Letters: Wednesday, February 01, 2006
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Letters to the Editor

A Storm over Voyager

Reader response to Fort Worth Weekly’s Jan. 18, 2006, cover story (“School for Profit”),

examining the political influences on the choice and funding of reading programs locally

and nationally, filled our mailbag. This week’s letter page — and our usual “On Second

Thought” guest column space — is devoted to the issue.

To the editor: Congratulations on your story on Voyager, etc. You hit it on the head and followed a very confusing and winding path to tell just what has been going on. I was very vocal about Voyager when it was chosen to be the only venue to serve the students needing help in reading. Several months after the Texas Legislature in its infinite wisdom cut funding for the successful statewide initiative that had proven to be excellent for improving reading, we discovered something like $12 million had been set aside for which the schools’ only choice was Voyager. I was the source of the “I smell a rat” comment at a State Board of Education meeting, but unfortunately the deed had been done. You see, there are a number of TEA connections in this scenario as well.

I sincerely doubt that the public will even begin to follow your tale, but I can assure you that reading and English teachers in the Fort Worth school district will trace the path of cronyism and corruption — until all of former Supt. Thomas Tocco’s buddies are fired, I will have serious concerns about the inside workings of Fort Worth ISD. Thanks for your work on this very important issue.

Pat Hardy

State Board of Education, District 11

Weatherford

To the editor: What a great article. You have confirmed many of my suspicions, especially about why “No Child Left Behind” was undertaken. I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrated teachers are about TAKS testing and the games that are being played in this area. I reached the conclusion a few years back that the purpose of “No Child Left Behind” was to gut public education so that a for-profit system of private schools could emerge.

To develop a real sense of what reading education should do, look at Frank Smith’s very informative book Reading Without Nonsense. Smith, formerly a newspaper reporter and magazine editor, became interested in language and the psychology of learning and earned a doctorate at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard.

John Bedunah

Fort Worth

To the editor: Your paper did a thorough, much-needed job of highlighting the important issue of selecting curriculum programs that are grounded in scientifically-based research and proven effective. May I point out a few small corrections?

Dr. Louisa Moats is an uncompromising leader in reading research who is committed to the promise of scientific rigor applied to reading and what it means for measurable student achievement. She is not now, nor has she been, an “executive” of Sopris West Educational Services. We’re proud she continues as an author to publish with Sopris West Educational Services.

The article infers that Dr. Moats authored Sopris West’s reading program for middle school special education students. In fact, the program is the product of many years of research and application by another one of our great authors, Dr. Jane Fell Greene.

Sopris West Educational Services has been providing research-based and proven programs and services for more than 25 years. We remain committed to this mission.

David F. Cappellucci

President, Sopris West Educational Services

Natick, Mass.

Editor’s note: “School for Profit” did not imply that Dr. Moats authored Sopris’ reading program, but did say she was a Sopris executive. She is the company’s director of professional development and research initiatives, which Cappellucci explained is a part-time, non-executive post.

To the editor: The quote from Larry Shaw in your story is catchy, but I disagree with calling him the head of a “local teachers union.” There are no such things as teacher unions in Texas. The United Educators Association is a local teachers’ advocacy group but not a union. It disturbs me that our professional organizations are being called unions by the media. I think you and others should at least get that fact straight before printing it. I liked your article, though.

Bric Turner

Gail, Texas

To the editor: I thoroughly enjoyed your article. This is something that Texas educators have known for a long time, but it was great to see it laid out in the open. I am the reading program manager in El Paso, at the Region XIX Education Service Center. I have been in education for 14 years.

As a former teacher (kindergarten through second grade) and now staff developer of reading teachers, I do have a problem with the Voyager program being called a phonics program. It is a reading program with a small phonics component. Your comments about “too many programs” that are not compatible was right on. Many of these programs, including Voyager, teach phonics implicitly instead of explicitly. Phonics should be taught directly, from pre-kindergarten on.

I think your article was clear and to the point. I am not a guru, but I have been trained by some of the best, including Roland Good and Ruth Kaminski, and I am involved with part of the research team for DIBELS/IDEL based out of the University of Oregon. I attended Voyager training and for the most part was not impressed.

It is true that the third-graders are doing well, and that, I believe, is partly due to the Texas Reading Initiative Teacher Reading Academies that were put into place in 1999 and that trained all Texas teachers in “best practices” of reading with the latest research. No programs were mentioned, and we were not even allowed as trainers to mention any programs during our Texas Academy training. It was “best practices” from some of the biggest reading gurus like Louisa Moats, Joe Torgesen, Sally Shaywitz, and Ed Kameenui. I have never understood why they took away a really good thing that was obviously working. The proof is also in the fact that many other states are adopting the Texas Reading Academies for their states. The state just cut the funding for the Reading Academies and applied it all to Reading First, which as you have stated is partial to Voyager.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against Voyager, but any program has gaps, and teachers need to know where those instructional gaps are and be able to monitor kids as they read.

Your article brought out the fact that this situation is not about the children and No Child Left Behind — it is about the money, and quality instruction gets left behind. I especially laughed when you mentioned that some of these “important” people have never taught a child to read! How ironic.

Monica Franco

Literacy and Dyslexia Coordinator

Education Service Center-Region XIX

El Paso

To the editor: I imagine by now you have heard howls of outrage from the Voyager Expanded Learning people. They do not take kindly to the kind of scrutiny given by Betty Brink. When the Title I monitor mentioned Voyager in connection with potential conflicts of interest in the federal Reading First program, Voyager came down hard on the publisher.

In “The Fifteenth Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education (Phi Delta Kappan, October 2005), I mentioned that Voyager founder Randy Best had been a Bush “Pioneer” (promising to raise at least $100,000) for Bush’s first presidential candidacy. I noted that they had also given $56,750 to the gubernatorial campaign of Linda Schrenko, who as state superintendent of Georgia had given them a $1.1 million contract apparently without telling the Georgia State Board of Education. I also mentioned contracts with Voyager in Richardson and the curious flow of people between the Richardson school district and Voyager. Voyager President Ron Klausner complained but ended up only with a wimpy and error-filled letter to the editor.

So I have no doubt Klausner and Company will have expressed their displeasure to Fort Worth Weekly over its coverage.

Gerald W. Bracey

Alexandria, Va.

To the editor: Watching Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post talk about breaking the Abramoff scandal reminded me of Betty Brink breaking the original story on Fort Worth school district corruption. She continues to scoop the daily with ongoing revelations of our own “Abramoff” scandal. Betty is a local treasure for truth and justice. We are very fortunate she is here.

Steve Watson

Fort Worth

Voyager and Lyon Respond

To the editor: In your article “School for Profit,” the misinformation, inaccuracies, and misleading innuendos about Voyager represent the worst in tabloid journalism.

The reporter made no effort to write a fair, balanced, or accurate article. It is important that your readers know your reporter never contacted Voyager about the story and did not return our phone calls, although we called her repeatedly before the article went to press. Contacting a company you are about to publicly disparage is a minimal standard for ethical journalism. You told me that you were disappointed your reporter did not try to contact us, but you refuse to remove from your web site the one-sided and blatantly misleading article she wrote.

Here are the corrections:

Voyager has never hired any high-ranking school district official who was buying our programs.

Reid Lyon never endorsed Voyager during his time as a federal public official. To say otherwise is to falsely accuse him of violating federal law. Like every other district in America, New York City was told by the U.S. Department of Education that it must buy a research-based reading program to receive federal Reading First funds. New York City chose Voyager.

Randy Best did not raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for George Bush’s campaigns. According to the Federal Election Commission’s public database, he raised a combined total of $15,000 in Bush’s two federal campaigns.

Frank Perkins is not a University of Alabama professor, according to the online UA faculty directory.

Voyager has proudly hired and works with some of the nation’s most respected researchers, practitioners, and educational leaders to assure the solutions we provide are research-based and produce strong student improvement. Voyager is committed to improving the lives of struggling students regardless of their socioeconomic status or race. Extensive independent research has proven Voyager one of the most effective reading programs ever developed.

You told me you might edit my letter if it contained libelous statements. Yet this standard was disregarded in your recent article. Your unwillingness to stop the spread of false, misleading, and damaging information about Voyager is at odds with quality journalism. At a minimum, you should attach this letter to your article on the web site.

Deborah Nugent

Executive Vice President, Voyager Expanded Learning

Dallas

To the editor: I was very disappointed by the untruths and the incorrect and destructive rumors in your recent article, “School for Profit.” By reporting innuendo as fact, without attributing any of it to any reputable source, you have done a grave disservice to the Fort Worth district, Voyager, and the millions of students who have improved their reading skills because of evidence-based reading instruction.

I recently stepped down as chief of the child development and behavior branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development after 14 years. I have dedicated much of my professional career to helping educators better understand scientifically based reading research and its application. As a government official, I never endorsed Voyager or any commercial reading product, period. My role was simply to report the results of our NIH-supported reading studies. I never spoke with New York City public school officials nor had anything to do with the district’s selection of a reading program. To report otherwise is a lie, and accuses me of violating federal law. Moreover, I was never contacted by your reporter so I had no opportunity to respond to the falsehoods.

Over the years, I have been asked by school districts and state officials about different reading programs. My answer has always been the same. To be approved for Reading First funding, a program must be comprehensive in its approach and have sufficient scientific support for the principles on which the program was built. It is that simple. Reading First was designed to ensure that effective, evidence-based instruction is being used in our classrooms.

As a researcher, I have dedicated my professional career to identifying the most effective ways to teach children to read. As a parent, I want to see every child succeed in school and experience the joys of reading. As an American, I want to ensure that my tax dollars are being spent on what we know works.

Fort Worth ISD, like hundreds of other districts throughout the nation, has made a commitment to implementing scientifically based reading research in its classrooms. Doing so is the only way to improve student performance.

“School for Profit” was nothing more than mud-slinging and the reporting of lies and gossip as truth. Is that really a lesson we want to be teaching our children?

Reid Lyon

Dallas

Editor’s note: Reporter Betty Brink began contacting ProQuest, the company that owns Voyager, several weeks before the story ran, seeking the name of a Voyager representative who could respond to questions raised in the story. Beginning in December, she made the same request in calls to the office of Randy Best, Voyager’s founder. She did not hear back from a Voyager spokesman until the day the story was due to go to press; he called twice before he reached her, and Brink did include information from him.

In 1996, according to The Dallas Morning News, Voyager twice hired administrators from North Texas school districts where Voyager had received contracts to operate after-school programs — although not reading programs.

The story does not say that Reid Lyon officially endorsed the Voyager reading program. It does say he “pushed” for it — the same situation reported by newspapers such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, and various online education journals. In one instance, the Post and the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies reported that at a reading conference in White Plains, N.Y., in July 2002, following Lyon’s threat that New York City could lose its federal dollars if it didn’t change its program, state officials were told by the Department of Education that all schools had to use an online program — Voyager Expanded Learning. Conference participants were furious, the Post reported, and issued a statement of protest. Since Reid Lyon did not receive royalties from the program and did not work directly for the education department, no conflict of interest laws were broken, nor did the story suggest they had been.

Brink attempted to contact Lyon through the NIH, but was told he had left that post and gone to work for Randy Best. Brink then tried to contact him through Best’s office, but was told he was not available.

Best is named on several 2000 campaign reporting sites and in various news reports as a Bush “pioneer” who pledged to raise $100,000 for Bush’s first campaign.

Fran Perkins was an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama when the Birmingham school district first implemented Voyager’s reading program.

Voyager’s reading program has many critics in the educational community who question the validity of the company’s studies.

The Weekly does plan to add a link to its web site at the end of the story, referencing the letters from Voyager and others on this topic.



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