HB 278 and HB 200 were probably the two worst bills passed in this dishonest fashion; both had failed floor votes in previous days precisely because they were illogical uses of education funds. I'll address HB 278 another time.
Let’s look at HB 200, the UPSTART program or “laptops for preschoolers” bill, and three puzzling aspects of its passage. (Lines 258-397 of the Omnibus bill, SB 2) It allocates $1,000,000 for the current school year to purchase instructional reading software for families, hardware and internet service for needy families, and for an audit on the program. The original had the same funding for the first year, but included $2.5 million more per year through 2014. The update included in SB 2 includes an option for the legislature to continue the program with no funding stipulated. (Update: Oops. I looked at the wrong bill and missed the actual costs. The bill allocates $1 million the first year and $2.5 million each year after that.)
1. First rotten aspect. The bill calls for a Request for Proposals (RFP) to find a contractor to provide a contractor with a laundry list of requirements, but the media reports from the very beginning explained the program as involving the Waterford Reading Software. My House representative also repeated to me both during and after the session that the Waterford software would be used in the program’s year trial. Where did that belief come from? Is it legal to already have a winner chosen before a RFP is even conducted? I recall hearing something in a recent session about a bill containing an exact copy of a company’s listed services. Is that what happened here? Why Waterford? Here’s the relevant language from the bill:
281 (3) The State Board of Education shall contract with an educational technology
282 provider, selected through a request for proposals process, for the delivery of a home-based
283 educational technology program for preschool children that meets the requirements of
284 Subsection (4).
285 (4) A home-based educational technology program for preschool children shall meet the
286 following standards:
287 (a) the contractor shall provide computer-assisted instruction for preschool children on
288 a home computer connected by the Internet to a centralized file storage facility;
289 (b) the contractor shall:
290 (i) provide technical support to families for the installation and operation of the
291 instructional software; and
292 (ii) provide for the installation of computer and Internet access in homes of low income
293 families that cannot afford the equipment and service;
294 (c) the contractor shall have the capability of doing the following through the Internet:
295 (i) communicating with parents;
296 (ii) updating the instructional software;
297 (iii) validating user access;
298 (iv) collecting usage data;
299 (v) storing research data; and
300 (vi) producing reports for parents, schools, and the Legislature;
301 (d) the program shall include the following components:
302 (i) computer-assisted, individualized instruction in reading, mathematics, and science;
303 (ii) a multisensory reading tutoring program; and
304 (iii) a validated computer adaptive reading test that does not require the presence of
305 trained adults to administer and is an accurate indicator of reading readiness of children who
306 cannot read;
307 (e) the contractor shall have the capability to quickly and efficiently modify, improve,
308 and support the product;
309 (f) the contractor shall work in cooperation with school district personnel who will
310 provide administrative and technical support of the program as provided in Section
311 53A-1a-1003 ;
312 (g) the contractor shall solicit families to participate in the program as provided in
313 Section 53A-1a-1004 ; and
314 (h) in implementing the home-based educational technology program, the contractor
315 shall seek the advise and expertise of early childhood education professionals within the Utah
316 System of Higher Education on issues such as:
317 (i) soliciting families to participate in the program;
318 (ii) providing training to families; and
319 (iii) motivating families to regularly use the instructional software.
320 (5) The contract shall provide funding for a home-based educational technology
321 program for preschool children for one year with an option to extend the contract for additional
322 years or to expand the program to a greater number of preschool children, subject to the
323 appropriation of money by the Legislature for UPSTART.
There is nothing mentioning Waterford at all. Why would the legislators know the winner of the RFP months before it even took place? (I wish I knew the status of that RFP and whether schools are using the program currently.)
Wow. The language requires the contractor to not only have a product that accurately measures the reading readiness of children who cannot read (Lines 304-306), but stipulates that the company must install the software, solicit families to participate in the program, and motivate them to regularly use the software.
Recalling an earlier post on educational “research,” I searched around on the web for how the Waterford software works. The Waterford Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to integrating technology into learning. They sell their early reading program through Pearson/Prentice Hall, a corporation dedicated to selling expensive software and textbooks to schools.
Here’s the Pearson order page I first found with impressive claims, rosy promotional literature, and “research” proving the efficacy of the program. Notice that none of the research here has any direct link to the program. They are a bunch of separate studies recommending different actions, and the program just claims to meet all 6 pages worth of objectives. There is no actual evaluation of the Waterford Early Reading Software.
As I searched further, I did find a page with some actual research of the program on the Waterford Site. It was tucked in a page citing the same long laundry list of other reading research they claim validates their program. I skimmed to evaluate the two actual effectiveness studies. The Waterford software receives high praise for its effects on low readers, and the studies appear at least decent, despite a few methodological concerns. (The higher quality study done for an educational journal has a much smaller sample and only lasts 6 months; the study by some advocacy foundation has a much larger number of students and lasts 3 years, but has issues with the testing procedures.) However, both studies specifically address the use of the software in a classroom setting and say that the teacher significantly affected the positive reading gains. There is no data available on using the program at home with pre-school age children and no teacher. The trial here in Utah could contribute to a study of that if someone is documenting the effort.
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2. Second fishy aspect. Paul Rolly reported in May that Cap Ferry, former Utah Senate president and current lobbyist extraordinaire, was pushing the Waterford software’s use to the legislators. Another person with some knowledge of the bill called it “A solution looking for a problem.”
3. Third slightly rancid, but key, undisclosed fact about the Waterford Program. Waterford and Pearson charge $3400, plus an installation fee, for EACH computer the Waterford Early Reading Program is installed on.
Last summer, I called the 1-888 number that was the only contact information I could find on the Pearson website. I asked about purchasing the Waterford software and was given the number to a local representative. The site has improved since then and you can find his number directly on the Pearson site now. The rep. was very helpful and explained that the Waterford program was the top-of-the-line intervention for low-achieving readers and told me of some local elementary schools using the program.
We discussed cost, and each computer equipped with Waterford Early Reading would cost $3400 plus an installation fee. Multiple users can then use that computer, but that efficiency is lost when the computer is specifically provided for the home. There is a lesser program, Success Maker, which costs only $1150 per computer and another program, ELLIS, specifically geared to those students learning English as a second language for $1000 per computer. The Waterford software, while supposedly superior, costs three times as much as similar interventions.
At the end of our conversation, I asked the rep. if the state had purchased the software yet, and he got nervous. He said that it wasn’t for sure yet and quickly changed the subject.
If the $1,000,000 allocated to the program this year were completely spent on $3400 fees, we could provide 294 homes with Waterford Software. However, there is the undisclosed installation fee per computer on top of that, up to $75,000 of the million can be spent on auditing and evaluation, and at least some homes will be provided with newly purchased computers and internet service as well. I wonder if 200 homes provided with software would be an accurate estimation of how many will be served by this program this year? (Update: Many fewer homes would get the program the first year, while up to 600+ could be served in following years...probably...if my estimates are close. )
The software had better be good to justify a $3400+ pricetag for each program. I would like to know who originally proposed the idea for the bill to Rep. Last, what information Cap Ferry gave to the legislators, if other programs or reading interventions were discussed, what that research process looked like, what donations if any were given by Waterford employees to campaign funds, and what was said during the original debate of the bill. During the Senate debate of SB 2 on the second to last day of the session, Sen. Stephenson said it was as good as funding Head Start. I want to believe that the bill came about from a sincere search for reading remediation, and not to provide a corporate handout…but I’m awfully suspicious. Regardless, Cap Ferry’s client is no doubt finding his lobbying fees worth the expense.