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Friday Guest Column: SBR and RB – Measures of Efficacy or Red Herring?

Alan J Carter is CEO of University Instructors, Inc. The views are his own and neither the position of his firm, nor the Education Industry Association, where he serves as Vice President.

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Having just returned from two back to back conferences dedicated to private sector participation in K-12 education, I must say that I am even more dubious that the School Improvement Industry will be given a fair shot at proving value through efficacy any time in the near future. Not that those who can afford to do so should not continue to fund studies; we should simply lower our expectations of the immediate value of (Scientifically Based Research) SBR and (Research Based) RB to those who can affect our future.

At the EIA Education Industry Days in Washington, DC, Buck McKeon, the ranking minority member of the House Education Committee told the assembled group that if a Democrat is elected President, Supplemental Education Service (SES) providers should expect to start laying people off.

The only hope for SES appears to lie in a McCain presidency and the conversion of moderate Democrats toward options in K-12 education that continue to allow parent choice. He did not qualify his remarks with ‘unless you can achieve a recognizable SBR claim of effectiveness’, or ‘your only true hope is to meet the gold standard of efficacy’. No - he clearly stated that the survival of SES, and perhaps the private sector involvement in K-12 education, hinged on election results, not academic achievement.

Hoping this might simply be an exercise in political hyperbole during an election cycle, I flew to Phoenix, AZ to attend the IIR Education Industry Investment Conference. Although no political candidates were present to serve on panel discussions, the effect of the political uncertainty surrounding K-12 education, especially the tutoring portion of the industry, was palpable. Private conversation evaluations of the future financial health of participant tutoring companies were in direct proportion to the company’s ability to detach itself from reliance upon SES as a viable long-term revenue stream and find new and defensible niche markets. In other words, a company reliant upon SES is not, and most likely will not ever be, an attractive investment option, either financially or strategically. Why? Not because we aren’t effective…but that we may become out of favor. SBR and RB were not major concerns (although they received adequate lip service)...growth potential and financial viability ruled the day. Of course, what else could one expect from an investment conference?

Laying aside the financial indicators and the relative strength of SES providers in the marketplace, SBR and RB discussions and rising SEA performance measures of SES providers appear to be nothing more than red herrings to distract private sector providers from the real agenda of our opponents – keep for-profit participants out of K-12 education! Do I believe that all providers should achieve SBR status? Absolutely! Will it really matter to our immediate financial viability? Probably not.

The reason why small and medium size providers don’t spend much money on research is that the entrenched opposition in the education community doesn’t really care. Their hostility is ideologically based not performance related. Until privately owned for-profit providers of any K-12 education service can advance the ideological premise that the private sector has both a legitimate and necessary place in U.S. K-12 education, we must continue to do what every entrepreneur has learned during basic training…remain nimble, take risks, innovate, persevere and survive. SBR and RB will naturally follow and find acceptance only when our industry segment finds acceptance. This must be the central underlying theme for the Education Improvement Industry…we have a legitimate and necessary place and when you really care to listen, we’ll prove it to you! Until then, get used to us because we aren’t going away.

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