Sure, compared to what’s been happening with the Walter Reed Medical Center, Scooter Libby, the FBI, and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the problems ringing U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings might look mild. Still, it hasn’t been the greatest six months for Spellings and her team at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). And now, with the No Child Left Behind Act coming up for renewal in a Congress controlled by Democrats, Spellings’ prospects aren’t apt to get much brighter.

In fact, I’m tempted to feel sorry for those at ED these days–especially the ones in charge of overseeing federally funded research. It looks like either they’re being skewered on the long horns of a Texas-size dilemma, or maybe they’re being hoisted on their own petard. Either way, it’s painful to see.

Take this latest research flap, for instance–the one reported on our Front Page (“Ed-tech research under fire,” an exclusive report by Senior Editor Corey Murray). Coming as it does hard on the heels of the Reading First kerfuffle, ED can’t seem to win for losing. Seems like the ED team is damned if they do specify the instructional agenda they have up their sleeves, as with the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program, or damned if they won’t do that, as in the case of the $10 million study of the efficacy of ed-tech software programs.

First come blistering findings from ED’s own Inspector General about conflicts of interest and bias in the Reading First program (see “Audit: Reading First beset by favoritism”; Chief among the damning findings was this: The department ham-handedly pushed states and school districts toward phonics-only reading programs and denied funding to those who refused to go along. In fact, ED’s phonics favoritism threatened millions of dollars in grant money to school districts in Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Jersey.

From ED, the arrogant message was “our way, or you pay.”

The brave school leaders in Madison, Wis., for one example, paid that price. But maintaining their academic integrity, we now have learned, cost them a whopping $2 million.

“We had data demonstrating that our children were learning at the rate that Reading First was aiming for, and they [the ED ideologues] could not produce a single ounce of data to show the success rates of the program they were proposing,” said Art Rainwater, Madison’s superintendent of schools.

Just to put a bow on it, ED’s Inspector General issued his final report on March 7: “Our audit disclosed that RMC [RMC Research Corp. of Portsmouth, N.H., the primary contractor] did not adequately address COI [conflict of interest] issues. As a result, we identified two instances in which RMC may have provided inappropriate assistance to the SEAs [state education agencies] while providing TA [technical assistance] …”

As we reported in September, inappropriate behavior included requiring states to meet conditions that weren’t part of the law and trying to downplay elements of the law the department didn’t like when working with states.

It’s important to note that Spellings was not the secretary when these transgressions occurred. In fact, she quickly accepted the Inspector General’s recommendations and said she’d implement them all.

Given the spanking the department took regarding Reading First research, it’s perhaps not surprising that ED now seems to be dragging its feet on issuing the results of its education-software study. In an era of $3 trillion federal budgets, $10 million might seem to some like chump change, especially if a barrel of bad ink will follow the disclosure. On the other hand, if somebody deducted $10 million from my bank account, I think I’d probably miss it. Paying taxes yourself, you might miss it, too.

So, let’s get the results of the software study out there. Let’s find out what that $10 million bought us. Educators spend somewhere north of $14 billion on technology each year, with a substantial amount going toward instructional software. If the feds have sound research about which software works best, let’s see it. Of course, if it’s just ideological flimflam–well, let’s get that news out into the light as well.

After that, it just might be high time for the good folks at ED to reflect on why federal law and venerable practice dictate that Washington stay out of the local curriculum. It’s tempting to meddle, I know. But on balance, education decisions are best when they’re made as close to the students as possible.

Here’s what I think this all boils down to: Education research should be a beacon, not a bludgeon.

Links: Final report from ED’s Office of the Inspector General