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

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Millot: Sound Decision or Censorship at TWIE? (I)

"I have now heard the same thing from three independent credible sources - the fix is in on the U.S. Department of Education's competitive grants, in particular Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (I3)."

Substantively, This Week in Education Editor Alexander Russo's determination to pull "Three Data Points. Unconnected Dots or a Warning?" last Friday and terminate my contract on Sunday turns on Andrew Rotherham's charge on his blog, Eduwonk, that I "call out senior government officials as corrupt on the basis of anonymous third party hearsay and no evidence." (Rotherham's emphasis.) The sentence above, the first of my post, lies at the core of his outrage.

This essay addresses the validity of Rotherham's three-pronged charge: Was my inclusion of "anonymous third party hearsay" unethical;" does Rotherham subscribe to the generally accepted meaning of "evidence;" and did I "call out senior government officials as corrupt?"

In a word, no.

This essay will be the first in a series, so I begin with my decision around noon Friday afternoon to write what was (for me anyway) a brief column on implementation of the RTTT and I3 grant programs, and specifically the question of transparency. Readers who know me from RAND, New American Schools, edbizbuzz, or my the column in TWIE, may have focused on my past more than my present. But I haven't made a secret of the way I've earned a living for the past six years, and it's directly relevant to my decision. In January of 2004 I started K-12Leads and Youth Service Markets report, an information service that covers federal, state and local grant and contract RFPs for commercial and nonprofit organizations providing goods and services around teaching and learning. It is literally my business to keep up to date on federal grants, and talk about them with my clients and the media.

It is in my interest that these kinds of competitions are both based on the merits rather than relationships, and perceived as such by providers of school improvement products, services and program. One of the biggest hurdles to marketing my services, especially to the entrepreneurs leading smaller businesses and nonprofits, is the belief that the RFP process is a sham, that contracts are "wired." Some may be sore losers, but I decided to draw on my experience with "indications and warning" from my Cold War days at RAND and elsewhere to see what I might learn from the open source data - the vast number of RFPs I monitor. Federal and State law and district practice vary widely, and some are much closer to best practice in government procurement than others. Over time I developed a list of worrisome indicators, for example: very short deadlines for very complicated projects, the use of a contract number rather than a descriptive title in an announcement, descriptions that seemed far more tailored and specific than required to do the job, the release of rfps the day before holidays likely to entice many people from their office for several days, and relationships between buyers and sellers. For a time, I reported suspect RFPs in my weekly reports. After procurement scandals in Texas and Maryland reporters called me to discuss the potential for a story in their locales, but "smoking guns" are hard to find, and disappointed providers fear retribution.

"Anonymous third party hearsay"

On Friday afternoon it struck me that I ought to write something about the unsolicited remarks on RTTT and I3 I have heard from contacts I consider responsible: two senior managers from organizations with stakes in the federal competitions, one from a reporter covering grants programs. They are people with every incentive not to make rash charges. All told me pretty much the same thing - based on their interactions with the Department they were not sure investing the considerable resources required to write these federal grant applications was wise because the winning organizations were already known to the department, and/or that in order to have a chance at winning they would have to bring those organizations into their proposal. I identified these individuals and organizations in my post.

None of these people would want their concerns made public, all feared the consequences of taking this head on. What I found striking about the conversations was the fact that they almost certainly arrived at their conclusions independently. I didn't prompt their remarks, they don't know each other, they work in very different segments of public education, they live thousands of miles apart, and their jobs don't leave them with vast amounts of time to follow internet debates on transparency. Yet their experiences led them to say the same things. This struck me as indication and warning, Not proof, but reason for concern.

The ethics of citing these people and stating their beliefs in writing depends entirely on how they were used. Employed as evidence to bolster a direct charge of corruption would be unethical. Used as one piece of evidence in an argument for for a perceived conflict of interest is not. The first case runs against the idea that a man has the right to confront his accusers. The second is meant to warn the man that he may have a problem. If writers could never rely on hearsay to provide warning, society would be denied the opportunity to head off problems before they become disasters, Yes, the allowance does make public officials uncomfortable, but it's the same policy rationale that limits the rights of public figures to respond to even very intense personal criticism. A century of court rulings have made clear that thing less would cripple free speech.

I'm leaving discussion about the objective of my post to last.

"No evidence"

Given the full content of my post, I have to conclude that Rotherham's definition of "evidence" is confined to the smoking gun: a memo laying out an illegal plan, an eyewitness to the meeting where the perpetration of corrupt practices was discussed, wiretaps to the same effect, a confession, or testimony where the perpetrator explains everything to a would-be victim while the district attorney hides behind the curtains. It's surprising how often this evidence does come to light, but there are plenty of people sitting behind bars based entirely on circumstantial evidence. A series of actions can be considered a pattern meeting all three standards of legal culpability - more likely than not, a preponderance of the evidence, and beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Practices Act, which can apply to agencies of the federal government, the evidentiary bar can be surprisingly low. In sum, "evidence" extends well beyond the smoking gun, the weight given to any evidence is a matter for those who receive it.

In my view, the emerging edublog debate over the Department's transparency in RTTT and I3 has left one shoe dangling - if the decision process is being hidden, to what end? Or put another way, what do those who are not satisfied with the current state of transparency in the process fear the Department is going to decide substantively? The remarks of my contacts offered a view into one possible answer. The facts I laid out about in my post relationships among Department appointees responsible for the grants, the new philanthropy, and their grantees are circumstances relevant to the transparency debate.

I am not a niaive stranger to the implementation of discretionary federal grants. I was engaged in the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program as COO at New American Schools, in the multi-million dollar Department grant that allowed me to form the Education Entreprenurs Fund. I followed and wrote about Reading First in edbizbuzz and in an Education Week Commentary. The Reading First example is relevant because the pattern is similar, and because those involved in RTTT and I3 are aware of the parallels and might reasonably conclude the pattern is similar.

"Call out senior government officials as corrupt"

I am responsible for the words I choose, adherence to generally accepted conventions of grammar, the sentences I construct, how I put those sentences together into paragraphs, and the order in which I present those paragraphs to readers. But I can only be responsible for the plain meaning of what I write. No author can be held responsible for the inferences of readers; certainly not the inference of one reader. The plain meaning of my first sentence "I have now heard the same thing from three independent credible sources - the fix is in on the U.S. Department of Education's competitive grants, in particular Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (I3)" is beyond dispute. I heard these things from three people I consider credible; i.e., believable, trustworthy, reliable, plausible.

From here Rotherham makes the inference that I agreed with the three. Yet, nowhere in the post did I write I agreed with them. As a lawyer, I know that the appearance of a conflict can be just as damaging to confidence in government as an actual conflict. I explained facts that might lead them to believe it, I added a request that those with something to say for against the fears, and for or against the existence of those fears, leave comments to that effect at the bottom of my post.

The thrust of my comments was summed up in my penultimate sentence: Whatever is or is not going on at the Department, the principled response is for the Secretary to address the fears head on, explain how the feared outcomes cannot take place, and then make sure he and his people keep several arms lengths removed from the process. The plain meaning of this sentence is that I don't know if there is corruption, but I do know the Secretary should address the fears directly, and take actions to reassure the public that the process will be on the merits.

In the common law of torts there's the case of the "eggshell thin skull." If you engage in a fist fight, land a blow to the head that should only bruise - and only intended to land such a blow, but kill the man with the eggshell thin skull, you've committed homicide. There's no analogue warning authors against peculiarly sensitive readers. Writers are not responsible for offending the man with the "eggshell thin temperament," and certainly not when the man is not even in mentioned by the writer. Editors receive complaints from all manner of outraged observers and one telephone call doesn't generally serve as the basis for a serious editorial decision.

In this respect, the broader evidence of how other readers interpreted my post is relevant.

TWIE Editor Russo notified me that he had pulled the post around 5:20 Friday evening. Here's the complete email:

chase is still giving me the runaround but i'm putting a check in the mail tomorrow for the past two months -- no reason you should wait if the previous checks haven't gotten where they should.... more about blog stats, etc. as i can get them -- last but not least, i am taking down your post about the fix being in at the usde for reasons i can better discuss on the phone than here -- please call me at XXX-XXX-XXXX if you want to discuss. it's part of a larger, ongoing issue not at all targeted towards you or this post alone.... i appreciate your keeping this between us for the time being, though of course anyone who's already read your post or who has an RSS reader or a google cache can still see it.

There's nothing here suggesting he believed I accused anyone of anything. Given that I had complete editorial control of my posts, it's not like he had been part of an editorial process investing him in the defense of the post. His gut reaction was that this was really about , "larger, ongoing issue."

A review of reactions to my post across the blogs before it was pulled is also useful. Of the bloggers who commented, only Rotherham stated that I was accusing anyone of anything. Of the individuals who posted comments on the bloggers' posts only one agreed with Rotherham - on Eduwonk, and the site saw a brief debate with some commenter who took my post at face value.

Finally, over the weekend, Russo offered my post to his colleagues for comment and advice. He updated me on the results by email at quarter to four Monday afternoon:

checking in as promised, dean -- but no real news. i've been doing lots of temperature taking among media and industry types -- lots of aggravation directed at andy but i'm not getting a clear or strong response re upset at scholastic.

The defense rests

Russo did not pull the post on substantative grounds. There are no substantive grounds. TWIE's editor pulled it because of Rotherham's influence over a colleague at Scholastic, and that Scholastic employee's order to Russo.

Next: the pressure-cooker Rotherham created for Russo. Watch for me at EdNotes.

Note: I have a history of proving reader with the primary source information required to decided for themselves. But for one telephone call, all the "behind the scene" communications I engaged in over the course of this incident were via email. Later today I will release a complete record of these communications, and provide copies to the education press.


  1. Judy Rabin1:54 PM

    Dear Mr. Millot,

    I understand your anger and outrage against the unjust and unfair way the RTTT funds are being appropriated. However, I fear that this scoop - when it gets to the Republicans - will be another way for them to attack Obama - not sure if I want to be a teacher under Sarah Palin's Ed Secretary.
    It's good to know the public-private partnership is alive and well. Thanks for the insight and info.

  2. Mary Porter6:07 AM

    Julie, I understand your reflexive fear to expose corruption in a federal agency under Obama's control. But we are more likely to lose the congress (and the presidency) if we don't.

    The teachers didn't come out during the special senate election here in Massachusetts. I swallowed my disgust and tried to rouse them, but they are just too sickened by the attack on public education. The unions can be bought or bullied to come on board for an election, but individual people follow their guts. They have accumulated sufficient evidence in their own lives to know some kind of corrosive fix is on in education, and are deeply worried it has infected other policies, as well. Profiteers like Millot are outraged because they want their fair share of the spoils, but we actually dedicated our lives to teaching the very children the privatizers (including Millot) have been mowing down behind their wall of faked statistics and mealy-mouthed slogans. We look into the eyes of about a hundred of them, every single day.

    We can't bring ourselves to vote. I tried to say, "Yes we can," and I choked. At a national level, this effect might be decisive.

    Every legislator in my state personally knows how they were threatened and bullied on the education bill. It physically churned their stomachs. The problem is, the left flank of Obama's base can't live like that. Stooges in New York are attacking the NAACP for opposing school takovers, for God's sake. The hand of censorship closes on actual people, and it eats the heart out of the Democratic party.

    If we DON'T stop this, we'll lose the elections, period.

  3. Mary:

    I'm a bit confused. Are you saying to that you agree with Millot's effort to "expose corrupton," but see him (i.e. me); but believe I am motivated because otherwise I wont be on the gravy train? I'm just asking for the point to be clarified. But if this what you are saying, I should point out that I'm competing for none of this work. I offer for and nonprofit providers information on school districts, states and federal announcements for grants and purchases. Surely you don't believe that every grant and contract is filled by an organization whose motives you oppose? Surely you would not argue that even nonprofits should be deprived of an inexpensive source of information on education agencies who want their help to educate children? To paraphrase Orwell, it can't be the case that "school employee good, not school employee bad" can it?

  4. Hello Marc,
    Yes, I strongly support your effort to expose corruption and my hope is even that you will step out further than you have so far. The thing we urgently need is help from knowledgeable inside operators to bring the issues of the "public-private partnership" out into the daylight where the people of the nation can see them and make informed, democratic decisions. Since I suspect your career may be toast anyway (my sincere congratulations!), I'm actually trying to "talk you over", as we used to say.

    You "offered information on grants and purchases". Then you probably saw Exon's big MSIP project website. You must have looked over the FAQ page, and seen "What do I do if I don't have a non-profit partner to receive the funds?" as well as the answer, "Click here to start one."

    So, your disingenuous tone, "Surely you don't believe that even non-profits should be deprived..." reads outright false to me. The business model you've been selling relies on the fake non-profit fronts to avoid disclosure of its self-dealing. The "non-profit" lobbies for its hidden partners, and covers up its self-promotion by heaping praise and awards on its own head for the wonderful work it has been doing for the happy and grateful children.

    And it subborned my (public) superintendent into management policies that pushed my low-income score-supressor students out onto the streets with less than a tenth-grade education, to "leverage" our test-scores and promote its "partners'" products. And Arne Duncan is waving its "Turnaround" plan around, and the fix is indeed on.

    I subscribed to EdWeek several years ago looking for help to save my girls, who were coming to me with tears in their eyes to be signed out of the building against their will for failure to make academic progress. I found Edbizbuzz! Think about how you looked to me!

    Having now experienced the phonecall from on high, can you imagine what its been like for us teachers to fight this wall of lies on the front line, with real students around us who we actually love, and who are being hurt?

    Editors won't cross them, they can vaporize politicians, and public school administrators jump at their bidding. None of the above is willing to take a stand... And then here you are.

    So, all I'm saying is "welcome", I guess.

  5. Regarding Judy Rabin's comment, I'd actually rather be a teacher under Palin. I think she'd do less damage, as the Dems would block her idiotic initiatives, rather than embracing them as they do under Obama. It took Nixon to go to China, and it took Obama to close public schools and push charters.

    I very much regret having voted for him and will never do so again. And unfortunately, the GOP will not use the educational initiatives against him--this is the one area in which they agree.

  6. Anonymous1:03 PM

    This is the first half of a comment is from Mr. Millot (part two below):

    To chemctchr/Mary Porter

    I have worked for k-12 nonprofits, I have been a grants officer to nonprofits, and invested in k-12 for-profits. I have made a practice working with the founders of both type on new starts. K-12Leads does not publish grant RFPs issued by private philanthropy, only grant and contract RFPs issued by federal, state and local government agencies.

    In my experience, human flaws, frailties and strengths are distributed evenly across education. There's no correlation to organizational or tax status and wrongdoing. I don’t think every teacher is a sexual predator because some have had inappropriate relations with students. Every superintendent is not a crook because took bribes. Every teachers’ union leader is not corrupt because some defraud their members. Every organization paid for its school improvement services by school districts and state agencies is not evil because some offerings are shoddy.

    Every form of medicine is poison. The market, socialism, communism, and every other form of social organization work far less than perfectly, and end up hurting people. It's really a matter of choosing your poison and getting the right mix. That’s the human condition.

    In my view, what matters is what actually works. It’s entirely possible that the real basis of our difference in perspective is testing, AYP, NCLB, etc. And that’s a legitimate debate, but whatever measure you would prefer to judge student performance - and above all to assure that underserved children are not merely getting equitable funding, but the kinds of support to perform on a par with students who have always been well-served - what matters is whether what the taxpayer is supporting works by some agreed upon measure. Whether that measure can be met by the traditional system alone, the traditional system with nonprofits, private firms alone, or the traditional system purchasing services from for and nonprofits is a question of means. I favor the last, but maybe the others would meet the measures better.

    Federal and state law generally prohibits for-profit firms from using nonprofits as front. I do not believe in using fronts and have written as much many times over the years. I recently wrote a series in the context of Imagine Public Schools starting here

    [Continued below]

  7. Anonymous1:04 PM

    [This is part two of Mr. Millot's comment]

    Two points on the distinction between for and nonprofits:

    First, very few legitimate nonprofits do business with for profits. While I have nothing against a true alliance of equals between for and nonprofits, I’ve rarely seen them work. Either the nonprofit is too heavily dependent on the for-profit to be a real equal, or the nonprofit is operationally unable to keep its side of a business bargain. Second, legitimate nonprofits have been moving to fees for the last 10 years, because grants can’t disseminate their good works at any scale and in cash payments represent a form of commitment, “buy-in”. Two examples are the Success for All Foundation and Expeditionary Learning Schools – offering radically different programs, based on very different pedagogies, both charging districts substantial fees and selecting partners based on (admittedly imperfect) evidence of teacher and district support.

    Finally the public has never faced a choice between a pristine public education system, with the private sector far removed from the classroom environment, and one with where commercial firms are deeply embedded in the process of teaching and learning. That choice was rejected a century ago. The choice we face is the kind of industry involvement we want and the kind of fee-driven providers we want to work with. I wrote an essay on this some years ago “One Education Industry or Two?” that you might find interesting.

    I think that one reason truly independent blogs edited by educators have been willing to sponsor my efforts to explain why my This Week in Education column was terminated abruptly by Editor Alexander Russo, on orders from someone at Scholastic (I doubt it was a true “corporate” decision), which Russo believed were based on some kind of personal relationship with Education Sector’s Andrew Rotherham, is that my views of the market and my affiliation with the market are not typical. I have a vast record on writing on the subject at RAND, the Center on Reinventtng Public Education, my blog edbizbuzz, my podcasr siiwonline.libsyn.com, and various sources easily located by Googling “Marc Dean Millot.” I hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunity to read some of this and decide for yourself.

  8. Anonymous1:39 PM

    [And one more bit from Mr. Millot]

    One last thought. Teachers, indeed the public, do not face a choice between a pristine classroom untouched by "the education industry" and the private sector's deep involvement in k-12's teaching and learning process. That decision was made a century ago. The question is the kind of industry we want to be involved, and the specific firms we want to work with. I wrote about this in March 2007 here and podcast it here.

  9. Millot's paragraph 1 link to Rotherham's little Eduwonk post is broken, but the comment page is still in his cache. People should be able to see the butter not melt in his mouth with their own eyes:


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