Today, Rachel Monahan reported in the Daily News that the DOE is going forward with a contract for Joel Rose’s new company to run the School of One in NYC public schools.
Rose devised and ran the “School of One” for DOE, a much-hyped online program to teach middle school math, starting in the summer of 2009. Rose has had a pretty standard trajectory for a corporate reformer: he started as a TFA recruit, then worked for seven years at Edison charter schools under Chris Cerf, moved over to DOE as Cerf’s chief of staff in 2006, and started the “School of One” as a program in a few NYC middle schools.
Along the way he got a law degree and trained at the Broad Academy for ambitious educrats. He also benefited from the huge publicity machine of DOE, when the School of One was cited by Time Magazine as one of the best inventions of 2009, and the program subsequently won a $5 million Innovation grant from the federal government, without any evidence that it actually worked.
When in March 2011, Rose left the DOE to start his own company and spread his idea nationwide, there was much speculation as to what his relationship with DOE and the existing School of One program would be. At the same time, a NY Post article revealed that the DOE’ was “slamming the brakes on the planned expansion of their high-profile School of One program -- even though the move puts a $5 million federal grant in jeopardy” because of doubts whether they had the funding or the capability to expand it .
Well now we know that the experiment will continue. Rose’s new company is called “New Classrooms” and he will run it along with Chris Rush, who worked alongside him at DOE at the School of One. When the Panel for Educational Policy approved the contract with New Classrooms on Jan. 18, Rose’s company won an exclusive three year right to run his program at DOE and expand it to 50 schools across the city.
According to the document submitted to the PEP, DOE claims that this contract will benefit the city, as Rose’s company will not be paid, though they acknowledge that he will be granted a “license to the DOE’s existing software and related intellectual property for the School of One,” which was presumably generated while he worked at Tweed. In addition, as the system is further refined to include a “recommended technology platform, suggested learning content, and algorithms for personalizing the learning system,” the company will be granted a new “license,” while DOE will be able to use it in NYC schools for free; thanks guys!
The company will also no doubt gain huge promotional value, as evidenced by the numerous press releases and puff pieces that have run since the contract was granted, including this, somewhat more critical piece in Education Week, which will help Rose acquire new contracts and further colonize public schools across the United States.
Yet this new DOE contract with Rose’s company appears to be in direct violation of the city’s conflict of interest rules, which clearly bar a former employee from any involvement in a project that he worked on when he was worked for the city:
“You may not appear before your old agency on business for a period of one year. You may never work on a particular matter or project that you were directly involved in while employed by the City.”
Nevertheless, this contract has been approved with conditions by the city’s Conflict of Interest board, according to a letter obtained by the Daily News. The Board seems to have interpreted the above rule to mean that as long as Rose does not directly communicate with the DOE – i.e. appoints someone else to take charge of the NYC side of the business -- the contract can go forward, even though he started the project when he worked at DOE and will continue to head the company that is benefiting from it.
The COIB letter says that all this is fine with them, as Rose has agreed that he will play no role in the operation of this program in NYC schools and that whoever is involved will not report to him, the CEO, but directly to the board of directors.
Who are the members of the board? There are six members listed on the website, including Rose, Chris Rush (who also worked at DOE on this project, and presumably has the same conflict of interest restrictions), Mike Bezos of the Bezos Family Foundation (father of Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com), Joshua Lewis, founder and managing principal of a venture capital fund called Salmon River Capital and also an adviser to the Gates Foundation, Ariel Deckelbaum, a partner at the law firm Paul Weiss who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, and Jordan Meranus, partner at the New Schools Venture Fund.
It is hard to believe that these four individuals will be engaged on a day-to-day basis in advising and supervising the complex operation of the NYC project as it expands to 50 or more schools, without any input from either the CEO or Rush, the Chief Program officer.
Unfortunately, the COIB letter doesn’t specify who will be run the operation in NYC and how he or she will be competent at directing the program without any experience in running it previously, either at DOE or presumably elsewhere. There are no staff members listed on the website other than Rose and Rush, and when Patrick Sullivan asked DOE officials at the Panel for Education Policy meeting how many employees the firm had, DOE said they didn’t know. Sullivan has called this contract “One of the more bizarre and suspicious things I've seen from DOE” even as there have been many clearly wasteful and corrupt DOE contracts.
In the document prepared for PEP members before the vote, DOE wrote: “New Classrooms stated that they have $7.5 million in grant and philanthropic funds to devote to this project. In addition to those funds, they claimed $15 million in pending philanthropic commitments and project earnings of an additional $4 million in fees for work with other clients.”
The only mention of a grant to New Classrooms that I can find online is on the NSVF website: an “investment” of $115,000, the same amount they previously gave to the School of One when he ran it directly out of DOE. There is no acknowledgement of a grant on the Gates website, but perhaps now Rose has landed the big fish of a DOE contract, this will open the floodgates more freely.
The document submitted by the DOE also brings up the question that if Rose and Rush are barred from supervising this project in NYC, what else they will do? According to their website, the company will “work in collaboration with Chicago Public Schools…to open in both traditional district and charter middle schools” as well as in “Perth Amboy, NJ, where we will work in partnership with the faculty and staff at McGinnis Middle School,” and “An additional U.S. city that we will select in the coming weeks.”
There is nothing on the Chicago public schools website about an agreement with this company – which is not to say that it does not exist. But even a few schools in Chicago and one middle school in New Jersey does not sound like enough to divert the attention of Rose and Rush from NYC, especially as the company is headquartered at 1250 Broadway, in midtown Manhattan.
More importantly, even if Rose and Rush keep their hands of all involvement from the NYC schools, the COIB letter ignores the fact that the Conflict of Interest rules were not devised to simply limit communications between city agencies and their former employees, but to ensure that these individuals would not cash in on their work for the city by profiting from their previous employment and their intimate knowledge of the operations of their former agency.
Unmentioned in the Daily News article is the likely involvement of yet another controversial company in this project. Wireless Gen, now part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, ran the software operation for School of One when it was headquartered at Tweed and continues to be listed as its “lead technology partner” by DOE. Of course, Wireless, which was bought by Murdoch for his new education technology division at the same time he hired Joel Klein to run the division, has had its own numerous ethical and conflict of interest problems.
One advantage of this deal for Murdoch, Klein and perhaps Rose as well, is that as subcontractors to New Classrooms, Wireless Gen will likely no longer be subject to oversight or critical audits by the NYC Comptroller, who has tried to block previous multi-million dollar, no-bid Wireless contracts on the grounds of conflict of interest (as well as wasteful spending.)
If all this worked to help kids learn it wouldn’t be so offensive. What will this contract actually accomplish? The website of “New Classrooms” claims that
“Our model provides instructional experiences designed to bring meaning and context to the skills students learn. At the core of each of New Classrooms’ instructional model is a robust academic framework that includes a research-based learning progression, integrated units of study, and the opportunity for students across the academic spectrum to be challenged and inspired.”
Yet when I toured a School of One classroom about a year and a half ago, at a school in Chinatown, I found the opposite to be true. First, Joel Rose explained to the assorted visitors that because of the large class sizes in NYC schools, individualized learning was impossible to achieve without the use of technology: “No human being can meet all the needs of students in a class of 25, so something else has to be done to personalize instruction.” (No mention of the fact that the DOE has been legally obligated to reduce class size below those levels, and has refused to do so on the grounds that it doesn't help kids learn, and has been rapidly increasing class size instead, but never mind.)
We then entered a large room, converted from the school's library, with about one hundred 7th and 8th graders seated at tables, most of them staring at computers and doing multiple choice math problems. I watched as one girl, seemingly in a trance, looked at the screen, and hit A, B, C, D keys in turn, until she got the right answer to a multiple choice question and moved onto the next one. Sadly, no adult but me seemed to be paying any attention to this student to make sure she was trying to think the problem through.
There were also two or three small groups of students, sitting at smaller tables, with rather harassed looking teachers who were trying to teach math, but allowed to spend only about ten to 15 minutes together before time ran out and a signal was made for the students to move back to computers, or to another group led by a different teacher.
Rose explained that in the room, there were four certified teachers, two college students, and three high school students staffing the room, though it was hard to discern this. He said that each teacher specialized in teaching 25% of math skills, and every student was assigned to particular groups or math problems by means of an algorithm, calculated the night before, based on his or her performance from the day before.
But what I saw was not personalized instruction and engagement, but many confused and somewhat dazed students, and much disruption, with kids bumping into each other during abrupt scheduling changes, as they moved around the crowded room at the same time.
Rose also explained how the students also had access to “virtual” tutors through their computers; but I didn’t see any sign of this. When I asked him where these virtual tutors were located and what their credentials were, he said he didn’t know, but they lived somewhere in the United States and had been provided by contractors.
I am not the only one, of course, to sense potential problems with the rapid expansion of online learning. The New York Times has featured a series showing how digital instruction is being pushed nationwide without any evidence that it works, and Lee Fang in the Nation has pointed out the financial ties between elected officials who are mandating online learning and the commercial suppliers of these systems. But little attention has been given to what is happening here in NYC, which is financing what is most probably the most expensive -- and riskiestexpansion of online learning in the country, while at the same time cutting school budgets to the bone.
One of the few exceptions was a critical report released by The Center for Reinventing Public Education, a research group headquartered in Seattle, which released a study in January 2011 examining DOE’s Innovation Zone, which includes many of NYC’s various virtual instruction programs, including the School of One:
“Early results give some reason to believe the School of One improved outcomes for students in its pilot year, but no rigorous study has been conducted yet. Rose and his partners are working out problems with the computer program as they arise and are trying to work with vendors to develop new technologies that will better integrate instruction. The program is poised to scale up to multiple sites, but Rose is wary of scaling too quickly and without strong partner schools."
The report also featured a number of strong warnings about the speed in which DOE is spreading online learning, without first carefully evaluating whether it was working and without adequate buy-in from parents:
“The district [DOE] is also contemplating how parents will respond to these innovation initiatives and is working on outreach and communications plans. At some point, the district may get pushback from parents about the idea of having their children participate in unproven programs and may need to consider catch-up academic plans if certain programs are not effective. …
NYC school district leaders are taking risks …implementing new models, committing deeply to a defined set of principles that challenge core assumptions about what a school should look like, and moving to scale very quickly. How and when they will know if they got the big bet right is a question district leaders will have to ask so that students are not subjected for too long to programs and schools that don’t work. “
Given the lack of accountability on the part of DOE and their failure to establish pilots or evaluate any of their policies before subjecting large-scale experiments on our children, I don’t think this is a real concern of theirs. In fact, as the Bloomberg administration comes to a close, they seem increasingly willing to risk our children’s lives and education, as evidenced by their rush to close more than 60 schools and impose an untested teacher evaluation system on our schools during the next few months. The authors of the Izone report explain their attitude results from the urgency they feel to significantly improve our schools before Bloomberg’s reign is over:
The iZone was born out of frustration among NYC Department of Education (DOE) reformers who, after eight years of reforms known as “Children First,” were only able to accomplish what they view as significant but incremental improvement. …The district believes …. that the trajectory of progress must increase significantly in the next phase of reform...”