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Self-dealing among education officials

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I’m conflicted about how to say this. Getting stuff done is about building relationships and trying to find ways to get along and in fact pulling the right people together toward a goal. But it is also about saying things straight and pulling no punches when what’s being debated matters a lot.

I often write about education standards because, unlike some other ed policy choices, standards impact the entire landscape of education. If used effectively to drive reform, they set the contours of classroom content, they constitute the basis for student tests, and they define the basis for teacher tests that ultimately play a bigger role on the quality of teaching in the Commonwealth than any professional development program afterward. If done right, I noted. I fully agree with Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution who has been saying that in most instances higher standards don’t correlate with higher student achievement, but those states (like Massachusetts) that have used standards to drive the iron triangle of curricula, accountability and teacher quality, win big on student achievement.

Until 2007, Massachusetts used standards in just this way. And then we watered down our accountability system and our standards. Since 2007 Massachusetts student achievement has been flatlined at best. While you cannot draw a causal link to our students’ 2007 or even 2008 results, the continued flatlining since then does make me wonder what’s been lost in real achievement because of recent “reforms.”

Last week, I wrote about the conflictitis that plagues the longstanding group of DC-based advocates of national standards. The post focused largely on the façade of objectivity put up by Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitch Chester in relying on three “outside” analyses of the national standards. The so-called independent analyses proved not to be so objective after all, given that they were all funded directly or indirectly by the Gates Foundation, which has bankrolled the entire national standards effort nationwide. So independent were these analyses that one of the firms (the Fordham Institute) conducting an “independent” review funded in part the work of another “independent” reviewer (the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education).

After receiving the tip from a reader who looked at Fordham’s federal tax status filings, I have to admit that I realized that I find it hard to believe that these people wake up everyday and pretend to take themselves seriously.

But there are more conflicts than the ones listed in that post. Today, let’s focus on the role of Achieve, Inc, which used to work on collegial sharing of best practies and more recently has moved into a full-time advocate employing not just public argument (which is the rightful way to do advocacy) but also funding and other politically, legally, or ethically challenged methods to advance their cause. Like all the other “independent” reviewers involved in evaluating whether Massachusetts should adopt national standards, Achieve, Inc. has largely been funded by the Gates Foundation, the banker of record for national standards development, favorable evaluations and advocacy.

So it is odd (and conflicted) when the Massachusetts Ed Commissioner announces that he will rely upon Achieve’s evaluations as “independent,” as is Achieve’s use of money to advocate for its positions. Tough words, I know, but consider the evidence.

In March of 2009, just as the Obama Administration made its announcement to chart out “improvements” in state standards, Achieve appoints Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to its Board of Directors.

WASHINGTON – March 2, 2009 – Achieve today announced the appointment of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to its Board of Directors, a group comprised exclusively of governors and top business leaders that is responsible for guiding Achieve in its mission to ensure that all U.S. students graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary success.

Is it independent to rely on a firm whose boss is also your boss? And given the Governor’s record at the time, this announcement signaled to friends of Achieve that they were going soft—or, perhaps more accurately, “soft skills”—on standards. At the time of this announcement, and months before his employer, the Fordham Institute, received a million dollars of its own from the Gates Foundation to promote national standards, Mike Petrilli blogged that Governor Patrick, with his weak record on academic standards and his opposition to strong school accountability, his embrace of 21st century skills, as well as the NEA’s support for national standards all constituted “the beginning of the end for Achieve”:

I can’t even begin to explain the confusion, disappointment, and exasperation I feel about Achieve right now, the organization that’s purportedly all about pushing states to raise standards. First there was the announcement last week that the National Education Association was joining the “common state standards” movement led by Achieve, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers…

Then there’s today’s announcement that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is joining Achieve’s board. This is the same Governor Patrick who has declared war on the Bay State’s academic standards and rigorous accountability system. (See this great Education Next article for background.)…Achieve, what are you doing, aiding and abetting what is obviously an effort to diminish standards, fuzzy up accountability, and push nebulous “skills” over literature, history, art, science, and math? Achieve, Achieve, why have you forsaken us?

It was bad enough from a policy perspective that Mitch Chester was chosen then to lead one of the two national testing consortia, PARCC, which is housed at Achieve. After all, Mitch has no record of improving standards and assessments in Massachusetts, the same in Ohio, and a record of diminishing standards in Connecticut (as evidenced by the collapse in Connecticut’s student reading scores on the NAEP test in subsequent years). But one of the key players in Massachusetts’ decision to adopt national standards, then-deputy education commissioner Jeff Nellhaus, was hired by Achieve/PARCC six months after Massachusetts’ vote to adopt national standards – a decision he influenced directly.

My point is not to say that Mitch Chester or Jeff Nellhaus, or the many other Massachusetts education officials and gubernatorial staff that benefited from later jobs with the Gates Foundation or Gates-funded entities, are unpleasant people. Hardly. They are so close to this stuff and so used to the way things work in the EduBlob that all this is par for the course.

Local supporters of the national standards and friends will argue that we should be relieved that Massachusetts’ officials are in positions of leadership in these efforts. I find that a huge sidestep to real questions about conflicts of interest and ethical violations.

That’s what ethics laws and mechanisms that ensure the public trust are for.

Governor Patrick likes to affirm that Massachusetts has “the toughest state ethics laws in the country.” That must make the revolving door of jobs, and the money and influence exerted on Massachusetts’ decision to adopt the national standards by the Gates Foundation, MBAE, Fordham, and Achieve one very big and improbably coincidence. No, no, there were no state ethics violations, no misuse of the public trust, no circumventing state legislative approval, no thorny federal legal issues, no private non-profits lobbying and benefitting from changes in state policy. And no cross-funding aong the independent reviewers.

For those of you who don’t find any of this troubling, then consider NewsCenter 5’s Sean Kelly report that in the middle of state deliberations over whether or not to adopt the Common Core standards, Massachusetts education commissioner Mitch Chester “took at least 12 trips costing $15,146. All of the trips [were] paid for, in part, by trade groups and special interest.”

As part of its story, NewsCenter 5 interviewed Pam Wilmot from CommonCause, a government watchdog group more often associated with the political left. She noted that “the appearance that there might be a conflict when you accept free or discounted travel from a party, particularly if they have an interest in the outcome of a decision is certainly there.”

NewsCenter 5 reported that “the top sponsors of Chester’s trips” were “two DC-based organizations, one of which was Achieve, Inc. The two pro-national standards funding groups paid for most of Chester’s travel to DC, Chicago, Arizona and London. “
If you are not troubled by any of this, then you are unwilling to consider evidence. Yes, the revolving door of jobs, money and perks is just one big coincidence.

Perhaps it’s also a coincidence (or perhaps just “one of those things”) that the Boston Public Schools hired

commissioner Mitchell Chester’s wife, Angela Sangeorge Feb. 22 [2010] as $128,570-a-year executive director for teaching and learning and director of literacy, [just] as the school system was mulling massive teacher, staff and custodian layoffs.

She “oversaw a staff of four literacy coaches and one reading teacher” in that job and then was removed from it by the BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson, to be placed in the Higginson-Lewis School, where she reviews the literacy curriculum for a single school (not the entire system anymore), but she still enjoys the same salary.

Yes, pleasant people one and all. Pleasant people who cannot see the conflicts they live and that affect their daily decisions. Pleasant people who take care of themselves, even as they block real solutions from being implemented in places like Lawrence where the dropout rate is north of 35 percent. Pleasant people who see the revolving door going around, and always find a way to slide through, even as they explain to parents in urban districts why they need to be patient and wait another 10 years for the adults in the system to coalesce around the grand education master plan that will at best yield modest improvement, which of course they will hype as victory.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.


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