News

*Scroll to the end of this story for a response from the NC Department of Public Instruction

Politico’s Stephanie Simon published an investigative report today looking into the business dealings of British education giant Pearson, finding that the company’s success is due in part to negotiating lucrative no-bid contracts with public education agencies around the country — including one with North Carolina.

The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, for instance, declined to seek competitive bids for a new student data system on the grounds that it would be “in the best interest of the public” to simply hire Pearson, which had done similar work for the state in the past. The data system was such a disaster, the department had to pay Pearson millions extra to fix it.

The data system Simon refers to is PowerSchool, which the News and Observer reported last year “has so many problems that the accuracy of transcripts, athletic eligibility and the number of students enrolled in schools is uncertain.”

Many of those problems were fixed, and the state sought a discount from Pearson to reduce the $7.1 million price tag for the PowerSchool. It’s not clear if any money was refunded, however, nor is it clear whether the state or local districts will be responsible for the $6 million owed to Pearson next year for PowerSchool.

Simon’s investigation also found that in many cases, Pearson was never held to performance targets outlined in the contracts—if they didn’t meet the standards, they weren’t penalized.

In addition to PowerSchool, Pearson also backs one of North Carolina’s new online virtual charter schools, N.C. Connections Academy. The State Board of Education approved N.C. Connections academy just last week for a four year pilot program, alongside K12, Inc.’s N.C. Virtual Academy.

The state legislature required the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charter schools for the pilot program, and only two non-profit organizations applied — one backed by Pearson, the other by K12, Inc.

The approval came in spite of serious reservations on the part of some board members as well as education advocates who feared that North Carolina’s students could experience the same negative academic outcomes that have been experienced by virtual charter school students in other states, or that poor students would have a hard time accessing the technology and infrastructure necessary for online learning.

Read Stephanie Simon’s full investigation of Pearson here.

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2/18/2015 UPDATE: NC Department of Public Instruction’s CFO, Philip Price, reached out to N.C. Policy Watch to respond to the Politico investigation of North Carolina’s contractual relationship with Pearson for its new student data system, PowerSchool.

Price said DPI took 16 months to work with the NC Attorney General’s office and other key state-level education stakeholders to gain a waiver for bidding out the adoption and implementation of a new student data system. The impetus for continuing to contract with Pearson, said Price, was that the education behemoth also owned the state’s old data system, NC WISE. A significant costs savings would occur if Pearson also undertook the construction and implementation of PowerSchool.

“NC WISE cost $168 million to implement. Pearson charged us just $3.7 million to convert to PowerSchool,” said Price.

That figure doesn’t include additional monies ($1.25 million) that the state had to pony up for more training and help with migrating data from NC WISE to Power School. Even so, Price says, the state saved a lot of money going with Pearson.

Politico’s story also makes the allegation that Pearson is typically not penalized when it fails to live up to contractual obligations. But Price says at least in North Carolina, that’s not the case.

“We’ve gotten credits back since we established a service learning agreement,” explained Price, who says that if Pearson doesn’t meet certain agreed upon elements of the contract, they refund the state money. “$437,000 in September 2014, and we’re still receiving credits.”

Pearson also gave North Carolina a year of free content, worth $6 million, for its SchoolNet application, which allows teachers to build lesson plans and formative assessments.

News

More than $4,000,000 worth of taxpayer-funded school vouchers have now been paid out to private schools subject to virtually no state oversight in North Carolina, according to records obtained by N.C. Policy Watch.

Documents released by the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority show that five private schools have now received at least $100,000 in state funds thanks to the new Opportunity Scholarships program, which offers low-income families $4,200 vouchers annually to use at private schools that are overwhelmingly affiliated with religious institutions and are not required to follow a curriculum, employ certified teachers or conduct criminal background checks on employees.

Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood found the school voucher program to be unconstitutional last year, but the program has been allowed to proceed while a court battle over the program’s legality continues. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the voucher case February 17.

The top twelve schools receiving taxpayer-funded school vouchers are:

  1. Word of God Christian Academy (Raleigh) – $180,600
  2. Greensboro Islamic Academy – $142,800
  3. Concord First Assembly Academy (Concord) – $120,190
  4. Fayetteville Christian School – $118,230
  5. Freedom Christian School (Fayetteville) – $108,254
  6. Trinity Christian School (Fayetteville) – $96,600
  7. Tabernacle Christian School (Monroe) – $96,568
  8. Al-Iman School (Raleigh) – $86,841
  9. Raleigh Christian Academy – $81,900
  10. Victory Christian Center School (Charlotte) – $77,646
  11. Liberty Christian Academy (Richlands) – $75,530
  12. Bal-Perazim Christian Academy (Fayetteville) – $72,870

A total of $4,159,457 public dollars have been spent of the $10 million that state lawmakers appropriated for school vouchers last year (that figure does not include administrative costs).

Records also included numbers of school voucher recipients by ethnicity.

Ethnicity
American Indian or Alaska Native:                     9
Asian                                                                      20
Biracial                                                                 106
Black or African American                                 616
Hispanic                                                                102
Other                                                                      16
White                                                                     333
Total                                                                   1,202

Last year, N.C. Policy Watch reported that Greensboro Islamic Academy, one of the top recipients of taxpayer-funded school vouchers, was in financial trouble and pleading online for help from the public to fund its $150,000 shortfall so that the school could complete the 2013-14 school year.

Greensboro Islamic Academy has now received $142,800 for its 63 voucher students.

Read the full list of school voucher recipients below.

News

Fewer college grads are flocking to Teach for America.

The New York Times reported last week that the embattled teacher training program, to which the North Carolina General Assembly has chosen to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars at great expense of the soon-to-be-defunct yet highly praised N.C. Teaching Fellows program, saw a ten percent drop in applications this year — the second year the program experienced a decline in interest.

TFA officials blame the rebounding economy for decreased interest in the program, which provides relatively minimal training to recent college grads and then unleashes them to go teach in typically high poverty schools.

Teaching has become a less popular prospect as a whole, with the entire country seeing a 12.5 percent drop in applications for teacher preparation programs from 2010-2013. North Carolina’s schools have seen a 27 percent drop in applications over the past four years.

But the Times article also highlights the diminished luster of the program, telling the story of one college grad who was initially enthusiastic about jumping into teaching by way of Teach for America:

When Haleigh Duncan, a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, first came across Teach for America recruiters on campus during her freshman year in 2012, she was captivated by the group’s mission to address educational inequality.

Ms. Duncan, an English major, went back to her dormitory room and pinned the group’s pamphlet on a bulletin board. She was also attracted by the fact that it would be a fast route into teaching. “I felt like I didn’t want to waste time and wanted to jump into the field,” she said.

But as she learned more about the organization, Ms. Duncan lost faith in its short training and grew skeptical of its ties to certain donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic group governed by the family that founded Walmart. She decided she needed to go to a teachers’ college after graduation. “I had a little too much confidence in my ability to override my lack of experience through sheer good will,” she said.

Read More

News

Cabarrus County Schools’ Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Jason VanHeukelum, is not happy with the state’s new A-F school grading system.

“More than 90 percent of our teachers met or exceeded growth targets in 2013—yet 20 percent of our schools received Ds,” said VanHeukelum in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch. “Those figures just don’t match up.”

And the two schools in his district that did receive As? They are a magnet school and an early college high school.

“They’re selective programs,” said VanHeukelum of the A schools. “You have to apply to get in and you’re typically already on grade level. This metric of school grades that is so tightly tied to poverty—it’s hard to know what to do with it.”

On Thursday, North Carolina unveiled A-F letter grades for its approximately 2,500 schools, and the results were predictable, yet startling: the vast majority of schools serving poor students all received Ds or Fs, while schools in wealthier areas fared better.

Reaction from the education community has been by and large negative: the A-F school grading mechanism, which heavily favors students’ performance on standardized tests on a given day rather than improvement made over time, is a flawed formula, according to many.

VanHeukelum wrote a scathing review of the A-F grading system earlier this week.

While we welcome accountability for student achievement, I believe [the A-F school grading system] is an ill-conceived measure that is determined more by poverty than by the actual work of teachers and administrators in our schools.

In his editorial, which also appeared in the local newspaper, VanHeukelum connected the dots between poverty and student achievement, citing academic research that documents the link between socioeconomic status and student readiness for school.

In the wake of the A-F school grades’ unveiling, VanHeukelum said that school officials in his district are doing their best to manage public expectations.

“With our schools that have Cs and Ds, they [school administrators] are trying to assure their teachers and parents that they are doing good work — so they are trying to come up with other metrics to assure them,” said VanHeukelum.

“[The school grade] is a hard message to counteract. If I read in the paper that my school is a D school, and then my principal tells me we’re doing good things, I’m gonna be skeptical.”

VanHeukelum hopes that community members won’t just pick up and flee low performing schools for what appear to be better ones based on the A-F school grades, because there is often really good work and progress happening at schools that have been labeled C or D.

“I’m hopeful that our community recognizes that you’re not grading the work of the school, you’re grading the kids that come to that school—you’re grading poverty.”

News

Of the nearly 30 percent of North Carolina’s schools receiving letter grades of D or F from the state, almost all of them are designated as high poverty schools with at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch.

poverty_grades

“The only thing these grades tell us is where our poor children go to school and where our rich children go to school,” said Lynn Shoemaker, a 23 year veteran public school teacher representing the advocacy group Public Schools First NC at a press conference held by Senate Democrats. Read More