Calling All RF Profiteers

Following yesterday’s post ( on Sol Stern’s terrific Reading First article in City Journal, I received an interesting remark from a good friend.  As we look at the validity and impact of RF and SBRR, where are all of the companies that took advantage of the new law and its new funding?

It is a provocative question.  There is little doubt that a lot of people got rich off of RF.  When a law pledges to put $1 billion a year for five years into our schools, there is a lot of money to go around.  And this was all new money.  It wasn’t about taking from bucket A to fill bucket B.  These were new dollars, available to anyone who could demonstrate that their reading programs were based on proven, scientific research.

In RF’s early days, I remember being horrified by what was qualifying as SBRR to many. A company using focus group data that showed their product made people feel better about themselves.  Others stapling a short cover letter to the National Reading Panel report, stating the NRP was their research base.  Others still simply dropped the names of “SBRR friendly” researchers, hoping for endorsement by association.

The law’s expectation of SBRR was clear.  Yet many cut corners or didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand.  The result?  A number of new companies, re-treads, and such made major dollars promising a scientifically based approach.  Some delivered.  Some sold vapor.  But all got their cut of the overstuffed RF pie.  And just think of it, even a 1% share of RF dollars meant $10 million or so each year.  That’s not pocket change.

So where are all of these companies now?  Where are the vendors who got their 1% or 3% share?  Where are those who swore their products were the silver bullet to cure our schools’ reading woes, and those who claimed their programs were built on the strongest of research to secure the largest of checks?

In the fight to defend RF and the use of SBRR in the classroom, these small, but previously profitable companies, are now quiet as church mice.  We hear virtually none of them rising to defend the program that made them who they are today.  They are quiet on the issue of SBRR.  And they are silent on the discussion of the impact RF has had in schools and classrooms across the nation.

That is both maddening and infuriating.  Eduflack hates to think these RF companies simply took the money and ran, but that seems to be the case.  Congress slashes funding for RF, and these vapor-and-promise companies simply pick up and sell to the next trend and the next bucket of dollars, be it high schools, pre-K, or whatever else is coming over the horizon.

During World War II, a number of companies and individuals earned the tag of “profiteer,” taking advantage of national priorities, concerns, and funding to squeeze maximum profit from the government and its people.  Under the guise of patriotism, their singular goal was maximizing profit, and getting rich off the situation.

When all is said and done, the NCLB era may very well be known as the boom time for educational profiteering.  And at the end of the day, those five-to-10-year-old companies whose revenue skyrocketed during the RF days will have a lot of explaining to do.  At some point, we need to see ROI.  And if they aren’t willing to defend the program they’ve been suckling from these many years, do we really expect to see results?

3 thoughts on “Calling All RF Profiteers

  1. Pat Riccards is clearly on the mark with his analysis of the windfall profits made on the back of Reading First by vendors of reading programs and products. It was an eye opening experience for me to watch the number of vendors who would market their wares using the requisite language associated with SBRR and never put any of their massive profits into formal evaluation’s of their product’s effectiveness. This is true of the monster text book publishers and the majority of smaller vendors. I recall attending a conference and sitting next to a table where representatives from a well known vendor were discussing Reading First and how fruitful the program had been for their company. They did not know I was involved with the development of the program. Their discussion revolved around the amount of profit the company had made off of Reading First funding. In the midst of their giddiness over the 500 percent increase in profits one said to the group “well you know, its all about the kids – wink wink” which brought additional laughter. It makes you sick.As Riccards accurately points out, most if not all vendors are no where to be seen supporting the program that made them rich and are laughing all the way to the bank. Two words come to mind: greed and cowardice.

  2. What both Riccards and Lyon fail to mention is how positively federal officials and their agents enabled these profiteers to earn such enormous profits. Had there been no listing of “proven” programs on the Reading First technical assistance center websites, no push by the federal RF office to ban some programs while admitting others to the purchasing scheme, none of the profiteers would have much nearly as much money. The late-arriving report from the What Works Clearinghous demonstrates that nothing, except Reading Recovery, has strong evidence that that it improves general reading achievement. The recently released IES study of Reading First showing no effects on general reading ability seems simply to confirm that all this talk and legislation about SBRR was simply smoke and mirrors. And when once again it became clear to publishers that evidence did not matter in decisions about what to purchase, why would they invest in any research on their products? Crony capitalism is one way to do business, and business was done indeed, but the whole notion of SBRR was so distorted in NCLB/Reading First that most everyone in publishing knew that it was sales and marketing and political connections, not research,that would move product out of the warehouses and into schools. Perhaps if nothing had been allowed to be purchased, because no good evidence supported the products, publishers would have invested money in research. Perhaps.

  3. Dr. Allington makes some interesting points.  But companies were cashing in on RF well before the technical assistance centers were ever established.  Ultimately, the solution is not to dismantle RF or to attack the concept of SBRR.  What we really need to do is educate superitendents, principals, and other school decisionmakers on research – both the good and the bad.  If these officials can become educated consumers, we have a better chance of funds being spent on proven-effective, research-based, replicable programs — and not on silver bullets and flavors of the month. 

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