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Hiring Consultants to Help Meet Federal Requirements

Ohanian Comment: Big Brother data crunchers are watching every move a teacher makes, including homework assignments. When I hear >time on task, it's a finger nail screech down a chalkboard magnified 10,000 itmes. How about time nurturing, time encouraging laughter, time building community?

Teachers throughout San Joaquin County are becoming students.

As California schools continue struggling to meet state and federal academic performance requirements, an increasing number are turning to private education consultants to help improve their teaching techniques.

Many county educators laud the consulting services, saying they have contributed to improved scores on standardized tests. But some critics worry that relying too heavily on a consultant's advice could restrict student learning and dampen teacher morale.

Education-consulting companies that train school staffs represent an increasingly important part of the learning business, according to a 2003 report from Eduventures, a company that offers investment advice.

Eduventures argues that laws such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 have contributed to a keen focus on standardized test results that will further expand the education-consulting market.

Vernon Renwanz, principal at Creekside Elementary in the Lodi Unified School District, said the school's staff has been working with DataWorks Educational Research consultants since 2001.

"If we continued doing things like we've always done them, we were going to get the same results," Renwanz said. "Our school was an underperforming school, and we had to make some changes."

Student scores were high enough this year to get Creekside removed from the list of schools that need improvement under federal requirements.

DataWorks is a Fowler-based company that analyzes student work and offers teacher training to help schools boost achievement.

The company's staff of educators, programmers and analysts has worked with nearly every school district in the county, co-founder John Hollingsworth said.

DataWorks consultants examine the assignments students are given to see if they conform to state standards. They observe teachers to measure "time on task" and evaluate technique. They also offer training in a range of teaching strategies.

"Our view is that school reform is improving the teaching," Hollingsworth said. "Teaching is the solution."

School administrators throughout the county said the services work.

Debbie Deganna, categorical programs coordinator for Lodi Unified, attributes Creekside's improvement, in part, to DataWorks.

Janet Petsche, superintendent for educational services at Lincoln Unified School District, said the company helped raise Lincoln Elementary School's Academic Performance Index score from 708 in 2003 to 723 in 2004.

"It's really doing great things," Petsche said.

But Robert Schaeffer, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said he is wary of the long-term effects of private consulting services on public education.

Many services encourage teachers to focus their lessons solely on what might be covered on a standardized test, Schaeffer said.

"When politicians make test scores all that matter, what you get are schools becoming coaching factories that outsource the work to boost test scores, whether that helps education or not."

Test scores might improve, Schaeffer said, but students might not be learning.

"It's like being in a room that's too cold and holding up a match to the thermostat."

Morale also can be damaged when teachers are asked to follow advice from people outside the school community who aren't always educators, he added.

Hollingsworth said most DataWorks employees are former school administrators.

Nonetheless, Julie Escobedo, a third-grade teacher at Tracy Unified School District's South/West Park Elementary School, said being evaluated by DataWorks employees made many teachers anxious last week.

"It's always scary for any teacher to have someone come in and look at how you're teaching," Escobedo said. "Everyone gets nervous. And when it's somebody from outside your district -- well, it's challenging."

— Jennifer Torres
Stockton (CA) Record


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