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NCLB Outrages

Two Pieces on Data-Crunching Mania

Ohanian Comment: Thanks to Lisa at Fair Test for pointing out that this puff piece on the multimillion-dollar test score number-crunching system from Cognos
omits any of the questions raised on the front page of yesterday's Boston Globe about the allegedly unethical process of approving this expensive and unproven system.

Targeted instruction. The system promises to allow a teacher to find out if her students answered it correctly, and check whether those who answered incorrectly share any demographic similarities across the state. So then when a second grade teacher discovers that kids in "those" demographics do comma in apposition incorrectly on the test, pre-schools across America will add this skill to their arsenal of skills to teach, targeting them at "those" demographics.

The shame of our profession is that teachers are aiding and abetting this sham. It is worse than nonsense; it is child abuse. Corporate raiders steal money. Teacher abettors steal children's souls.


Wareham educators pioneer state project
Pamela Marean, Standard-Times correspondent
South Coast Today
July 08, 2008


Until now, there has been no cutting the time it takes teachers to pinpoint
strengths and weaknesses of new students.

But one SouthCoast school district is changing all that. Wareham educators
are helping the Massachusetts Department of Education figure out how to
channel detailed information about each and every K-12 learner into a
sophisticated database that will give teachers a giant leap forward in
assessing learning needs in their classrooms.

After almost five years of contributing equal measures of inspiration and
expertise to the Data Warehouse Project, select Wareham educators this fall
will have at their fingertips information about students like never before -
everything from MCAS scores to whether an individual is having trouble
converting fractions into decimals on homework.

"This is going to make instruction far more targeted," said Janice Rotella,
Wareham's director of curriculum and instruction. "It will address student
needs - not just MCAS test results, but a whole array of assessments. We'll
be able to look at how students performed historically and see trends in
learning."

Any teacher could theoretically search through thousands of pages of reports
in hundreds of binders to find information about how a student compares to
cohorts, but the Data Warehouse pulls everything together. It empowers
educators to zoom in on specific student details or get the broad view on a
statewide population's progress across subject areas. It will put all of
this in a password-protected Web-based program.

Some of the biggest benefits, according to Mrs. Rotella, will be more
tailored and interactive lessons for students, better communication with
parents about their child's academic skills, and more teachers with more
time to work on classroom activities that are informed by up-to-date
assessments.

Minot Forest fourth-grade teacher Pam Schluter is one of Wareham's teachers
in the trenches with the Data Warehouse Project. Her input has been helping
to guide the DOE in designing the system, and she will eventually help other
teachers learn to use it. She said she already sees how valuable it will be
to click on an MCAS question, find out if her students answered it
correctly, and check whether those who answered incorrectly share any
demographic similarities across the state.

Wareham's Technology Curriculum Leader Teri DeFilippo is involved in
creating exactly how the database will function. Wareham is one of only a
handful of districts selected by the DOE to take part in the competitive
grant-funded project, and one of very few to be involved since the
beginning.

"I see us as very lucky to be on the ground floor developing the Data
Warehouse so we have a voice in its design, a focus on supporting teachers
to get them the information they need," said Ms. DeFilippo. The system is
being engineered by Cognos Corporation, which has similar products in use in
12 other states across the country.

Wareham's involvement is more than just luck, said Jonathan Considine,
external relations coordinator at the DOE.

"Wareham was selected during Round 1 because they were a high-needs district
that demonstrated readiness for embarking on a data-driven decision-making
project. Wareham was reselected in Round 2 because they submitted a
well-thought-out plan for how they would use grant funds to build on their
progress from the first grant."

Dartmouth Public Schools used to be involved, as well, under the leadership
of the Wareham School District, but drastic cuts to the education budget
eliminated Dartmouth's technology specialist in the fall of 2007. According
to Dartmouth Superintendent Dr. Stephen Russell, there is nobody left on
staff in that district who can even comment on their past involvement in the
Data Warehouse Project.

Only those districts currently involved in the Data Warehouse will have
access to it as a working database this coming school year. Other districts
will eventually be added on a month-to-month basis, according to the DOE.

What's in the database will grow over time, as well. Aggregate statewide
data will be in at the start, and districts will be able to upload their own
assessments until the information available through the system becomes
highly individualized.

Dr. Mary Louise Francis, New Bedford School District's Assistant
Superintendent of Data and Assessment, said she is very familiar with the
benefits that the Data Warehouse promises.

"We're looking forward to it. It certainly sounds like it will improve
educational performance and accountability. That's very important."

While she said that New Bedford educators already look closely at the data
sources on student achievement available to them, the Data Warehouse is
supposed to "pull it all together. That's the wave of the future - one-stop
shopping for data."

Elizabeth Lewis, education technology coordinator for Westport Community
Schools, said, in theory, the Data Warehouse should be a boon. "A lot of
effort is spent on assessment. Anything that extrapolates the data in useful
ways should be a positive thing."

However, she is waiting to see just how the Data Warehouse functions and who
has direct access to it before she makes up her mind. She wants to know how
easy it will be in reality for districts to input their own unique student
information.

The Data Warehouse will reportedly offer unlimited access to teachers. That
feature is important to Mrs. Lewis because, she said, the state's existing
MCAS reporting system, TestWiz, imposes strict download limitations.
Districts can only access TestWiz once unless a costly multi-use license is
purchased, Mrs. Lewis said. "From a district point of view, it doesn't make
sense."

While a wealth of easy information about students may sound heavenly to
teachers, others, including Mrs. Lewis, wonder whether student privacy could
be compromised. Mrs. Rotella and Ms. DeFilippo emphasized that teachers will
only be able to view data about their current students, and that all data is
rigorously protected on a secure DOE site.

According to the DOE's online information about the Data Warehouse Project,
a "base level of functionality" will be provided to any district at "minimal
cost" while "extended functionality" including the ability to load local
data will incur "up-front costs devoted to building district capacity and
training."

After the initial development period, the DOE said that districts will enjoy
"complete system ownership" without any long-term charges.

Cognos tied to offer to official: Firm was seeking state contract; Move raises ethical questions

By Andrea Estes and Stephen Kurkjian

Boston Globe



A former state Department of Education administrator has told investigators that she was offered a private sector job by a sales representative for Cognos ULC, around the same time that the software company was attempting to win a lucrative education contract in 2006, according to officials briefed on the matter.

NO RECOLLECTION

David P. Driscoll, former commissioner of Education, said he did not remember major concerns about the pilot program for Cognos.

Maureen Chew was the education department's chief information officer when, she told state officials, she was approached by Joseph Lally, a Cognos representative trying to broker a multimillion-dollar contract between Cognos and the state.

Lally was a former Cognos vice president who was selling the company's software through a new sales firm he had founded. Chew told officials he had offered her a job at his company, Montvale Solutions, during a lunch meeting, and that she declined it.

Chew refused to meet with Lally after the offer was made, but Lally went over her head to her superiors in a successful effort to land a multimillion-dollar software contract, according to the officials. He had unusual access to the Department of Education's headquarters in Malden, she told officials, appearing there multiple times, though she didn't know whom he was visiting.

If he made a job offer, Lally could have violated the state's conflict of interest law, which bars private individuals from offering anything to a public official with the intent to influence an official act.

The report of the job offer marks yet another instance of Cognos appearing in the thick of questionable activity in pursuit of state business. After Cognos won a $13 million contract to sell management performance software to the state in 2007, the state inspector general sharply criticized the deal, saying the bidding process was so rushed and faulty that the deal should be rescinded.

Neither Lally nor Chew, who now works for the information technology division of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, returned phone calls from the Globe seeking comment. Last week Chew was interviewed by investigators from the inspector general's office.

When asked about the interview, senior assistant inspector general Jack McCarthy said, "I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation."

The Globe reported in April that House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi had personally met with a key state official to express interest in the kind of software that Cognos was trying to sell in the 2007 deal. The Globe also reported that Lally, again serving as a middleman, portrayed himself to state officials as DiMasi's friend, and that Cognos paid longtime DiMasi friend Richard McDonough $100,000 to work as a lobbyist for the company.

Cognos had also been a repeated sponsor of a charity golf tournament hosted by DiMasi at his private club in Ipswich.

Through a spokesman, DiMasi denied having anything to do with the awarding of any Cognos contract.

The $13 million contract with the state was revoked by the Patrick administration in March, and the money has been refunded to the treasury. The deal - and the maneuverings around it - remain the focus of a state Ethics Commission investigation.

The $4.5 million education contract signed in 2006 contained the same players - Lally and McDonough - attempting to exert a similar kind of influence as the controversial $13 million deal in 2007.

In both cases, Lally aggressively marketed software to state officials, bragging about his ties to DiMasi and asserting that he could arrange funding for the purchases, according to the former Department of Education official and two former Cognos employees.

While pushing to land the smaller education department contract, Lally specifically emphasized that he could have money added to the state budget to fund the deal because of his friendship with DiMasi, according to Chew and a former Cognos employee. The contract provided for a data warehouse system, which would allow the department to collect, track, and share data about students, teachers, and finances across the state.

In April 2006, Lally's prediction proved true. House lawmakers added a new $5.2 million line item for the contract through a House budget amendment. DiMasi told fellow legislators at the time that the amendment was a priority, according to an official with direct knowledge of the budget negotiations.

DiMasi declined requests for interviews, but in an e-mail response, his spokesman, David Guarino, said the speaker did not ask the amendment's sponsor, former representative Robert Coughlin, to file the measure.

"He did not press for the amendment and, in fact, had absolutely no conversations with Representative Coughlin about the amendment," Guarino wrote.

"If Speaker DiMasi has a funding priority for the state budget, it is not usually proposed as an amendment by another member but is typically filed directly in the version drafted by the House Ways and Means Committee. Speaker DiMasi had absolutely nothing to do with the awarding of this or any other contract by the administration."

McDonough also pushed for the education contract, according to a state official and a former Cognos employee. Though McDonough had registered as a lobbyist for Cognos in years past, he did not report his activities on Cognos' behalf in 2005 or 2006, according to records of the secretary of state's office.

When contacted by phone last week, McDonough refused to discuss the contract.

"I don't have anything to say about anything," McDonough said. "I don't speak to reporters. Have a great day."

Cognos was selected over 10 other bidders for a yearlong pilot in August 2005, despite ranking fifth in a scoring system that considered cost and a variety of other factors. The $1.1 million pilot program, whose original price was estimated at $500,000, was launched in February 2006, according to a Department of Education memo. The pilot program had run only a few months when then-Education Commissioner David Driscoll, who was appointed by Governor Paul Cellucci, approved a statewide expansion of the program, with Cognos as the vendor. The expanded project, which meant an additional $4.5 million for Cognos, was not put out to bid.

Driscoll made the expanded award though Chew was not satisfied with Cognos's performance during the pilot, Chew has told officials. She said she didn't think the Cognos system had been fully reviewed or that the department had enough money to ensure the project would be successful. She told officials Driscoll approved the plan over her objections while she was out of town at a conference.

Some of Chew's statements to officials were disputed by Robert Bickerton, the education department's senior associate commissioner. In an interview with the Globe, Bickerton said that both he and Chew agreed that the pilot program should be expanded. He said they made the joint recommendation to Driscoll, who signed off on the purchase along with the department's chief financial officer.

But in response to a request from the Globe, Department of Education officials did not produce any written evaluation of the pilot, any verification that Chew advocated moving forward with the purchase, or any documents that Driscoll used before making the multimillion-dollar decision to go forward. They said Bickerton sent Driscoll an e-mail with his recommendation, but such a message was not included in a package of memos and emails provided the Globe.

In an interview with the Globe, Driscoll said it was always the agency's intention to put in place a statewide Cognos software program and that the pilot wasn't meant to test the product, just to introduce it gradually to education department and district users across the state.

"Cognos was the vendor and we started with the pilot districts, just to get going," said Driscoll, who is now a consultant.

"You start with districts that are ready - that's how you roll it out. I think that was the way it was always intended - to be phased in."

He said he did not remember Chew raising any major concerns during the pilot period. "To the best of my recollection, it went fine," he said.

Driscoll said Department of Education officials had to fight for state funding and had no guarantees.

"It wasn't a slam dunk," said Driscoll. "We had to go up [to Beacon Hill] repeatedly because, from the Legislature's perspective, it was a lot of money."

He said he never spoke to DiMasi about the purchase and did not know Lally. He acknowledged having a phone conversation about the program with McDonough.

"He was interested in having the appropriation go through," Driscoll said.

After the Globe made inquiries, Mitchell Chester, the state's newly appointed education commissioner asked Inspector General Gregory Sullivan to review the 2006 contract. In the request, however, Chester told Sullivan that he had been briefed by senior education department managers and saw "nothing to suggest anything inappropriate."

It is not clear whether Chester, who had not been long on the job, was aware of Chew's assertions about a job offer.

According to documents and interviews with Department of Education and former Cognos employees, the agency decided in 2005 to implement a data warehouse and reporting system in part because local districts were considering buying software on their own and state officials thought it better to centralize the purchases.

In addition, the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to generate reports about student, staff, and program performance.

Department of Education officials picked the top five bidders and then, after discussion and without any written analyses, chose two finalists - Cognos and Deloitte - according to Department of Education chief of staff Heidi Guarino.

The five semifinalists demonstrated their products for two weeks in June 2005, and in August 2005, after staffers were given a chance to experiment with the systems of the two finalists, the decision was made to buy from Cognos.

"The two finalists - we spent a long period of time putting them through their paces," Bickerton said.

That period of time: two days, according to a timeline provided by the Department of Education.

— Pamela Marean and Andrea Estes & Stephen Kurkjian
South Coast Today and Boston Globe
2008-07-07


INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES


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