From the beginning, Mary Watson Peterson had doubts about the motivations of those in charge of implementing federal education grants known as Reading First. As the Madison district's coordinator of language arts and reading, she spent hundreds of hours working on Madison's Reading First grant proposal.
"Right away," she says, "I recognized a big philosophical difference" between Madison's reading instruction and the prescriptive, commercially produced lessons advocated by Reading First officials. "The exchange of ideas with the technical adviser ran very counter to what we believe are best practices in teaching."
The final straw was when the district was required to draft daily lesson plans to be followed by all teachers at the same time.
"We've got 25,000 kids who are in 25,000 different places," says Superintendent Art Rainwater. The program's insistence on uniformity "fundamentally violated everything we believe about teaching children."
In October 2004, Rainwater withdrew Madison from the federal grant program, losing potentially $3.2 million even as the district was cutting personnel and programs to balance its budget. Rainwater's decision, made without input from the school board, drew intense criticism and became an issue in last year's board elections.
Now, the Madison district's decision to stand up to the federal Department of Education and not compromise its principles to snag federal dollars appears commendable. Earlier this month, after the program became steeped in scandal, The New York Times was in Madison to learn about the district's reading program and its rejection of Reading First. And Madison has asked Sens. Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold and Rep. Tammy Baldwin to fight for lost funds.
Reading First, touted by Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as the "largest and most focused early reading initiative in our nation's history," was created by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Since then, Congress has authorized $6 billion for related reading programs in kindergarten to third grade.
Most education experts applaud aspects of Reading First, especially the increased spending on schools with large numbers of young, low-income children who are struggling to read.
But the program's implementation has been rife with fraud. Its director, Christopher Doherty, resigned after a report by the Department of Education's Inspector General, released in September, documented that the department failed to involve outside experts as required; "changed," "exaggerated" and "misstated" expert concerns; and failed to properly screen experts for conflicts of interest, among other things.
Doherty had previously worked in Baltimore to implement Direct Instruction, a teaching model that requires the use of Reading Mastery, a program published by SRA/McGraw-Hill. One e-mail shows Doherty writing, after being accused of manipulating panel memberships favoring this method: "‘Stack the panel?'... I have never *heard* of such a thing... ."
The misconduct has affected schools across the country, many of which were manipulated into buying millions of dollars' worth of books and materials that the experts hired by the federal government stood to personally profit from.
In November, The New York Times profiled a Georgia independent book publisher whose complaints about conflicts of interest and favoritism sparked the Inspector General's probe. Several other investigations are reportedly under way.
One of the alleged conflicts involves Edward Kame'enui, a University of Oregon professor who headed one of three Reading First technical assistance centers. Financial disclosure forms showed Kame'enui was paid between $100,000 and $250,000 a year in 2005 and 2006 by Pearson publishers, whose books were on the approved list for Reading First.
Notably, the Madison district was required to use a book by Kame'enui, who's had books published by a subsidiary of Pearson, to evaluate its own reading program, and the technical adviser assigned to Madison worked for Kame'enui's Oregon center.
In an investigative story, The Washington Post also noted, "the vast majority of the 4,800 Reading First schools have now adopted one of the five or six top-selling commercial textbooks, even though none of them has been evaluated in a peer-reviewed study against a control group."
So much for scientifically based reading research.
Rainwater's biggest complaint with Reading First is that it advanced ideology in the guise of science.
"It was obvious," he says. "There wasn't any real attempt to look at all the research. Everybody involved in this had an ideological view that they were bound, set and determined to move this country toward. But they denied the research. They didn't look at it all. That was the ultimate failure of Reading First."
So does Rainwater feels vindicated? He hesitates, but only for a moment.
"Yeah, I guess I do," he says. "I think all of this points out what we were feeling at the time. This was a very ideologically based grant that was trying to promote, at the expense of all others, one approach in curriculum."