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Nonprofits Don't Like to Discuss Their Mistakes Either

Educators, the general public and policymakers tend to believe that nonprofits have some level of moral superiority over for-profits working with public schools - even on a fee-for-service basis. My own experience has been that tax status indicates very little about honesty, commitment to the kids, or quality. Corporate culture is far more complex.

I was reminded of this some weeks ago going through state education agencies' announcements for K-12Leads and Youth Service Markets Report, and was reminded of it again going through the sites this weekend. In addition to listing grant and contract RFPs, we maintain links to state school performance and finance databases, and agency news that might affect providers' sales and marketing activities. Disasters of various kinds are items we follow because, frankly, they might offer an opening for new business.

Hawaii's experience with a nonprofit testing service provider and that provider's reaction illustrates how nonprofits are no more inclined to note their mistakes than anyone else.

The Press Release from Hawaii's Department of Education

Scoring Error Likely to Have Limited Effect on Schools and AYP

A scoring error by the test contractor on last spring's Hawaii State Assessment is not expected to significantly affect the results, and will not lower any school's No Child Left Behind determination of Adequate Yearly Progress for the current year. Once corrections are made, it is possible that Hawaii's proficiency levels will improve.

The Department of Education has directed the test contractor, The American Institutes for Research (AIR), to correct the errors, to reaffirm the reliability of the entire test, and to adopt greater quality control procedures. The DOE is also reviewing the contract’s provisions for financial damages.

"The responsibility for these errors rests with us," said Jon Cohen, AIR vice president for assessment, who is currently in Hawaii to address the concerns. "We're working to correct the problems and have implemented safeguards to prevent those errors from happening again. The American Institutes for Research regrets the situation, and we will fix this matter at no cost to the State of Hawaii.".....

AIR's Press Release

There isn't one.

So What?

A reasonable person might observe that this was a small error in a small state, an AIR manager took responsibility and went out to fix it, and wonder why I'd bring it up at all.

My reaction is different. Little things tell you a lot. There was very little chance this story would get into any media on its on. (I found nothing from a news search on Google.) If the organization won't explain itself on its own website on its own volition on a small problem, how confident can we be that it would bring a big problem to light? Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't, but I'd feel a lot more confident that it would if it had come forward here.

In any event, AIR felt no special obligation to explain its mistake because it was a nonprofit. Tax status had nothing to do with its response. This damage-limiting public affairs strategy was one any private firm might have adopted and everyone would have have chalked up to "business-as-usual." My point is that nonprofit managers can apply business-as-usual calculations too.

After all, even in business, for every Exxon that tries to get out of responsibility for its tanker's oil spill in Prince William Sound, there's a Johnson&Johnson/McNeil that embraces accountability for a third party's tampering with Tylenol. Buyers of k-12 products and services take note - it's not about tax status. You'll need to look behind that label to assess the quality and commitment of your business partners.

Update (November 18, 2007):

On November 15 the Hawaii Department of Education clarified that the AIR subcontractor responsible for the errors was MetriTech. (No press release there). In my view, all the more reason for a public explanation on AIR's press release page.

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