Texas - Reading First Program owned by President Bush's brother Neil Bush is a Fraud Scam
Ignite! whose original investors include Neil's parents BARBARA BUSH AND PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH. "Neil Bush had raised about $23 million from more than a dozen outside investors, including Mohammed Al Saddah, the head of a Kuwaiti company, and Winston Wong, the head of a Chinese computer firm."
GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS: BUSH'S FAMILY PROFITS FROM 'NO CHILD'
READING FIRST AND VOYAGER EXPANDED LEARNING
Reading Recovery has a proven successful track record that the Bush connections refused to fund so their own son' Neil Bush's business Reading First would not have competition. Neil was "the director of Silverado Banking, Savings and Loan when it crashed in 1988 at a cost of $1 billion to taxpayers." In 1990, Bush paid a $50,000 fine and was banned from banking activities for his role in taking down Silverado, which actually cost taxpayers $1.3 billion. A Resolution Trust Corporation Suit against Bush and other officers of Silverado was settled in 1991 for $26.5 million. And the fine wasn't exactly paid by Neil Bush. A Republican fundraiser set up a fund to help defer costs Neil incurred in his S&L dealings. Bush "quietly is heading a local start-up that's raising at least $10 million in second-round funding." According to the business newsweekly, Bush has already raised $7.1 million from 53 investors underwriting Ignite! Inc., an educational software company.
UK Study Reports Reading Recovery's Effectiveness owned by
A three-year, £ 10 million initiative funded by charitable trusts, the business sector and the government of Great Britain focuses on Reading Recovery as a key strategy to make Every Child a Reader. Every Child a Reader: the results of the first year… reports that children who received Reading Recovery lessons made on average a gain of 21 months in reading age in just 4 to 5 months while lowest achieving children in schools with other early interventions fell further behind their peers.
2011 K-12 education materials specialist Cambium Learning Group acquires Voyager Learning, expected it would achieve growth through synergies associated with similar products and implementing best practices across two management teams.
Two causal factors underlie the assumptions behind NCLB and Reading First, both of them profoundly flawed and
contradicted by researchers.
Causal factor 1 is students' ineffective phonological awareness and phonics instruction, which Reading First advocates seek to remedy with a "systematic, explicit, intensive, sequential phonics instruction" and "direct instruction (pre-teaching) of vocabulary to promote reading comprehension." The drawback, Cummins argued, is that one of things the U.S. National Reading Panel "showed, which has been systematically fudged and distorted by folks who brought you Reading First, is that intensive phonics instruction – what they call intensive instruction – showed no positive effect on reading comprehension beyond the first grade for either low-achieving or normally achieving readers. ... For low-achieving kids, for normally achieving kids, any effects of phonics instruction washed out after grade one. That has not been broadly advertised by the Feds." ~Jim Cummins
Crooks! John Higgins, the Education Department's inspector general, refused to specify for reporters what
he has asked government prosecutors to look at, but investigators have been highly critical of the
department's management of the Reading First program. A federal
investigator looking into allegations of conflict of interest and mismanagement in a $1 billion-a-year
Education Department reading program said Friday he has referred the matter to the Justice
Department. Referrals are made by investigators when they encounter evidence of possible federal
crimes or other misconduct, which only the Justice Department has authority to pursue. A spokesman for the U.S.
attorney's office for the District of Columbia, Channing Phillips, confirmed that the referral had been
received by the department's civil division. When the civil division handles such referrals, the end result
would usually be a lawsuit seeking to recover funds rather than criminal charges being filed, he said, although
it is possible that after review criminal action might be called for.
Investigators say that federal officials intervened to influence state and local decisions about what programs to use, a potential violation of the law. Some of the people who were influencing those decisions had a financial interest in the programs that were being pushed, officials said. "I think we're very close to a criminal enterprise here," House Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said at an investigative hearing Friday. "Have you made any criminal referrals, Mr. Higgins?" "We have made referrals to the Department of Justice," Higgins said. Miller said his committee may also make criminal referrals. "I think when we put the evidence together we may join you in those criminal referrals," Miller told Higgins. But Reading First's former director told lawmakers Friday he did nothing wrong, despite investigators' findings that the Education Department skirted the law and ethical standards. In scathing exchanges with Miller, former Reading First program director Chris Doherty defended his and his colleagues' work implementing the program. Despite several attempts by Miller to elicit admissions of wrongdoing, Doherty refused, offering explanations for several of the complaints brought by the Education Department's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office. "You've suggested because of logistics, because of the time frame, because you might get 50 applications all at the same time, you have a whole litany of reasons why you didn't have to abide by the law," Miller said. "We thought then and we think now we did abide by the law," replied Doherty, who stepped down last year. An inspector general report late last year stated that the reading program was beset by conflicts of interest and mismanagement. The inspector general stated that the review panels were stacked with people who shared Doherty's views and that Doherty repeatedly used his influence to push states toward programs he favored. "Our work showed that the department did not comply with the Reading First statute regarding the composition of the application review panel and criteria for acceptable programs," said John Higgins, the Education Department's inspector general. "Further, the department's actions created an appearance that it may have violated statutory provisions that prohibit it from influencing the curriculum of schools." More recently, The Associated Press reported that the program may have yet another conflict-of-interest problem. The Education Department contractor hired to help set up and implement key parts of the Reading First program beginning in 2002 also has been brought in to help evaluate how well the program is doing. California Rep. Buck McKeon, the education panel's senior Republican, has proposed a ban on any contractor evaluating a program that it had a role in implementing. He and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, are pushing bills that would tighten conflict-of-interest rules in the reading program and make it harder for federal officials or contractors to influence local curriculum decisions. The Education Department has pledged to make changes to ensure there will not be future problems in the Reading First program. Doherty suggested in prepared testimony that "a distorted story" based on "the worst possible interpretation of events" has been told about the Reading First program. "We were never told on any occasion we were violating the law," Doherty said at the hearing.
Reading First Flunks
The flagship program for evidence-based reform in NCLB was Reading First, a $1 billion per year program designed to give high-poverty schools proven reading programs to use in grades K-3. Instead, Reading First money has gone primarily to traditional basal textbooks lacking any evidence of effectiveness, while programs that do have such evidence, such as our Success for All program (Slavin & Madden, 2001), and Direct Instruction (Adams & Engelmann, 1996) were largely shut out (Moss, Jacob, Boulay, Horst, & Poulos, 2006). In September 2006, the Department of Education's Inspector General (Office of the Inspector General, 2006) issued a scathing report on Reading First, documenting how department officials deliberately bent the law to favor certain programs and discourage others, without regard to evidence. Press reports have shown how the department's Reading First technical assistance contractors had serious conflicts of interest. The leaders of two of the three centers were on the design team for one of the most widely adopted remedial programs under Reading First, and were authors of one of the major basal textbooks (Manzo, 2006; Grunwald, 2006).
CLAIMS ABOUT NCLB QUESTIONED
President Bush says NCLB is working, pointing to student-achievement results from a single subsection of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and tentative Reading First data. The administration appears to ignore other data that suggest the law has had little or no positive effect on achievement, report David J. Hoff and Kathleen Kennedy Manzo. "There's not any evidence that shows anything has changed," said Daniel M. Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University's graduate school of education.
Bush says: "Fourth graders are reading better," during a March 2 visit to a school in New Albany, Ind. "They've made more progress in five years than the previous 28 years combined." In mathematics, he said, elementary and middle school students "earned the highest scores in the history of the test." The data Mr. Bush cited at that event are from just the "long-term trend" NAEP in reading and math, researchers say. All available data, they add, show modest improvements that can't be attributed to the 5-year-old law. Instead, progress in achievement is more likely a continuation of trends that predate the law.
READING FIRST FEDERAL READING PROGRAM IGNORED LAW & ETHICAL STANDARDS
Reading First was a cornerstone of NCLB. The Inspector General Department's Report, a scorching internal review of the Bush administration's billion-dollar-a-year reading program says the Education Department ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted. The government audit is unsparing in its view that the Reading First program has been beset by conflicts of interest and willful mismanagement. It suggests the department broke the law by trying to dictate which curriculum schools must use. It also depicts a program in which review panels were stacked with people who shared the director's views, and in which only favored publishers of reading curricula could get money. About 1,500 school districts have received $4.8 billion in Reading First grants. The audit found the Department of Education
- botched the way it picked a panel to review grant applications, raising questions over whether grants were approved as the law requires;
- Screened grant reviewers for conflicts of interest, but then failed to identify six who had a clear conflict based on their industry connections;
- Did not let states see the comments of experts who reviewed their applications;
- Required states to meet conditions that weren't part of the law; and tried to downplay elements of the law it didn't like when working with states.
- Developed an application package that obscured the requirements of the statute;
- Took action with respect to the expert review panel process that was contrary to the balanced panel composition envisioned by Congress;
- Intervened to release an assessment review document without the permission of the entity that contracted for its development;
- Intervened to influence a State's selection of reading programs;
- Intervened to influence reading programs being used by local educational agencies (LEAs) after the application process was completed. [source]
The Federal government's controversial $4.8 billion Reading First program has been accused of numerous improprieties by the Inspector General of the Department of Education - see the Reading First Government Report. Four major issues that should alarm educators and taxpayers alike:
- Reading First favored one curriculum product over all others;
- Government reading "experts" had numerous conflicts of interest;
- Political ideology trumped science and good public policy;
- People who disagreed with the Reading First agenda were accused of bias, ridiculed and intimidated.
- Reading First: 'Science' or Politics? One beneficiary of Reading First has been SRA/McGraw-Hill, whose CEO, Harold McGraw, has been a major donor and fundraiser for Republican candidates, including George W. Bush. Another is Voyager Learning, headed until 2004 by Randy Best, a "Bush Pioneer" from Dallas who raised more than $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney ticket. The IG report quoted extensively from emails by Chris Dougherty, director of Reading First, who made no effort to conceal his biases. In advising his staff to reject the application of one publisher, he wrote: “They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags." In another message to President Bush's "Reading Czar," Reid Lyon, Dougherty gloated about having "beaten Maine" – that is, forcing the state of Maine to switch to a favored publisher. "I like your style," Lyon replied.
1) According to educators surveyed by the Center on Education Policy, Reading First is having a positive and
significant impact on student achievement.
"Center on Education Policy • 1001 Connecticut Avenue NW Suite 522 • Washington DC 20036 • (202) 822-8065 Fax (202) 822-6008
2) 2008 Full Report
This interim report presents the impacts of Reading First on classroom reading instruction and student reading comprehension during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years.
<snip> Reading First did not have statistically significant impacts on student reading comprehension test scores in grades 1-3. A final report on the impacts from 2004-2007 (three school years with Reading First funding) and on the relationships between changes in instructional practice and student reading comprehension is expected in late 2008.
Follow the Money: Who Is
RMC Research Corp. The Mckenzie Group Abt Assoc. and MDRC ? What do national studies say about Reading First? As reported in our 2005 study, Ensuring Academic Rigor or Inducing Rigor Mortis?: Issues to Watch in Reading
First, ED has commissioned three national studies of Reading First:
1. Analysis of State K-3 Reading Standards and Assessments by RMC Research Corporation and the McKenzie Group
2. The Reading First Implementation Study by Abt Associates
3. The Reading First Impact Study by MDRC and Abt Associates
HOW PHONICS WAGGED THE DOG
The FortWorth Weekly Feature: School For Profit - except for private companies with lots of pull.
Voyager Expanded Learning
Reading in Texas SCAM
By BETTY BRINK
School for Profit Feature: Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Sonnenberg was 'very, very impressed with Voyager's reading intervention curriculum.'
Rangel: Sonnenberg 'was a master at getting funding out of D.C. for the district's reading programs.' The Fort Worth school district has never done an evaluation of whether Voyager programs are helping students learn to read.
Garner: Voyager 'is sucking funds away from other school programs.' George W. Bush has relied heavily on advisors who helped put together Texas educational reforms.
And Marsha Sonnenberg, the reading expert, “never even had a reading certificate.”
Last February, Fort Worth school district ethics expert Rufino Mendoza sent acting superintendent Joe Ross a strongly worded memo alleging that one of the district's most highly touted and powerful employees had committed a serious conflict-of-interest violation.
Marsha Sonnenberg had been in charge of reading and language arts acquisitions for Fort Worth
schools since 1998. In the memo, released to Fort Worth Weekly under an open records request,
Mendoza wrote that Sonnenberg had recommended that the district buy a reading program produced
by a company for which she was a consultant. “This is in direct violation of Board Policy” that bars any
employee with influence over contracts and payments from accepting any benefit from companies or people doing
business with the district, Mendoza wrote. “It is most important that our top-level cabinet exemplify what is
expected from all ... employees. ... If we are to hold one person accountable for unethical behavior, we must
hold all individuals accountable or our entire process is compromised.”
Sonnenberg did not deny doing work for the company called Sopris West Educational Services, which was trying to sell the district its $87,000 reading program for middle-school special education students. According to Mendoza, she admitted that she had played a role in the development of the curriculum, called Language. But she told Mendoza she had not been compensated for what she said were suggestions on how to improve the product. Still, the ethics expert told Ross, “compensation, as you know, doesn't necessarily mean receipt of money.”
It could mean helping out an old mentor. Sopris executive Louisa Cook Moats, a well-known reading expert and researcher, is listed on Sonnenberg's resumé as a reference, someone she had “been trained by and worked with.” And a regional Sopris administrator, Closie Ray, formerly worked with Sonnenberg in the Fort Worth district offices, which Mendoza thought might also give the “appearance of impropriety.”
Sonnenberg resigned her $97,900-a-year position at the end of the 2004-2005 school term — a decision she said this week that she'd made before the ethics flap. The Fort Worth district didn't buy the Sopris program.
Because of the concerns raised by Mendoza, another program purchase pushed by Sonnenberg was also halted. The reading administrator had recommended that the district spend another $84,000 on a curriculum called Passport, also for middle-school special education classes. That one is put together by a company called Voyager Expanded Learning — a company whose contracts with the Fort Worth district alone jumped from $100,300 to more than $620,000 in one year, under Sonnenberg's direction. And if Sopris has a few friends in somewhat lofty places, it's not a patch on Voyager, the brainchild of Randy Best, Dallas entrepreneur and big-money backer of George Bush.
ka Ching $ $ $
Start, again, with Sonnenberg's resumé. Besides Moats, she lists among her reading-research mentors Reid Lyon and Doug Carnine, both of whom wound up in Washington, D.C., as advisors to Bush
and his now-controversial No Child Left Behind act. Lyon and Sonnenberg are believers in phonics and made that
method the cornerstone of Bush's reading initiative.
One of the phonics-based commercial programs Lyon has pushed is Voyager's — which has gotten him in hot water with critics, in New York and elsewhere, who charge that the administration's reading initiatives were actually written to support a few commercial programs — programs, perhaps not surprisingly, developed by Bush administration friends.
Sonnenberg, a vivacious, candid woman, told the Weekly that Voyager's program has succeeded because it is impressive and because it fills an important niche. But not all agree. Its detractors say that Voyager has indeed become a major success story in the annals of educational entrepreneurship, based not on producing a superior product but on its founders' ability to attract well-funded and well-connected investors and to hire top educators away from public schools that then become its clients, not to mention pouring massive amounts of money into Bush's campaigns. Its corporate connections reach the White House by the front door.
Voyagers' corporate connections reach the White House by the front door.
Along the way, Voyager has been helped by government policy changes like that mandated by the Texas Legislature
in 2003, which attached a little-known rider to an appropriations bill to give the Texas Education Agency $12
million to spend on reading — that is, to spend on a single intervention program for struggling readers in
kindergarten and elementary schools. All districts had to use the one program chosen by TEA or pay for their
own. The TEA's choice: Voyager.
Some Fort Worth schools were already using the Voyager program at that point, but when the TEA started funding it in 2003, Fort Worth expanded the program district-wide. After all, Sonnenberg said, “It was free” — to schools, if not to taxpayers.
Voyager Flunks This deal helped Bush's friends at the expense of the state's at-risk kids.”
Long-time reading teachers familiar with Voyager, however, were outraged at the TEA decision. “If Voyager were
a superior program and reasonably priced, I would not object,” retired teacher Donna Garner said. “However ...
it is not a great program, and it certainly has no long-term, longitudinal research conducted by independent
researchers which proves that Voyager is better than other reading intervention programs that are less
expensive. .... This deal helped Bush's friends at the expense of the state's at-risk kids.”
Even Fort Worth's director of special education wrote in 2003 that she “wasn't that impressed” with Voyager.
After observing it in the Birmingham schools for a year, University of Alabama professor Fran Perkins called Voyager's curriculum “the best example of the worst reading program for young children” she'd ever seen.
When schools in the state of New York bought Voyager under pressure from Lyon, Big Apple public advocate Betsy Gotbaum blasted the state's decision as one that chose what was best for a company rather than “what's best for our children.”
Others see Voyager as part of a larger right-wing push to privatize public education. In the
October issue of the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, university researchers Patricia Hinchey and
Karen Cadiero-Kaplan wrote that by “putting public funds into private pockets” with its blatant
promotion of companies such as Voyager, the Bush administration is setting the stage for a widespread acceptance
of for-profit charter schools funded by public money, a threat “not only to public education, but democracy
itself.” Ultimately, the authors wrote, the No Child Left Behind initiative is designed to fail, and
when it does, public school teachers will be the “scapegoats” and the private sector will become the
Retired reading teacher and former Fort Worth school administrator Judith Scott said the highly touted educational reforms in Texas aren't working and that she is “tired of educators getting a bum rap” for the failures. “You only have to look at the people” who ushered in those reforms, she said, to understand why they have failed. They were politicians, millionaire businessmen or big-time attorney-lobbyists, with no history in education, she pointed out. And Marsha Sonnenberg, the reading expert, “never even had a reading certificate.”
The whole reform movement, Scott said, became “a political football” that gave power and money to Bush supporters and promoted his “phonics-only agenda.”
Still, Sonnenberg said, anecdotal evidence from principals and teachers convinced her she had made the right
decision when she brought Voyager into the classrooms. “I was told over and over that schools with
low-income and low-performing kids were seeing dramatic improvements in their kids' reading skills.” When
asked if there was any hard data to back up her claims, she said no. “I could never get the
[district's] program evaluators, for whatever reason, to do the studies.”
A local journalist who formerly served as education editor of a major daily newspaper doesn't remember that as a time spent dealing with stories of good and bad teachers, educational achievements, or even school budgets. Instead, she remembers it as a time when her voice, snail, and e-mail boxes were perpetually overflowing with urgent messages from people trying to sell something to schools and students.
Larry Shaw, head of a local teachers union, noted the same trend when he commented a few years ago on the schools' sale of “branding rights” to private companies, allowing them to put their names on auditoriums, football stadiums, and the like. When a visitor shows up on one of these campuses, Shaw said, “he better not bend over, or a Pepsi-Cola banner might be slapped across his backside.”
Entrepreneurs of every stripe, it seems, have realized in the last decade or so that schools are not just places where scholars and future presidents are made. They are places were fortunes can be made — especially with a few friends in the right places.
In Fort Worth, scandal erupted several years ago after Thomas Tocco, then superintendent of schools, committed more than $15 million to an unproven computer math program owned by one his associates and even went so far as to write glowing letters of endorsement to Congress in order to help the buddy get millions in education grants. Years later, consultants brought in by Ross deemed the program to be “not worth the money.” Too bad. The money had already been spent.
In the years since, the process of turning public schools into branding laboratories (give a kindergartener an Apple and she's yours for life!), billboards (ads on school buses) proto-markets (soft drink machines in the hallways), and public troughs for private gain seems to have accelerated.
The debate over whether to teach phonics isn't just about how kids learn — it's about which company's reading program has the best lobbyists.
By 1994, Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best had made a fortune in investment banking. That year he decided to branch out. He rounded up investors and, with $3.5 million in hand, founded a for-profit company called Voyager Expanded Learning. One of those investors was Charles Miller, a millionaire friend of George Bush. The Texas governor tapped Miller to lead the statewide task force on school reform. Miller was also a friend of Margaret Spellings, another education advisor who would become secretary of education when Bush became president.
VOYEGER EXPANDED LEARNING
HOW THIS BUISNESS STARTED AND WAS ABLE TO BECOME PART OF THE EDUCATION BUSINESS SUPPLY CHAIN
Despite its for-profit nature, Voyager's stated purpose was altruistic: Best wanted to provide after-school programs to latchkey kids. His program was simple. He would use existing school facilities — free of charge if he could convince the school districts that what he was doing was providing tutoring rather than baby-sitting services — and he would offer poorly paid teachers good hourly pay to stay late and tutor the kids using methods that were more fun than studious. The programs offered everything from sculpting to drama, and they were highly successful, branching out across North Texas — until other after-school program providers that had to be regulated by the state cried foul because Voyager had gotten a pass as a “tutoring” service. Best shook off his critics, continued the after-school programs, and took his tutoring service to a higher level: Voyager became a for-profit publisher of reading programs that he sold to the schools as phonic-based intervention programs for at-risk kids.
HOW PHONICS WAGGED THE DOG
Voyager Expanded Learning was first used in the Fort Worth schools during the 1997-98 school year at a cost of
$59,190. At that time it was an after-school tutoring program aimed at struggling elementary students. For the
next seven school years, according to documents released by the district under an open records request, purchase
orders for Voyager programs came to a total of about $331,000.
Then in the 2004-2005 school year, Sonnenberg dramatically increased the number of schools using the program, and in just one year Voyager was paid $620,698. A lot of that money came from TEA, but some of it also came from Title I funds and direct federal grants under No Child Left Behind.
TEA's choice of Voyager, over eight other vendors, as the single-source statewide provider for the $12 million at-risk reading program was highly controversial and fraught with charges of favoritism.
Donna Garner, the retired reading teacher, called the decision unconscionable. “This [was] an 'I smell a rat' deal,” Garner said. “It is sucking funds away from other school programs, all to put dollars in the pockets of those backers who are behind the company.”
Garner, who monitors TEA regularly, lives near Waco. She's an unrelenting critic of the state's current educational standards known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, and is chief author of an alternative standards document that other teachers helped her write in 1997.
Garner and a few other reading teachers had been asked to join the large group — mostly administrators and researchers — that had been pulled together by the Bush task force on school reform to write new standards for the state's schools. Sonnenberg also served on the writing team. Those standards became the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, called TEKS, and the basis for the statewide testing program.
But after a few weeks, Garner said, several of the classroom teachers became convinced that the committee was going to produce standards that were “vague, not knowledge-based, and impossible to understand by teachers or students.” They bolted, put their lives on hold for months, and produced the Texas Alternative Document, a knowledge-based set of standards that were grade-level specific and had real accountability built in, she said. Their document, praised by outside peer reviewers, was ignored by TEA. But while their standards were not accepted by Texas, some portions of the TAD are being used in California and more than a half-dozen other states, she said. “We are well known and respected outside our own borders.” TAD, she said, is not copyrighted, is “free for the taking,” and none of the authors has ever made a dime off it. Sonnenberg, Garner said, “flirted with the TAD group for a time,” but went back to the Bush-supported TEKS group.
Garner has nothing kind to say about the business types like
millionaire investor Charles Miller and lawyer-lobbyist Sandy Kress, who headed up Bush's Texas school reform initiatives and laid the groundwork for what would become the No Child Left Behind act, making that document, in Garner's eyes, seriously flawed.
Mr. Kress is a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which describes itself as one of the world's largest law firms," Parks wrote. "His schedule keeps him hopscotching across the country as a cheerleader for No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal education law that enshrined test data as the centerpiece of school accountability."He continues, "...[Kress] is the paid lobbyist for conservative businessmen intent on imposing more accountability on public schools in return for increased funding. He consults for companies that sell products and services to state education agencies and school districts. And he advises corporate chief executives under the banner of business groups such as the Business Roundtable." "Rarely mentioned publicly, however, are Mr. Kress' connections to powerful companies and business associations that have a stake in a $500-billion-a-year public education machine fueled by a politically volatile mix of federal, state and local taxes." When asked about the services he provides to corporate clients, Kress invokes "attorney-client" privilege with Parks. "I don't want to talk too much about what I do for my clients because I don't think they like that," he said. But Parks learns that among Kress's clients is "Pearson Education, one of the world's largest education companies."
“Back in the '90s when we Texas Alternative Document writers were trying to get the governor's office
to realize the importance of grade-level-specific standards based upon academic knowledge, all [Miller and
Kress] could understand was spreadsheets,” Garner said. “These people never did realize that you
can't make students and teachers accountable unless they know to what they are being held accountable.”
Now, she said, that same mentality pervades Bush's national educational initiatives.
As for Voyager's curriculum and other Bush-backed phonics-based programs, Scott, a former Fort Worth Title I administrator who worked with Sonnenberg, said a one-size-fits-all approach to the teaching of reading is impossible. “Kids learn differently,” she said. “And if you have a child with a hearing problem — and there are many such kids — who can't distinguish sounds, you're setting that child up to fail if phonics is your only option.” But the money is in phonics today, she said, and “all of the programs Sonnenberg bought for the district tie back to Bush and federal dollars.”
Sonnenberg said she was “very, very impressed with Voyager's reading intervention curriculum, and I had no hesitancy recommending it to the district.” She said Voyager sent folks out to talk to teachers and administrators and discovered the need for reading intervention programs that would help bring at-risk children up to speed. “Voyager was one of the first to develop such a program, based on phonics,” she said, which did give the program an advantage in getting the No Child Left Behind nod.
Sonnenberg had all the connections to politicians and MONEY
Fort Worth schools trustee Juan Rangel said Sonnenberg “was one of the reading gurus out of a tight circle that started in Austin. She was a master at getting funding out of D.C. for the district's reading programs. ... Look at her connections.”
One of her long-time Fort Worth co-workers, who asked not to be identified, said that with Sonnenberg gone, the district's loss politically and financially is “incalculable.”
The conflict of interest concerns that many still believe led to Sonnenberg's resignation would likely not have been flagged under Thomas Tocco — the former superintendent wasn't known for his keen concern for ethical issues. Those years were rocked by scandals that ranged from Tocco's sexual peccadilloes to his blatant promotion of a buddy's computer math program to a massive internal bidding scam that drained $15 million from a district already bleeding red ink, sending one high-level administrator and a favorite contractor to federal prison. As Rangel described it, a culture of “wink, wink, nod, nod” marked the Tocco regime, and for many, the lines between what was permissible for a public servant and what was not had long been blurred.
But with Ross in the driver's seat last winter, a new school board president in place, a wholly revamped ethics code, and a search on for a permanent superintendent, the district began working to remove the image of cronyism and corruption that had come to hover over it.
Sonnenberg had been brought in by Tocco as the district's reading consultant in spite of the fact that her resumé showed that in a long educational career, she had never taught reading. In fact, the only classroom experience she had came in the late '60s, when she taught history at a junior high school in her hometown of Port Arthur for four years. After that, Sonnenberg climbed the administrative ladder in East Texas schools, winding up in Wharton in 1990 as the assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction. In all those years, she was never in charge of reading programs. The only thing on her resumé alluding to any reading experience are the four reading researchers who she said she “trained [with] and worked with.”
She told the Weekly that her interest in reading developed when she was teaching. “I discovered in the classroom that our children can't read, and it made me angry,” she said. She began to do her own research, sought out experts in the field, and embarked on a quest “to do something about it.”
$ Bush, $ Lyon, and $Carnine
By the time she joined Gov. Bush's reading task force in 1996, she had come to know future
presidential advisors Reid Lyon, then the director of reading research at the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development, and Doug Carnine, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of
Educators at the University of Oregon. Carnine had been an advisor to Bush in Texas on his reading reform
initiative which became the model for Reading First.
It was Lyon, when he joined the Bush team in Washington, who began to push for Voyager's use across the country — including in New York City schools, where his pressure drew public controversy. Lyon strongly criticized the reading intervention program the district was using. He warned that it did not meet the standards of No Child Left Behind and that the district faced losing millions in federal dollars if it didn't change programs. “It was made clear to state officials ... that if they wanted Reading First money, they needed to use ... a Texas-based company, Voyager Expanded Leaning,” Hinchey and Cadiero-Kaplan wrote in the education journal article last fall.
In a letter strongly opposing the switch, Gotbaum, the city's public advocate wrote that she could find no published scientific evaluations of Voyager's curriculum (in spite of the fact that it purports to be a “scientifically based reading” program), but she did find plenty of critics. She cited Alabama professor Perkins' charge that it was the “worst reading program” for young children she'd ever seen and a survey of Birmingham teachers who criticized it for being “too narrowly focused” and grading “too optimistically.” Gotbaum found similar complaints in other southern states' districts: Students in Voyager did no better than regular students; teachers disliked the program's “inflexibility”; it limited creativity, and it was deemed by many to be a waste of money.
In October 2003, Fort Worth's director of special education, Cynthia Walker, wrote to her department head, Leslie James, that she wasn't “that impressed” with the Voyager program. The program's first workbook “goes from nothing to high level awfully quickly [and] the teacher's guide is not very user friendly,” she said. But, she wrote, “I'm going to defer to Marsha.”
Ann Ware, who evaluates district programs for their effectiveness and cost-benefits, said Fort Worth has made no studies of Voyager to date.
By 1997, Voyager was in 700 schools in 17 states, and Best had lured former Richardson schools superintendent Robert Johnson away to become president of the company. Johnson had bought the program for several Richardson schools when he was in charge. Same for Dallas superintendent Chad Woolery, who put the program in Dallas schools and wrote an endorsement letter for the company. In 1997 he left the school district to become president of Voyager Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the company that raises scholarship money for kids whose parents can't afford to pay for the company's after-school program.
That same year, The Dallas Morning News reported, Voyager added two more public school stars to its roster: Brookhaven College president Walter Bumpus to head its east coast region and Oakland, Calif., schools superintendent Carolyn Getridge to oversee programs in several western states.
Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based watchdog group that tracks the influence of money on politics, reported that Georgia state school superintendent Linda Schrenko went behind the backs of her state board of education in 2001 to award a $1.1 million grant for a Voyager reading program. A month later, top Voyager executives contributed $56,750 to Schrenko's ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.
In Texas, the company also has close ties to two past commissioners of education, Mike Moses and Jim Nelson. Neither were available for comment. Moses went on to become the superintendent of Dallas public schools, where he expanded the use of the Voyager program and, in the revolving door culture of the education community, hired a former Voyager high-level employee, Carmyn Neeley, as an assistant superintendent. Her husband Joe Neeley, who had been hired by Moses as deputy commissioner at the TEA, left Austin to go to work for Voyager when Moses took over the Dallas schools.
Nelson, an attorney who took the commissioner's post following Moses, was lured away by Voyager in 2002 as a vice-president. Nelson's wife also works for the company. In June 2004 he was hired as superintendent of the Richardson schools, a move that generated controversy and charges of conflicts of interest. Moses had been hired by the district to conduct its superintendent search, and he recommended only one person: Nelson.
“When he was hired, he [Nelson] warned us that conflict of interest questions over Voyager would come up,” said Jeanne Guerra, the Richardson district's communications director. The district had used the program and was considering it again, she said. “We had a committee of teachers and administrators to look at different reading intervention programs, and they told us that Voyager was the best.” Nelson had nothing to do with the decision, she said.
Best's most valued political contact, however, was his friend George W. Bush. The Dallas entrepreneur contributed more than $45,000 to Bush's gubernatorial campaign, according to a report by Texans for Public Justice. At about the same time, the report said, Bush endorsed spending $25 million in state funds on after-school programs. When Bush ran for the presidency, Best was a “pioneer” who raised $100,000 for the campaign. And after the self-anointed education president's baby, No Child Left Behind, was passed in 2002, Voyager became one of the first programs approved for federal funding under the Reading First initiative that was part of the program.
Best just couldn't go wrong with Voyager. In February he sold his cash cow to ProQuest, Inc., the new name of century-old Bell & Howell, for more than $340 million. He promised his investors in 1994, the Morning News reported then, that in 10 years their investments would pay off. He was off by only one year.
ProQuest/Voyager spokesman Chris Cook said that, in spite of its critics, Voyager has a proven track record of success, with a 98 percent renewal rate from districts over a five-year period. “School districts don't continue to purchase programs that don't work,” Cook said. In any event, he added, “This is an entirely new program under ProQuest. Mr. Best is no longer involved.”
And now Best is embarking on another educational voyage, Sonnenberg said — an on-line university that will offer continuing education courses for teachers. And again he's adding to his trophy case of top educators to help him launch the new venture. Reid Lyon, the Bush reading czar, recently left a lifetime in the public sector to become a senior vice president of research and evaluation for Best. And Sonnenberg, who keeps up with her old friend, said that he has also hired Rod Paige, former secretary of education for Bush, and Mike Moses.
Sonnenberg said this week that she believes she never had an ethical conflict with Sopris, though she served on the company's advisory board. “I worked for free, and there was no conflict of interest, as I understand the term,” she said. She recommended the company's Language program, she said, “because I knew and respected the professionals at Sopris who developed it.” She was “shocked” when the conflict charge came up, she said. The issue had nothing to do with her departure and caused “no damage to my reputation,” she said. She is now working as a freelance reading consultant with clients ranging from the Department of Education to small school districts to commercial educational-product companies. She declined to name those clients, but she said she stays in close contact with Randy Best, who calls her frequently to ask her advice.
Mike Sorum, the new chief academic officer for the district, said he doesn't know why Sonnenberg resigned but he did say that, in spite of her long history with the district's reading programs, she would not be coming back as a consultant under new superintendent Melody Johnson.
THE BUSINESS OF EDUCATION AND THE SUPPLY CHAIN
Mendoza, however, said the district is left with what he called “critical questions” about the integrity of the
purchasing process itself: Do purchases of the district's reading products go through the usual
competitive process? And more importantly, does a textbook committee recommend the products?
And if they are paying even minimal attention, educators and parents also still have questions, about why this country's children continue to be such poor readers. Five years into the 21st century, about 40 percent of American children were not proficient readers — that is, able to read fluently, comprehend, and retain knowledge. In Texas that figure is an abysmal 77 percent. Those figures are not from state reading tests such as the TAKS. They come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an independent arm of the Department of Education that takes the pulse of the nation's schools each year and looks at trends every five years. Its recent findings indicate that U.S. schools show little “significant difference” in the performance of kids in the early grades since 1992 and literally no differences in the math and reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past 34 years.
Rangel, the Fort Worth trustee, is dismayed that so many children still do not read with proficiency. “Reading is the heart of all learning. If that heart isn't pumping, you can forget everything else. Too many kids in this district,” he said, whether they are white, black, or brown, “are not being taught to read at a level that will give them the tools they need for college, for a profession, and for an enjoyable, well-rounded life.”
And in spite of a plethora of reading programs, the district's reading scores on the state's 2004-2005 TAKS still remain lower than the state average at every grade level. This year's third-graders did better than any other grade, passing at a rate of 85 percent, still below the state average of 89 percent. But beyond third grade, reading scores dropped significantly — to 65 percent for fifth-graders.
What those scores tell him, Rangel said, is that there are probably too many reading programs. “The child is lost in a maze of programs that are totally different from grade to grade. They come from different vendors that aren't compatible with each other. The kids are confused. But they are not stupid. Our kids are smart. They can learn, if we simply use common sense and give them continuity. Same thing for our teachers. We have great teachers, but we have to give them the resources to teach with.”
“That's exactly the question I'm asking,” said Sorum. “Do we have too many reading programs, are they compatible, and if not, what do we do about it?” Sorum said he and Superintendent Johnson are taking a critical look at the “multiple programs,” especially from the student's perspective. “It's very confusing for them.” The third-grade readers are doing well, he said. The district now needs to build on that success with a curriculum document that has continuity. “That's the major reason I was hired — to work on this,” he said. “We're definitely moving toward more cohesiveness.” And teachers will be brought in to the decision-making process: “They know better than I do what they need.”
The fact that this district still has so many poor readers can be laid at the feet of Tocco, Rangel said, because the former superintendent thought that throwing money at a problem would fix it. “He bought every [reading program] there was. And kept buying and buying. He was not a classroom teacher, and he never did understand what is needed in a classroom.
“It's not scripted reading programs or computer math programs” that are needed, he said. “It's good
teachers with good tools.”
You can reach Betty Brink at firstname.lastname@example.org
Voyager's response to News 12's Special Assignment: The Price of Education May 2, 2006
Special Assignment: The Price of Education April 28, 2006
NO CHILD'S BEHIND LEFT: THE TEST
New York -- Today and tomorrow every 8-year-old in the state of New York will take a test. It's part of George Bush's No Child Left Behind program.
The losers will be left behind to repeat the third grade.
Try it yourself.
This is from the state's actual practice test. Ready, class?
"The year 1999 was a big one for the Williams sisters. In February, Serena won her first pro singles championship. In March, the sisters met for the first time in a tournament final. Venus won. And at doubles tennis, the Williams girls could not seem to lose that year."
And here's one of the four questions: "The story says that in 1999, the sisters could not seem to lose at doubles tennis. This probably means when they played "A two matches in one day "B against each other "C with two balls at once "D as partners"
OK, class, do you know the answer?
(By the way, I didn't cheat: there's nothing else about "doubles" in the text.)
My kids go to a New York City school in which more than half the students live below the poverty line. There is no tennis court.
There are no tennis courts in the elementary schools of Bed-Stuy or East Harlem. But out in the Hamptons, every school has a tennis court. In Forest Hills, Westchester and Long Island's North Shore, the schools have nearly as many tennis courts as the school kids have live-in maids.
Now, you tell me, class, which kids are best prepared to answer the question about "doubles tennis"? The 8-year-olds in Harlem who've never played a set of doubles or the kids whose mommies disappear for two hours every Wednesday with Enrique the tennis pro?
Is this test a measure of "reading comprehension" -- or a measure of wealth accumulation?
If you have any doubts about what the test is measuring, look at the next question, based on another part of the text, which reads (and I could not make this up):
"Most young tennis stars learn the game from coaches at private clubs. In this sentence, a club is probably a "F baseball bat "G tennis racquet "H tennis court "J country club"
Helpfully, for the kids in our 'hood, it explains that a "country club" is a, "place where people meet." Yes, but which people?
President Bush told us, "By passing the No Child Left Behind Act, we are regularly testing every child and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing." But there are no "better options."
In the delicious double-speak of class war, when the tests have winnowed out the chaff and kids stamped failed, No Child Left results in that child being left behind in the same grade to repeat the failure another year.
I can't say that Mr. Bush doesn't offer better options to the kids stamped failed.
Under No Child Left, if enough kids flunk the tests, their school is marked a failure and its students win the right, under the law, to transfer to any successful school in their district.
You can't provide more opportunity than that.
But they don't provide it, the law promises it, without a single penny to make it happen.
In New York in 2004, a third of a million students earned the right to transfer to better schools -- in which there were only 8,000 places open.
New York is typical.
Nationwide, only one out of two-hundred students eligible to transfer manage to do it. Well, there's always the Army. (That option did not go unnoticed: No Child has a special provision requiring schools to open their doors to military recruiters.)
Hint: When de-coding politicians' babble, to get to the real agenda, don't read their lips, read their budgets. And in his last budget, our President couldn't spare one thin dime for education, not ten cents.
Mr. Big Spender provided for a derisory 8.4 cents on the dollar of the cost of primary and secondary schools.
Congress appropriated a half penny of the nation's income -- just one-half of one-percent of America's twelve trillion dollar GDP -- for primary and secondary education.
President Bush actually requested less.
While Congress succeeded in prying out an itty-bitty increase in voted funding, that doesn't mean the extra cash actually gets to the students.
Fifteen states have sued the federal government on the grounds that the cost of new testing imposed on schools, $3.9 billion, eats up the entire new funding budgeted for No Child Left.
There are no "better options" for failing children, but there are better uses for them.
The President ordered testing and more testing to hunt down, identify and target millions of children too expensive, too heavy a burden, to educate.
No Child Left offers no options for those with the test-score Mark of Cain -- no opportunities, no hope, no plan, no funding.
Rather, it is the new social Darwinism, educational eugenics: identify the nation's loser-class early on.
Trap them then train them cheap.
Someone has to care for the privileged.
No society can have winners without lots and lots of losers.
And so we have No Child Left Behind -- to provide the new worker drones that will clean the toilets at the Yale Alumni Club, punch the cash registers color-coded for illiterates, and pamper the winner-class on the higher floors of the new economic order.
Class war dismissed.
It's not like race makes any difference
Texas has opted not to measure the scores of the state's 78,419 multiracial, non-Hispanic students as an ethnic subgroup, but will instead lump them with the 180,000 Asian students who are in turn lumped in with their schools' entire student body for accountability purposes.