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Relationships Trumped Data in Reading First?

In "Hooked on Phonies," Mother Jones magazine takes on the well-worn tale of Reading First and the alleged cronyism in the federal effort to improve reading instruction. The article is in the Sept./Oct. issue of the independent, liberal magazine. It chronicles the unlikely success of the K-2 reading program Voyager Learning and its founder, Randy Best.

The story is mostly a rehash of what's already been reported in Ed Week and other publications, like Best's relationships with and contributions to key politicians, including President Bush, and his hiring of former school administrators. But there are a few interesting new twists and insights.

The most intriguing comment comes from G. Reid Lyon, the former chief of the child development and behavior branch at NICHD and an architect of the Reading First legislation. There had been a lot made of New York City's adoption of Voyager after a group of prominent researchers, at Lyon's request, offered a critical analysis of the balanced literacy program that was prescribed throughout the vast district. The article also recaps the career paths of several reading experts who were hired by Best to design the program, then went on advise the Ed Department on Reading First implementation and to direct the Reading First technical assistance centers. Background is here and here.

Lyon went to work for Best as a research director for a teacher education program, which, according to the article, has run into accreditation issues. Now on his own, Lyon shares some revelations about some of the decisions made under Reading First.

"Many programs, including Voyager, were probably adopted on the basis of relationships, rather than effectiveness data," Mother Jones quotes Lyon as saying. "I thought all this money would be great; it would get into schools. But money makes barracudas out of people. It's an amazing thing."

Cindy Cupp, the fiery independent publisher whose complaints to federal officials—as well as those of the Success for All Foundation's Bob Slavin—sparked a series of investigations into the $1 billion-a-year program, sent me her reaction to the piece:

"I have been a reading teacher for 39 years. Reading First had the potential to be the most significant program to improve reading instruction in the United States," she wrote in an email as she was packing up to leave her house on Georgia's coast to get ahead of Hurricane Hanna. "There are laws in place that should have protected us against what happened in the Reading First program. I still find it hard to believe that the solution is to take the federal funds away from the children and to do nothing to bring charges against those that have caused the problems."

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