Saturday, March 9, 2013

Has EVERY educational technology company that made political donations in Utah gotten a state contract? Open question, but I think the answer is yes.


How do you win a statewide contract to provide educational software for schools in Utah?  You could spend time pitching your wares to individual schools and districts--I've sat through a number of demonstrations myself.  "If you use whatever program for a whole bunch of minutes each week, it will drastically improve an important skill x in the students.  We will then print reports showing that they improved."

But why waste your time thinking small?  Only 1 or 2 of our state legislators taught public school, and they hold the purse strings to much larger sums of money than the districts with much wider latitude on how to spend it.  Convince them that your product is a silver bullet--but making sure to repeat "I'm not saying this is a silver bullet"--as you hand them "research-based" reports showing your program drastically improved test scores in that one district in that one state.

Those legislators can then write a bill with a Request For Proposals (RFP's).  Those requests can be for "personalized teacher professional development plans," "special education specific reading software,"  "handheld reading devices to give reading tests,"  "reading software for preschoolers on a laptop with a dashboard," or whatever.  These open Requests for Proposals are supposed to open up a competitive bidding process that ensures the taxpayer-funded school system has the latitude to purchase the best product at the best price.  However, just Imagine the potential power in helping determine the specific wording and feature requests for one of these "open" proposals...  I've taken to calling them Referrals to Friends of stePhenson.



I was put back on this horse when I was contacted by a blogger in Arizona, a retired high school English teacher, who had read my posts on Imagine Learning and Waterford's political spending and custom RFP's.  A state senator there is running a bill opening up a $30 million RFP for reading software with a suspiciously specific list of requirements.  This teacher and his commenters tracked down the company posed to benefit from this custom bill, Utah's Imagine Learning.  He broke down the specific language of this year's bill and a past proposal to show how it was specifically crafted for Imagine Learning.  Then he posted about the fact that Imagine Learning is a paying member of ALEC and then linked to my posts about Imagine Learning's political donations in Utah that of course had nothing to do with their statewide contract.

Statewide funding to Imagine Learning was first authorized in 2008.  I obviously suspect it was in SB 2, the omnibus, but I can't find it.  Here is my post about Imagine Learning's political donations in 2009.  The system has been updated since I first wrote that, and the political donations actually started in 2008, including money given to Becky Lockhart, Carl Wimmer, Aaron Tilton, and a candidate for the Canyons School Board. 

Imagine Learning has kept up the pattern of political donations in 2010, 2011, and 2012, only with a larger net.  They have spent over $57,000 (Is part of the return on that advocacy at the ALEC conferences from the Utah legislators?) over 3 years, donating principally to powerful Republicans (Herbert most of all, Jenkins, Hughes, Urquhart, Bramble, Osmond, many others), but plenty of Democrats too, especially strong education advocates. (Carol Moss, Marie Poulson, Karen Morgan)  None of the legislators were even up for election in 2011 when Imagine Learning cheerfully donated $18,000 to various campaigns.  They also donate money to groups that are code for donations to legislators, but they don't have to put their name on the forms.  Donating to the Utah County Legislative PAC is giving money to Speaker Lockhart's control. Donations to the Utah Taxpayers Association are a donation to Howard Stephenson that he doesn't have to report either.

Imagine Learning has also partnered with the Utah State Office of Education to sponsor teams to a popular road race run in teams, Ragnar, in both 2012 and 2013.  There's nothing inherently bad about helping teachers run in a race, but any connection to learning or K-3 Reading is tenuous at best (healthy teachers is a good goal...except any teachers participating in this long race already run anyway...). I believe the firm is just cultivating influence wherever it can.  Does buttering up the USOE decrease criticism of the political nature of their contract?  I have to say the answer is possibly, "Yes."

The program was reauthorized in 2010 in HB 2.  The language is for reading software, but it apparently just continues the existing Imagine Learning contract.   Imagine Learning received $8,400,000 over 2010, 2011, and 2012, which is really a nice return on investment for their $57,000 in contributions. The amount the legislature gave the company detailed in their "accountability" report which I will discuss more in a moment.

I searched the entire list of corporate donors in Utah, and only one additional education company has donated any money since 2008.  (The big national virtual school company, K-12, had a folder, but appears to have not donated since at least 2008.) 

That one other company out of thousands of educational technology companies, iSchool Campus, spent almost $10,000, all donated to Republicans, in 2012, and...wait for it...they won a state wide contract too!  It was even publicly acknowledged that they got to help write the bill, and several representatives from iSchool accompanied the sponsor to the legislative committee presentation.  No, I am not making this up.  The bill sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, insisted the process was "fair". Sure they helped write it; sure I had them with me when I advocated for the bill; but they beat out three other vendors for an RFP they wrote, "fair" and square.

So the only two companies listed as making political donations, Imagine Learning and iSchool, got what are essentially no-bid contracts despite proposals from other companies. And Waterford paid an unknown amount of money to a contract lobbying firm headed by an ex-state senate president which in turn spent an unknown amount on gifts, meals, and other methods of lobbying the legislature via various loopholes, leading to Waterford's software being bought for individual preschoolers around the state, via last minute inclusion in an omnibus education bill.


All three companies, Imagine Learning, Waterford, and iSchool arrange for "news" articles that basically serve as free advertising with no investigation of their claims:
Imagine Learning
iSchool
Waterford

However, NO data has been released publicly on the performance of Imagine Learning or Waterford.  (iSchool just started last fall)   There have been some hyperbolic statements made by school choice people and legislators about how great they are, or anecdotal fluff like the articles above, but no proof of the software's quality or worth. There have been reports made to the legislature, but you probably haven't heard anything about them.  Howard Stephenson doesn't insist that letter grades about his expensive pet programs be mailed to every home like he does for those lazy teachers.

Here is Stephenson's Utah Taxpayers Association Newsletter from Sep. 2012.

Stephenson opines on technology in schools on pages 2 and 3.  You can see his disdain for backward teachers who don't realize that iPads are smarter than them.  The 3rd to last paragraph features his specific references to Imagine Learning and Waterford, just not by name, and his claim that they "improved student performance."  But no evidence.  That's just for socialistic reading teachers and the PTA.

The next paragraph details the "best new" iSchool pilot program.  He literally claims ALL students are on task ALL the time as they rotate on and off of the iPads.  It's magic!  And make sure you realize he had to have written this at the end of August/very beginning of September when school had been in for at most a couple of weeks in the first year of this pilot program. 

He has been finding tangentially related reasons to repeat how wonderful these schools are in every committee or floor hearing he can during the entire session. I would love to hear in the comments or via email from any teachers or staff at the three iSchool pilot schools. I listened to Stephenson during one of the first education appropriations committee meetings of the session, and on the radio, wax on about how these students were ALL glued to the screen with no disruptions all the time.  He made it sound like he was a frequent observer, while I bet he went to one of the schools one time in August.

Technology doesn't magically "personalize" and accelerate learning.  It's often handy, and students do like using iPads, but it is not a silver bullet for better reading, writing, and thinking, especially not higher level skills.  The "personalization" consists of ranking the students on a scale according to how many multiple choice questions they answer correctly, and then giving them a different ranking after the next test according to whatever unique and proprietary system of measurement that particular program develops. 

Senator Urquhart, although I frequently disagree with him, is usually someone I find willing to talk and reason with those in opposition to his bills.  But he came down hard on education officials during another educational appropriations officials, saying something to the effect that "All the elementary reading gains in Utah are due to Imagine Learning."  Really?  Based on what evidence?

Yes, Imagine Learning donated  a relatively small amount of money to his campaign.  And yes, Sen. Urquhart is also running a bill, SB 260 First Substitute, giving more money to Imagine Learning based on their claims of results. In fact, the bill allocates just over $5,000,000 to Imagine Learning for 2013-2014, which is $2,000,000 more than they've ever received in a past year.  Please look at the two-page accountability report given to the legislature which is apparently the basis of Senator Urquhart's and Stephenson's claims of increased student achievement. 


The Imagine Learning report is basically useless.  It is not an independent report generated by the users of the product, the schools or Utah State Office of Education.  It is two pages provided by the vendor detailing how they fulfilled their contract and their claims of student achievement.  They report that they fulfilled their contract by having friendly customer service, installing the program, and delivering headphones.  Then they provide a table of student skill mastery data as measured by themselves.  There is no context to understand it.  80% mastery of those concepts as defined by Imagine Learning in an unknown number of exercises would correspond with what CRT, DIBEL, or anything?   The 4th column reports much higher percentages of students with skills mastered than I get from dividing the second column of total students by the first column reporting how many students mastered at least 80% of the skills per area.  What numbers and context are missing?   This is data by the vendor to show that the vendor's program worked.  What was the chance of those numbers showing low achievement?  0%?  The data just seems cherry-picked to appear high with further results available "on request."  Take a guess how many legislators requested any more specific data... Or take a guess how many times Howard Stephenson ranted about "funding inputs" in relation to Imagine Learning's intrepid providing of headphones.

I have only done a cursory read through the extensive Waterford 3-year evaluation data.  This at least gives the appearance of rigorous comparison with the state's scores, but I have not put the necessary time in to dig through this all and see if it's valid.  This was presented by a Waterford Rep. and the first page is another mini-sales pitch. There is a claim that a test given halfway through kindergarten shows that children who used the Waterford software program score higher on a reading test than those students who did not take the test.  There are still many questions about that test, whether the difference is meaningful and will still be there in first grade, and whether the degree of any positive effects justify the cost.

Or put differently, could we accomplish the same and more by spending that money somewhere besides to one well-connected company? And why didn't Stephenson or the legislature talk publicly about this or past reports they assumably received about the Waterford UPSTART program?  There is often no real attempt to negotiate with educators about the best use of funds when Stephenson determines a software vendor can do something better than teachers. 

I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn't have been, that both "accountability" documents were written up by the vendor themselves.  The claims to "increased student achievement," merited or not, were apparently carried through the ALEC network to Arizona as well, where Imagine Learning is trying to repeat the same pattern by winning education contracts from politicians rather than educators. 

Howard Stephenson has a record believing marvelous "21st century" claims of vendors and then shilling for specific companies. (That last link has so many revealing underlined quotes.  Read and see Stephenson's numerous comments.)  A Utah district got suckered by a vendor I have had some experience with, Plato Learning, into spending over $75,000 on worthless learning "games," that last I heard are boxed up and ignored after less than a year of use.  I've attended various sales pitches in our district and a lot of them are solutions looking for problems...and really broad problems like "reading" where they can claim "It's only one piece of the process" if scores do not go up, but claim to be the definitive cause of any improvement.

Software can be an important tool, but programs are receiving state contracts via custom RFP's because they can convince or donate to one or two key legislators, or just based on the ideology that technology can more cheaply accomplish something as complex as educate a child. 

Howard Stephenson and his buddies, along with Parents for Choice in Education, are running vendor specific bills cloaked in language of open RFP's.  We know those who have openly donated in the past; we will find out more in months to come when 2013 political donation reports are due; and we may never learn if some companies are members of ALEC or the Utah Taxpayer's Association, where their payments are merely a "private transaction" rather than a bribe.  It's an open secret that is just as bad as anything John Swallow did.

It should be illegal.  It certainly isn't ethical.  And in contrast to all of their rhetoric, it is certainly not about helping kids learn.  It's all about directing easy chunks of taxpayer money to political cronies. 

Just a few 2013 vendor bills:

SB 133, SB 82, and SB 257 which are a package deal literally meant to enable a private database of individual, identifiable information of every student in Utah so vendors can use the data to sell us stuff. SB 82 and SB 257 have specific vendors already chosen by the bill sponsors.

SB 260 More money for Imagine Learning as detailed above.

SB 175 requires the state contract with an ACT Prep software company with a strangely specific $150,000 cost, leading me to believe Stephenson already knows a company will make that bid. Even though the official ACT site already has as many free test questions and study materials as I think most students need, the official ACT purchasable online prep program may be the target company here.  Its buzz words match the prewritten RFP in the bill very well. (Lines 229-258) But at $19.95 a pop, that would only cover 7500 students, not nearly enough.  This one even makes it law that districts have to "encourage" the use of the program.  No micro-managing here.

SB 79 Makes an RFP for a "consultant" to guide the state and schools in creating "blended learning models." Money can also be granted with no oversight to buy software or online curriculum material.  Who does Stephenson know who consults and has a handy set of online materials ready for purchase?

HB 343 tried to ban schools from purchasing paper books....Well why don't you try our lovely daily online reading program?

SB 284  More money for iSchool? A 1-to-1 device to student ratio pilot?