Four years ago, a nonprofit education firm called Success for All occupied four floors in a Towson office building and employed 500 people. Hundreds of schools across the country were signing up to use its highly regarded reading curriculum, which stresses phonics.
Today, Success for All has laid off two-thirds of its employees and shrunk to two floors. A federal inspector general's report appears to explain why. It says the U.S. Department of Education steered federal grant money to certain reading programs and away from others.
The report, issued last week, accuses the department of favoritism, conflict of interest and mismanagement in the awarding of $4.8 billion in federal funds.
Robert Slavin, the Johns Hopkins University education professor who co-founded the Success for All Foundation and spent years researching effective reading programs, said he watched in disbelief as the nonprofit lost business because states chose to adopt other programs favored by U.S. officials.
Slavin, chairman of Success for All, prompted the federal investigation by going to the inspector general in May last year and telling authorities what he thought was going on. "There is nothing in the report that we haven't been saying for two years," Slavin said yesterday. "It is a vindication of sorts."
The focus of the investigators' attention also is someone from Baltimore. The inspector general's report is severely critical of Christopher Doherty, who worked with city school programs before becoming director of the Reading First grants in Washington.
The report quotes heavily from e-mail messages that Doherty sent to colleagues in which he appears determined to stamp out reading programs he disliked, including an approach once called "whole language." His e-mails made clear that he did not want whole language programs to get Reading First money from his office.
"Beat the [expletive] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [whole language] apologist scrutiny," Doherty wrote in an e-mail, arguing that whole language advocates did not have research to support their approach. "Hit them over and over with definitive evidence. ... They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive] out of them in front of all the would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags."
Doherty resigned from his federal post last week, effective at the end of this month. A department spokesman said Doherty would have no comment.
In an interview, Slavin said he has long suspected that federal Reading First money was being directed to favored programs - and that his Success for All was not on the list despite good reviews and research showing its effectiveness.
He said he's puzzled that his program did not get money because it is based on phonics, which Doherty championed, and not whole language. And Slavin says he's angry because Reading First money was supposed to be awarded to curriculums with scientific proof that they worked, and his program is backed by such research.
"It just didn't fit their model of how they wanted to do this," he said. "To this day, I don't know why."
Doherty, who lives in Baltimore, went to the U.S. Department of Education after a job as executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a nonprofit that ran three city schools using a phonics-based program called Direct Instruction. The project was funded for many years by the Abell Foundation and was considered a successful experiment in education that improved those schools.
Doherty was also a board member of the Baraka School in Africa, which recently received national attention in a documentary film.
Reading First is a program under the federal No Child Left Behind law that was designed to give out federal money to school systems that chose "research-based reading programs." A recent review by the Center on Education Policy, an independent foundation, concluded that programs funded by Reading First are helping to raise achievement in schools. No one has suggested that children were harmed because of the alleged mismanagement in the federal office.
Under the three-year program, states had to write proposals specifying how they would use Reading First money to teach reading and check on student progress. The federal law specifies that the Department of Education cannot tell a state or local school system which textbooks or curriculum to use, so Reading First officials could not issue a list of acceptable reading programs. But, in effect, that is what Doherty did, the report suggests.
Specifically, it says that when the Reading First office set up panels of experts to review state proposals, it chose people with close ties to certain reading programs.
The report says Doherty recruited several people who worked with Direct Instruction, including his former boss at the Baltimore Curriculum Project, Muriel Berkeley, and asked her to serve on the panels.
When Baltimore school officials heard about the choice, they called the Department of Education to complain and alert them to what they considered a conflict of interest, the report says. But their complaints were apparently ignored.
Doherty wrote another e-mail to a colleague laughing about the complaints. "Funny that [city school officials] call me to inform that there may be some pro-DI folks on my panel!!! Too rich. ... You know the line from Casablanca, 'I am SHOCKED that there is gambling going on in this establishment.' Well, I am shocked that there are pro-DI people on this panel!!"
Doherty also said in other e-mails that he was stacking the panels so that a particular program that used whole language would not "get a fair shake."
Berkeley said yesterday that she has not read the report, but did not see anyone on a panel push one reading program over another. When panelists reviewed a state's proposals for Reading First, she said, they looked only to see that programs were backed by research.
"I feel Doherty is an honest guy," she said. "We were trained at length. We were monitored. I think it is a shame if something is awry that I didn't see."
The report does not suggest that Berkeley was involved in any wrongdoing.
Maryland was one of dozens of states that applied for the federal money. The report says that based on Maryland's original proposal, Doherty was concerned that state officials would not include Direct Instruction as one of the approved programs for reading.
But after a phone call from Doherty, the report says, the state wrote a clarification to its proposal that Doherty said "bodes well for DI" in Baltimore schools.
Asked for comment yesterday, Maryland education officials said only that the state had not been accused of doing anything wrong.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said last week that she would comply with a list of recommendations by the inspector general. "Even though these occurred before I became secretary of education, I am concerned about these actions and committed to addressing and resolving them," she said.
In interviews with The Sun last week, Starr Lewis, Kentucky's commissioner of teaching and learning, recounted how her state applied for Reading First grants four times before they were approved.
She said the review panels did not like her state's choice of tests that were used to see how children were learning. The state chose an assessment already widely used in Kentucky schools.
"We felt we had adequate evidence to base that choice on," Lewis said. But the state never got approval to receive the federal money until it chose a test developed at the University of Oregon by a researcher who was a member of some of the department's review panels.
"Even though there was never a list of programs that were prohibited, in the end there were programs that were discouraged," Lewis said.