Education Opinion

The Letter From: Provider Accountability is Arbitrary and Capricious (II)

January 24, 2008 3 min read
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While for-profit publishers have come to dominate the content employed in teaching and learning, I would argue that nonprofits have owned technical assistance and sole practitioners define the market structure of general consulting in public education.
Until quite recently, nonprofit organizations have had a strong grip on the delivery of professional development services to raise the educational productivity of teachers and administrators. Unlike textbook publishing, this “market” is not a century old. My sense is that philanthropy did not really begin to make a national effort to improve poor and urban schools until the late 1970s, and the evolution here has not involved merger and acquisition. The history is more of a movement than an industry.

I would argue that the single most important factor in the success of nonprofit technical assistance providers has been price. Up until the mid-1990’s, had these services been offered for a fee, there would be no technical assistance in public schools. Frankly, administrators selected these providers only in part to actually improve teaching and learning. At least as important to the decision to bring outsiders into the classroom was the need to respond to political pressures to address local academic shortcomings, and the value of providing outlets for dissatisfied parents and teachers.

Given that the services were offered gratis, had little if any objective proof of efficacy, and rarely any evaluation while on site, the sign of a quality partner sought by educators was the local respect accorded the foundations and corporate sponsors backing the nonprofit provider. As with textbooks educators relied on brand.

If customers become used to getting something for free, are not themselves accountable for results, and have no objective means of assessing their partners value-added to student performance, for profit firms will not be attracted, and so the technical assistance market remains held by small local nonprofits and highly fragmented nationally.

In any large organization there are tasks that cannot be met by materials or technical assistance. Typically they involve management’s need to augment its capacity for specific short-term tasks. Public education is full of an ever-changing pool of consultants, sole practitioners working for federal, state and local education agencies.

When organizations are not accountable for performance, and can’t measure the value added by any input to the process, but need help with management, quality is a matter of personal comfort. Decision makers tend to rely on people they know. Advisors are taken on because of their relationships – with the decision makers, the subject matter, the partners.

Because public education has lacked objective measures of success, it is hard to compete for assignments “on the merits.” Because each engagement is highly personal, few consultants remain in business longer than their client. Because decision makers change frequently, it is hard to build a practice. And because it is hard to build a practice, there have been few sizable consulting firms in k-12.

When No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, the relationship of educators to textbook publishers, nonprofit technical assistance organizations, and individual consultants had nothing to do with providers objective, demonstrated contribution to student achievement. Decades of market success left these providers with no particular capacity to add value to educator’s AYP responsibilities under NCLB.

So when NCLB also sought to hold providers accountable for their contribution to student performance, one might have expected educators to pass the pressure they felt down to publishers, technical assistance providers, and consultants. One might have expected them to embrace a new set of market entrants whose business success depended on their clients’ educational success.

Nothing of the sort happened.

Next: What went wrong with Scientifically Based Research?

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