Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Please vote now to send Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and other grassroots privacy activists to SXSWEdu!

Each spring, thousands of edtech entrepreneurs, and advocates funded by the edtech industry, descend upon Austin’s SXSWEdu conference to promote their products and publicize their point of view.

For example, it’s where Bill Gates launched inBloom Inc. in 2013, to push the expansion of data-mining student personal information and online learning. Rarely do you bump into any classroom teachers, parent leaders or grassroots education activists attending, much less find one on stage. We hope to change that in 2018.

Please help us by voting for our panel proposal “Shielding data privacy and resisting online learning.” Our panelists include attorney and privacy activist Bradley Shear, creator of the  annual National Student Data Deletion Day, research associate Faith Boninger, who has just co-authored a terrific new report on student privacy for the National Education Policy Center, Marla Kilfoyle, the Executive Director of Badass Teachers Association (BATS)  and me.

The BATs NEA Caucus supported, and pushed for several pro-privacy and anti-online learning resolutions that were adopted at the recent NEA Representative Assembly.

To submit your vote:
1.     Simply fill out this form.
2.     Sign in and select “PANELPICKER.”
3.     Search for our panel name “Shielding data privacy and resisting online learning.”
4.     Click on “Vote Up.”

The more votes we get, the better our chances of being selected – so please vote today and ask your friends to vote too! The voting window closes Friday, August 25th.


In spring of 2013, Bill Gates took the stage at SXSWEdu to unveil inBloom, his foundation’s $100 million student data collection project which was being piloted in nine states and school districts across the nation. inBloom surfaced in every corner of the conference that year with parties, meet-ups, and a code-a-thon where cash “bounties” were awarded to teams who developed the best apps using the inBloom data store.

At the same time, parents whose children’s data was going to be ensnared in the project were raising their voices in opposition – concerned about how inBloom threatened student privacy and could accelerate the use of online learning. After considerable parental backlash, inBloom shuttered its doors in 2014. Shortly after, parents involved in the fight formed the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

Since then, student data privacy has gained national attention and SXSWEdu has featured countless workshops and presentations on the subject – including on the reasons for inBloom’s demise, without inviting a single parent involved in the fight to explain their opposition. We want to change that next year by going directly to the belly of the beast, and inviting others who are active in the resistance movement on the ground to protect student privacy and prevent the expansion of online learning to join with us. You can help by casting your vote in support of our panel here!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Devastating audit of DOE's contracting process, which violates the City Charter and state laws

Last week I wrote about the problems with the new $670,000 DOE contract for Joel Rose's blended/computerized math instruction program, which was originally promised to be provided free to NYC schools in perpetuity since Rose developed it with about a million dollars of city funds while at DOE. The Panel for Educational Policy is due to vote on this contract on August 23.

Yet since his company New Classrooms went private, NYC has been charged many hundreds of thousands of dollars for this program with a highly questionable educational value.  Subsequently, Gary Rubinstein also wrote about the program's low quality, at different times called School of One or Teach to One.

All this cronyism is not an anomaly, sadly, but is consistent with the scandalously lax oversight of DOE contracts -- including a $1.1 billion contract proposed in 2015 for a contractor who had been involved in a kickback scheme just a few years ago --later thankfully rescinded by the Mayor's office and rebid for savings of between $163 million and $727 million.

On Friday, the NYC Comptroller Stringer released a follow-up audit showing how the DOE continues to violate  state law and its own rules when it comes to contracting.  More on this from the New York Daily News, New York Post and Chalkbeat.

From the Daily News:

In fiscal year 2016 the city school system handed out more than 500 contracts worth $2.7 billion without competitive bidding or required protections, Stringer's investigation found.
That’s 64% of the agency's total contract spending of more than $4 billion for that year....the city agency didn’t bother to evaluate vendors or keep track of their work — or to register contracts with Stringer’s office for review.

From the Comptroller's summary

A review of 521 limited competition contracts and contract actions revealed:
  • DOE directed 442 of the vendors — approximately 85 percent — to begin work before the contract was even registered with the Comptroller’s Office, in violation of the New York State Education Law, the City Charter and DOE’s own rules;
  • DOE submitted 302 new contracts and renewals to the Comptroller’s Office, on average, 258 days after their start dates, while 140 extensions of existing contracts were submitted on average 137 days after work began;
  • In the most egregious case, a contract was submitted to the Comptroller’s Office 910 days — nearly two and a half years — after the vendor began work; and
  • DOE submitted dozens of contracts to the Comptroller’s Office after the contract’s end date.
I myself discovered that of the 27 contracts approved at last month's Panel for Educational Policy meeting , 13 were retroactive—meaning at least some or all of the vendor's work had already started –  rendering the vote of the PEP pretty much irrelevant.  Contracts are only submitted and registered by the Comptroller after the PEP has voted. 

For the audit they specifically looked at how many contracts were registered retroactively.  Of 358 contracts and contract renewals, 84% of the vendors started work before registration,  an average of eight months prior to submission.  More than 10% of the contracts were submitted after the work had already ended.  In another data set of 163 contract extensions, 86% had started before submission,  an average of 137 days prior.

The Comptroller’s audit also found these continuing problems:
  • DOE still does not provide sufficient guidance for contract assignments, and, in particular, it fails to ensure that a proposed new vendor’s capacity and history are adequately assessed. In addition, assignment files lack sufficient information justifying the assignments, detailing prior performance and documenting adequate insurance coverage, among other things.
  • DOE has not developed written procedures or guidelines to help staff detect the warning signs of possible collusion when awarding contracts via actions other than fully competitive solicitations.
  • While general guidance to contract managers appears to be available now in DOE’s contract management training manual, it does not offer the contract managers specific instruction about handling their responsibilities. For example, the training manual is silent on the performance evaluations that must be conducted throughout the contract period and on the frequency of such evaluations.
  • Despite DOE’s representation in response to the previous audit that it would implement a standard format with standard criteria and ratings for evaluating vendor performance and a schedule for conducting such evaluations, we found that no such implementation has taken place.
  • DOE still does not conduct required performance evaluations of contractors seeking renewals or extensions.
  • DOE still does not adequately monitor its contract managers to ensure that contract monitoring and performance evaluations are conducted in accordance with its PPP manual.
  • DOE does not ensure that limited-competition and non-competitive contracts are registered with the Comptroller prior to vendors beginning performance. As a result, vendor payments are delayed, which could potentially decrease competition and raise prices.
David Ross
The question of evaluations is key; many DOE contracts are renewed several times without any evidence that any assessments had been done of the quality of their previous work.  Even when an evaluation was done, in the case of New Classrooms for example, which showed no significant gains  through a randomized experiment, this study was unmentioned in the DOE Request for Authorization document, which asked the PEP for approval.

All these problems are not new, but occurred during the previous administration as well, under the aegis of David Ross.  Ross spent 12 years at the DOE as chief procurement officer,  and is now going to oversee contracts at the MTA – another troubled government agency that cannot afford to waste a single penny of public funds. Will the new contract head at DOE clean up this horrible mess?  We will have to see, but from the weak responses to the audit from DOE, I would not bet on it.

The person ultimately in charge however is Chancellor Fariña.  We've had four Chancellors in a row who were lax in terms of allowing the waste of  millions of dollars in taxpayer money, while more than 300,000 NYC children continue to languish in classes of 30 or more.  Will Fariña stick around after the election?  And if not, who will replace her?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

New Classrooms, crony contracts at DOE, and David Ross' new job

In the Daily News this week, Ben Chapman reported on a proposed contract for Joel Rose’s New Classrooms (formerly School of One) program which uses algorithms and computers to deliver so-called “personalized learning”.  This contract for as much as $670,000 is to be voted on at the August 23 PEP meeting. The DOE’s RA (Request for Authorization) says the company won a competitive bid, though the cost was higher than the other bidders – whose identities are not revealed: 

“While New Classrooms is a higher priced outlier for their license fees, they provided documentation demonstrating that this license fee encompasses a more extensive package of services than what other vendors have offered. On this basis, pricing can be determined to be fair and reasonable."

I have been tracking this program ever since Joel Rose was working at DOE and started School of One in a few NYC public schools in the summer of 2009.  In 2010-2011 School of One was implemented as a full-time mathematics program in three NYC middle schools, costing at least $3.3 million, with about a million dollars from the NYC Department of Education, and the rest provided by venture philanthropists, including the Robin Hood Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the Gates Foundation.  Rose’s company was named “New Classrooms” and the program renamed “Teach to One” when the venture spun off as a separate non-profit company and introduced in other districts around the country.

I previously wrote about the numerous conflict of interest issues pertaining to this school, as well as some negative evaluations of its quality here, here and here, including a visit I took myself to a School of One classroom in Chinatown in 2012, which featured students listlessly answering multiple questions randomly until they got them right.  

Yet before it was even tried out as actual school-year program, Time magazine touted “the School of One” as one of the 50 top innovations of 2009.  It quickly garnered positive media in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Education Next.  Bill Gates repeatedly has praised the value of this program, most recently in a April 2016 speech in which he said that New Classrooms “represents the future not only of math, but a number of subjects.”  

The ability of Rose to take his program private and form a new company that would then contract with DOE was controversial, to say the least, given the conflict of interest laws.  When the first NYC contract was awarded in Jan. 2012, it was at no cost to the city, as the company promised that the DOE would be granted joint ownership or a royalty-free perpetual non-exclusive license to the platform … for use in NYC schools."   (See p. 37 for this language in the  2012 RA document.) 

Even so, the awarding of the contract in 2012 generated negative comment, as noted by Rachael Monahan in the Daily News:

Under the agreement, the city will share with Rose’s groups the licenses for the School of One program, which uses computer-based learning to individually tailor math classes for students at three middle schools…“This is exactly the type of thing that raises eyebrows and causes people to question” the Education Department, said Michael Loughran, a spokesman for city Controller John Liu, whose office will review the contract....

 “We believe this zero-cost contract is a smart move for the city, potentially saving millions of dollars,” said spokesman Matt Mittenthal, defending the deal that aims to expand School of One to 50 schools.” 

Yet in 2014, as previously reported, DOE proposed a new, one year contract for $420,750 for New Classrooms – ignoring the fact that they had previously been promised a perpetual free license.  Nor did the DOE ever claim joint ownership. 

Since then, a new study has been released of the New Classrooms program in NYC  schools.  Jonah Rockoff and a team of researchers at Columbia Business School conducted an experimental randomized study – the gold standard --of the program in NYC schools.  The study concluded that “School of One had no statistically significant effects on student achievement—positive or negative–relative to traditional math instruction.” This evaluation is not mentioned by New Classrooms anywhere on its website, nor on the US Department of Education i3 website, which helped fund it.    

Instead, another study is trumpeted on the New Classrooms website – a non-randomized study by Doug Ready that found modest test score gains but included this caveat:
 It is important to stress again that these findings cannot be attributed to TTO [Teach to One] without the use of experimental or quasi-experimental designs. In other words, we cannot state definitively that TTO caused the above-average achievement gains noted above.”     

Meanwhile, EdWeek reports that more than a quarter of the 53 schools that tried New Classrooms program are no longer using it. I would guess that the number is higher. Two out of the three NYC schools that were the first to try it in 2011-2012 school year, MS 131 in Manhattan and IS 339 in the Bronx, dropped it.   In Oct. 2014, the Daily News reported that six city school were using  the program,  by the 2016-2017 school year, only two schools were still involved: I.S. 228 and J.H.S. 88 in Brooklyn,  according to the New Classrooms website – the latter in one of its three academies.  This suggests that at least two-thirds of NYC schools that have tried the program have ditched it. 

Schools where New Classrooms operated 2016-2017
Nevertheless, with the backing of Bill Gates and an aggressive PR campaign, New Classrooms has aggressively expanded to nine other statesthough the expansion has not been incident-free. In January 2017, two of the middle schools from the Mountain View Whisman School District in Silicon Valley abandoned the program, after having spent four months and more than half a million dollars on it – due to “avalanche” of parent opposition and poor interim test scores, according to the local paper.

A letter signed by 180 parents of Mountain View fifth and sixth graders observed that “topics are taught in an incoherent and seemingly random order, are riddled with mistakes and outright wrong answers, and students are frequently given math problems that are better-suited for ninth-graders and beyond.”   A survey revealed that 61% of the parents "said they do not believe the program matches the needs of their children," and the number of students who said they “hate math” sharply increased, from 7% to 29%. For more on what happened in Mountain View, see these articles in EdSurge, the Wall Street Journal and a parent blog here.  

 At the same time, it was revealed that the Mountain View district’s contract with New Classrooms had a “non-disparagement” clause, forbidding teachers or district officials from publicly criticizing it – something that was apparently banned from contracts in California in 2014 and by the federal government in 2017.

It would be very interesting to see if DOE’s contract or the contract that NYC schools signs with New Classrooms has a similar clause. In the past, New York City reporters who have tried to get comment from principals at the schools that have ceased using the program have been unable to do.  

All in all, it appears that DOE has continued paying for this program despite its disappointing results and conflicts of interest for no particular reason.  In the Daily News, I called these continued “crony contracts…inexplicable.”

Another dysfunctional company that spun off from DOE during the Bloomberg/Klein years is the highly problematic Leadership Academy , which still has a contract to provide coaching to principals through 2019, and which recently received a scathing audit by the NY State Comptroller, who found that the Academy had been paid without any evidence that the services had been rendered.

And all these problems with shady and wasteful contracts are symptomatic of an even larger problem at DOE – lax oversight.  For twelve years as chief procurement officer at DOE, David Ross has overseen hundreds of millions of education dollars that have been wasted on vendors who have engaged in fraud and corruption, including some of those described in my 2011 testimony before the City Council.

Ross’s career at DOE was capped off by the incredibly inflated five-year contract for $1.1 billion proposed for Computer Consultant Specialists in 2015 for internet wiring, extendable four more years at $2 billion—hurriedly reduced to $637 million overnight after news broke that this huge amount was to be awarded a company that had engaged in a fraudulent kickback scheme just a few years before. 

Friedlander and Ross at PEP meeting
See the video and the account on my blog where David Ross and Hal Friedlander, Chief Information Officer for DOE reassured the PEP members that this was the best possible contract at the best possible price, only to have it later kicked back by City Hall because of the resulting scandal, and rebid to other vendors for savings of between $163 million and $727 million – depending on what baseline is used.

As a result of the controversy provoked by this contract, DOE promised to the City Council to post full details of contracts within their Requests for Authorization (RAs) at least 30 days before every PEP vote, as Juan Gonzalez reported in the Daily News: “Tweed will even post information on all bids on its website 30 days before the scheduled vote by the panel, and has committed to do the same with other contracts.”

Yet in a May 2017 letter to the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ursulina Ramirez of DOE and Laura Anglin of the Mayor’s office said they would post this information online at least four weeks prior to the vote, “except where the DOE determines it is in the best interests of the DOE and the City to provide less notice…  This is a significant backtrack from the DOE’s earlier promise. 

After 12 years, David Ross is finally leaving – but sadly, now going to head contracts at MTA, where he will likely waste many more millions, while Hal Friedlander, the other DOE official who pushed so relentlessly for the outrageous CCS contract and claimed they had gotten the best possible price for the contract, has started a new organization called Technology for Education Consortium.  This Gates-funded organization is focused on- get this – how to save school districts money on technology.  You just can’t make this stuff up.