Chicago school Inspector General: testing company conduct “egregious”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson, two national testing giants, have been charged with “serious ethical problems” in their dealings with the Chicago Public Schools in the 2012 Chicago Public Schools Office of the Inspector General’s report.

The OIG report refers to them as Vendor A and Vendor B but the Tribune has identified A as HMH and B as Pearson.

The OIG calls HMH’s conduct “egregious” and recommended “significant sanctions… ranging from a large fine to some term of debarment” or, essentially, firing:

In almost any other case involving such blatant attempts to influence a CPS employee with valuable benefits and subvert CPS’s ethical guidelines, the OIG would recommend permanent debarment. The OIG, however, recognized that given its large role in providing educational materials, debarring Vendor A could potentially do more harm than good by limiting the scope of educational materials available to CPS classrooms and/or limiting competition, which in turn could drive up prices.

In other words, HMH is “too big” to hold accountable.

It’s important to note that newish CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett has close ties to HMH. She was their Superintendent-in-Residency between 2006 and 2009. She went to work for the Detroit Public Schools shortly thereafter, and shortly thereafter, HMH received its biggest contract to date from DPS, according to a report in the Detroit press.

Pearson is perhaps best known as the “Pineapplegate” company, the creator of the bizarre test questions about pineapples’ arms and sleeves. But Pearson also has a history of unethical conduct in Illinois, including treating Illinois School Superintendent Chris Koch to junkets to Rio and Helsinki while they were reaping millions in test development and test scoring contracts.

These are the people who are earning billions from the misuse and overuse of testing in our schools. We aren’t allowed to see the tests that too often determine the fate of our children, their teachers, and the schools. We are supposed to trust these folks.

Well, here’s just a little of what the Inspector General says that these testing giants did this year alone in Chicago, with the help of a few CPS administrators:

Vendor A improperly sought and entered into a quid-pro-quo business relationship with the administrator while seeking to make a district-wide sale to CPS through the inside help of the administrator.
o Although many executives and employees at Vendor A played a hand in developing and exploiting the improper business relationship between it and the administrator, a vice-president and a local sales representative were the most involved and most culpable.
o In order win favor with the administrator and secure her aid:
• Vendor A abused a $10,000 scholarship that it awarded to the administrator by tying the scholarship — and an accompanying $1,240 celebratory dinner for the administrator and her staff — to a major sales push; and
• lavished the administrator and her staff with hundreds of dollars in additional meals and drinks.
o In response, the administrator improperly shared CPS information with Vendor A and effectively became Vendor A’s inside sales representative. Among other things, the administrator:
• exclusively told Vendor A that federal stimulus dollars were being sent to CPSAreas and worked with Vendor A on a sales strategy for approaching Chief Area Officers;
• aggressively advocated for Vendor A with a CPS department head without disclosing the nature of her relationship with Vendor A and then told Vendor A about the details of her conversations with the department head so that Vendor A could better position itself to address the department head’s objections without revealing the administrator’s inside hand; and
• based on the conversation with the department head, the administrator formulated a plan with Vendor A whereby the administrator would take Chief Area Officer’s to dinner or cocktails — which would, if necessary, be secretly paid for by Vendor A — so that the administrator could push them to purchase Vendor A’s products for their respective areas.
o In the months following her scholarship award, the administrator steered at least $287,692 of business to Vendor A through sole-source deals.
o Executives and employees of Vendor A were willing to disguise sales pushes as non-profit charity events in order to skirt CPS ethics rules. Specifically:
• Vendor A’s sales representative advised disguising Vendor A’s sales efforts and associated expenditures on CPS employees as donations from Vendor A’s non-profit arm; and
• A vice-president for Vendor A similarly proposed funneling specific money from“various business units working in CPS” through Vendor A’s non-profit foundation, and another vice-president explained to colleagues that the reason that the money needed to flow through the foundation was because of CPS guidelines governing the amount Vendor A can spend on CPS employees.
Concerning “Vendor B”, the OIG found that:
o Vendor B paid the administrator $1,500 for her participation on a one-day K-12Advisory Board — the one and only day that the board ever met. The totality of the evidence led the OIG to conclude that the event was little more than a sales meeting with key administrators from across the country.
o On five occasions between 2008 and 2010, including the 2010 advisory board meeting,Vendor B flew the administrator to conferences and, once there, paid for her food and lodging. In all, Vendor B spent well over $3,095 on travel, lodging, and meals for the administrator.

o Vendor B’s actions at issue in this investigation were consistent with allegations currently subject to an out-of-state investigation into abuse of its non-profit foundation by sponsoring travel junkets for high-level education officials in order to win favor with those officials and win contracts from the school districts they represent.

o The administrator hid the $1,500 payment from Vendor B for her work on the advisory board by depositing the money into a CPS internal account. (In a separate investigation which is mentioned below, the OIG discovered that the internal account was largely a personal slush fund.) The administrator later withdrew the money to pay a veterinarian bill for her pet dog.

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Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.
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