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

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Reformy Billionaires and the Money They Waste

Perhaps my favorite bad reformy argument -- one favored by Tom Moran, among others -- goes something like this:
We should listen to billionaires when they opine about education because: 
1) Well, they're billionaires, so they must know what they're talking about. 
2) They don't have a direct stake in the outcome, so you can trust them.
I often harp on the absurdity of Point #2: even though a plutocrat may not have a direct stake in making public education more like corporate American, their reformy crusades certainly match their ideological predilections. And ancillary benefits like New Markets Tax Credits and union busting are happy little bonuses.

But I don't often talk about Point #1. Watching the implosion of the Common Core is a great example: Bill Gates poured millions into its development and marketing, but it's clear he really didn't understand what he was getting himself into. I don't think anyone, if they are being honest with themselves (and that includes Bill), would think that Gates is any sort of an expert in any field of education.

Why, then, would anyone think it was a good idea to let Gates drive the development of a de facto national curriculum (yes, my reformy friends, that's exactly what the Common Core is -- more this summer)? And why allow his intuitions to set the agenda for teacher evaluation throughout the country? Why is Gates allowed to spend all this dough to support his agenda when he really has no expertise in the field?

I bring all this up because the following story strikes me as yet another example of billionaires who dabble in education, appearing to waste millions on a project that, quite honestly, makes no sense:

Jersey City officials are starting an institute in the fall to train principals for the district's public schools, with a $3 million gift from two hedge-fund managers who have been active in pushing their vision for educational change.
Billionaire hedge-fund manager David Tepper said he backed the Jersey City program because its mayor, city council and school board are "pro-reform" and eager to improve the schools. The district has long been plagued by low achievement, and its instruction and operations are under state control.


In Jersey City, schools superintendent Marcia Lyles said the new five-year program, the Jersey City Leadership Institute, will have several parts.
Starting in September, it will pay the salaries of five administrators who aspire to be principals as they take courses and shadow veterans on the job for a year, much as medical students study under seasoned doctors. The program will also subsidize coursework for up to 15 teachers learning to become administrators.
"We need to have a firm pipeline of leaders who are ready to step in," said Ms. Lyles. Her district of roughly 28,000 students has 39 schools, including 16 whose low test scores triggered intensive interventions from the state education department. She said the professional development for the institute will be coordinated by a group called "The SUPES Academy," through a grant secured by the state education department.
Ms. Lyles is looking for additional donors for the institute; the proposal carried a $8.9 million price tag. [emphasis mine]
OK, stop right there.

It's a little fuzzy the way it's written, but let's suppose we're talking about a total of twenty potential administrators: five who will "shadow" for a year, and another 15 taking courses to become administrators.

Let's suppose these aspiring principals and administrators decide to enroll at Rutgers-New Brunswick's Graduate School of Education (I choose this example because it's where I'm currently working on my PhD). Let's say they all matriculate into the Ed.M. program in Educational Administration, which includes two full semesters of internship within the student's home district -- an entire school year.

The program is 39 credits. With fees, it costs around $2,000 to take a three-credit course at Rutgers GSE. That's about $26,000 for a masters degree in educational administration -- again, with a full year of internship.

For $3 million, Tepper and his partner, Fournier, could send 115 of Jersey City's educators on a full ride to Rutgers. When they completed their study, they would be fully versed in NJ education law, finance, curriculum, instruction, data analysis, and personnel supervision.

But maybe Jersey City aspires to something greater. For about $48K, these teachers could get their doctorates: 62 of them. Every school in JC could be led by a principal with a doctorate, and there would still be 23 guys and gals with those big long robes left to work as assistants and in the central office. And that's just with the $3 million from Tepper and Fournier, not the full $8.9 million cost.

So why start this program? What extra benefit could possibly be derived from all this additional cost? Could it be this SUPES Academy is bringing all kinds of extra reformy value? What's that all about?

Features of the Academy

The SUPES Academy program will be 12-15 days in duration—with 8 days on-site and up to seven days of monitored independent study and online learning.  Every participant will complete a skill assessment as part of the orientation process and will have an individual learning plan to guide their learning. [emphasis mine]
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, why waste countless months of study at an accredited university, where you will be taught by the leading scholars in the field and receive state-sanctioned certification and a degree, when you can breeze through a 2-week academy book club: half of which is on-line? Advanced degrees and college accreditation, after all, are for suckers...

Of course, the folks at SUPES are so super-special-awesome that they don't have to play by the rules. Like, say, basic rules of transparency and professional ethics:

The CPS Inspector General is investigating the district’s $20 million principal professional development contract with the SUPES Academy, Catalyst Chicago has learned.
The contract is by far the largest no-bid contract that CPS has entered into in at least five years. And the contract has raised suspicion because CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had a previous relationship with SUPES. Catalyst detailed those ties in this story, not long after the contract was quietly approved by the School Board. 
CPS officials and board members said this summer that they did not ask for bids and gave the contract to SUPES Academy because of its ability to tap a bevy of school administrators to teach workshops and serve as coaches. The pricey initiative is called the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy or CELA.
However, a Catalyst analysis of the list of superintendents and other school administrators who work as coaches and lead workshops shows a web of ties between the educators, their school districts and SUPES or its associated companies.
Catalyst found that at least five of the coaches or workshop leaders, called ‘master teachers,’ work for school districts that have awarded contracts to one or more of these companies. Yet the full picture is unclear, since SUPES refused to provide professional biographies and fully identify all of its coaches and master teachers. (Catalyst identified several through Internet research.)
Because the coaches and master teachers are paid by SUPES, which is a private company and not subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, their compensation is not public.
Sources say that coaches are paid a flat fee of several thousand dollars for each principal they are assigned to coach, plus a lump sum for each day of master teaching. According to a log of coach contacts obtained by Catalyst, 34 coaches are working with an average of 10 principals each.
One of these coaches is Ed Heatley, who resigned from a suburban Atlanta school district and is now Commissioner of Education for the Bermuda Ministry of Education. During his tenure in Georgia’s Clayton County School District, Heatley was criticized for his harsh leadership style, his handling of budget cuts and the appearance of impropriety with a district employee. 
Heatley coaches 29 CPS principals and all of his contact with them has been via e-mail, according to the coaches’ log. [emphasis mine]
Well, how lovely. And, naturally, completely hidden from the view of the taxpayers or citizens: it's how they roll. But I'm sure SUPES's "faculty" leads by example, holding themselves to the highest possible ethical standards:

Superintendent Dallas Dance quit a consulting job Saturday amid questions over the propriety of his work for a company that doesbusiness with the Baltimore County school system.
"While I stand unequivocally behind the fact that nothing is being done wrong, after re-evaluation, I do believe it is in the Baltimore County Public Schools' best interest for me to not continue in any capacity with the SUPES Academy," he wrote in the email. 

In an email Saturday to school board members, Dance said he had called the Illinois-based SUPES Academy and told them that he would no longer coach Chicago public school principals.
The issue had become "a distraction," Dance said in an interview. "I don't want that and we don't need it."
The Baltimore County Board of Education still plans to hold a closed-door session Tuesday to discuss Dance's part-time employment with SUPES Academy, board president Lawrence E. Schmidt said.
"I think all of the board members want to talk to him," Schmidt said.
Dance had also been criticized for taking another job when the county schools have been struggling with the implementation of the Common Core and a new teacher evaluation system.
SUPES Academy provides training for school administrators from around the country who are seeking jobs as principals or superintendents.
Dance received training from the company in 2011, before he became superintendent in Baltimore County. Then a year ago, after he got the county job at an annual salary of $260,000, the school board approved an $875,000 contract with SUPES to train 25 principals a year for the next three years.
In August, Dance took a part-time job with SUPES that pays him $15,000 to coach Chicago principals. He flew to Chicago once a month on Saturdays to meet with the principals and talked with them by phone. He said he intends to donate any money he makes, minus travel expenses, to a scholarship for Baltimore County graduates. [emphasis mine]

I wonder if Dallas Dance will be coaching Jersey City's "next generation of school leaders"?

It's long past time to start speaking bluntly about these things. SUPES -- like Relay GSE and the Broad Academy Book Club and Teach for America -- is not real, rigorous training for educators; it is, instead, a self-serving, shallow, and facile opportunity for networking.

All of these so-called "academies" are, frankly, an insult to those of us who enrolled in fully-accedited educator training programs taught and administered by serious scholars, researchers, and practitioners. It is an affront to our work ethic that the people who run these things think the hours we spent in the teaching lab and in practicums and in the library and in lectures are somehow equivalent to a few weekends listening to the reformy preaching of "leaders" and a couple of minutes on the phone with people who have no business training anyone.

But somehow, the SUPES folks managed to pull down a cool $3 mil from a couple of New Jersey hedgehogs -- and another six-large is on the horizon. Tepper and Fournier could have funded scholarships to Rutgers GSE or Montclair State or Jersey City University or Caldwell College or TCNJ or Seton Hall or lord knows how many actual college-based, accredited principal certification programs... but no, they chose SUPES instead.


I could probably construct all sort of complicated theories. Some of them might be actually ring true. But in the end, I think the explanation is rather simple:

These guys have way too much money, and they don't know what to do with it. $3 million for a "leadership" program run by a private company that will "train" a handful of administrators, when far superior and far more extensive training is available at many institutions in New Jersey for far less? Hey, why not? No skin off their noses...

When you have a lot of bucks, it's hard to remember the value of just one.

It ain't easy being rich and reformy...


P. Grunther said...

This is a well-researched and informative blog that makes a clear case for both transparency and for spreading the word about what's going on. Lately when I read "education blogs" I feel frustrated that all this good research and work is possibly preaching to the choir, i.e. the people who are reading are not the ones who need to be informed/convinced. As Bob Braun suggests, we need legal action in some form since there is a clear conflict of interest and possible racketeering taking place. Many thanks to the JJ for the time and energy invested in this work!

Unknown said...

Bob Braun is right, we do need legal action, but what's needed even more is people making noise in the streets, and people in the schools throwing sand into the gears of this vicious, heedless machine.