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The New Educational Privatization: Educational Contracting and High Stakes Accountability, part 2

Data-Based Decision-Making

In many respects, the developments charted above moved Midvale closer to its goal of becoming more data-based in all aspects of its instructional decision-making. Specifically, work with outside vendors helped the district upgrade its information system in ways that allowed district administrators to work more creatively and efficiently with student outcome data and use this data as the focus of their interactions with school staff. One district administrator reported that the new information system allowed him to pinpoint possible sources of poor school performance by combining, for example, parental characteristics with student achievement data. Another administrator commented on the ways in which the new system increased system-wide access to data through a web-based interface, commenting that “…the old system was static; only a few people had the right software on their machines. Now with the web-based interface and software, it’s easier to get to; one doesn’t have to be at the right computer; even if you’re in a school, you can still get the data.”

However, while technologically sophisticated, the new system may also have had the unintended effect of reinforcing district-wide inequities around the access and use of data. The new system included a built-in security system (a standard feature of the software) that gave district administrators and vendors ownership over the data and more authority to manipulate it in the ways that they wanted. Teachers were classified as only casual users of data. As casual users, teachers had the capacity to print out other peoples’ reports, but only limited authority to query the data. In this sense, the new technology may have served to perpetuate a certain dysfunctional hierarchy by ignoring teachers’ needs to retrieve and interpret data as questions arose. The complexity of the new system also tended to benefit individuals who already had some capacity to use the system. These individuals gained even more knowledge resources through the system’s enhanced analysis capabilities. For example, according to central office staff, principals working in high-performing schools tended to be the most active users of the new system. For example, they came to the workshops offered by the district or sent their staff. They also used the technology in the context of district-mandated school improvement plans. In contrast, principals in low-performing schools were much less active users of the new technology.

The problem was not that the district purchased the new technology as opposed to developing it on its own. The problem resided instead in the absence of any meaningful dialogue between vendors and district staff about the fit between the new software and district reforms. Teachers and school principals had complained for many years that the district’s technology tools were not user-friendly. The district had created an educational technology taskforce to address the issue. However, vendors were not represented on this committee. As the market for the new educational privatization intensified (and small firms were bought by larger firms), opportunities for substantive district-firm dialogue were further diminished.

Reform Coherence
Consensus has grown on the importance of aligning district policies and practices with the larger goals of improving student achievement (O’Day & Smith, 1993). In some respects, the changes charted above helped the district in its agenda of building more coherence into its reform activities. Outside firms assisted the district in better aligning district assessments with newly adopted standards and professional development. The system helped the district in its agenda to make sure that materials, tests, standards, and expectations supported classroom instruction. Furthermore, the design of the new information system enabled a more integrated use of data. In particular, it allowed for different kinds of data (e.g., student outcome data, parental characteristics) to be combined and updated regularly.

While strengthening the cohesion in policy design, the work of vendors did little to address the problem of social cohesion in the district, in particular relationships between district administrators in different departments and between district administrators and school administrators. While a significant number of people in the district believed in the importance of standardized tests and high-stakes consequences, there were others who did not. In particular, district staff specializing in literacy encouraged the use of classroom-based assessments and worked with school staff to develop and use these assessments. In contrast, mathematics staff members were more comfortable and supportive of the use of standardized tests and new technology.

As policy emphasis on standardized tests increased (spurred by new technologies), ideological differences between mathematics and literacy departments heightened, putting increased strain on inter-departmental relationships and reducing levels of inter-departmental interaction. Literacy coordinators boycotted meetings and workshops. Mathematics coordinators and staff in research and accountability organized “secret” departmental meetings that excluded literacy staff.

While the tensions between the two departments were long-standing, the expanding role of vendors in district practices exacerbated these tensions. When tensions between departments mounted, the district hired a consultant from a large publishing firm to lead a weekend retreat aimed at resolving inter-departmental conflict. According to several district staff who participated in the seminar, the retreat proved to be a disaster. The consultant that led the seminar simply used it as another opportunity to pitch the firm’s products. The consultant lacked a basic understanding of Midvale’s culture and traditions. Thus, her actions and statements at the retreat did nothing to strengthen the staff’s sense of connection to one another and to the district’s larger vision.

Academic Press
In some respects, the changes charted above also may have helped the district intensify its focus on academic achievement. Where the system was once designed around procedural data (compliance with mandated activities), it now revolved around student outcome data. The data was broken down into student segmentations, which many schools found useful. One principal described the progression, “Before there wasn’t much engagement in the results. All we got was whether students passed or not. We didn’t get individual results; we didn’t get a breakdown and so we didn’t know what they were getting and what they weren’t getting based on the score.” In phase 2, assessments became more closely aligned with standards, so that assessments tested the depth of knowledge implied by standards rather than simply rote knowledge.

As described above, the key supplier in phase 2 was a big firm specializing in products and services related to standardized tests. The size of the firm and its product focus threatened to dwarf the “other half” of the district’s balanced assessment system—specifically its commitment to performance-based assessments and classroom-based assessments. According to several teachers, in phase 2 of the work, school communities had access to a wide array of products and services related to the scoring and analysis of standardized tests. These products and services were made available to teachers as part of the district’s contract with the vendor. Classroom-based assessments became the responsibility of a small department in the district. Relative to the firm, the department’s technical support strategy was much less aggressive. Teachers reported that there were virtually no tools and services available to support them in using classroom-based assessments. Several teachers perceived this as a problematic development in terms of the districts’ larger goal of improving instruction since both performance-based assessments and classroom-based assessments can be appropriately used by teachers in instructional decisions about individual students. For example, teachers may use these assessment results in grouping students or in identifying areas in which particular students need additional or different instruction. A Midvale reading teacher talked about performance-based assessments in this way: “They [performance-based assessments] are sort of structured instruction, in what I feel is a positive way. That’s really the point of performance assessments; [it] is to try and push instruction in a positive direction.” Standardized tests cannot be used in the same way because they do not capture changes in individual student progress over time.

The significance of these developments—the rise of standardized tests in the district and the de-prioritizing of performance-based assessments—needs to be considered in light of prior research on the effects of high-stakes accountability reforms on children of color and poverty. Researchers have consistently have shown that children of color and poverty are most likely to bear the burden of reforms that elevate standardized assessments over formative assessments (cf. McNeil & Valenzuela, (2001) Under NCLB and the new educational privatization, this condition may worsen as a larger proportion of district funds are consumed by purchasing products and services related to standardized tests.

In this final section, I consider the value of examining broad national trends and local dynamics of educational privatization through the lens of the organizational field. Table 3 provides a general description of the framework and its advantages.

Table 3.

Some Advantages of Using Organizational Field Analysis to Study Educational Privatization

Federal and state policy as integral context (rather than backdrop) for local privatization activity

•Use of legislation in vendors’ marketing strategies

•Trend analysis of market activity in relation to policy adoption

How interactions between suppliers and consumers shape market activity and reform implementation

•Interactions between governmental and non-governmental organizations (profit and not-for-profit) as central unit of analysis

•Evidence of impact of interactions on reform design and administration

Significance of market shifts for targets of governmental policy

•Embedded analysis of privatization activity in context of ongoing reform efforts

•Effects of market shifts on services and products available to school communities

The framework is derived from existing literature on organizational field analysis, but has yet to be widely applied to the case of K-12 education. Therefore, what follows reflects an assessment of the framework’s potential to strengthen future research. First, the lens of the organizational field illuminates the influence of Federal policy on local patterns of educational privatization. From this perspective, wider policy developments such as changes in Federal reporting requirements and/or new state mandates are integral to how school districts interact with for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Public policies such as NCLB consist of goals, problems to be solved, and implementation structures. The design of the policy (e.g., its testing and reporting mandates) has created the impetus for vendors to develop new products and services that they anticipate will be paid for with Title I dollars.

In the case study, while central office staff exercised control over funds, new Federal mandates raised the stakes on standardized test performance and encouraged districts to purchase new products and services in order to comply with the law. Specifically, the law introduced consequences for standardized test performance and significantly increased reporting requirements for districts around these tests. Normally, in response to added pressures, the district response would be to build its own bureaucracy (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Deadlines and complex reporting requirements introduced under NCLB make this less of an option for districts. As one administrator quipped, “This stuff [NCLB-related requirements] could never be an inside job; we don’t have the know-how to create these systems.” The influence of NCLB was further evidenced in explicit references to NCLB in vendors’ marketing strategies and in the growing demand for their services as reflected in district planning documents.

The influence of Federal policy is likely to be overlooked in accounts that view educational privatization narrowly as a movement away from government regulation and centralized governance. The new educational privatization is, in fact, being spurred by an expanded Federal role in educational policy. The lens of the organizational field helps us capture this crucial dynamic by acknowledging the overriding influence of the state in spawning new forms of education industry.

Second, the organizational field perspective draws attention to how interactions between suppliers and consumers shape educational privatization. In the national trends charted above, key suppliers are influencing the field via the introduction of new products and services. However, consumers in the field, such as schools and school districts, are further influencing field developments by purchasing the new products and customizing them to meet local needs. Consider another example of how interactions between districts and outside vendors shape reform implementation. In making bids for local contracts, vendors try to adjust costs to make themselves more competitive in the bidding process. They do this by introducing cost-saving measures, such as by increasing the ratio of students to instructor in the case of remedial services.

To date, scholars of educational privatization have paid scant attention to more complex forms of governance emerging from educational privatization, choosing instead to view educational privatization as a zero-sum conflict out of which either the public sector or private sector will ultimately emerge as victor. Offering an alternative perspective, the case study illuminates how the interchange of suppliers and consumers is contributing to new patterns of governance within urban school systems. For example, increased emphasis on outcome data is helping to redefine the role of central office staff in Midvale from a focus on monitoring school activities to a focus on monitoring student outcomes. As central office staff members become more outcome-focused in monitoring activities, the role of vendors in district accountability reforms will continue to shift. Where districts once relied on vendors to report raw test scores, they now are also contracting with vendors to perform more sophisticated analyses and become more responsive to the needs of diverse stakeholders, e.g., parents, in the reporting of data.

Finally, the lens of the organizational field illuminates the ways in which the meaning of educational privatization can shift over time, as reflected in both analysis of national developments of educational privatization and in the case study. Working at the level of the organizational field, scholars can investigate changes in the norms and routines of activities such as government contracting and the importance of these shifts for individuals and groups that are the target of government policy. Districts historically have contracted with vendors in areas such as test development and preparation, score reporting, professional development, and supplemental services. The new educational privatization has not changed this. What has changed are the products and services defined within these contracts.

Future research on educational privatization needs to focus on three critical areas: empirical data on national trends, its effects on inter-organizational behavior in local settings, and effects on the capacity of local communities to improve instruction. First, empirical work is needed to document and describe national and regional patterns in the new educational privatization (Rowan, 2001).The education industry now includes a growth support network of industry analysts who support outside vendors with market analyses. Much of this research focuses on the activity of suppliers and how they are seeking to obtain a competitive edge.

There is very little trend analysis being done on the demand side of the education industry. Part of this has to do with the fact that district-level financial reporting practices make it difficult to discern what instructional services districts are buying and how their spending priorities are shifting. District contracts with outside vendors potentially could offer additional insights. However, districts generally report and archive vendor contracts by a key code or vendor name, making it difficult to identify patterns in government contracting by function.

Policy researchers also need to pay more attention to the effects of educational privatization on local school governance. The research is either silent or offers superficial treatment of how educational privatization can open doors for outside vendors to exercise political influence over the design and administration of local accountability reforms. What new forms of collaboration and domination have emerged as reflected in district contracts with vendors? What new tensions are emerging across districts as educational privatization gains a foothold as a policy strategy? For example, unlike districts, supplemental services providers are not required to hire highly qualified teachers nor are they forbidden from refusing students on the basis of language or cognitive abilities. How are districts and vendors managing these tensions as well as the others explored above? What kind of expertise is being legitimated in the wake of these developments? More data is needed on the legal structures and mechanisms in place that either support or prohibit shared governance and accountability (between districts and vendors). Research on these issues can inform local understandings of how to ride the wave of new developments while attending to potential risks in doing so.

Focused research on policy processes and effects at the district level can lay a stronger foundation for more in-depth analyses of the effects of educational privatization on school communities. To date, much of the research constitutes evaluation studies conducted at considerable distance from the steady work and day-to-day realities of urban school reform. The conclusions of the research are quite optimistic about the potential of the new educational privatization to help schools and students. Closer analyses of the new educational privatization from the vantage points of teachers, students, and parents may illuminate an alternative perspective than the one currently offered either by the academic or policy-making community. Policy researchers need to pay more attention to developments within the K-12 education market, the role of Federal and local educational policy in these shifts, and the implications of these shifts for the students who are the intended beneficiaries of government policies.

Author’s Note: Work on this manuscript was supported by research grants from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Graduate School. Additional support was provided by the Spencer Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. An early version of this article was developed in collaboration with Claudia Hanson Thiem. I would also like to thank Michael Apple, Cynthia Coburn, Rosemary Lenrow, Joseph Murphy, anonymous reviewers, and the editors of Teachers College Record for comments on later versions.

1. For exceptions, see Belfield & Levin, 2002; Murphy, Glimer, Weise, & Page, 1998; Rowan 2001.

2. Some scholars have argued for an expanded conceptualization of the public sphere. However, in this article, I equate the public sphere as mainly represented by the state.

3. This problematic framing is also reflected in the growing number of college level texts on privatization reform (cf. Bauman, 1996).

4. Market activity also is intensifying in the area of home-schooling. Several major test publishers and supplemental service providers have begun to target individual parents in their promotion of services and products under new educational privatization. See Apple, M. (2004) for further exploration of the relationship between recent education policy and the home-schooling market.

5. In contrast, from 1993-2003, the school food-services industry, traditionally considered a dominant domain of K-12 education contracting, has only realized increases in revenues of 3.2%.

6. The critical role of NCLB in driving these changes is further evidenced in the marketing materials of firms specializing in data management and analysis services. The marketing materials of all leading suppliers of data management and analysis services reference NCLB’s mandates that schools and districts make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

7. As with the other areas, new technology is integral to government contracting for remedial services. In urban areas, private tutoring companies are creating online instructional programs that permit larger class sizes and reduce staffing costs. In addition, a growing number of exclusively online tutoring companies now market services to districts in rural states, where demand for remedial services may exceed supply of on-site providers.

8. For example, Sylvan has renamed its tutoring programs as “No Child Left Behind Tutoring Programs” and has redesigned its website to highlight the links between the firm’s services and NCLB mandates (Sylvan Education Solutions, 2004).

9. District demand for content area-specific programming is evident in system-wide objectives to improve student performance and teacher practice in reading and mathematics. In their descriptions of professional development strategies, several districts articulated objectives that echoed firms’ descriptions of new products and services. For example, they talked about the importance of varying models of professional development delivery through web-based systems and strengthening technical support for content-area specialists through online communication systems.

10. Other aspects of the law create further incentives for districts to invest in content area-specific programming, of the sort now offered by vendors. Districts that receive Reading First Grants must invest in products and services that track outcomes in reading and build teachers’ instructional capacity through literacy-focused professional development. In addition, NCLB includes teacher re-certification requirements that require teachers to demonstrate competence in reading and mathematics. In marketing content area-specific programming, key suppliers made explicit reference to NCLB and its subject-specific focus and teacher recertification requirements.

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— Patricia Ellen Burch
Teacher College Record


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