Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Cui Bono: Conflicts of Interest Are in the Eyes of the Beholder

Everything that schools do, they buy, one way or another. Whether it’s professional development, curricula and tests, or pencils, hamburger, and software, the choice is the same: either spend money on salaries and materials to make it yourself, or pay someone else to spend their money on salaries and materials and then buy it from them. The important question in each case is, how much value will you get?

Policy versus Practice
Policy versus Practice

A common complaint from educators is that the tools they’re given to support their work aren’t very good. In the iZone we heard this all the time, particularly about curricula and software, from school and district people all over the country. Bad software has become particularly irksome to educators because in their civilian lives, they have the same elegant, inexpensive products we all use to get things done more easily and enjoyably. Products of this quality are just beginning to make their way into schools, but educators often feel that the districts at best ignore their needs and at worst seem to go out of their way to maintain the hegemony of Bad Product.

This fall, the NYCDOE announced it was shutting down ARIS, its widely disliked and hence widely ignored data and analytics system. The project was initiated by Joel Klein as a way to get data into the hands of educators to help them understand and improve patterns of student achievement. Working from data was key to Klein’s theory of innovation, and ARIS was intended to be one of its linchpins.

Unfortunately, the DOE procurement process went about it in a very un-innovative way, awarding the contract to IBM because, of course, Big District + Big Project = Big Vendor. What emerged, $95 million later from IBM’s old-school Big Vendor product management process, was a product that, according to a survey done at the time, “a significant minority of principals . . . [believe] . . . interferes with their jobs, is not a good use of their time or their staff’s time, and will not improve teaching and learning in schools.”


Indeed, when ARIS server logs were analyzed several years later by NYU’s Research Alliance they found that most educators never used ARIS and those that did used it on average for just a few minutes a year. For an administration that leaned so heavily on building a data-driven culture, imagine how much more effective they might have been if they could have procured better tools or had a way to easily correct for the product’s shortcomings.

Fortunately, some forward-thinking NYC educators had rolled up their sleeves to do just that. Drawing on their daily classroom experience, teachers at several schools worked independently to build useful products and offer them to others. They proved so popular that some started companies. Others, like the New Visions network, made their products freely available to anyone who cared to download them.

This should have been a teachable moment: since the DOE had spent nearly $100 mil-lion only to come up with goose eggs, it could have applauded these entrepreneurial efforts to support the goal of having data inform instruction. As it moved down the path of reform, the DOE might even have sought to purchase these products, built by New York teachers specifically to fit the needs of New York schools.

Instead, under its No Good Deed Left Unpunished policy, the Conflicts of Interest Board fined former teacher and Impact Solutions (now Jumprope) founder Jesse Olsen $4,000. His crime: using his experience as an NYC teacher to create and sell something useful to other NYC teachers. At the $10 per student per year that Impact charged, the DOE could have used it for every student for ten years for what they had spent on ARIS.

Sadly, the DOE goes to great lengths to prevent educators from improving the products that they use. Teachers are forbidden from endorsing tools they find valuable. They’re barred from accepting even token compensation for providing feedback in focus groups on their own time. After leaving the DOE they may not help or even communicate with their former colleagues about the work they did together (other examples of what’s prohibited are provided by the DOE’s Ethics Office here). And though it allows the field-testing of new test questions by assessment vendors, the DOE prohibits the very same sort of testing that would result in better tools for educators and, almost certainly, lower costs to the system.

Even when vendors do have a contract with the DOE, they are typically barred by that contract from using what they learn in fulfilling it to improve their products. I was told on several occasions by the DOE legal department that, aside from the money DOE pays them, “we don’t want vendors to derive any benefit whatsoever from their work with us.”

In what rational world would you wish your vendors not to emerge from the relation-ship better and smarter? Who wouldn’t want to be the customer that everyone competes for because you’re worth more than just money? Some of this behavior is actually written into law. But much of it is interpretation of the law by an office culture that optimizes for certain things (integrity, theater, spite) over other values like common sense and high-quality people and products.

The cost of attitudes and policies like these goes beyond the inflated prices districts pay to work with large, mediocre legacy vendors who accept them in exchange for padded pricing and the evasion of responsibility for products no one wants to use. The higher long-term cost is to educator initiative and the ability of the system to make rational decisions about what is in its own best interest. That is the truly damaging conflict.

When a district employee cites “conflict of interest” as a reason not to take a short path to a commonly held goal, the response of every colleague on up to the Superintendent should be to ask, “What is the concern here? What true interests are in conflict? If there is a conflict, do our policies and culture ensure that the highest common interest prevails: giving educators every possible support and incentive to do great work?”

Cui bono?

Steven Hodas (@stevenhodas) is a veteran of both the New York City Department of Education and the edtech industry. In this blog series, School District Innovation: When Practice Collides with Policy, he provides insights into the challenges, struggles, and opportunities of large-district attempts to reform longstanding practices and change cultural norms. This series is part of CRPE's ongoing examination of innovative school systems.

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