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Learning at its Best

Opportunistic Parasites in Our Schools

This weekend, my husband was at a bar watching an ACC basketball game.  He struck up a conversation with a fellow watcher and found out that this guy was a doctoral candidate in education.  He further found out that this man supported his graduate studies by being a “coach” to teachers in schools that were facing NCLB-related sanctions.  Under NCLB, as many of you know, if enough students in a given school do not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), then that school undergoes increasing sanctions  (see this chart for the levels of sanctions). 

One of the sanctions that kicks in very early on is that a school must develop an improvement plan in consultation with parents, school staff, district, and outside experts.  The man my husband met is considered to be one such “outside expert” and in addition to helping craft the improvement plan, he goes into schools during the school year to make sure that the teachers are carrying out the plan properly.  He observes teachers’ lessons and provides them with feedback and coaching on where to improve further. 

From my work with graduate students who are in-service teachers in schools with improvement plans, I know that such “coaches” are not well liked.  My understanding of their unpopularity had always been that such coaches often went into the schools for very brief moments of time and gave feedback/criticism to teachers without always knowing the full challenges that these teachers faced.  Not many people like an “expert” who sometimes behaves as if he knows it all, especially if that person has never truly walked in other people’s shoes.   (This is not at all to imply that all in-service teachers are perfect and could not benefit from professional development; rather my concern, which seems to be shared by the teachers I have spoken with on this issue, is with those “experts” who demand changes that do not take into account local circumstances, population factors such as extreme poverty, school climate, etc.)

I found out this weekend that there is another reason to not like these “experts” and that may be that they are opportunistic parasites.  In a moment of pure candor, this man that my husband had just met, a total stanger, revealed that part of the reason why he is a “coach” is that there is a lot of money to be made right now doing this sort of work.  I was aghast that a) a person would look at education as a location to make some easy bucks, and b) that he would feel no reluctance to share this piece of information with a total stranger!

Perhaps I should not be too surprised by this, though, as I have been reading a lot recently about supplemental education service (SES) organizations that are sucking money away from our public schools.  These are the organizations that school districts facing NCLB-related sanctions are forced to partner with to provide after school tutoring.  The assumption is that whatever the schools are doing during the school day is not adequate to help the kids learn.  So SES organizations come in and basically provide the kids “more of the same” – often worksheets, drills, etc.  Yet these organizations, which receive taxpayer dollars/schools funds, are not held accountable for student improvement/growth in any way!  (I encourage you to read the book Hidden Markets  by Patricia Burch for a more scholarly account of this situation.)

In my view, it seems that these “coaches” and SES organizations are behaving ammorally.  They do not seem to be seeing education as a public good and that we all, as members of a community, should be pitching in to help.  Rather, my impression is that these people and groups are seeing a policy that is ripe for abuse, and that they can go in and make “good money” off of it.  Where is the ultimate concern for our children?  Where is the desire to make sure that taxpayer money is not squandered?  Both things don’t seem to matter to these folks; what seems to matter to them is how they are able to line their own pockets!

What experiences do you all have with such SES organizations or coaches?  Are my impressions off base, or are you seeing the same sorts of things?


About Kristan Morrison

Dr. Kristan Accles Morrison taught for seven years at conventional middle schools in North Carolina, which drove her to research alternative forms of education based on critical pedagogy and social justice. She earned her Ph.D. in the Cultural Foundations of Education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and is now a professor in a teacher education program at Radford University, where she makes a point of introducing her students to educational alternatives. In this blog, Kristan reflects on her attempts to bridge the worlds of conventional and “alternative” forms of education. She considers how to bring more democratic and freedom-based practices into the realm of standard education, and how to discuss educational alternatives with a conventional audience. She explores the paradox of many teacher educators: preparing her students for teaching in the schools as they are, while also preparing them to help create the schools that could be.


27 thoughts on “Opportunistic Parasites in Our Schools

  1. I don’t believe they are behaving amorally so much as immorally. There is a distinct motive directed by a moral compass of selfishness and greed.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | February 13, 2012, 12:04 pm
    • John, I empatically join you on this one.

      It is possible to view the “system”, standing in a vacuum, as amoral but 1) it may have immoral underpinnings and 2) immoral choices may be made in connection with deciding to accept and participate in it ‘as is’ and/or in relation to how one participates within its confines.

      Posted by Brent Snavely | February 13, 2012, 12:13 pm
  2. Thanks John and Brent! I really struggled whether to write ammoral or immoral (trying my best not to offend when it is unwarranted), but your logic is quite sound and is pushing me toward believing immoral would be the better word!

    Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 13, 2012, 12:21 pm
  3. Couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you for sharing what has needed to be said for a long time.

    Posted by Bill | February 13, 2012, 12:54 pm
  4. I completely agree with your original article, as well as with the comments.

    I used to teach in a school that worked with one of these coaches. He observed English classes for a grand total of 30 minutes, and then wrote up a plan to overhaul the curriculum.

    I believe teachers have become so accustomed to these ill-informed intrusions by outsiders that we’ve developed very sophisticated means of coping with them over the years. We do what we must to appease the outsiders. And then once that is done, we do what we know we should to truly support our students’ success.

    And the pendulum keeps on swinging, just as it always has.

    Posted by Lori Oster | February 13, 2012, 3:11 pm
  5. Here’s a more difficult moral situation: There are charter schools that cater to homeschoolers. Join one, take the standardized tests, meet with your educational consultant once a month, and you get some money to spend on tutors and art classes (etc). These ‘schools’ get the same money public schools do, and dole out a small fraction of it to the participating students. I know many families that use these ‘schools’. I tutor a boy whose family I’m close to, and get paid through one of these ‘schools’. I think the ‘school’ is a parasite. I think homeschoolers are doing what they can to make ends meet and create a good educational environment for their kids. Is the part I play in this a moral one? (I’m not sure…)

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | February 13, 2012, 3:34 pm
    • I’m sorry, although I agree wholeheartedly with the article above, tutoring homeschooled kids is not a parasitic occupation. The school for homeschoolers has to provide equipment for classes that cannot easily be taught from home such as science where a laboratory is necessary. There have to be specialist advisers and teachers to help parents who struggle to teach certain subjects and these people are entitled to be paid for their expertise. Each child is entitled to receive a certain amount of funding for their education and why should this amount be less for homeschooled children than publicly schooled children.

      Posted by Sara Frances Browne | February 15, 2012, 5:33 am
      • On one level, I can agree with you Sara – these parents are still paying taxes for schools, but yet not having their kids go to them, thus I can see an argument in favor of them being able to get some resources from the public school coffers; however, I guess I get troubled by the fact that this is a choice – these parents have opted out of sending their kids to public school (just like some people opt out of using the public library) —should we get to pick and choose our public services cafeteria style? And by opting out, these parents are thus also not being part of the supportive school comunity, depriving their local schools of their involvement (now, granted, LOTS of parents who do send their kids to public schools do that too). To me it is quite the dilemma and I have not yet figured it all out!

        Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 15, 2012, 9:42 am
        • Sara, I’m not saying the parents are making a bad choice (though Kristan may be saying that). I’m saying the homeschool-based charter school rips off the families by giving them less money for their students than what they should. I think lots of the money ends up at the top.

          >these parents are thus also not being part of the supportive school community

          Kristan, I know I responded to this point already below, but I don’t think we should sacrifice our kids for the sake of the community. It won’t help the community enough to matter, and it will hurt our kids. School right now is a broken institution (mainly because of NCLB and RTTT, but also because of the inadequate funding, here in CA). I have a right and obligation to protect my son, and a more diffuse, less clearly defined obligation to help my community.

          Posted by Sue VanHattum | February 15, 2012, 10:59 am
    • Sue, I am not sure I am qualified to say whether homeschooling parents are making a “bad” choice – all I am saying is that I am conflicted between the concepts of education for the public good and the private good. I do not think they are always easily distinguishable, and perhaps parents who homeschool are helping to create better citizens than would be created under the public school system. That idea makes me value lots of choices being offered to families, but at the same time, we do have a strong, democractic legacy of publicly funding schools and thus having the public all raise its kids together. When parents opt out of this massive fight (for very understandable reasons – believe me, I am no major cheerleader for how schooling is currently practiced), the movement for better schools for ALL our kids loses some of its strongest fighters. The kids who don’t have anyone to advocate for them are thus left to shift for themselves in a system that powerful others have abandoned (powerful in the sense of cultural capital).

      Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 15, 2012, 11:09 am
  6. Wow, Sue, that is a great question. I think a lot of parents makes choices that are in the best interests of their kids, and can sort of be forgiven for that. However, when one’s thinking is solely focused on one’s own kids and one doesn’t take into consideration the totality of children in a given society, I am deeply troubled by that. Do the ends (one’s own kids being helped) justify the means (“the community be damned” approach)? I suspect not, but maybe that’s just me (who spends my career talking about education as a public good, not just a private good). A LOT of parents seek to get the best for their kids without a thought being given to anyone else. Should we be satisfied with such an approach as a society?

    I used to be a teacher in a private school (for about a year) and I struggled, as it seems you are, with helping these parents get the very best for their kids without considering the impact their absence, and mine, from the public schools may have had on the system as a whole. Ultimately, I could not do it any more as I felt my gifts could be used for better purposes. I am not judging you at all, as this is a topic that our society likes to hide under the rug – but I think we all need to think of the far-reaching impacts of all our actions (not just in education; and I am certainly guilty of not always thinking this way in my purchasing practices – e.g. shopping at Wal-Mart).

    Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 13, 2012, 3:43 pm
  7. Yeah, and I have never in my life gone into a Walmart. :^)

    I don’t use the school I mentioned for my own son, because I don’t like the idea. But I’m grateful to get some extra money by tutoring ‘Artemis’. (See my blog, Math Mama Writes, for my stories about that.)

    I wish I could send my son to public school, but I feel like it takes too much away from kids. 1. Academics too early, 2. too much testing, and for my son who is Black and Latino, 3. too much risk of being misdiagnosed as ADHD (he’s got great focus, and he needs to move; Black boys are way overdiagnosed as ADHD in the schools).

    I don’t think it’s not caring about the great good. It’s more that sacrificing our kids won’t help. I feel a greater commitment to changing the schools precisely because I’ve opted out for my son.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | February 13, 2012, 6:33 pm
    • I absolutely agree with the misdiagnosis of, as you say, Black boys except that the problem goes beyond that population…so many parents hold their sons back even though they are old enough to go to kinder. I didn’t. So my son, who was well within the traditional age of entering kinder is now viewed as immature by his 4th grade teachers because he is among the youngest students in his class even though he is technically the age that most 4th graders should be. He is often told that he has an attention problem. Well, when you shovel worksheets all day long and expect a boy of 9 years old to sit for long periods of time with only 15-20 minutes of recess during the school day, their attention wanes. Public education is failing boys with a big fat F!

      Posted by dkmosley | February 15, 2012, 1:01 am
  8. Sue, your comment that, “I don’t think it’s not caring about the great good. It’s more that sacrificing our kids won’t help” is a good one. I wish there was an easy solution that did not involve anyone sacrificing or being sacrificed!

    Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 13, 2012, 6:36 pm
  9. The law mandates this role exists. This guy is doing the job the law says must be done. Maybe some people who do this job behave like arrogant jerks….but that’s true of any job I’ve ever had and I don’t think it means none of those jobs need doing. They have to be done anyway, by someone.

    This guy is being paid for his work. He seems happy with the he is being paid. It appears to be linked to his qualifications in the area, presumably gained through years of study and – hopefully – some practical experience.

    This is the sort of environment the market usually sees a desirable. People who promote market ideologies typically promote these sorts of solutions to ‘problems’. I don’t know of any political party today promoting non-market, non-private sector ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ of almost any kind.

    This guys is just following through on the solution recipe being promoted from the very top by the current model of economic orthodoxy as it applies to service delivery.

    If you don’t like that then you can’t possibly be voting for the Republicans or the Democrats because this is the ONLY kind of solution you’ll be getting from them to almost any problem: contestable and accountable private sector services helping to improve education service delivery. Or something like that.

    If you don’t like this guy then you don’t like the world as it has developed over the past 30 years since Reagan was in the White House. This is the world they wanted for you.

    Don’t you like it?

    Posted by Steve (@nza1) | February 14, 2012, 6:21 am
    • In a nation-state having “A government of laws, and not of men” I think Mr. Bumble had it right. “…the law IS a ass — a idiot” (because men make the laws).

      Posted by Brent Snavely | February 14, 2012, 12:27 pm
  10. Steve, you are absolutely correct that what this individual is doing is perfectly legal, and this is a job that those on high SAY needs to be done. But that has an amoral logic to it. Shouldn’t we also think beyond legality and ask if the job that is being asked to be done is RIGHT (ethical, in the best interest of all stakeholders, etc.)? (I could bring in all sorts of references here to Nuremberg trials and “I was only following orders” sorts of thinking, but that’s a cheap shot!)

    And you are right again in saying that such market solutions are the main ones being offered by both Republicans and Democrats. Again, that does not make it right (which I suspect you might agree with based on your slighly sarcastic tone – which I may be misreading!). Thank you for your comments!

    Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 14, 2012, 9:56 am
  11. So let’s agree, on face, with Steve. Sure, the law has created this niche. But then, isn’t the analogy really one to war profiteers? Sans the black market and illegal nature of that definition, these people are just taking advantage of a situation. But then, Kristan, I think you’re right. Legal doesn’t equate with moral. Nations are self interested, amoral actors. Unjust or immoral laws exist. (Insert Thoreau on unjust laws here.) Those who take advantage of the situation are opportunist and stepping into a situation where the nation has placed the economic ends of education above the public good/humanistic ends of education. When the nation does that, it opens the doors to all sorts immoral and abusive actions…all in the name of profit. Since the name of the game is capitalism, public goods take a back seat to profit. You might think here of just how strongly corporate interests in a labor force that’s well educated, but not too well educated, play out in terms of crafting education policy. (I’m insinuating…but look, at the point that the needs of corporations in terms of labor outweigh the humanizing, self-actualizing ends of education…like I said, the field is fertile for all manner of problems.)

    If all students were taught such that they developed a strong sense of autonomy and self direction, and if they were educated presented, frequently, with moral dilemmas such that they learned moral philosophy, corporate America would have a hard time keeping a work force under control. (That’s an assertion, but it feels good, especially post Enron, Bail-out, etc.)

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | February 14, 2012, 8:42 pm
    • I completely agree with your comment of how we should help our students grapple more with moral and ethical issues/dilemmas. I see that being able to happen less and less in our schools due to how polarized our society has become. Yet, I do believe that there can be some substantial agreement between the right and the left on this issue if we got down to the core values!

      Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 15, 2012, 9:30 am
  12. Third party academic coaching is a very lucrative business. My graduate work in literacy certifies me as a literacy coach. I currently teach in a high poverty public school as a music teacher/literacy coordinator. I worked as an Algebra teacher prior to this, teaching music allows me time to work with other teachers on literacy issues. My work in my school outside of music revolves around working with teachers and in-house academic coaches to ensure that literacy needs are met, and that there is constant support when it comes to implementing certain pedagogical practices to enhance language/literacy development. For the record, I do not get paid extra for my services. Our school district contracts with a third party coaching company that costs the district into the $100,000’s or more for a monthly meeting and one staff development. These coaches are not from the community,and do not have an understanding of community or school dynamics. They present pre-packaged powerpoints, and provide generalizations to solve specific problems. Additionally, they are not certified coaches. The IRA has accredited numerous programs to extensively train professional literacy coaches with knowledge of literacy practice/pedagogy and intervention techniques; I’m sure the same goes for the math field as well. “Coaches” are often retired teachers/admins or unsuccessful/burned out teachers, either way they often do not provide any service of quality. School districts are desperate to meet standards, and keep jobs. They are willing to pay ridiculous amounts to show that they are trying to improve. Coaches are often paid out of Title monies. I have been paid as a coach on several occasions, and I must say the pay was enticing. While the pay was good, too good, I was not satisfied by they experience. I made some good relationships with teachers and administrators, in our short time together we managed to arrive at some sustainable solutions. I left them contact information, and have kept in contact with some. This interaction is not the norm. Sustainability is not the goal for many. That doesn’t lead to profit. Coaches are often paternalistic, and not helpful.

    Posted by educatedtodeath | February 14, 2012, 9:49 pm
  13. The encroachment of third party vendors bringing such “programs” as “coaching” into the system doesn’t make schools either more efficient or effective as the Taylor- Cubberley crowd has been wont to say for a hundred years. When Rupert Murdoch was asked why he was venturing into education market upon NewsCorp purchase of Wireless Generation, he said something to the effect of “why not, after all, education in the US is a $500B biz alone.” That says it all- I’ve watched SES companies waltz into an improvement school and hire the very teachers to do after school tutoring for the company that the NCLB system has declared “unable to make a difference” in its improvement criteria. I know and they know it’s a shell game that simply moved $$ from our federal funds to pay teachers directly to tutor after school to paying a company as a middle man to hire them to do the same job. It’s nonsensical. It may take decades to undo the damage of the recent encroachment of high end corporate siphoning of resources out of schools. What’s a better, but more expensive system that would actually result in low term efficiencies and effectiveness of our learning work? All we have to do is look to countries where children are learning well in a genuine way to find the answers.. It’s about hiring top notch professionals, paying them well and ensuring the children who walk through the doors into their classrooms have had good nutrition, health care, family leave, early childhood education, parent education, and other safety nets that mitigate the impact of poverty from before birth. It’s that old TV muffler ad at work – “you can pay me now or pay me later.” We will pay for the effects of poverty until we start doing something about those effects that’s systemic and deep. The corporate takeover is coming at us faster and faster like a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. I see this as in line with off shore, outsourcing, and all the other ways that the US has been put at risk by those who live out of our pockets. Now the education sector has become the next domino in the money making ventures of those who see public dollars as easy pickings.

    Posted by pam | February 15, 2012, 12:41 am
  14. Coöp community – including our dear readers and critics – the importance of your voluntary participation in communities like this and narratives like ours is of lasting, vital importance to our children, neighborhoods, and world. When the next generation or the generation after that uncovers our buried needs for imagination, compassion, and inquiry, the children you inspire – and their children whom you indirectly impact through your work – will be the leaders of a better, more humane, more meaningful, and more effective system of education than ours.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 15, 2012, 11:12 am
  15. I am an educator from a school that has been on “Restructuring II” for 3 years running. In New Mexico, this is the most severe level of NLCB punishments. Our wonderful elementary school (out of over 85 elementary schools) is the only one in Albuquerque that gets to teach children with the most severe mental health issues (schizophrenia, bi-polarity, etc.). This is just one of several Special Education programs that we have as well as our regular education/gifted/dual language programs. Our school is beautifully diverse with Native American, Hispanic, Anglo, and refugees students in all ranges of income levels and many different languages. Over the last few years, we have seen our Free and Reduced Families go from less than 50% to 78% today. Every classroom has at least one homeless student. Because we have such a high percentage of students in Special Education that are mandated to take a test several grade levels above what is stated in their IEP, we have never made AYP. We are very familiar with the sanctions of NCLB because we have had to comply with all of them. As compliant as we have been (writing massive Educational Plans for Student Success 3 times/year, writing an Alternative Governance Plan which proclaims how we will make AYP, having a “Restructuring Principal” work with us on collecting data, writing lesson plans, and having data dialogues, being mandated to teach out of “core” math and reading programs, putting our kids who need intervention on on-line programs to increase achievement, etc.) we still have not made AYP. Since NCLB, our children have seen an increase in testing from 2-3 hours a year to over 26 hours a year (17 hours for the NMSBA, and 9 hours for the District Benchmark Assessment given 3 times/year). The 26 hours does not include test prep.

    Have any of these measures helped our children achieve? I answer with a resounding NO! I jokingly refer to the “Restructuring II” schools as a club with an entrance, but no exit. Once given this label, no school is able to get out. Isn’t this the definition of insanity??? Over the last 5 years, we have had to deal with the SES tutoring companies—-I challenge you to find a shadier group of organizations. Pretty much the only requirement to be a tutor is to have a clean background check. They are notorious for not paying their tutors in a timely manner. We are not allowed to recommend one company over another to families, nor say anything negative about them.

    Thank you for your piece….it obviously struck a chord with me!


    Posted by Francesca Blueher | February 15, 2012, 7:23 pm
  16. Thank YOU, Francesca, for sticking it out under such unpleasant and unproductive circumstances. I appreciate you reading and your comments!

    Posted by Kristan Morrison | February 15, 2012, 7:28 pm
  17. What if a solution were available that improved efficiency and effectiveness of education without adding cost, but instead reduced it? It seems obvious that the school in Albuquerque doesn’t need coaching as much as it needs more teacher hours per student. If Pam’s allusion to poverty is true (it is), then paying people to fix the teachers is counter productive. The real solution would be to reduce the burden on those teachers.

    I don’t think educators need coaching as much as they need more time in the day. I’ve been working on a project that automates elements of education to a very large extent – but doesn’t replace what teachers do. The skill and devotion of teachers is not something that needs fixing. Anyway, my idea is new and needs the help of teachers to prove its effectiveness. I’ll be the first to admit that I really have no say in this forum, but any advice or feedback would be greatly appreciated. The project is (Kristan, your bio was inspiring)

    Posted by Andy Gauvin | February 19, 2012, 3:49 pm

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