(sent Feb. 25, 2011) Directors, You have a difficult task before you, but clearly it must be done. The superintendent should be fired, along with her CFO Don Kennedy. No buyout. She has already been generously paid by our district for a job poorly done. We cannot afford to lose any more money on this sorry state of affairs. As a Seattle Public Schools parent, I am appalled by the latest scandal that has defrauded our district of $1.8 million — o … Read More
“I’m inviting you to join a real conspiracy, call it an open conspiracy, with real consequences on millions of real lives. I know that sounds megalomaniacal, but be patient. If we pull this off, a great many will bless us, although the school industry few will curse us. This is about a project to destroy the standardized testing industry… This adventure is called ‘The Bartleby Project.'” John Taylor Gatto. (Weapons of Mass Instruction, New Society Publishers 2008)
My 11-year-old son loves the show Myth Busters. From the first time he put two Legos together he was hooked on constructing intricate things (200 piece Bionicles at age 5). He creates Rube Goldberg contraptions and loves animals. He can manipulate through different technologies (Google Earth, iPad, iPod, Facebook, Sims, etc) and he doesn’t need instructions because his curiosity enables him to navigate and learn new technologies. He also loves football. He watches the NFL channel around the clock and can give you just about any statistic related to the game or players. This is just a snapshot. A quick glimpse of my son outside the insidious institution we call public schooling today.
I am currently thinking hard about asking my son to participate in the Bartleby Project and to write “I prefer not to take your test” across the top of his state test in March. In Pennsylvania we don’t celebrate March Madness. Instead we practice it. March is the month when Pennsylvania schools administer the Pennsylvania State System of Assessments (the PSSAs). The entire school year comes down this one week in March. This is when schools and students across the Keystone State are held accountable. This is the big time. This is what it’s all about.
Is it fair to ask my son to carry out an act of civil disobedience? Should I place this social burden on his shoulders? What will the consequences be? Can he handle the pressure? Should he even have to handle the pressure?
Since late in August, my son has been subjected to a system of indoctrination that has essentially squashed his inner desire to learn — the Ruinous Culture. Five entire months devoid of intellectually-stimulating classroom experiences. He has been forced to complete worksheets in language arts and mathematics. He can alphabetize spelling words and find the main idea of a paragraph. He’s had practice in sequencing. He can round numbers. He can add, subtract, multiply and divide with fractions and decimals. And he has mastered the scripted art of estimating (Who knew there were incorrect estimates?). He has had multiple PSSA practice tests and according to these tests my son is ready. He has been trained for five months to produce scores that will help his school achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). I’m sure his school is counting on him.
But what has been lost during these past five months? He sits in social studies and science classes that have been shortened to allow more time for reading and math instruction. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to engage real children’s literature. His reading teacher is clueless about his interests. Five months of drudgery. How much can he take before just the thought of going to school immobilizes him? There is real damage being done. Something has to happen before my son loses all curiosity.
As his father, I need to advocate for him. But I don’t want to just go in and take him out of school. I want him to learn something. I want him to experience real opportunities to learn in school. I want him to learn about the courage needed to change social structures that are designed to ultimately guarantee mass failure. Maybe he will be the start of a movement. As Gatto said in 2008:
“No demonstrations, no mud-slinging, no adversarial politics… [just] peacefully refuse to take standardized tests.”
This is the perfect opportunity for my son to learn about social justice. He has a chance to fully participate in the democratic life we are supposedly striving to instill in children. But why does he have to do it? Because, as Gatto said:
“Adults chained to institutions and corporations are unable to; because these tests pervert education, are disgracefully inaccurate, impose brutal stresses without reason, and actively encourage a class system which is poisoning the future of the nation.”
Is he capable of sitting down at his desk during March Madness and simply writing, “My name is Luke and I refuse to take your test?” Will this be the start of something? I’m sure it will start something, however, I’m not sure what. Luke may be on the verge of becoming a hero. His classmates may cheer him and go home to tell their parents that they want to “be like Luke.” Or, it may begin the process of social blackballing. Would it be bad if either of these outcomes materialized? What should we do?
Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater, is the story of a “bunch of Teach for America (TFA) rebels with ABSOLUTELY NO EXPERIENCE running a school district.” (Emphasis is Whitmire’s.) Though generally worshipful of Rhee, Whitmire agreed that she WAS RUTHLESS and ARROGANTLY CLAIMED THAT ONLY SHE PUT KIDS FIRST. (Emphasis is Whitmire’s.) Rhee was rude, saying “I will cut you off if you’re not making sense or it’s not a good use of my time.” In other words, “Michelle is someone who will tell you you’re wrong and then poke her finger in your eye to make sure you know you’re wrong.”
Rhee and her young followers “saw INCREMENTALISM as a curse word. (Emphasis is Whitmire’s.) Her biographer, however, is equally dogmatic. His “antidote to the failures of urban education” is teachers with “SNAP,” or “a certain quick twitch in their bodies, an urgency in their voices, and a devotion to pursuing a measurable end goal.” It does not seem to occur to Whitmire or Rhee that better results could be produced by educators with a quick twitch and urgency, who had learned through experience when to slow down, tell a joke, defuse intense situations, and to treat everyone with respect.
These reformers’ fatal flaw was revealed by their ridicule of former Superintendent Clifford Janey for claiming that teachers contribute only about 13 percent to the average child’s academic progress. Rhee needed someone in her inner circle to remind them of the large body of social science that confirms Janey’s statement. They also needed reminders to not get carried away and believe their own public relations spin. Whitmire, for instance, claims that Rhee “accomplished the unimaginable” by moving NAEP scores significantly upward. In fact, the progress of black 4th graders’ reading slowed under Rhee, as the growth in black 8th grade reading scores was reversed. Low-income and black 8th graders saw declines of two and three points between 2007 and 2009. Under Janey, increases in NAEP Reading scores were greater, and more equally distributed. Under Rhee, gentrification seems like the best explanation for her modest improvements.
Had Rhee considered the wisdom of Janey, she might have invested earlier in preschool for the poorest children. Instead, Whitmire describes how that proven strategy was tried in mixed-race, middle class neighborhoods in an effort to attract more whites in the D.C. schools. Had Rhee’s inner circle included dissenting voices, she might have started fewer unnecessary fights, like the battle over Hardy Middle School or firing her daughter’s principal. “In all these decisions,” reports Whitmire, “Rhee was backed by her top staffers.”
Whitmire clearly despises the union that opposed Rhee, but he makes it sound like teachers only played a supporting role in Rhee’s defeat. Whitmire keeps repeating the warnings to the Korean-American chancellor, such as, “The racial politics are going to be insane. You are going to get slaughtered.” Then he quoted Rhee’s African-American fiancee, Kevin Johnson on why she was rejected by the black community, “If you had to boil it down to one word it would be RESPECT.” (Emphasis was Johnson’s.)
Neither Rhee, nor her followers, are racists (or tools of special interests or conspirators who WANT to condemn poor children of color to scripted instruction. [Emphasis is mine.]) Whitmire especially blames black columnists like Bob Herbert, who supposedly played the race card by condemning her “take-no-prisoners approach” as “disrespectful,” and Courtland Milloy wrote that she, “spit in our faces.” Had the current mayor, Vincent Gray, not been black, would he have been less upset with the string of insults that started at 11 p.m. the night before Rhee was named as chancellor? Whitmire cites Rhee’s offer to John Merrow to film her firing a principal. Does the race, or even the competence, of that person matter in regard to how people are treated ?
Rhee and her followers believe that data-driven accountability is the key to teacher quality and to “reform.” I believe they are wrong. I know, however, that bestowing respect upon all humans beings is the cornerstone of schooling.
Was sent this article today…what isDelaware doing? I know what CSD is doing….we effectively eliminated Zero Tolerance approach last year. It simply doesn’t work.
The Maryland Board of Education asked for a review of policies in the state’s 24 school systems, expressing concern about any existing “zero tolerance” practices and a need for support services for suspended students.
“I want to get some assurance that this never happens in our districts,” said Kate Walsh, a member of Maryland’s State Board of Education who became concerned about the issue after reading an article in Sunday’s Washington Post about Nick Stuban, 15, of Fairfax County. “Every aspect of what happened to that boy in Fairfax County is an abuse of school authority.”
Stuban was out of school for two months – then transferred away from his friends, team and teachers at W.T. Woodson High School – after admitting that he bought one capsule of JWH-018, a synthetic compound with marijuana-like effects. The substance was legal at the time but not allowed at school.
The teen later described his actions as a “really stupid decision.” His parents said that his disciplinary hearing was confrontational and devastating to him and that it lacked due-process protections. As the Stubans have grieved, they have called for policy reforms.
In Virginia, state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), brought the issue to the floor of the Senate in a speech Tuesday. In a later interview, he said the Fairfax system needs more transparency and parental involvement as well as a greater emphasis on “the best interests of the child.”
Fairfax officials have said on several occasions that the system does not use a “zero-tolerance” approach to discipline and considers each case individually.
Said Petersen: “I respectfully disagree. I think there tends to be a zero-tolerance mentality that threatens the reputation of the school system.”
Petersen, a lawyer, said he has been to several school disciplinary hearings in recent years.
The process, he said, is “a kind of prosecutorial system without any of the safeguards you would expect from that kind of system.”
Some Fairfax parents and activists said they planned to bring their concerns to a School Board forum that will consider discipline policies and other issues. It is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.
In Maryland, the board asked State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick at a meeting Tuesday to discuss the case with local superintendents at their next monthly meeting to ensure that “they all do soul-searching on this front to make sure this couldn’t be repeated,” as Walsh put it.
Of concern, she said, was Stuban’s transfer to another high school and what she called an “overreaction . . .. a lack of common sense.” She took issue with lengthy periods out of school. “The time out of school only aggravates the situation, and in the case of this boy, it created a whole new range of problems,” she said.
Barbara M. Hunter, assistant superintendent for communications and community outreach in Fairfax, said the district was not aware of Maryland’s action and could not comment.
The Virginia Board of Education has not discussed the matter and generally leaves the implementation of disciplinary policies up to local school districts, board Vice President David M. Foster said.
Foster said state law requires zero tolerance for having such items as firearms and controlled and imitation controlled substances on school grounds, but he said that “precise disciplinary action taken is left largely to the local boards,” as are the procedures used by any district.
By RYAN J. FOLEY, Associated Press Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press – 1 hr 37 mins ago
MADISON, Wis. – On a prank call that quickly spread across the Internet, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was duped into discussing his strategy to cripple public employee unions, promising never to give in and joking that he would use a baseball bat in his office to go after political opponents.
Walker believed the caller was a conservative billionaire named David Koch, but it was actually a liberal blogger. The two talked for at least 20 minutes — a conversation in which the governor described several potential ways to pressure Democrats to return to the Statehouse and revealed that his supporters had considered secretly planting people in pro-union protest crowds to stir up trouble.
[Related: Largest labor unions in the U.S.]
The call also revealed Walker’s cozy relationship with two billionaire brothers who have poured millions of dollars into conservative political causes, including Walker’s campaign last year.
Walker compared his stand to that taken by President Ronald Reagan when he fired the nation’s air-traffic controllers during a labor dispute in 1981.
“That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and led to the fall of the Soviets,” Walker said on the recording.
via Failing Schools
via Failing Schools
Last Friday, Hope Moffett became the most talked-about teacher in Philadelphia.
Though her students at Audenried High School were gearing up for next month’s all-important state PSSA exam, the third-year English teacher spent the day in an overheated basement room in a distant District outpost, isolated but for a few brief visitors and an occasional mouse scurrying across the room.
An outspoken critic of the District’s plan to convert her school into a charter, Moffett, 25, has been temporarily reassigned to so-called “teacher jail.”
Thursday, she received a letter from the District instructing her to report on Friday to the District’s High School Academic Division in Strawberry Mansion instead of to her Audenried classroom. So did another unidentified Audenried teacher.
Despite a written gag order coming with a threat of further disciplinary action, Moffett is continuing to go public with her situation.
During a weekend interview with the Notebook, she says she has still not been informed of any formal charges against her and is expecting to report back to the basement room this week.
Moffett and her colleagues at Audenried are among more than 1,000 teachers across the District who will be force-transferred later this spring as part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative. Though all will be given the opportunity to reapply for their jobs, none will be guaranteed positions at their current schools, many will be forced to forego their union representation if they want to stay where they are, and some may be subject to layoffs.
But Moffett says she is not risking her career to take a stand for other teachers or against Ackerman, on behalf of her union or against charter schools.
“I did this because I don’t want my students to be disheartened,” she says.
‘My life is teaching’
Together, Moffett and her students have been working for almost three years to prepare for the 11th grade PSSA exams, the first for the newly reopened school.
But before they ever took the test, the District last month deemed the school a low performer in need of overhaul.
And now, just weeks before the test, the District has removed Moffett, who teaches English to about 80 percent of the school’s 11th graders, from the classroom.
“The District told us that if we implemented all of their interventions, we wouldn’t become a Renaissance School,” she says. “I feel like I’ve lied to my students because I believed something that wasn’t true.”
That idealism runs deep in Moffett.
After graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in art history, Moffett joined Teach for America and moved to Philadelphia.
That fall, she learned the day before school started that she would be teaching at the “new Audenried.”
Her first day, she discovered that despite a sparkling new $55 million facility, the school was lacking basic resources, including textbooks.
Rather than complaining, she says, she threw herself into her work.
“My life is teaching,” she explains.
One of the big challenges during that first year, says Moffett, was convincing her students that the new building really did represent a chance to start over.
“From day one, we’ve been telling our students, ‘You will define this new school. This does not have to be the ‘Prison on the Hill,’” she says, referring to the infamous nickname of the old Audenried, which was razed in 2005.
“It’s all been building to this defining moment where [the students] can prove that they are not a failing school” by doing well on the test, she adds.
Losing that opportunity is crushing because just getting this far has been so difficult, says Moffett.
Audenried is located at 33rd and Tasker Streets in Grays Ferry, one of the poorest, most violence-plagued sections of Philadelphia.
“I’ve bought [students] clothes. I’ve paid their court fees. I paid one of my student’s cellphone bill because [his family] has no house phone and he’s responsible for his sisters,” says Moffett, who chose to follow her students from grade to grade.
But regardless of her personal attachments, Moffett says she would not be against Audenried being taken over or even turned into a charter – if the District can prove that what she and her colleagues are doing is not working.
“If they can show after the data comes out that [the school] is failing and that what we have done has not succeeded, then go ahead, take it over,” says Moffett.
“But by every indication we have, from the District’s own benchmark exams and the state’s own predictive exams, we will make AYP this year,” she predicts confidently.
Not all or nothing
Some have argued that the recent unrest about the District’s Renaissance initiative is primarily being fueled by teachers more worried about protecting their own positions and union benefits than about what’s best for their students and schools.
To underscore her rejection of that claim, Moffett says she has already applied to teach next year for Universal Companies , the group that is slated to turn Audenried into a charter as part of its new “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” with the District.
At the end of the day, she says, “I want to teach these students.”
But that hasn’t stopped her from vocally opposing the District’s plan.
Ackerman has said the District will turn Audenried and Edwin Vare Middle School over to Universal this spring. Parents and community members have been promised input into what happens in the newly converted schools, but were not included in the decision to turn them into charters or to hand them to Universal.
For the District, the new model is about trying to leverage a prestigious federal planning grant recently awarded to Universal to begin turning the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods of South Philadelphia into a “Promise Neighborhood” modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Although there is no guarantee of more money for the Promise Neighborhood initiative, many think the planning grant presents a unique chance to make a big difference.
“We have the School District, the community, the city, several public agencies, the private sector, businesses, civic organizations, and universities sitting around the table to brainstorm around rebuilding these two communities,” said Universal President and CEO Rahim Islam in an earlier interview.
“That’s not waiting for a grant from the federal government. The magic is going to come out in the process.”
Counter to what some might expect, Moffett agrees that the Promise Neighborhood initiative as a whole is, well, promising.
But she worries about Universal’s lack of any track record running high schools, as well as critical reports she’s heard from her students, many of whom attended Vare Middle School when it was previously managed by Universal.
“I think there’s this perception that [the Promise Neighborhood initiative] has to be all or nothing,” argues Moffett. “But not having [Universal] take over the high school doesn’t prevent them from doing all of those [other] things that would make the community a better place.”
Some may question whether someone in Moffett’s shoes can truly represent the interests of Audenried students and families, especially when compared to a group whose community roots run as deep as Universal’s.
Moffett acknowledges the concern, but rejects the notion that she is not in a position to speak out on behalf of her students.
“Me being a 25-year old White teacher who’s not from Philadelphia means I am not the best person to stand up. But I graduated from high school where [most of] my siblings did not because teachers advocated for me,” says Moffett, one of seven children.
“I’m not the only person who feels this way” about the plan for Audenried, she adds. “But I might just be the only person who can make this sacrifice.”
‘Not making a stand for teachers’
Over the past few weeks, says Moffett, she has not just been sitting around plotting ways to fight the District.
In addition to her normal teaching load, she says, she has been busy planning Audenried’s first junior prom, hosting fundraising dances, tutoring her students after school, and holding grade conferences.
But she’s clearly been walking a fine line.
A District statement released after Moffett went public with her reassignment insinuated that her classroom was not safe and that she had been using class time in inappropriate ways.
Moffett strenuously denies that, but she acknowledges that she has played a role in the three major public expressions of discontent at Audenried thus far.
Prior to the District-run informational meeting on February 9, she says, she led her students in a discussion about the Renaissance schools plan and how it might impact their school.
At the meeting that evening, Moffett also took several turns at the microphone and got into more than one heated exchange with the District officials present.
After that contentious meeting ended, a small group of community members and students began planning a protest for the following Tuesday. Moffett says she played no direct role in organizing the resulting student walkout, though she did provide a student leader with tokens to distribute to others.
Shortly afterwards, she assigned her students an essay about the Renaissance plan for Audenried. She excerpted key points from some of those essays and printed them out for students to display during a protest at last Wednesday’s School Reform Commission meeting.
“I have given my input and my opinion, but my class periods have been all about teaching,” said Moffett.
But until the District formally charges Moffett, the situation is at an impasse.
And Moffett herself argues that how she has been treated as a teacher is a secondary issue.
“I think the District really does believe that teachers are manipulating students and the community,” says Moffett, and that if teachers are silenced, the protests will end.
But “in the end, I’m not making a stand for teachers,” she explains.
“The students have legitimate concerns. I have been involved in how to make it an effective protest [because] if my students are going to do something, they’re going to do it to win.”
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The flood of federal stimulus money into the nation’s public schools has dramatically increased the demand for education consultants, leaving some stimulus recipients struggling to find seasoned advisers and others uneasy about the pitches they are getting.
The frenzy was caused by the unprecedented size and scope of the nearly $100 billion federal effort, which began two years ago.
That has stirred up great expectations among policymakers and the public. Faced with nerve-wracking timelines, their own bold promises and a dearth of in-house expertise, states and school districts have anxiously sought advice on how to demonstrate progress and avoid missteps.
“Some are calling it ‘No Consultant Left Behind,’ ” said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.
There are consultants who know data, consultants who say they can revitalize struggling schools and consultants who write grants that lead winning states and school districts to hire other consultants. They work at nonprofits, universities and textbook giants like the British-based Pearson PLC, a huge educational publishing concern. A good many are former state commissioners or district superintendents who have parlayed their expertise into lucrative jobs as education experts.
Many were present at a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel conference room in December to assist state education officials who won grants in the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, the best-known element of the stimulus effort. The officials had come to learn about state-of-the-art reform strategies for using sophisticated data-tracking to link teacher evaluations to student achievement. Most of the recognized experts in the field were there – all half-dozen of them.
“There’s a sense of confusion and anxiety,” said Scott Joftus, director of the Race to the Top Technical Assistance Network, a stimulus-funded contractor tasked with aiding states and districts in implementing their bold plans. “There’s a general acknowledgement that there are a handful of people with the expertise to implement assessments related to teacher evaluation – maybe seven or eight people in the country.”
The scramble reflects the scope of the states’ ambitions. “There’s a lot of money being thrown into the system at the same time to create changes that have never been done before,” Joftus said. “States have promised a ridiculous amount of change.”
Many states are just beginning to sign contracts for outside help. Those that have made consulting deals seldom have guarantees. It is the rare contract that comes with a promise of increased student achievement in exchange for services.
And lately some state education officials have grown skeptical of some of the proposals they are fielding.
Leslie Wilson, assistant state superintendent for assessment in Maryland, estimated about 38 percent of the $125 million in RttT funds that her state received will flow through her office, with much of it going to build a new system for collecting student data. She said representatives of nonprofits, for-profit companies, colleges and universities have gone to great lengths to try to talk to her about related contracts.
They have called her, e-mailed her and approached her at conferences. Some have enlisted mutual friends to intervene.
One vendor asked the state superintendent of education to persuade Wilson to schedule a meeting.
She said she has warned them all to stay away because she believes such conversations will disqualify consultants from bidding on stimulus-funded technology contracts. “They understand, but they don’t want to abide by it,” added Wilson, who describes the parties involved as “people who you have never heard of and people who should know better.”
The phenomenon may be even more pervasive in the market for turning around failing schools, which received a $3.5 billion jolt from the stimulus program known as the School Improvement Grant fund. Just a few years ago, there were few consultants even marketing themselves as turnaround experts.
With the stimulus, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said he wants to transform thousands of schools in the bottom 5 percent in performance over the next few years. That’s a tall order. Schools in the bottom 5 percent are places where fewer than one in three students read at grade level, the dropout rate is more than 50 percent and there are enough disciplinary issues to make them feel like armed fortresses. In the landscape of school reform, they are like the Middle East: constantly fought-over, subject to countless “solutions” that come and go and, in the end, stubbornly resistant to change.
That metaphor is an apt one for the market as well. In the fall of 2009, Joftus was contacted by a former contractor who was working for Global Partnership Schools, a new school turnaround venture funded by GEMS Education, a Dubai-based company founded by entrepreneur Sunny Varkey. The caller was hoping to obtain copies of Joftus’ contract for school improvement services in Kansas.
“You know we’re in a new era when school turnaround firms in the U.S. are being funded out of the Middle East,” Joftus said. “To me, that says there’s money to be made. I call this period the Wild West in education.”
Joftus is not questioning the organization’s credentials or quality.
By all accounts, Global Partnership has experience on its side. It is run by Rudy Crew, a former chancellor of the New York City schools, and Manny Rivera, a former superintendent in Rochester, N.Y. Also, it backs its promises with a rare performance guarantee: Its contract with Pueblo, Colo., states that the partnership will only be fully paid if it succeeds in significantly boosting student achievement. Up to 20 percent of its $1.5 million fee is linked to a series of benchmarks geared at overhauling Pueblo’s schools.
“Within 12 to 18 months, there’d better be gains, or if I were a district, I’d raise some serious questions,” Rivera said. “There traditionally hasn’t been that kind of accountability in the field.”
The aggressive competition and hoopla behind the big grant competitions make some in the field uncomfortable. School turnarounds are notoriously hard to accomplish and harder still to maintain. Revitalizing schools that have become dropout factories typically means replacing the principal and a large number of staff, as well as installing tough discipline and a new curriculum. Such efforts also require creating a new culture where high expectations are the norm.
“Very few people understand what a turnaround takes,” said Josh Edelman, deputy chief of innovation for the Washington, D.C. schools. “What people expect is that you’re going to see magic. Most of these schools have been failing for years. They’re not going to turn around on a dime.”
Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the department is hopeful that its investment will help build expertise in turnarounds and other tricky areas, adding she is “encouraged” that states and districts are beginning to share their knowledge. “While there is a need for more experts in the field, we’re very optimistic that states will build this capacity and that more high-quality organizations will emerge to assist them,” she said.
The difficulty of the tasks at hand and the relative lack of supply make education-consulting a lucrative enterprise. Those in the field say it is typical for an individual expert to make between $1,500 and $5,000 a day, depending on one’s level of expertise. In Ohio, more than half of the state Department of Education’s $194 million share of RttT funds will be awarded to “external providers,” according to state documents.
The money has attracted big names and powerful organizations that typically haven’t played in the education sphere. Sir Michael Barber, education adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, heads the global education practice of McKinsey & Co., a consulting giant that helped several states write RttT applications.
In November, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. paid $360 million for a 90 percent share in another company that helped consult for the RttT competition, Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based education technology firm. Wireless Generation’s involvement in the competition was not without controversy. Despite being paid more than $500,000 by New Jersey, the company failed to catch an erroneous last-minute change to the application. That cost New Jersey crucial points in the competition, leading to an 11th-place finish – just out of the money. Bret Schundler, New Jersey’s state education commissioner at the time, took responsibility for the error and was fired. Wireless Generation officials have not commented publicly on the error, which is the subject of several state investigations. Some legislators have blamed Wireless Generation for not noticing the error, and have asked the company to return its fee.
Just how important is a good consultant? Ask Jennifer Vranek, founding partner of Education First, a Seattle-based consulting firm. Her company was behind the successful RttT applications for Hawaii, Maryland, Ohio and Tennessee – one-third of the winners.
“If nothing else, a consultant has the ability to focus exclusively on the application, unlike the typical state education official, who has 75 other things to focus on,” she said. “A good consultant makes a difference.”
She insists the job involves more than spin. In RttT, states were pushed to make bold promises in their grant applications. Part of the job of the consultant, she says, is to ensure they deliver.
Education First cajoled the state leadership in Maryland to commit to overhaul its longitudinal data system, which cannot currently link student test data to individual teachers or track the learning growth of an individual student over time.
The federal government’s stimulus effort was designed to persuade states to take on such complex improvements. Convinced they have an important role to play, many consultants fear that in a time of severe economic distress, there will be less patience than usual for the missteps that inevitably accompany innovation.
“If we get 50 percent of this right, I think that’s a success,” said Joftus, the RttT technical assistance director. “My concern is that the public will see this as a 50 percent failure rate. If that happens, there’s going to be a huge backlash.”
Liz Bowie, of the Baltimore Sun, and Edith Starzyk, of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, contributed to this story. Andrew Brownstein writes about federal education policy for Thompson Publishing Group.