WASHINGTON - A billion-dollar-a-year federal reading program that ran into scathing criticism over conflicts of interest now has a new one: The government contractor that set up the program for the Education Department is also part of the team hired to evaluate it.
Reading First - part of President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education law - has been under scrutiny following a string of federal reports that found it rife with conflicts of interest and mismanagement. The program provides intense reading help to low-income children in the early elementary grades.
RMC Research Corp. was the contractor hired to establish and implement the program starting in 2002, under three contracts worth about $40 million.
Recently, the Department of Education inspector general reported that RMC failed to keep the program free of conflicts of interest. For example, RMC did not screen subcontractors for relationships with publishers of reading programs.
Now, Reading First is in the midst of a five-year evaluation under a 2003 contract with a team that includes RMC, which is based in Portsmouth, N.H.
Congress required the review, spelling out that it must be an "independent evaluation."
That didn't mean for the contractor that set up the program to have any role in reviewing it, said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, who chairs the education committee.
"It's a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop," Kennedy said Friday.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House education committee, raised similar concerns when notified Friday of RMC's role in the evaluation.
"RMC played a significant role in the implementation of Reading First and, according to the inspector general, a sometimes flawed role. If it's true that RMC was also hired to evaluate the effectiveness of the very program it was hired to help implement, then the conflict of interest could not be any clearer," Miller said.
Both lawmakers have been investigating Reading First, and Miller announced Friday he would hold a hearing on the issue April 20.
Reading First also has been the subject of investigations by the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm.
The inspector general found that federal officials intervened to influence state and local decisions about reading programs, a potential violation of the law. The GAO reported states received suggestions from federal officials or contractors to adopt or eliminate certain programs or tests.
The inspector general also reported that a consultant to the program, working under RMC, may have inappropriately pushed a particular brand of reading assessment when dealing with states.
Expert panels that reviewed state applications for Reading First grants were stacked with people who shared the program director's views, according to the inspector general. In general, favored programs were highly structured and centered around phonics, a technique that relies on sounding out words.
The investigations have raised questions about whether Reading First should be reformed, or even abandoned, when No Child Left Behind comes up for renewal in Congress this year.
The job of evaluating how well the program has performed is being led by Abt Associates, a contractor based in Cambridge, Mass. The company hired RMC as a subcontractor.
According to RMC's Web site, the company helped design and implement a method of evaluating how reading is taught in classrooms. Federal officials said RMC assisted in deciding what measures to use to collect information for the evaluation on reading instruction. They said RMC also trained classroom observers.
RMC's share of the $31 million evaluation contract, signed in 2003, is about $1.5 million, said Education Department officials. The department declined to immediately provide a copy of the contract.
"Their role in the overall study sort of is proportional to the amount of money they received," said Ricky Takai, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, part of the department's research arm. "They do have a very circumscribed role."
Neither RMC nor Abt returned calls seeking comment.
Richard Allington, a leading reading researcher at the University of Tennessee, said RMC's involvement in helping evaluate classroom instruction is a crucial one that will have an impact on the overall study's findings.
"As a researcher, if I were to design an intervention (a reading program); if I want to find out if the intervention is working, I need to see whether it's actually being implemented. About the only way I could do that is to observe in classrooms," Allington said.
However, Phoebe Cottingham, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, said she isn't concerned about bias in this case. "A subcontractor who is asked to do this work is given a lot of direction, and they are not freewheeling it," she said.
RMC was tasked with helping states develop plans, submit applications and implement the program. The inspector general found RMC failed to include required conflict-of-interest clauses in its subcontracts and consulting agreements and failed to screen subcontractors for reading product relationships. RMC subcontracted out some of its work to officials at universities. Some of those subcontractors had financial ties to reading products used under Reading First. "RMC had its reputation smudged," said Allington. "They have a stake in demonstrating that the model that's in place - that they largely created - they have a stake in showing that it actually works." Patrick Riccards, who was a senior adviser to the National Reading Panel, which reported on best practices in reading instruction, said he was disappointed to learn of RMC's role in the evaluation. "Reading First will succeed in improving the reading skills of students throughout the nation," Riccards predicted. "But you provide Reading First critics real ammunition to attack the law when evaluation is not conducted by a completely independent third party, without even a hint of potential conflict." --- On the Net: RMC: http://www.rmcres.com/ Reading First: http://www.ed.gov/programs/readingfirst/index.html AP-CS-03-30-07 1606EDT