"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, August 15, 2008

Kaplan Gets Fat on School Money for Poor Kids

The flood of federal, state, and local education dollars into the coffers of corporations like Kaplan, Newton Learning, and Princeton Review remains unchecked, even though there is no evidence, scientifically based or otherwise, that these corporate interventions are doing any good for anything other than corporate bottom lines. In fact, there is growing evidence from insider accounts like this one in the September Harper's that the the spread of Kaplan's influence into scripted curriculum writing is further undercutting efforts to bring real teaching and learning to urban students who are being left further behind as corporate bosses get richer on money intended for education--not exploitation.

Here are a couple of pertinent clips from this excellent piece by Jeremy Miller:
. . . .In New York City, Kaplan provides NCLB- mandated tutoring for the high school Regents exams and the subject exams administered to students in the third through eighth grades.) Many educators argue that the gains from prep courses are negligible and the programs themselves ultimately harmful, since they drain precious funds and class time. A recent Chicago Public Schools study examining student performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills found “little difference between tutored students and those who were eligible but did not receive tutoring.” The price tag for supplemental tutoring in Chicago, which 60,000 students received in the 2004–2005 school year: $50 million. Teachers also are aware that Kaplan’s presence will continue to be felt long after its coaches have moved on: completion of the thirty-six-lesson SAT Advantage program, which includes three abbreviated tests and one full-length practice exam, requires a full forty hours of instruction time.
. . . .

Although hailed by its advocates as a step toward institutional accountability and full student proficiency, No Child Left Behind is, at its core, a highly punitive act. Ratified in 2002, the legislation mandates that states create a system of tests and other academic indicators that measure whether students meet “the minimum level of proficiency.” Schools that repeatedly fail to meet these benchmarks can be closed, taken over by private corporations, or restructured. Schools with high-poverty populations that receive federal aid (known as Title I funds) and fail for three straight years to demonstrate “progress” toward full proficiency are required to spend up to 20 percent of this federal money on tutoring or transportation costs for students who choose to transfer out of their current school. In New York City, the transfer option is derided by critics as a hollow provision, since other city schools generally are no better and successful ones are already oversubscribed.

Thus, failing students become trapped in a foundering system, and the schools where students land en masse are left to carry out the test-heavy requirements of NCLB. For the New York schools “in need of improvement,” this means preparing students—many of whom are utterly lacking in basic academic skills and subject knowledge—to pass a battery of standardized exams. Toward this end, it also means paying money to outside entities (often private companies such as Kaplan, the Princeton Review, and Newton Learning) up to $2,000 per student for courses focused not on improving content knowledge or on intensive educational counseling but on strategies for a “particular testing task.” (The total annual government expenditure per student in New York City is $15,000.)

The failure of schools serving low-income students has been a windfall for the testing industry. Title I funds earmarked for test tutoring increased by 45 percent during the first four years of NCLB, from $1.75 billion in 2001 to $2.55 billion in 2005. With the ever growing stream of funding flowing through the nation’s schools, the number of supplemental-service providers nationwide has exploded. In New York City, the number of providers approved by the state’s department of education jumped from forty-seven in 2002–2003, the first full school year of NCLB, to 202 today. To capitalize on these new revenue opportunities, Kaplan has acquired Achieva, a provider of online course materials to schools, and SpellRead, a national “reading-intervention” company. In 2003, Kaplan hired former N.Y.C. Chancellor of Education Harold Levy as an executive vice president and general counsel, and in 2006 relocated its headquarters for Kaplan K12, the division of the company that works in schools, from Midtown Manhattan to luxury offices downtown. According to Crain’s, the company made the move “to be closer to the New York City Department of Education.”

Not wanting to be limited in its offerings to schools, Kaplan recently entered the business of selling content-based lesson plans. Although the shift from testing strategies to classroom content is a departure for Kaplan, the company sees little difference between the two. Earlier this spring, I designed a genetics class for Kaplan’s “Lesson Bank,” an online repository of short lessons that, for a fee, teachers can download in PDF form. As writers of the curriculum, we were repeatedly told that the materials had to provide hassle-free prep for teachers. When I submitted a first draft of a high school lesson on Mendelian genetics, the Kaplan staffer overseeing production, Tyler DeWitt, told me it was too complex. “We’re really trying to almost script lessons,” DeWitt wrote via email, “so that teachers who may be new or not the greatest (or smartest) teachers in the world can follow the ‘script’ and still give a great lesson.” For $35 an hour, I obliged and watered down the material, removing all “advanced” content points, such as co-dominance and pleiotropy (though these were subjects that I covered in the basic biology classes I taught a couple of years earlier).

Kaplan’s increased workload has produced some remarkable results, though not necessarily in the classroom. The company’s revenues have jumped from $354 million in 2000 to more than $2 billion today, and it is now the most profitable subsidiary of its parent, The Washington Post Company, accounting for almost half of the conglomerate’s income. More telling are the margins: in 2003, Kaplan posted a loss of $11.7 million; in 2007, the company reported a $149 million profit. . . .


  1. Kaplan is the only thing holding the Washington Post company afloat. The number of ad pages in their core publications, the Post newspaper and Newsweek magazine, are in free fall along with their profits.

    As a result, you can bet that we in the DC area never read anything negative about "supplemental educational services", which is NCLB speak for tutoring provided by for-profit companies like Kaplan.

  2. Thank God Kaplan is doing well so they can take the pennies they make on their tests and pay their ace reporters to write their cracker jack reports from around the world. They just had a reporter on the Lehrer report the other day who didn't seem to know much about the world. I felt informed.