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Kudos to the Education Industry Association

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The Education Industry Association (EIA) has won the Award of Excellence in the 2008 Associations Advance America (AAA) Awards program, a national competition sponsored by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) & The Center for Association Leadership. EIA received the award for its development and promotion of the Code of Ethics for SES Providers, which has helped guide the conduct and operations of tutoring organizations that provide supplemental education services (SES) under the “No Child Left Behind” law....

The EIA Code of Ethics for SES Providers was completed and approved by the EIA Board of Directors in late 2005, and formally introduced during a February, 2006 Capitol Hill briefing hosted by EIA. Since that time, the Code has:

• Drawn public commitments/affirmations from 26 SES provider members
• Been used by 14 states, including CT, FL, DE, IL, OH, PA, MD, NC, NM, NJ, NY, MA, TN, and VA, as part of their criteria to approve SES providers.
• (been) revised and strengthened... to account for emerging concerns and issues surrounding the administration of SES nationwide.

ASAE is the membership organization of the association profession. Founded in 1920, it claims 22,000 association CEOs, staff professionals, industry partners, and consultant members. Its subsidiary Center for Association Leadership provides professional development services. In effect, the award says that people in the business of managing associations believe EIA and Director Steve Pines have done something worthy of praise.

I agree. There's a story behind this EIA press release of April 14 - and lessons for the school improvement industry - that deserve the attention of edbizbuzz readers.

The fundamental purpose of Washington associations is to advance the economic interests of their members through federal policy. This is why the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association are headquartered here. It also explains why when the Association of Educators in Private Practice - formed by tutors in 1990, became the Education Industry Association in 2002 and quickly the trade group for tutoring firms, it relocated from Wisconsin to the District of Columbia. No big surprise.

The best strategy to achieve favorable federal policies is to convince decision makers that members' interests support the public interest. Too often, the image of alignment is far more important to the sponsors' efforts than any substantive argument. Anyone who has watched television ads sponsored by vaguely named coalitions with average Americans arguing for or against some legislative proposal knows what I'm talking about.

The Supplementary Educational Service (SES) provisions of No Child Left Behind are as controversial as any in the Act. (I favored them, and to a great extent still do despite the disappointing return on investment, but that's covered in many other edbizbuzz postings). It's hard to argue against the idea that students in Title I schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress could be substantially advantaged by after-hours tutoring in math and reading. This is why the provisions became part of the law despite great opposition from the teachers unions and most groups representing the traditional view of public education.

We all know that this was not the end of opposition to SES, but the start. Adversaries understand the widespread wariness of private sector involvement in public schools - codeword: "privatization." Since the 1990's there has been uninterrupted controversy about the motivations and operations of firms from Channel One to Education Alternatives Inc., soft drink and candy distribution, the relationships of Education Management Organizations to the voucher movement, and regular local coverage of scandals involving charter schools and private firms. Maybe disadvantaged kids in failing schools need extra help, but there is also a general fear that private firms will shortchange them and the taxpayers in order to maximize profits. If that perception were to dominate, if SES providers were seen as acting in ways contrary to the public interest, continuation of the SES program would be at risk.

This was the situation confronting the Education Industry Association. To make matters worse, SES services are vulnerable to exploitation. It is a potentially lucrative market. Payments can run over $1000 per student, and eligible students are concentrated in particular areas. Anyone can enter the market, with little capital, experience in tutoring or programmatic expertise. In 2001, SES providers were under no requirement to demonstrate that their tutoring program had a statistically significant impact on student outcomes, let alone one that was educationally meaningful. And to a great extent this remains true.

NCLB's SES provisions created of an artificial consumer market in after-school tutoring. "Artificial" in that the program is fully subsidized by the taxpayer, weakening the "buyer's" motivation for due diligence and strengthening an interest in factors other than student performance (for example, location). This encouraged the application of marketing practices developed for "real" consumer markets. If parents are paying their own money for tutoring services, it is perfectly reasonable for providers to offer them and students material incentives (cash, prizes) to sign up. Likewise, there is nothing wrong - on the tutoring firms' part at least, with paying third parties for student referrals. Despite the fact that these practices are clearly wrong when the payor is the government and the objective is finding students the best tutor on the merits, they work, and in the haste to attract clients and build market share the temptation to use them is great.

It is also easy to shortchange students and taxpayers in ways that no one would defend. It is impossible to police every provider, every tutor, everywhere. They might be offering real instructional support - or not. They might have the number of students they claim in attendance - or not. They might have capable tutors - or not. It could take a long time to determine whether a tutor did his job with his students - well after the payments have been made, profits taken, and a tutoring business closed.

EIA had two options.

The first, to follow the charter movement's de facto decision to deal with abuse after the fact. The basic strategy is to respond to government success in catching bad actors and shutting them down by saying "this demonstrates that markets work; these rule breakers were closed down, something that never happens to public school failures." It may be true, and it does avoid the difficult problem of defining unacceptable behavior up front, but it still reinforces a negative image of private sector involvement in public education.

The second option was to define standards of responsible conduct for SES providers. While this might be a "no-brainer" on paper, in practice it was quite difficult.

Perhaps the hardest thing for a new trade group to do in a highly fragmented industry, in a city with several associations competing for members, is to turn away potential members deliberately. It takes something on the order of $750,000 to run a Washington representation activity with any hope of influencing policy. In 2002, there were perhaps a dozen tutoring firms with any kind of a national or substantial regional presence - many were not not turning a profit, but living off investors' initial capitalization. The bulk of EIA's members were individual tutors or small tutoring companies, hard pressed to pay $1000 in membership fees. Pursuit of meaningful standards meant risking EIA's financial viability - upset too many large firms, or set standards small providers cant' reach - and the association could lose the critical mass of members required to remain a going concern.

After several iterations the key elements of EIA's current code now read as follows:

EIA Members will consistently implement the NCLB Supplemental Services provisions and promote full access to SES services. To that end,

1. Not compensate school district employees personally in exchange for access to facilities, to obtain student lists, to assist with marketing or student recruitment, to promote enrollment in a provider’s program at the exclusion of other providers, to obtain other similar benefits for their SES program, or for any illegal purpose.

2. Not employ any district employees who currently serve the districts in the capacity of Principal, Assistant Principal, or school or district SES Coordinator.

3. Not employ any individuals, including teachers, parents or community leaders, who have any governing authority over a school district or school site. The sole exception shall be in school districts that are considered rural and where there are few providers.

4. Not hire school-employed personnel for any purpose other than instruction-related services or program coordination....

5. Not make payments or in-kind contributions to schools or school personnel, exclusive of customary fees for facility utilization in exchange for access to facilities, to obtain student lists, to increase student enrollment, to obtain other similar benefits for their SES program or for any illegal purpose.

6. Not misrepresent to anyone, including parents (during student recruitment), the location of a provider’s program, principal/district or state’s approval of a provider, or the likelihood of becoming so approved.

7. Not offer a student, parent or teacher any form of incentive for signing-up a student with a provider....

8. Not sponsor promotional events including pizza parties on school grounds for student recruitment that are for the sole benefit of a single provider....

9. Not employ any SES-enrolled student.

10. Not use a district enrollment form that has the selected provider’s name pre-printed as part of the form....

11. Not encourage students/parents to switch providers once enrolled....

No set of standards, no code of ethics like EIA's, ends the abuse of any system. Nevertheless, EIA's code does several things to limit unethical practice and constrain bad actors, so as to demonstrate that the association sees its interests as coinciding with the public interest in the SES program.

• It clearly identifies the minimum standard the public should expect of any provider, the industry as a whole, and certainly EIA members.

• By process of elimination, it signals to consumers the firms they might not trust.

• When incorporated in SES regulations by fourteen state governments, it begins to set a legally enforcible floor on the activities of all providers, and serves as the start to something like a uniform code across the nation.

Where to now? EIA has done its best to demonstrate a commitment to ethical business practices in the marketing of SES services- something quite necessary when the federal program took effect. This has allowed policymakers and, ironically, opponents of SES to focus on the legitimate question of program efficacy. There is probably enough agreement among evaluators that SES services have demonstrated statistically significant effects on student learning to call it a consensus. On the other hand, there is also sufficient agreement among evaluators that those effects are not educationally substantial to call that a consensus. In effect, evaluators are not saying what SES does for kids is astounding; they are celebrating the fact they now have analytical tools powerful enough to detect tiny changes in student performance and relate them to SES programs. Add minute improvements to the relatively high cost of SES services - as much as ten percent of student expenditures per capita - and questions of value swamp questions of ethics.

EIA took an important first step in demonstrating how its members' interests in SES aligned with the public interest. The Code of Ethics bought the industry at least five years of goodwill. But the association cannot rest on its laurels. Issues of efficacy have replaced those of marketing. It's time for the Code to demonstrate that SES providers' interests in program evaluation coincide with those of the public, by setting standards for program review, evidence of effectiveness, methodology, frequency of evaluation and data disclosure.

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.


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2 Comments

Excellent article! Coincidentally, I presented some findings yesterday to the Virginia State Board, and was asked what providers are doing to police themselves. I mentioned the standards, but now I’m going to forward your article.

This is a very thoughtful piece. You are more optimistic than I am, though, that the abuses and taxpayer waste will be stemmed. Why?

1- Addressing the "abuses" after the fact has not even worked very well with charters. Only a few states have closed even a single school for academic failure although required or implied by charter laws. As we have found out, even when the states say that they are closing a school for academic failure, it has turned out that the real reason is financial incapacity or mismanagement--when funds have often been misspent on "management and consultants" and do not require criminal charges if the school is closed for academic reasons, so it has been a "cover", but not a reason. One underlying cause of the reluctance to close schools for academic reasons is that parents often become a captive audience of a charismatic school head who will tell them that the establishment is trying to close "their" school because of racism or because they are poor. In the case of a charter school in Harlem that had received advisories two years in a row because of low scores (9th and 11th percentiles as I recall), this argument was used to rally the school against the authorities--although in New York State the tendency is to go through with closures regardless. In Texas the charters collected $26 million for overstating enrollments. Although the state is trying to get the money back, I doubt that they will collect anything from the schools because the money has already been spent, often in payments to unscrupulous management fees, but also employees and administrators from the past.

2- The number of small operators is much larger for SES providers and unmanageable as long as the states allow almost anyone to provide services as White House pressures prevail. Who will evaluate and monitor so many players? Even if put out of business under one business name, they quickly establish a different one. Our spot checks based upon information provided to our center suggest that things are even worse than you state. For example, most tutoring providers require a contract for an entire sequence, for example a semester, of tutoring. They then get $1,000 or so for twelve students per teacher or $12,000 for the semester. But, the lackluster nature of much tutoring and the lack of motivation for many students means that students drop out and these providers consolidate groups so that they may receive $24,000 for a single tutor. How much are they paying the tutor. We have seen college students in these situations receiving $15 an hour, so for 50 hours of tutoring a semester, the tutor is receiving about $750. These are part-timers who do not receive fringe benefits. You can see the potential profitability with no accountability and why prizes are offered to families to sign up.

3- Standards will only work for firms who have a long-term perspective where reputation and brandedness count. But, so much of this industry is made up of opportunists and mavericks who are responding to the tremendous profit incentives without market accountability or the need to demonstrate effectiveness. Further, there is no agency that is responsible for monitoring or evaluation, and "transaction costs" are very high for establishing either an industry monitor or government monitors where information is hard to obtain and there is an every changing cast and many small players.

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