Sunday, November 8, 2015

On not leaping to conclusions

It’s no secret that I’ve had my disagreements with our superintendent. I hope that gives me particular standing to urge people to be fair—not to be quiet, not to be uncritical, but to be fair—in their reaction to the articles this week about the superintendent’s work outside the district. I don’t see any accusations of wrongdoing in those articles or any showing that the superintendent did anything that was not permitted by his contract or by law. Whether the board should have negotiated different contract terms, whether the superintendent should have made different judgments, whether more questions should be asked and more information made available, whether we should have different practices going forward—those all seem like very reasonable questions (many of which probably have two sides to them). But I hope people will recognize that working for a company where other people are later accused of wrongdoing is not the same as wrongdoing. Guilt by association is not only unfair, but also a logical fallacy.


Amy said...

On the other hand, Chris, if you're working for people whose MO is fraud, theft, kickbacks, and the like, that's gonna pervade the culture, and there'll be pressure to fall into line. People whose mode is Upright Citizen don't often last long in those environments.

In a sense none of this should be surprising; apart from how money has moved generally, globally, over the last decade or so, the money put out by the feds for NCLB-related stuff is stupendous. Of course it attracts crooks. What I see in these consulting groups and consortia, though, when you start digging into who the leaders are, is contentious figures who aren't long on scruple. Which is also not entirely surprising, given the amount of money sloshing around. It looks to me like they exist to do two things, neither of which is to train people to do their jobs well: one, to push products and services at boards around the country through district staff hired as "consultants"; and two, to use those consultants to steer hundreds and thousands of districts' policies in a more concerted manner than we'd seen before.

The problem with this is that you have to ask who your guy is working for. I see it as a frank conflict of interest. If refusing to push consulting-group desires with your board means loss of consulting gigs, then we have a problem. I also have serious trouble with this idea that "saving it for the weekend" is meaningful. I think we all know that if you have a responsible managerial fulltime salaried job, it's exceedingly rare that you're ever really on vacation, let alone off the clock. If we're paying someone serious money for superintending, then that's the job. If you can't be happy with that kind of money -- well, that's another kind of problem. And if networking's what your after, then you know, I hear there are plenty of legit conferences and committees and boards to serve on, as part of your job.

pooter said...

"Guilt by Association" and willing participation in a corrupt institution are two different concepts.

Chris said...

Amy and Pooter -- Again, I don't blame anyone for asking more questions -- just saying I don't want to leap to any conclusions.

I do agree that there are all kinds of companies out there with the business model of selling products and services to school districts -- seems like now more than ever -- which is a good thing to keep in mind when we're discussing how to handle these issues going forward.

Amy said...

It is. You might want to look into the economics of it a bit -- the market, I'm guessing, is in the high tens of billions annually, if you don't count college-readiness and GED testing. (Just guessing. Maybe more.) And the sort of product development you do at that level means that if you want to rake it in you have to sell in serious quantity to all these fragmented tiny lil districts. I'm not a bit surprised to see Houghton Mifflin associated with these groups -- they'd be crazy not to be. But you see how the money goes around.

And it's really not just product sales -- you have to line up the conditions for the sales and the politics you want. I mean I'm sure they get supes and such "advising" state reps as well as school boards (they're the experts, right?) My point is that the superintendents and other upper admin are key in getting to these districts, so if you want to direct the board/state spending and policy, you definitely want the supes. How do you get them? Obviously you can't hire them outright, usually, they've got jobs, conflicts of interest, etc. But consulting is kosher, and it's amazing what some people will do for the promise of an extra few thousand here and there.

So how do you check and see whether you're getting party line? Not too difficult, just tedious to look up -- everybody's going to use the same language, same talking points. I mean if all you got on that glorified blogging platform they're trying to sell you was the brochure, you're looking at some laziness. You see who else consults for these outfits and when big issues come up you see how the consultants talk to their boards and reps. My guess is you hear the same phrases floating up over and over. But I don't think it need even go that far. If the board has to make a decision on buying this or that, or implementing this or that policy that will lead to sales or a new pedagogical direction, and someone working for the district is consulting for anyone -- anyone -- who stands to gain out of the deal, then that someone must recuse himself from the conversation.

I suspect that'd put an end to consulting problems fairly quickly. Both appearance and fact.