To the Editor:
Your recent Industry & Innovation Special Report (April 24, 2013) raised a critical issue about the privatization of public education.
Improvement needs in states and districts often exceed the organizational capacity, and, increasingly, private organizations—vendors—receive contracts to design and implement policy-mandated programs. This form of privatization is increasingly acknowledged and debated.
However, there is limited discussion of the quality of services provided or the evidence base underlying them, in spite of expectations of evidence-based decisionmaking and practice. That discussion should be part of the public dialogue, as vendors are positioned to have a significant impact on what happens in schools.
Quality matters, and attention needs to be paid to whether the services implemented are likely to improve teaching and learning. Delaware, one of the first of the federal Race to the Top winners, mandates that proposals from vendors include discussion of the “evidence of effectiveness” and the “research base for your chosen methodology.” Laudably, this section of the application carries the greatest weight in the scoring of proposals.
The extent to which education agencies’ approach to the request-for-proposal process incorporate demands for research use communicates the value of research, commitment to evidence-based practice, and expectations for quality. Services purchased to support our schools ought to be grounded in evidence that implementation will improve teaching and learning.
In my research, I have found that not all vendors draw on research or other evidence, nor do they rely on a common body of evidence in designing services. This is a red flag when investing in vendors, as the likelihood of desired outcomes is unknown.
As we debate the issue of privatization in public education, these issues of quality should be central to the conversation. Through that dialogue, we can improve the quality of both the process of acquiring services and the services themselves.
School of Education
University of Delaware
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Vendors’ Quality Is Crucial Factor In Discussion of Privatization