NCLB: Ideology and Corruption?

K-12 Testing

Charges of corruption and ideological rigidity are mounting as more and more details emerge about the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) handling of its Reading First program and of public relations for the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB).


The Reading First section of NCLB focuses on the early grades. Education Week and other sources have reported that states have been coerced into changing their reading policies and programs to comply with the DOE’s interpretation of Reading First requirements.


North Carolina was forced to amend its law prohibiting the use of standardized tests in the early grades (see Examiner, Spring 1989). Illinois is among the states that had to switch tests even after its Reading First program was initially approved. It was one of many states that adopted the DIBELS test in order to obtain Reading First funds.


DIBELS focuses heavily on phonics. NCLB mandates that Reading First programs be based on science, but the 2000 National Reading Panel Report found that direct instruction in phonics produced no gains in reading comprehension when compared with other instructional approaches (see Gerald Coles’ article, Examiner, Fall 2004). Critics have charged that Reading First’s promotion of phonics-based programs is based on conservative ideology, not on scientifically validated evidence of improved reading outcomes.


Beyond ideology, charges of corruption stem from the fact that creators of DIBELS sit on panels that decide whether states can obtain Reading First grants. Other reading programs and assessments, including Reading Recovery and Success for All (which is itself a controversial, scripted-curriculum program) have not been approved. Pressure has been applied by panelists and employees of the DOE to ensure states purchase DIBELS. Those purchases then enrich the creators of the products, some of whom work for the DOE.


Christopher Cross, former Assistant Secretary of Education in George H.W. Bush’s administration, believes that this behavior “crosses the line” that bars the federal government from mandating or controlling a state or school’s academic content. Other critics argue it is corrupt and illegal. Current and former DOE officials, such as former Under Secretary Eugene Hickok, now a private sector education consultant, have defended the practices.


In October members of Congress began meeting with the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate the implementation of Reading First, including whether deserving programs have been excluded.


Covert Propaganda
Meanwhile, organizations hired by DOE to educate parents and the public about NCLB actually are lobbying for the law without informing the public that they have received federal funds.


Marcela Garcini, director of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options (CREO), authored several newspaper columns extolling the virtues of NCLB and excoriating its critics without disclosing that CREO had received $900,000 in unsolicited government grants to promote “school choice” and tutoring. Among groups with similar conflicts were the Black Alliance for Educational Options and National Council on Teacher Quality.


The DOE’s Inspector General uncovered nine grants that resulted in release of materials advocating for NCLB in which the recipients failed to disclose taxpayer funding. While it concluded the actions did not violate the law barring “covert propaganda,” A seperate GAO analysis concluded that DOE's actions were not legal.


This scandal follows news reports that the Bush administration paid Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote NCLB while Williams posed as an independent commentator.


• DOE Inspector General’s report:
• GAO Letter: