Feb 21 2012
The Denver Post (Colorado) - by Jennifer Brown
They are among the 5,000 worst schools in America, where the percentage of kids who can read or do math at grade level often hovers in the teens or 20s and only about half graduate.
These schools are sharing $5 billion in federal tax dollars in a massive, three-year rescue effort, but no one nationally is tracking how the money is spent and no one can say whether the influx of cash will end up helping kids.
A Denver Post investigation found one clear winner so far: consultants.
In Colorado — one of the few states willing to tally such spending — consultants are taking home 35 percent, or $9.4 million, of the $26.6 million that came to the state from the U.S. Department of Education in the past two years. The money is buying instructional coaches for teachers, leadership coaches for principals, analysts to pore over test data and pricey three-day professional-development seminars on changing school culture.
Most states do not track how much these failing schools pay private education consultants. In about 15 states that agreed to tally such spending, the average is about 25 percent, according to The Post's analysis.
The federal School Improvement Grant program "is likely to go down in the annals as one more pretty expensive, failed initiative," said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, an independent public-policy think tank. He called the amount spent on lightweight, seminar-leading consultants "ludicrous."
"What's being done with this money is unimpressive," Hess said, adding that the rush to spend it "really lends itself to a lot of fly-by school improvement."
Education-reform experts say "external providers" can play an important role in turning around failing schools, and that viewing schools with an outside, higher-level lens can lead to more radical reconstruction, but they are disturbed that neither the federal government nor the majority of states keep track of this spending. And an estimate of 25 percent — more than $1 billion nationwide — is outrageous, some said.
"There is not $1 billion worth of good consultants; there aren't enough good consultants in the country," said Van Schoales, chief executive of the education advocacy nonprofit A+ Denver.
The Post reviewed Colorado school district budgets and consultant contracts to determine how they were spending their federal turnaround money. Among the findings:
- Pueblo City Schools has a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school-turnaround company to fix six failing schools. After the first year, school performance scores went down at five of the six schools; the sixth school's performance score didn't change. Out of $8 million in federal turnaround funds the district has received the past two years, $4.2 million has gone to its contracted partner. The three-year contract includes a $510,000 annual management fee.
- Adams County School District 50 in Westminster plans to pay 29 percent of its grant award — $480,000 annually — to a private company tasked with rescuing five elementary schools, mostly through coaching but also for administrative support to meet state testing and paperwork requirements.
- Denver Public Schools, by comparison, spent 13 percent of its turnaround grant money so far on consulting and other help from private companies. A significant portion of the district's grant has gone toward new staff, including deans of instruction whose job is to evaluate teachers.
The portion of funds going to consultants, as well as the lack of accounting, has boggled some analysts. Education policy analyst Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, called the federal program "a bonanza for entrepreneurs and testing companies."
Charles Barone, chief of federal policy at Democrats for Education Reform, said federal and state oversight of the program has been "too loose."
"The result is the waste of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of education-reform dollars that could be put to much better use," he said.
One fundamental flaw in the program, critics said, is that an unprecedented amount of money is flowing to chronically failing schools with infrastructure and leadership problems, and those schools must spend it quickly — within the three-year grant period. Individual schools can receive up to $2 million each year for three years.
The capacity to turn themselves around isn't always there, no matter the size of the grant. In some cases, they turn to contractors to make over their school, but those contracts often do not include money-back guarantees.
Another problem is that the money goes directly to individual schools, so reforms are schoolwide, not districtwide, making lasting change more difficult to achieve, said Keith Owen, Colorado's associate education commissioner for accountability and improvement.
"That's a model that I don't think is going to have a tremendous impact on student achievement," he said. "I think federally that was a little shortsighted."
Education observers in Colorado, including A+ Denver and the Colorado Children's Campaign, raised concerns during the first year of the grant program with the Colorado Department of Education. Since then, the department created a new Office of Accountability and Improvement and reassigned responsibility of the School Improvement Grant program to Owen.
Some reform experts questioned why the state distributed the second round of funding this year to schools that showed no academic progress. State officials said that in the program's second year, it's too early to tell which of the schools will succeed.
"I think there has been positive improvement in all of them, but whether it's enough ...," said Wendy Dunaway, a school improvement manager at the state education department.
Reform experts say it can take five years or more after an overhaul to reap significant improvement on test scores.
Still, scores should not get worse — even after the first, perhaps tumultuous year of a transformation, said Reilly Pharo, vice president of education initiatives with the Colorado Children's Campaign.
"With the infusion of dollars into these schools, and the additional vendors, we should not see test scores and outcomes and student growth declining," she said.
Nationwide, school-turnaround consulting companies sprouted as it became clear the U.S. Department of Education was about to spend billions of dollars to fix the nation's bottom 5 percent of schools in academic performance. Retired big-city superintendents and even life coaches across the country were seeking contracts with failing schools.
In Colorado, as in many other states, the state education department held a consultant fair, where it was apparent "there were vendors coming out of the woodwork" without experience in school turnaround but who knew "there was a lot of money to be made," said Patrick Chapman, director of federal programs for the state education department.
The state vetted vendors' credentials before creating an approved list but has not kept up with the list since last year. School districts that hired vendors this year did not have to select one from an approved list, but they had to make a case for their chosen vendor when they submitted their application for grant funds.
Among the vendor charges in Colorado:
- $185,748 per year for a "change leader" hired by Global Partnership Schools for six Pueblo city schools.
- $267,000 per year for two Pueblo leadership coaches to work with three principals apiece to "provide a sounding board for ideas" and "build their capacity as instructional leaders."
- $299,146 for 20 days of "intensive instructional coaching" in math for all six Pueblo city schools receiving grant funds.
- $31,850 annually for airline tickets for instructional coaches to make 49 flights to Colorado to visit Westminster schools, a charge separate from salary and expenses.
- $24,000 for 10 principal "instructional leadership team sessions" in Westminster.
Contracts typically don't come with money-back guarantees, and even companies that have been around for years make no promises.
"I wish there was a way to inoculate from failure," said Bernice Stafford, a vice president with Evans Newton Inc., a for-profit student-achievement company founded in 1973 that's now working with Westminster schools and Clifton Elementary in Mesa County. "It's we and they. How much effort are you going to put into it? We are not a silver bullet. If anyone tells you there is a silver bullet out there for this work, they are not being completely honest."
Turnaround experts say schools should avoid paying a lot for planning and best-practice concepts, or coaching that may have an impact on current teachers but no lasting effect when staff turns over. School leaders should think more radically: "Blow up that stuff that gets in your way," Hess said.
Get rid of barriers that limit teacher work time. Don't just get a new reading curriculum; put the best reading teachers in charge of all third-grade reading, for example, and let the other third-grade teachers teach other subjects.
Another criticism of the grant program, particularly in Colorado, is that even though schools are required to compete for the federal funds, every school district that applied in this state was awarded money.
"It basically seems like there was a warm-body policy," said Alexander Russo, an education consultant and author of the blog This Week in Education. "It's a very modern-day contest where everyone gets a blue ribbon."
The money should have gone to only the schools with the leadership, organization and thoughtful plan to pull off an intensive self-rescue, he said. The reasoning: Better to concentrate tax dollars on a smaller number of massive school transformations than to spread the money across schools that perhaps weren't capable of spending it well.
In Montana, the state education department kept the money instead of dishing it out to three failing school districts that had received bailouts before and were still drowning.
In the past, Montana sent low-performing schools grant money and said "good luck with your reform," said state Superintendent Denise Juneau. This time, the state turned down many requests from vendors who wanted Montana's business and instead used its money to hire 12 new school-change agents — four each for the three struggling schools. The change agents are state employees, not private consultants.
Mississippi has been praised for its strict reporting requirements — schools are graded on 48 competencies twice per month. The state also awarded grants on a supercompetitive basis: Out of about 80 applicants, eight received money. The state requires interviews with the school board president, superintendent and principal.
Still, Mississippi is one of many states that does not track how much money schools are spending on third parties. The Post attempted to collect that data from all 50 states. The majority said it was included in each school's grant application but that state officials had never calculated it.
"We do not track that. Anecdotally, ... schools are relying heavily on external consultants (because Maine) does not have the capacity to provide the support directly," said David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education.
Similarly, Texas said it does not tally the data because it's not required by statute.
The lack of data collection is a "missed opportunity," said Pharo, with the Colorado Children's Campaign. If states aren't tracking how exactly the money was spent, it's nearly impossible for school reformers to find out what worked.
The U.S. Department of Education requires every school receiving the funds to report back about attendance, student achievement and disciplinary actions, but so far, the agency does not have the data.
The federal government makes no stipulations about how much districts can spend on consultants. And the agency has not rescinded money from any state, even when school districts failed to show progress. Only New York's education department suspended grants from school districts after the districts neglected to implement new evaluation policies for teachers, a point of contention for the teachers union.
Arizona and Washington have terminated grants for individual schools, federal officials said.
Federal officials wanted a competitive process when the U.S. Department of Education rolled out the program, part of President Barack Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to stimulate the economy. The money was not intended for "light touches" such as new textbooks and paint or professional-development seminars. It was supposed to create dramatic change efforts, federal education officials said.
"For far too long, these schools have continued to deny students an equal-education opportunity and have been struggling, and we need to take more dramatic steps to turn them around," said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. "We are expecting to see growth in student achievement over the period of the three-year grant. These are schools that can't wait. They've waited too long."
Education experts acknowledged just how huge a task that is.
"This is never going to be a resounding success because school turnaround is hard as hell to do," said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners.