Is this data-driven decision-making? (UPDATED)
Originally published on December 13, 2010 at 4:02PM MST.
Accountability and results. That’s what school reform à la NCLB and RTTT is supposed to be all about, right? In order to ensure that all kids are getting the education they need and deserve, we need to set high goals and expectations, and then “measure to see if we’re gettin’ results.” When we measure (and measure and measure…), and find that we’re not getting results, we have to do something about it. That’s the primary justification for turnarounds where teachers are fired en masse, and when schools are closed or converted to charters.
So why doesn’t this same hard-line approach seem to apply to supplemental educational services (SES) providers? The No Child Left Behind act stipulates that low-income children in low-performing schools are entitled to receive tutoring to help bring them up to grade level, at no expense to their families. States are expected to remove vendors from their approved provider lists if they fail to show results for two straight years, but this is rarely done. As a result, these SES providers have received large sums of public money to help students, even though they are often labeled as “ineffective” or “needs improvement” (the same kinds of labels that trigger state intervention, turnaround, and closure for public schools). In some cases, there is even evidence of fraud and other wrong-doing.
For instance, Ohio parent advocate Bernadine Kent recently wrote to me about the shady dealings between the SES providers serving needy students in Columbus and the Columbus City School District and school board. Though only four of the city’s 72 SES vendors received an “effective” rating, all continued to collect large sums of taxpayer money. From the article she co-wrote in The Free Press (emphasis added):
The Columbus City School Board has abandoned its role to monitor the district’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) funds. The Board has remained silent after the district’s Internal Auditor, Carolyn Smith, revealed the Board had not approved 20 million dollars in purchase orders referred to as Super P.O.’s. for the last four years. With preferential treatment in place and no incentive to provide quality-tutoring services, our students are being miserably shortchanged.
There is no better example of this shortchange than the district’s Effectiveness Reports submitted to the Ohio Department of Education for fiscal year 2010 for Supplemental Educational Services (SES) vendors. The report shows only 4 out of 72 vendors received an effective rating. This means the other 68 SES vendors allegedly serving our students received well over $3,000,000 for FY 2010, but were considered either not effective or needing improvement in tutoring basic reading and math.
In the Internal Auditor’s working papers, she notes Global Bilingual Services in FY 2009 was rated as needing improvement but was paid $306,188. In FY 2010, they were rated ineffective but still received $272,515 in payments. Waiss Network Technologies was rated ineffective for both FY’s 2009 and 2010 but received payments exceeding $171,000. These are just a couple examples among many of the significant payments made to ineffective SES vendors; yet, the district auditor concealed this information and left the Board as well as the public clueless to the enormous waste of the Nation’s taxpayer dollars.
Auditor Smith concealed other pertinent information as well. Part of the complaint filed by members of the district’s community April 27, 2010 alleging fraud in the SES program, that initiated the internal audit, also alleged the Board had not approved the SES provider payments. The Internal Auditor’s working papers used to construct a draft report dated August 26, 2010 presented to the Audit and Accountability committee and copied to the full Board concluded the “Board approved the SES providers payments”. This is a statement the auditor later changes.
Less than two months later, on October 13, 2010, the district’s Assistant Treasurer Mike McCammon on video contradicts Auditor Smith’s conclusion that the Board had approved the SES provider payments. Mike McCammon stated the multi-million dollar Super P.O.’s did not have to be Board approved and that the Super P.O.’s were considered blanket purchase orders. He further stated the Super P.O.’s were not vendor specific.
Throughout the rest of the article (which includes video documentation as well as documents gathered by Kent and her husband, fellow parent advocate James Whitaker), they explore some of the suspicious activities related to the way poorly rated SES providers have been paid by the district, and highlight red flags that have been overlooked by the city’s school board. These include suspicions of price-fixing (see video below), evidence of suspicious operations (vendors who lack physical addresses, providers using handwritten invoices instead of computer-generated ones), and district officials bypassing the normal processes for purchases of this nature.
Texas students and parents have faced similar problems, even when districts and school boards complain to the state on the public’s behalf. From the Houston Chronicle:
Since [NCLB] went into effect in 2002, Texas has never removed a provider from its list despite complaints from school districts and the state’s own evaluation that found seven of the eight tutoring companies studied had no significant impact on student achievement…
More than 48,000 schoolchildren — about a quarter of those eligible – took advantage of the private tutoring in reading and math last year. The cost to taxpayers was $67 million, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.
“This is big business,” said Melinda Garrett, chief financial officer of the Houston Independent School District. “There are people who have created companies to do this who haven’t in the past done educational things. They’re doing this because it’s an easy way to make money.”
Some of the providers have enticed students to sign up with promises of free computers or cell phones – which some parents say never arrive. State rules forbid providers from giving students gifts for signing up but do allow rewards after enrollment.
HISD filed a formal complaint with the TEA last year about Read and Succeed, alleging, among other charges, that the tutoring company paid students to recruit friends. TEA investigators confirmed that the company gave students gift cards worth $6.50 each but has stopped the practice.
The TEA also found HISD was wrong for not enrolling all the students who selected Read and Succeed and for rejecting the company’s state-approved $75 hourly rate…
HISD officials suspect that some companies are billing the district for students they never serve. The district recently held a phone bank to try to contact 4,400 parents of students who supposedly received tutoring based on the providers’ invoices.
Some parents responded that they had never heard about the tutoring, said Pam Evans, HISD’s manager of federal programs. She said the district’s inspector general is now investigating.
San Antonio ISD administrators have similar concerns about billing, and district researchers have not found that the tutoring has improved Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores.
What gives? Though standardized tests leave much to be desired as measures of student learning, if we’re going to use them to judge teachers and schools, shouldn’t they also be used to judge private companies and organizations?
And NCLB or no NCLB, whatever happened to vigorous investigation and prosecution of people and organizations that are suspected of fraud?
- “No Child Left Behind scam: Purchase orders bypass Columbus School Board approval to funnel millions of federal dollars to questionable vendors” (The Free Pess)
- “Are No Child Left Behind-Funded Tutors Ripping Off Students and Taxpayers?” (Project on Government Oversight Blog)
- “Schools paying for tutors with mixed track record” (Houston Chronicle)
- “Who’s Getting Rich off ‘No Child Left Behind’?” (Jackson Free Press)
- “Why We Need to Study the Tutors” (Commentary, RAND Corporation)
- “Taking a Hard Look at Supplemental Educational Services” (Commentary, EdWeek)
ETA: Good news– it seems more people are starting to pay attention to this issue! Ms. Kent wrote today (September 4, 2011) to share this news story and television coverage. Long time coming, but still– it pays to be persistent :)