despite the lack of notoriety and its in-house nature, this document is surprisingly strong in formally identifying the problems with the Reading First program and the dangerous terrain that NCLB has landed the education community in with this push towards profit-oriented solutions to education needs. While it does not question the underlying premises of the Reading First approach, its attention to the inappropriate implementation of the program is still important.

The OIG report is the result of an audit the office conducted reviewing a series of workshops for state implementers (called Reading Leadership Academies or RLAs), handbooks provided at those workshops, participant surveys, analysis of email messages regarding the organizing of the workshops and similar programs, and the degree to which the DOE complied with required efforts to reduce and eliminate potential bias by promoting any given vendor of educational materials and services. The report includes the findings, evidence in support of those findings, recommendations, DOE responses to the findings and recommendations (usually objecting to the findings), and OIG responses.

Three major findings, accompanied by recommendations, came out of the above analysis, most of which the DOE objected to, but to which the OIG provided evidence-based (note the irony) rebuttals, often citing the text of DOE originated email messages and evaluations from participants.

First, the OIG found that the workshops intentionally or otherwise promoted just a few specific programs (Direct Instruction and Open Court) by including participants who exclusively used those programs on panels throughout the series of RLAs despite feedback from participants that it appeared as though a sales job was in progress. We know of course now that that indeed was the case and that Direct Instruction and Open Court programs have been widely adopted despite the fact that there are other programs to choose from, not to mention the many concerns over their respective approaches and quality.

Second, the materials provided at the RLAs appeared to encourage the use of one particular assessment tool, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills Assessment (DIBELS) by profiling it in an extensive article, contrary to the requirement that no particular materials should be recommended. Finally, and not surprisingly, the OIG found that the DOE insufficiently tried (if at all it seems), to prevent bias and conflicts of interest in identifying experts to provide technical assistance at events related to Reading First.

Learning the details regarding how kids and the programs that serve them have been manipulated once again is always discouraging. But in this case we may have some cause for hope as the OIA findings and the impressive evidence they were able to pull together in support of those findings may mean that not everyone at the DOE is on the profit-making, NCLB bandwagon.

Smoking guns are hard to come by these days, and the OIG has handed public education supporters a few. This is more evidence that NCLB is not really about prioritizing the education of our nation’s children, evidence that we can use in our efforts to transform or replace NCLB with national education policy that actually has the welfare of children as its core intent. After all, there is a greater purpose here than profits.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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