April 28, 2007

The question that Reading First's Chris Doherty never asked

(Disclosure: I have had colleagues who are involved in phonemic-awareness or phonics-based reading research. It pains me to see anyone I know involved even tangentially in conflict-of-interest problems, let alone people I highly respect. No, I don't know the principals from Oregon who are at the center of this, and I'm not going to be any more specific.)

"Do you have a sister I could date?"

Well, no: I don't think he needed to ask that question, or because I've never met the man, I'm really not qualified to know anything about his personal life (nor would I share details about it if I did).

But there is a connection between the old saw and the Reading First scandal. Reading the Title I Monitor's OIG Refers Reading First To U.S. Justice Department, I get the sense that everyone in Washington involved in Reading First has no clue about academe.  Here's the nugget about the alleged conflict of interest in having close business relationships tied up in the people who were critical in the Reading First program:

Supporters of Reading First have claimed that the pool of experts in the nascent field of scientifically based reading research was small and that conflicts were therefore inevitable; the OIG, in its reports, said the department did not do enough to prevent the process from becoming incestuous.

The supporters of Reading First's business practices cannot have it both ways: either the University of Oregon faculty were experienced faculty with years of research under their belt or the field is "nascent." Take your pick. But we don't have to; while some of the research on phonemic awareness is new, the University of Oregon faculty involved in Reading First are the second generation of Oregon faculty involved in phonics-based instruction techniques.

"Second generation" is a deliberately-chosen phrase there. Apart from a few parent-offspring pairs, college faculty don't generally reproduce new professors in a biological sense, but there is often a chain of intellectual descendants from mentor to graduate-student advisee, who in turn mentors other graduate students at other institutions, and so on. In a field with 20-30 years of research, any small group of researchers will have mentored at least several dozen doctoral students, of whom some will remain close to their mentors' fields and others will go off in different directions.

And thus, while there are still conflict-of-interest issues involved in a small field where people know each other, there is no justification for using the exact same group of people who benefited financially from the program.  So here is the question Chris Doherty should have asked: "Do you have any former students who might serve on a panel?"

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Posted in Education policy on April 28, 2007 9:53 PM |