One thing you can be sure about with all the federal “Race to the Top” money being distributed, there’ll be an inordinate number of companies and organizations seeking to get a piece of that pie. Almost every single day, there are new companies springing up like weeds in a garden that make promises of increased achievement and of closing the gap. This happens every time the federal government decides to throw money around. For example, most of us remember the same thing happening with the “Abstinence-before- marriage” sex education agenda adopted by President Bush. Anyone who could spell the word curriculum had one to sell, never mind that research appeared showing how ineffective abstinence-only sex education truly is.
In these times of tight budgets and scarce resources, it is imperative that school leaders and administrators be skeptical of the promises made by these companies. Our budgets are tight enough, and for me there is something unethical about contracting with a company to provide educational services and consulting just because they make a good sales pitch, or because they happen to be a retired educator friend looking to make some extra bucks. We have an obligation and a responsibility to make sure that: a) the companies we contract with are not selling snake-oil, b) that the products or services they sell will not harm or take away from our students, and c) that we use all the money given to us in a frugal manner. Nothing makes education look worse than headlines describing who much money a school system has wasted on products or services that just don’t work. In these tight budget times, we have to be even more skeptical.
In my twenty years experience, I have witnessed several incidents where education organizations have chosen to purchase educational products or consulting services, that in the end did very little to increase student achievement or educational system efficacy. These products and services were purchased based on a sales pitch and vague testimonials from neighboring school systems. In some of these instances, school system administrators hired their old friends out of personal loyalty, not based on healthy evidence or track record. There are all kinds of ethical issues with that kind of practice.
School leaders need to be skeptics by nature when it comes to programs and those who come bearing new programs and consultation services. They need to be willing to ask hard questions to make sure they do not waste money on the latest “snake-oil” remedy being offered. What might some of these questions look like? Here’s few I would ask:
- Ask them how often do they spend time in schools like yours? Ask them to provide specifics of the schools they have sold their products and services to, and the results they achieved. Don’t settle for soft answers; ask them to provide hard data. Just because their product worked for school A, it does not necessarily follow it will work for school B.
- Ask for contacts at those schools to whom they have sold their products and services. Be extra wary of testimonials and recommendations like this alone. The contact they give you may be their best friend or weekend golf buddy. You might even ask them if they have any kind of outside relationship with this person. To avoid conflicts of interest, you might inquire about the product on a widespread basis. Don’t trust just a handful of recommendations.
- If the company contact is a retired or former educator, ask them for a curriculum vitae, and ask them about their own performance as an educator. You might even ask if you can contact their former employers. If they claim to be knowledgeable about education, check them out, but don’t just settle on their word. There is nothing wrong with completing a background check on their company and those who work for them. If they are knowledgeable educators, you might even conduct a formal interview with them. Put them on the spot and make them support their claims.
- If they are boasting about increased achievement or educational efficacy, ask them to provide peer-reviewed research supporting their claims. “We decreased our drop-out rate by 15%” is not sufficient to sell me a drop-out prevention program. Provide me with a complete picture and demographics. Their product or services might not have been the actual cause of the increase in achievement.
- Ask locations that have implemented their products and services and go visit those locations. Once there, speak to everyone you can. Don’t accept a “dog-and-pony” show as convincing.
I’m sure many of you can offer additional questions and strategies we can use to critically examine these companies offering products and consulting services. School leaders need to be natural skeptics when presented with the sales pitch. What are some additional questions and strategies school leaders should use to critically examine products and services being offered by outside companies and organizations?