I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Perth Amboy: Lots of Questions

UPDATE: "jrose" has responded to this post; I will assume that's Joel Rose, CEO of New Classrooms. I've asked him to confirm that.

He writes: "At the risk of putting a wrench into your creative conspiracy theory, you should know that New Classrooms has no relationship with Wireless Generation, Rupert Murdoch, or Joel Klein." I've asked him to clarify that, and the relationship between School Of One, which Wireless Generation did work for, and Teach To One, which appears to be the direct progenitor of School Of One.

I've also asked him to clarify whether he maintains a relationship with Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

As I said: there's not necessarily anything wrong with this deal. But it's a lot of money, and it raises a lot of questions. I think we can all agree that the good people of Perth Amboy and New Jersey deserve a high level of transparency, so I thank Mr. Rose in advance for his candid answers. I will gladly put them into a separate post if he chooses to respond.

Let's see what's happening these days in Perth Amboy, the new center of reformyness in New Jersey.

When we last visited, superintendent and anti-tenure crusader Janine Caffrey was ratcheting up the war between herself and the Perth Amboy Board of Education. Members the board want to fire her, but NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf has stepped in and stayed her termination while a mediator reviews the case. As I've pointed out, it's more than a little hypocritical that Caffrey, who calls tenure "...the single greatest impediment to education improvement in New Jersey, without a doubt," is using an appeal to an outside third party to keep her job.

But there was another wrinkle to all of this: during the early days of her troubles with her board, Caffrey was defended publicly by B4K, New Jersey's premiere reformy advocacy group. B4K paid for ads supporting Caffrey that ran in the local newspaper and on websites like PolitickerNJ:

Here's what I said at the time:
In fact, I wonder if, in their zeal to defend Caffrey, B4K has accidentally open a big can of worms. If Caffrey keeps her job, how will we know if there are any strings attached to this undoubtedly expensive public relations campaign? Don't the taxpayers of Perth Amboy deserve to know exactly who is paying for the trashing of their school board officials?
Well, it turns out I made a pretty good point. The problem is that B4K's "partner" is Michelle Rhee's outfit, StudentsFirst. We don't know how exactly they "partner," but they teamed up with great fanfare last year. Derrell Bradford, B4K's Executive Director, implied that there might be financial ties between the two groups:
Bradford said the partnership "should help us fund raise and work on reform in the most productive way possible." He said the two groups will work on "grassroots organizing and political activities in the fall, supporting reform candidates running for election." [emphasis mine]
According to Steven Brill, StudentsFirst gets funding - a lot of funding - from Rupert Murdoch. B4K has yet to say whether any of that funding comes their way or not, but there is little doubt the two groups are very closely aligned.

Murdoch owns a company called Wireless Generation, which was and most likely is still is a technology provider for another company called New Classrooms. Wireless Generation is run by Murdoch's consiglieri, Joel Klein. New Classrooms is run by Klein's former underling at the NYC Department of Education, Joel Rose. Rose started the company in NYC under another name, School of One.

Yeah, it's confusing; I made a chart to keep it all straight:
Here's the kicker: when I first reported on all these connections, it turned out New Classrooms had just inked a $60,000 deal with the Perth Amboy schools to provide an after-school program in math tutoring called Teach To One. New Classrooms was playing up their work in Perth Amboy on their website; clearly, this was the first step in their expansion strategy.

Well, it looks like the stakes are now even higher. According to the PABOE minutes for July 26, 2012 (p. 7), Caffrey has recommended a $575,900 contract with New Classrooms to implement Teach To One at the William C. McGinnis School.

Before we go any further, let's say what we don't know:
  • We don't know exactly what sort of deal Wireless Generation has with New Classrooms these days, although WG says it "developed the algorithm at the heart of School of One," the progenitor of Teach To One. 
  • We don't know the extent of a financial relationship between B4K and Students First.
Here's what we do know:
  • B4K bought ads defending Caffrey.
  • B4K is StudentsFirst's partner.
  • StudentsFirst is funded in part by Rupert Murdoch.
  • Murdoch owns a company, Wireless Generation, that was the lead technology provider for School of One.
  • School of One has become New Classrooms.
  • Caffrey is recommending a contract worth well over half a million dollars to New Classrooms.
We also know:
  • Joel Rose, current CEO of New Classrooms, worked with Chris Cerf for years at Edison schools. Rose came over to the NYCDOE with Cerf in 2006 to work as Cerf's chief of staff. Again: Cerf is the one who intervened between Caffrey and the PABOE to save her job.
  • Both Rose and Cerf are graduates of the Broad Superintendents "Academy."
One other thing: from what I've read, Teach To One/School Of One sounds pretty awful:
We then entered a large room, converted from the school's library, with about one hundred 7th and 8th graders seated at tables, most of them staring at computers and doing multiple choice math problems. I watched as one girl, seemingly in a trance, looked at the screen, and hit A, B, C, D keys in turn, until she got the right answer to a multiple choice question and moved onto the next one. Sadly, no adult but me seemed to be paying any attention to this student to make sure she was trying to think the problem through.
There were also two or three small groups of students, sitting at smaller tables, with rather harassed looking teachers who were trying to teach math, but allowed to spend only about ten to 15 minutes together before time ran out and a signal was made for the students to move back to computers, or to another group led by a different teacher. [emphasis mine]
Of course, school districts buy worthless curricular junk - especially technology - all the time. But nearly $600K for an on-line math course? That a lot of money by anyone's standards.

Again, this was always the problem with B4K stepping into the middle of a public fight between the PABOE and Caffrey. Anything they, their funders, or their partners are connected to is now tainted in Perth Amboy. I'm not saying that there's anything necessarily wrong with this deal; I am saying it raises a lot of questions about the connections between all of the participants.

It would look better for all concerned if Caffrey withdrew this contract and found another technology provider without all the baggage attached. It would look better if Cerf stayed far away from districts that do business with Classroom Innovations, given his ties to Rose. And it would look better if Rhee, B4K, and Murdoch came clean on their financial relationships once and for all.

The reformyists have created a nebulous world where public, non-profit, and for-profit interests converge behind a cloud of connections. We'd all be better off if they drew some bright, clear lines between each other, and let us know exactly what their relationships are.


jrose said...

At the risk of putting a wrench into your creative conspiracy theory, you should know that New Classrooms has no relationship with Wireless Generation, Rupert Murdoch, or Joel Klein. You should also know that New Classrooms is a non-profit organization that works on partnership with schools around the country to provide personalized learning for students through a combination of live, online, and collaborative instruction. Its Board of Advisors includes leading educators from across the ideological spectrum.

This past spring, New Classrooms worked in partnership with the administration, faculty, and parents at McGinnis Middle School on the first phase of an implementation. Following that phase, administrators and teachers urged the Board to move forward on the in-school implementation, which is currently under consideration.

While I realize that this information is inconsistent with the more sinister picture suggested above, your readers should know the facts. It is ultimately the Perth Amboy teachers, parents, and students that bear the brunt of this folly.

Duke said...

I will assume "jrose" is Joel Rose, but I would appreciate it if you would confirm that.

I am all for the facts, Mr. Rose. That's why I wrote this post; I think the people of Perth Amboy and New Jersey deserve to hear them. You could clear this entire thing up by answering a few questions, which I will gladly put in a new post here.

You say New Classrooms has "no relationship" with Wireless Generation. Yet Wireless Generation says it developed the "algorithm at the heart of School of One."


Clearly, School of One is the progenitor of Teach To One, is it not?

Did you develop an entirely new set of software for Teach To One, separate from the software used in School For One? Or is the algorithm used in School of One used in Teach To One? If not, who wrote the entire new software for you?

If so, wouldn't that be a "relationship" between Wireless Generation and New Classrooms?

If you are still using Wireless Generation's work, do you have a licensing agreement with them? Or was all of their software simply a work-for-hire? Do they retain any rights to any work they did on School For One?

If it was a work-for-hire, doesn't New York City retain the rights to it, as they paid for the initial development of the software? Do you have an agreement with the NYCDOE to use this software in your own endeavors?

Finally: do you maintain a relationship with Commissioner Chris Cerf? Have you had any contact with him since he was appointed by Chris Christie to his position?

Thank you. I look forward to clearing this up and getting the facts out.

Deb said...

Duke, besides another brilliant blog raising reasonable, probative questions and legitimately pointing what APPEARS to be going on, I have one other question - I admit slightly off topic: as the signing of the tenure law is touted as a great success to ensure a great teacher is in the front of every class room, what are we (I saw we because we are the tax payers) doing spending all this money on these overpriced, questionable curricula that diminish the creative and valuable role of our teachers in the classrooms? Naive of me to ask, I know. But your answer - or perhaps just commentary would no doubt be a pleasure to read.

Commuting Teacher said...

As a teacher steeped in technology and research using it, I can confidently state that technology by itself does not increase learning outcomes. Further, if we look at both race and poverty as factors, both black students and students of poverty are more likely to computers in a drill capacity with less application and teacher intervention than their more white and middle-class (& affluent) peers. (please see doi: 10.3102/0091732X09349791
REVIEW OF RESEARCH IN EDUCATION March 2010 vol. 34 no. 1 179-225) pp. 198-200. However this research in whole demonstrates how technology in isolation, like the program proposed, has a slight chance of helping some students but the vast majority will not benefit (reminds me of charter schools) as they would with teachers who integrate technology appropriately by using scenarios, apps, and demonstrations. Also, this research has found that most computer assisted learning gains come from having computers at home that are used to complement their school based learning. There is a caveat here, however, as a growing number of at-risk students now have computers at home as well, their internet use, according the the report, is not as textually based because of their poor reading skills. These students are more likely to focus upon images and, in my experience, audio representations of those things that interest them.

The bottom line is this. White and more affluent schools do not use the rote drill regiments promoted by many in the canned-curriculum businesses. "Overall, Wenglinsky found a consistently negative interaction
between frequency of technology use and test score outcomes in mathematics (at
both the fourth and eighth grade), science (at both the fourth and eighth grade), and
reading (at the eighth grade; see Table 10). This appears to be because of the negative
effects of drill and practice activities that are used predominately with low-SES students.
In contrast, the more constructivist educational technology activities typically
used with high-SES students were correlated with higher test score outcomes" (p. 204).

It is sad indeed that our neediest students are still having this model foisted upon them and only because it can make a buck; it is certainly not about improving student outcomes. I'm frankly tired of the profit made off the backs of our poverty stricken neighbors, this has to stop.

Duke said...

Brilliant post, CT - thanks for addressing Deb's question.

The rule here is a get to steal your stuff when it's that great. Stand by for the next post...

Unknown said...

A question for Joel Rose:

Would you choose the New School for your own children given the same curriculum and student-teacher ratio you recommend for the children in Perth Amboy?

Deb said...

CT - thank you indeed. Great post and references. Gee, I hope you are part of Save Our Schools NJ - we need people like you in our fight! (forgive the plug Duke).