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Making Failure Pay: For-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools

Making Failure Pay: For-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools

by Jill P. Koyama

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A little-discussed aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a mandate that requires failing schools to hire after-school tutoring companies—the largest of which are private, for-profit corporations—and to pay them with federal funds. Making Failure Pay takes a hard look at the implications of this new blurring of the boundaries between


A little-discussed aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a mandate that requires failing schools to hire after-school tutoring companies—the largest of which are private, for-profit corporations—and to pay them with federal funds. Making Failure Pay takes a hard look at the implications of this new blurring of the boundaries between government, schools, and commerce in New York City, the country’s largest school district.

As Jill P. Koyama explains in this revelatory book, NCLB—a federally legislated, state-regulated, district-administered, and school-applied policy—explicitly legitimizes giving private organizations significant roles in public education. Based on her three years of ethnographic fieldwork, Koyama finds that the results are political, problematic, and highly profitable. Bringing to light these unproven, unregulated private companies’ almost invisible partnership with the government, Making Failure Pay lays bare the unintended consequences of federal efforts to eliminate school failure—not the least of which is more failure.

Editorial Reviews

“While the book is engaging, its results are highly disturbing, as it reveals the degree to which SES providers are unaccountable and ineffective. . . . The book is unique due to the subject of investigation, and because it studies education policy by focusing on studying how legal requirements are enacted and negotiated by actors at the level of the school and the school district. It is a must read for both general audiences and students of education policy.”

Edmund T. Hamann
“This is a rare and powerful take on the role and work of supplementary educational services. In investigating these services, Koyama has staked out a whole new domain for closer inquiry, successfully convincing us that they deserve scrutiny and often perpetuate failure. Making Failure Pay should be shared and should inform future research and policy making.”

Peter Demerath
“A riveting and highly disturbing account of the unforeseen effects of NCLB in the New York City Public Schools, Making Failure Pay demonstrates the full force of new anthropological approaches to the examination of educational policy. It exposes NCLB’s hidden public-private ‘liaisons’ that enable companies to profit from the provision of substandard and poorly regulated services that perpetuate student failure. Conceptually sophisticated and lucidly written, this book is indispensible reading for educational policymakers, policy researchers, and all who have a stake in U.S. urban schools.”

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University of Chicago Press
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MAKING failure PAY

For-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-45174-9

Chapter One


Probing the Problematics and Politics of Policy

Scenario 1: Attending a Supplemental Educational Services Fair

On a hot and humid evening in late September 2005, booths, balloons, and brochures-all filled with promises of benefiting failing schools and their failing students-are readied for the night's event. I watch as principals, assistant principals, and parent coordinators of New York City's failing schools trickle into the decorated space, a gymnasium of a Brooklyn high school. The booth attendants-mostly well-dressed managers and marketers of the 132 tutoring companies approved by the state-turn their attentions away from their tables and balloons to greet groups of arrivals with requisite small talk and offers of promotional materials, sample curricula, and mission statements. Hands are shaken. Smiles are exchanged. Parent coordinators linger at each booth, building their cache of promotional key chains, pens, identification holders, and stringed backpacks. Most principals do not linger; they talk on their cellular phones, direct their parent coordinators to particular booths, nibble on snacks provided by the host school, and talk to each other, comparing their school's failing status to those of their colleagues.

Under the federal education policy, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), all of the principals are in similar situations. They each lead a school that has been deemed to be in some state of "failure." Of course there are notable differences. Some of their schools have already been marked for "reconstitution" or "restructuring," while others have just begun the initial descent of educational remedial rehabilitation for schools in need of improvement (SINI). A few are in between, in "corrective action" (U.S. Department of Education 2001). Still, all the principals attend the night's event because they can and they must. They have been selected from among the large pool of school administrators across the city, invited because of their schools' inabilities or failures to increase academic achievement. There will be more events like this one, throughout late autumn and into early winter, but many principals have decided to attend tonight, near the beginning of the school year.

Conversations quickly turn to unmet benchmarks, low test scores, achievement gaps, elevated passing score requirements, and teachers who refuse to teach test preparation-all signs of possible (but not certain) school failure. The principals dutifully comment on their inability to meet the state's adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward proficiency for at least three consecutive years. From the principals' conversations, I learn that "too many special needs students really drag down AYPs" and "getting rid of students who will probably drop out anyway really helps the numbers." One principal hopes aloud that his "worst students" will transfer to other schools.

Scenario 2: Increasing Principal Accountability

The demands are many for the principal of Brooklyn's Middle School (MS) 200, an administrator I'd met at the August fair. She has worked for twenty years at the same school, first as a teacher, then as an assistant principal, and for the last seven as a principal. Throughout her career, she tells me in an interview conducted at MS 200, she has found herself responsible for implementing new federal and state policies in the school. Yet, as retirement nears, she sees herself as nearly singularly accountable for the outcomes measured by NCLB and New York City's Children First reforms, which in her words, "get in the way of each other."

The principal is overwhelmed when we talk eight months after the supplemental educational services (SES) fair, in March 2006. Implementing federal, state, and district policies, she explains, "always comes down to schools and the people who run them." She speaks about the lack of support from the city's central Department of Education (DOE) offices. Being the buffer between the DOE and her staff is nothing new, but with limited support for implementing NCLB mandates, like SES, the tasks required by the federal policy daunt this principal. She is becoming increasingly accountable, and while she exhibits confidence in her administrative skills, she is unclear that her actions are making the necessary differences.

Since her school posted low test scores for English language learners (ELLs), and thus, failed to meet AYPs, the principal reorganized her classes and teachers. She added small-group morning instruction for her lowest-scoring students and implemented afterschool tutoring for eligible students by contracting with United Education, a state-approved afterschool tutoring company. Still, progress has been incredibly slow, and she expects her school to be moved into the next sanction level, "corrective action."

When asked specifically about SES, the principal admits that some of her students are probably benefiting from the tutoring in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics provided by United Education, but she objects to the notion that she needs help from an outside company to "turn her own school around." She also resents that public funds from her budget are being diverted from the school to the private services that United Education and other educational support companies, which are not directly accountable for improving test scores or meeting AYP goals, supply.

Scenario 3: Managing SES Programs

The United Education manager who supervises the SES program at MS 200 said he understood why principals in New York City, and, in fact, across the rest of the country, resist SES. Having the federal government tell you, via NCLB, that you don't know what you're doing and that you need the expertise of the educational support industry, he reasoned, would anger many principals he knows. Being labeled a "failing" or "low-performing" school is a stigma that carries consequences for principals.

However, when I interviewed the manager in United's Manhattan corporate office, he is convinced that if the schools had been "doing their jobs better all along, then there'd have been no need for NCLB or SES." The manager, who has been working for United Education for five years, knows that instituting anything in the education system takes time. It's June 2007 and the manager surmises that as students' test scores increase and schools emerge from their failing status, in part because of the tutoring, SES will become a legitimate and necessary part of public schooling, even if NCLB loses support. Then, he reasons, SES will be institutionalized and its value will go unquestioned just as private tutoring has become commonplace for children in middle- and upper-class families, aiming to get into top colleges.

United Education and other SES providers have their own measures of success (and failure). They don't include AYP goals, but focus instead on the quantity and quality of educational services and products they sell and deliver. Our bottom line is number of school accounts and dollars earned, explains the manager. Offering excellent SES programs and making money are not, he assures me, mutually exclusive. The better we do, the more we make. He pauses, and then admits that it is "theoretically possible that if we do our job too well, students won't need us, and we will have worked ourselves out of jobs." With more than two hundred thousand students eligible for SES in New York City this year, the possibility that a job too well done could be disastrous for United Education is not probable. The manager assures me that even with providers competing for market shares-i.e., student enrollments-there are enough "students in need" for all of the providers.

Scenario 4: Administrating from the Department of Education

I initially met the DOE administrator in 2005, when she had been a United Education manager. By the time I saw her listed as the "DOE contact" on an advertisement for a principals' workshop focusing on "data-driven instruction under NCLB" in March 2008, she had worked in the DOE's central office for a year. In electronic correspondence with the administrator, she admits that she now works on "the other side" of the public-private partnerships legislated through SES and acknowledges that she has great concerns about the lack of accountability attributed to the SES industry, for whom she once toiled. She resoundingly situates herself on the "side" of public education and is, after seeing what schools and districts must do under NCLB, against the mandated intervention of private tutoring companies.

According to the administrator, implementing NCLB continues to be challenging at the district level because people don't automatically do what they're told. They interpret what they are told to do before determining their responses. In the case of implementing NCLB, especially the SES mandates, the DOE and city officials are still trying to orient what they do to meet the federal rules, she reasons. The administrator notes that principals and schools plan actions according to the rules, but they are also trying to do what they interpret as best for their students. Since the two are not always the same, she admits that some principals have begun to "improvise implementation" and have begun "cutting SES corners."

The administrator doesn't fault the behavior of the principals, but rather blames NCLB itself, which she says impacts New York City, the country's largest school district, more than smaller, less urban districts with less diverse student populations. She explains that the city's public schools are filled with poor and minority students and that there are also many ELLs. These subpopulations, in NCLB terms, become AYP demographic groups, each with performance targets that must be met. The administrator adds that most of the SES programs do little, with regard to instruction and curricula, to attend to these subgroups.


NCLB calls together many multifaceted actors in disparate organizations-like the ones depicted in the above scenarios-who bring different motivations, understandings, objectives, histories, and resources to the implementation of the mandates. Making Failure Pay is a book about what happens to NCLB, school failure, the substantive concern of the policy, and the additional problems it poses when these actors, and many others, respond and enact the federal policy locally. It is an investigation into how NCLB creates circumstances that limit the range of possible reactions and outcomes to school failure-and also how NCLB enables the creative and practical management of problems constituted by the uncertainties of the policy (Ball 2006). It is also a book about the struggles concerning enactment and interpretation of NCLB by actors, similar to the ones introduced in the opening situations, about the challenges in attending to school failure, and about the remarkable variation of responses to NCLB across contexts. As NCLB flows through federal, state, and local educational settings, and across a range of political and power configurations, the complexly situated actors selectively adapt or "appropriate" (Levinson and Sutton 2001) the policy mandates. A mix of intended and unintended consequences result (Datnow 2006) as these policy stakeholders, in and out of schools, apply particular elements of the policy to their situations.

Specifically, this book is about appropriating NCLB's SES, across state and local educational agencies, schools, and multiple educational support businesses. It is about the interactional, and often unsteady, everyday NCLB-guided practices that move people, objects, and programs around school failure. This book illustrates that NCLB, which is federally mandated, state-regulated, district-administered, and school-applied, is a process that impacts American schooling, in part, by connecting the actions of numerous agents in multiple institutions-like testing and tutoring companies-which are associated with schools but have rarely been recognized for their increasingly integral roles in public education.

By mandating failing schools to contract with private tutoring companies to provide afterschool tutoring, SES blurs the boundaries between government, schooling, and commerce and brings the associations between public and private entities to the fore. SES explicitly expands the role of the private sector in public education, in governing educational bodies, and in schools. Under SES regulations, schools and their SES-eligible students become the "consumers" over which commercial marketers and enterprises compete. SES legitimizes tutoring by promoting the packaging, marketing, and selling of tutoring programs as commodities (complete with curricula and practices) that are then inserted into a dynamic network of relations, processes, and exchanges that traverse public organizations and private agencies.

SES encompasses the embedded authority, politics, potentials, and character of NCLB. Many of the struggles, contradictions, tensions, and interpretations of NCLB are made visible through SES, which must be implemented within particular localities, most often individual schools. Yet, the ways in which SES provisions stimulate and channel actions through levels of governmental organization, educational agencies, and emerging social structures have been largely unstudied. Making Failure Pay fills this lacuna by closely examining the interactions between a well-established for-profit SES provider, United Education, and forty-two of its New York City partner schools. It reveals that attending to-defining, regulating, evaluating, and remedying-school failure, according to NCLB, provokes a host of inadvertent, conspicuous, and abtruse consequences, or problems, not the least of which is more failure.

Ethnographic Considerations for Studying Everyday Policy Processes

Making Failure Pay documents the appropriation of NCLB by tracing the linkages between the New York City school district, public schools across five boroughs, city government, and United Education. Integrating the federal and state actions with the more localized interactions, it traces "policy connections between different organizational and everyday worlds, even where actors in different sites do not know each other or share a moral universe" (Shore and Wright 1997, 14). This book demands a shift in the analytical focus from students and teachers to situations that occur outside of classroom instruction and beyond official school hours, in public settings and at publicized events that are infused with the authority of the federal and state education departments. This ethnography moves well beyond schools to consider the ways in which failure is made to matter in policy, in private educational companies, in politics, in local and state educational agencies, in schools, and in American culture. Based on more than three years of ethnographic research, conducted from June 2005 to October 2008, it examines what happens to school failure and the federal remedy, NCLB, when people-adults in the public school system, the tutoring and testing industry, and the policy-making institutions-engage in policy-directed activities, especially SES.

This book challenges conventional educational ethnography and educational policy analysis in three important ways. First, it reduces the gap between everyday actions and activities and government action. Second, Making Failure Pay concurrently regards the actions of disparate policy stakeholders, including SES managers and politicians who foray temporarily into policy processes, and principals whose policy roles persist, often over years. Third, it expands the field of study to transactional spaces that transcend physical locations. Further, this book considers the historical consciousness of the participants and documents the historical development of NCLB and SES, while studying actors in present moments. This book progresses from a strictly synchronic ethnographic frame to a "historicization of the ethnographic present" (Marcus and Fischer 1999, 95-97).


Excerpted from MAKING failure PAY by JILL P. KOYAMA Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jill P. Koyama is assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

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