Inexperienced Companies Chase U.S. School Funds
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August 9, 2010
Inexperienced Companies Chase U.S. School Funds
By SAM DILLON
With the Obama administration pouring billions into its nationwide
campaign to overhaul failing schools, dozens of companies with little or
no experience are portraying themselves as school turnaround experts as
they compete for the money.
A husband-and-wife team that has specialized in teaching communication
skills but never led a single school overhaul is seeking contracts in
Ohio and Virginia. A corporation that has run into trouble with parents
or authorities in several states in its charter school
management business has now opened a school turnaround subsidiary. Other
companies seeking federal money include offshoots of textbook
conglomerates and classroom technology vendors.
Many of the new companies seem unprepared for the challenge of making
over a public school, yet neither federal nor many state governments are
organized to offer effective oversight, said Jack Jennings, president of
the Center on Education Policy <http://www.cep-dc.org/
>, a nonprofit
group in Washington. "Many of these companies clearly just smell the
money," Mr. Jennings said.
Rudy Crew, a former New York City schools chancellor who has formed his
own consulting company, said he was astonished to see so many untested
groups peddling school improvement strategies.
"This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers
and charlatans," Dr. Crew said.
The Obama administration has dramatically increased federal financing
for school turnarounds, to $3.5 billion this year, about 28 times as
much as in 2007. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
is pushing to overhaul 5,000 of the nation's 100,000 public schools in
the next few years.
New York is to receive more than $300 million and New Jersey about $67
million. Expenditures on each failing school are capped at $6 million
over three years.
Under federal rules, school districts can hire companies or nonprofits
to help, but do not require it, and Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman, said
the Department of Education did not know how many districts would do so.
"The department is in daily contact with states and districts to provide
technical assistance so they can make smart decisions and select
high-quality partners," Ms. Abrevaya said.
Overhauling schools is challenging work, and experts say few attempts
succeed. Breaking the cycle of failure in a school that has become a
drop-out factory requires an "extreme reset," said Tim Cawley, a
managing director at the Academy for Urban School Leadership
>, a nonprofit group leading several
turnaround efforts in Chicago. Usually that means installing a new
principal and a newly committed teaching staff, invigorating the
school's culture with high expectations and a no-nonsense discipline,
adopting a rigorous curriculum, and carrying out regular testing to
determine what has been learned and what needs to be retaught,, Mr.
In contrast, many new groups seeking contracts are hoping merely to
bring in a new curriculum or retrain some teachers, he said.
"We call that turnaround lite," he Cawley said.
Bob and Megan Tschannen-Moran run one of the new groups. Their company,
> Inc., based in their home in
Virginia, markets life and career coaching sessions to companies,
churches and schools.
Ms. Tschannen-Moran is an education professor at the College of William
& Mary, but the couple has never led a school overhaul, Mr.
A few school districts have hired LifeTrek for strategic planning, he said.
The couple recently founded a Center for Evocative Coaching
>, and this spring, Ohio put the
center on a list of approved school turnaround specialists. In July, the
couple changed the name of the center's Web site to
>. The center
can help schools by "facilitating new conversations through story
listening, expressing empathy, appreciative inquiry and design
thinking," its Web site says. Much of the training can be done via
conference call, he said.
Mr. Duncan helped trigger the stampede in a June 2009 speech, saying
that only a handful of groups, nationwide, had any experience in school
"We need everyone who cares about public education," he said, "to get
into the business of turning around our lowest-performing schools.
"That includes states, districts, nonprofits, for-profits, universities,
unions and charter organizations."
One company that said it had answered Mr. Duncan's call was Mosaica
>, which operates charter schools
in several states and overseas. Five of its 10 charter schools in Ohio
are in academic emergency, and the company has become embroiled in
disputes over its management of charters elsewhere. Its chief executive,
Michael J. Connelly, said Mosaica had built a solid record of raising
In March, the company hired John Q. Porter, a former schools
superintendent in Oklahoma City, to lead a new subsidiary, Mosaica
Turnaround Partners. Mr. Porter said he attended a vendor fair at Ohio
in June that had been organized to introduce dozens of new companies and
nonprofits to districts preparing school turnarounds.
"It was like a cattle call," Mr. Porter said. "No, actually it was more
like speed dating."
Pearson, the giant British publisher, also had representatives at the
fair. With 36,000 employees worldwide, Pearson is known in education for
textbook brands like Scott Foresman and Prentice Hall.
Last year, it formed the K-12 Solutions Group, and it is seeking
school-turnaround contracts in at least eight states. Scott Drossos, the
group's president, said that in recent years Pearson had bought smaller
companies that built Pearson's capacity to train teachers and could draw
on its testing, technology and other products to carry out a coherent
school improvement effort.
In interviews last year, Mr. Duncan said he wanted high-quality,
nonprofit charter school management groups, like the KIPP
> network, which operates 99 schools
nationwide, to join the school overhaul work.
But Justin Cohen, a turnaround strategist at MassInsight
>, a Massachusetts nonprofit
organization, said that most successful nonprofit charter operators
preferred starting new schools to overhauling failing ones, and that few
had accepted Mr. Duncan's invitation.
"The vast majority of people getting into the field are not ready to do
the work," Mr. Cohen said.
Recognizing the risks facing school districts that sign contracts with
untested groups, the American Enterprise Institute <http://aei.org/
nonprofit conservative policy group, issued a report last month urging
that districts require performance guarantees, under which contractors
failing to meet achievement targets would forfeit payments.
Dr. Crew's new company, Global Partnership Schools, which he formed with
Manny Rivera, a former Rochester schools superintendent, has signed a
contract with the Pueblo, Colo., district that is backed by a
performance guarantee. It stipulates that the partnership will be paid
its full fee only if it significantly raises student achievement, Dr.
Rivera said. The partnership has also been awarded contracts with
districts in Baltimore and Bridgeport, Conn., he said.
Dr. Rivera represented Global Partnership at the June 30 vendor fair in
Ohio, tending a booth along with 50 other groups.
"It was just like you were selling pencils," he said. "A lot of these
companies don't have a clue about how to change schools."
Monty Neill, Ed.D.; Interim Executive Director, FairTest; 15 Court Sq.,
Ste. 820; Boston, MA 02108; 857-350-8207 x 101; fax 857-350-8209;
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