Low-cost education providers see a world of opportunity; With focus on poor, firms vie for piece of global market

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Last of three parts

Gerald Heeger is a newcomer to Texas, but he isn’t afraid to set Texas-size goals.

In five years, he wants his company, Whitney International University, to enroll more than half a million students around the world and be on its way to becoming the biggest provider of higher education the Earth has ever seen.

“How’s that for audacity?” Dr. Heeger said in his downtown Dallas office. “I believe there’s a big problem in the world, and big problems need big solutions.”

The big problem is that billions of people in developing countries can’t afford higher education. Whitney plans to offer it on the cheap – at one-quarter the price of competitors – by relying heavily on standardized lessons and the Internet.

Whitney International University is in talks with Politecnico Grancolombiano, a Colombian university. “We’ve got to get the cost of a college education under $1,000 a year,” said Whitney creator Randy Best. “The whole mission is to reach the bottom of the pyramid.”

That “bottom of the pyramid” phrase comes up often when Mr. Best talks about Whitney.

He said his efforts were inspired in part by reading The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. That book, by C.K. Prahalad, argues that by targeting the global poor as a market, corporations can raise living standards – and make money.

Whitney, which has raised $35 million from investors, plans to reach the bottom by buying existing universities around the world. It also plans to use the brands of elite global universities to deliver courses primarily over the Internet.

The company has kept a low profile since its incorporation on the island of Bermuda in August 2004. But company officials promise that will soon change. It recently struck an alliance with a college some call “the Harvard of Mexico.” More deals – in places like Morocco, Brazil and China – are coming.

“No one seems to know a whole lot about Whitney,” said Sean Gallagher, who studies the education industry as a senior analyst at the research firm Eduventures. “But they’re very intrigued by whatever it is they’re pursuing. They’ve generated a lot of interest.”

In many countries, particularly in the developing world, higher education remains accessible only to academic superstars and the wealthy. That leaves a large tier of students seeking options.

In the past, some of those students would have sought to study in the U.S. But visa restrictions since the Sept. 11 attacks have made that tougher. For-profit private colleges have filled the void – both homegrown institutions and a new breed of American companies like Whitney.

International leader

The undisputed leader in the field is Laureate Education. Laureate began life as Sylvan Learning Systems, a company best known to the public for its chain of tutoring centers aimed at K-12 students. But in the late 1990s, it began looking for overseas universities to invest in or acquire outright.

Eventually, company management came to consider the international part of its business the most promising. In March 2003, the company announced it would sell off its Sylvan Learning Centers to focus completely on the global higher-education market.

Investors have responded positively, pushing its stock from $11.43 a share to around $46 now.

The Laureate system today includes 24 colleges and universities in 15 countries, most heavily concentrated in Latin America. It enrolls 217,000 students – more than the entire University of Texas System, which enrolls around 180,000 students.

Whitney completed its first acquisition last year, when a company controlled by Whitney officials purchased the New England College of Finance, a Boston-based two-year college that provides training for the financial-services industry. NECF will eventually provide a financial-services curriculum to Whitney’s other institutions around the world.

Whitney struck its first international deal last month with the Universidad de las Américas (UDLA), a prominent university in Puebla, east of Mexico City. The deal allows Whitney to offer classes using UDLA’s brand name. The classes will meet once a week in person and otherwise be conducted online, Mr. Best said.

“You need the name, you need the reputation [of a top school] if you’re going to reach the bottom of the pyramid,” Mr. Best said. “People at the bottom of the pyramid are more brand-conscious.”

By doing so much of its work online, with a standardized curriculum, Whitney can create massive cost savings, Mr. Best said. “We’re going to be offering the best college education in a country, we believe, at about an 80 percent reduction in cost,” he said. He also said that because course materials will be standardized, Whitney can maintain consistently high quality.

But J. Douglas Toma, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies U.S. universities’ work overseas, said he’s not sure cost savings on that scale are possible while maintaining quality. He points out that many domestic for-profit universities, despite potential cost savings, still charge higher tuition than an average community college.

“People are still willing to pay more for the convenience that a University of Phoenix can provide,” he said. “But cutting costs 80 percent seems like a stretch.”

Whitney officials counter with an example from Dr. Prahalad’s book. In American hospitals, a cataract operation costs more than $1,600. But Aravind, an eye-care company in India, performs the same surgery for about $10.

Aravind’s leaders are able to keep costs low by stripping away luxuries like single-patient operating rooms. Instead of buying medical supplies on the open market, Aravind manufactures its own to control costs. And because its prices are so low, Aravind can generate the volume of patients necessary to generate serious cash flow – which then helps finance free care for the poorest patients.

“I want to reach everybody,” Mr. Best said.

Whitney is in talks with Politecnico Grancolombiano, a 25-year-old university in Bogota, Colombia, plus colleges in Brazil and China. After that, the company’s plans include Eastern Europe, the Middle East and India.

Online curriculum

The online curriculum will include videos, readings and discussion forums. While Mr. Best said qualified professors would produce Whitney’s course materials, they won’t necessarily be the ones presenting lectures to students online.

The company recently advertised for Dallas-area actors to pretend to be professors for online video versions of their courses. The ads sought a 30-something Hispanic to play the role of a “Portuguese-speaking on-camera ‘professor’ for college course video.” It also advertised for a Middle Eastern actor to play a similar role in Arabic.

To lead his new company, Mr. Best sought out Dr. Heeger, who had been president of the University of Maryland University College. It enrolls more than 90,000 nontraditional students, many of them accessing online courses overseas.

Whitney isn’t the only company chasing Laureate in this market. The Carlyle Group – a private equity firm known for its ties to former President George Bush – recently purchased Universidad Latinoamericana, which has three campuses in Mexico. The Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix, has launched joint ventures in China and India.

But analysts say the markets overseas are large enough that many companies can be profitable serving them. “I would expect other entrants in the field and that they’ll all be successful,” said Chris Symanoskie, Laureate’s director of corporate communications.

Company’s ambitious goal: Redefine high school; New curriculum to include college credit, career focus

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 8A

Of all the new education companies funded by Randy Best, the least developed is Early College, which was formed as a Delaware corporation last June.

But the early stage of its development doesn’t mean its ambitions – to reimagine the American high school – are any smaller.

“The day that this program is introduced in a high school, people will have the sense that 21st-century education didn’t arrive over a period of time – it arrived that day,” Mr. Best said. “It redefines school.”

Early College’s goal is to tie the final years of high school into a college education and preparation for a career. Students enrolled in the college’s programs would be able to graduate with both a high school diploma and up to 60 hours of college credit, or roughly two years’ worth.

Company officials say it is too early to talk about their plans in detail. But they say their programs will be in schools this fall. Mr. Best said his company is in talks with a handful of rural Texas school districts, along with some of the largest urban districts in the country.

Like Mr. Best’s previous education company, Early College seems tied to the national mood in education reform. His Voyager Expanded Learning flourished at a time when education leaders were searching for new ways to teach reading. Early College comes as President Bush and others are talking more about the need for systemic high school reform.

“A lot of this is informed by the current administration’s agenda,” said Trace Urden, an analyst at the investment banking firm Baird who tracks the education market.

About 80 Early College employees have set up shop in a low-slung office building near the Trinity River, writing an entire curriculum from scratch. And while some criticize the commercialization of public education, Mr. Best does not apologize for channeling his work through a for-profit company.

“I’m going to spend here to create our program about $40 million,” he said. “Who can afford to do that and take that risk on an unproven program? Only big publishers or big for-profit companies. There’s not a not-for-profit I’m aware of, other than the Gates Foundation, who can take that risk and pull together the expertise to do that.”

How, exactly, that $40 million curriculum will reach students is still unclear. Mr. Best said his company is not interested in managing schools on its own or on a contract with districts. He said that Early College will sell a “learning system” – “it’s more than just a curriculum” – to districts.

To lead Early College, Mr. Best hired David Irons, whose background is in management of textbook companies such as McGraw-Hill and Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

“It has been a much stickier issue than we’d ever imagined,” Mr. Best said. “We’ve had to come up with a far more elaborate response to the problem than we ever imagined going in.”

A major focus of Early College is career training. For example, a draft version of an Early College internal Web site illustrates the focus on a career path. One page on the site tells theoretical students how close they are to achieving their goals: “Welcome back, Mark. You are 20 percent of the way toward becoming a High School Principal.”

“It makes a huge amount of sense to say, ‘You’re a junior now; it’s time to start thinking about what you’re going to do,’ ” Mr. Urden said.

Early College matches up well with the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which ranks high school reform as a top priority.

“We have been in conversations with his organization,” said Marie Groark, a senior policy officer at the Gates Foundation. “He seems to have combined a number of good ideas into one program. And he clearly is creating a product that many urban superintendents may find appealing.”

Mr. Best said the Dallas Independent School District would not be one of the initial sites for Early College, even though a number of top former DISD officials are on his payroll. But he said he is talking to a number of the nation’s largest urban districts, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York.

The basic idea of Early College is not new. Many Dallas-area students can already take classes at local community colleges that earn both high school and college credit. Richland College is launching the Richland Collegiate High School this fall, and the University of North Texas received a $1.8 million grant in February to develop similar schools.

But those are all public institutions, and some analysts say it will be harder for a for-profit company to crack the market.

“Blending public schools with for-profit colleges, that’s oil and water,” Mr. Urden said. “But if they can crack the code of how to reach into high schools without freaking out the public school establishment, that could be a very big innovation in the career colleges area.”

Mr. Best isn’t daunted. He said his years of experience with Voyager have given him the knowledge to navigate the public school world. And he said the moment is right for a radical change in high schools.

“The greatest problem, I think, in education is inertia,” he said. “And in my judgment, America is ready for high school reform. I think our model that we will share soon is a transformational model.”

Moses busy in private sector; Ex-DISD leader works on education ventures, sits on corporate boards

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 15A

For Mike Moses, the business world is not foreign territory. He worked for several private companies during his later years in top public education jobs.

But now the former Dallas superintendent and state education commissioner has made a full-time leap into the world of for-profit education, both as an employee and as an investor.

“Is every problem in education going to be solved within the system?” Dr. Moses asked recently. “When I was superintendent, I thought it was my job to try. But I knew there were people on the outside who can help us.”

Dr. Moses is chairman of the board of the American College of Education, the new for-profit teacher-training effort founded by Dallas businessman Randy Best. He’s also an investor in the company and chairs the operating committee that runs its day-to-day activities. He also sits on the boards of two publicly traded companies.

“I’m doing the same work I’ve been doing, working with teachers and educators,” Dr. Moses said of his new position with ACE. “The perspective has changed maybe a little bit. But I’m still working on things I like to work on.”

In demand

When Mr. Best hired Dr. Moses to run ACE, it wasn’t the first time he had sought his services. Mr. Best said he had tried to lure Dr. Moses to Voyager Expanded Learning, his previous education company, when Dr. Moses resigned as state education commissioner in 1999. In the end, Dr. Moses decided not to move to Voyager, instead becoming deputy chancellor of the Texas Tech University System.

Dr. Moses’ relationships with private companies date back to his days in public education. Since the growth of the for-profit education industry in the 1990s, public superintendents doing side work with for-profits have become increasingly common. Many districts ask that superintendents disclose potential conflicts of interest, and Dr. Moses said he always did so.

Although he did not become a full-time Voyager employee, Dr. Moses did work as a consultant for the company while at Texas Tech. He said his role included helping Voyager develop its strategy for reading instruction. “I was paid a nominal consulting fee for that,” he said of the Voyager work. “It was on a very limited basis. It was fully disclosed.”

But it was a point of contention in December 2002, when some Dallas Independent School District trustees raised questions about a new district contract with Voyager. At that point, DISD’s associate superintendent for curriculum was Carmyn Neely, who had spent five years at Voyager.

Dr. Moses responded tersely to the concerns in a memo to trustees. He said both he and Dr. Neely had recused themselves from making any recommendation on the Voyager contract.

“Frankly, if trustees do not want us to avail ourselves of these kinds of materials, I can live with that,” he wrote. “However, any inference that we have not acted properly, legally and ethically in this regard is inaccurate.”

He included with that letter to trustees a memo from district lawyers defending the Voyager purchase. Dallas officials refused to release a copy of that memo, citing attorney-client privilege.

Along with Voyager, Dr. Moses disclosed to trustees four other companies he had worked for while at Texas Tech: the textbook publisher Harcourt, the Internet company Academic Planet, the Texas Association of School Administrators and the financial firm William R. Hough & Co.

“When I left being commissioner of education, I was fortunate that there were a number of people who asked me to serve in different capacities,” he said in a recent interview.

Lucrative work

That outside work gave Dr. Moses a substantial income. Hough, for instance, paid him more than $70,000 over 15 months, according to public filings, to assist “in developing business relationships throughout the State of Texas.” Later, during Dr. Moses’ time as superintendent, DISD hired Hough to sell a portion of about $30 million in tax notes for the district.

His employment contract as superintendent allotted him 10 days a year to work for outside companies. Among his clients was the Houston law firm Bracewell & Patterson, which along with its legal work helps Texas districts find new superintendents.

Bracewell & Patterson had done about $7,500 worth of legal work for DISD in the late 1990s. Days after taking office in January 2001, Dr. Moses recommended that trustees give more work to the firm because of its expertise in special-education law and school finance. Over the next three-plus years, DISD paid the law firm about $718,000.

At the time, Dr. Moses denied any conflict of interest regarding either Bracewell or Hough. He ceased his work with Bracewell once The Dallas Morning News wrote about it.

Dallas trustee Hollis Brashear said that Dr. Moses did not hide his business relationships from the board. “Dr. Moses had a pretty illustrious career, and it would make sense for him to be sought out as a consultant,” he said. “That would not raise a flag for us.”

Dr. Moses declined to say what he was being paid in his new role as chairman of the ACE board.

As a private citizen, his compensation is his own business, so it is difficult to know how it compares with the $341,000 he earned as one of the highest paid superintendents in the country.

Along with his work at ACE, Dr. Moses now sits on the boards of two publicly traded companies.

Dr. Moses joined the board of Trammell Crow, a commercial real estate company, four weeks after leaving the superintendency. Dr. Moses is paid about $80,000 in cash and stock for his work each year, according to public filings. A Dallas spokesman said the district has no business relationships with Trammell Crow.

Dr. Moses also gets paid at least $17,000 for sitting on the board of SWS Group, which, primarily under the name Southwest Securities, helps school districts, including DISD, sell construction bonds.

Southwest Securities began doing work for DISD well before Dr. Moses joined the district in 2000, and that work has continued.

Entrepreneur pursues dream of building educational empire; After run of successes in other fields, he sees bright future in for-profit schools

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Second of three parts

Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best has owned more than 100 companies in his career.

Bakeries and defense contractors. Greeting-card makers and health-care companies. Companies that sell telecom equipment and companies that sell cheerleading equipment.

But now, at 63, his focus is fully on education. Mr. Best is launching a network of for-profit education companies that he says could revolutionize the way students are taught, both in the U.S. and around the world.

“We want to help train the next generation of educators,” said Mr. Best, who has raised $50 million for the project, with much more to come.

If he is successful, his private companies will move into roles traditionally held by public educators or nonprofit colleges. He wants American high schools to buy his curriculum. He wants them to pay his companies to train their teachers. And he wants to sell college education from Bogotá to Beijing.

He says his companies can make the world a better place – and do it at costs low enough to turn a profit, even with bargain-basement tuition.

He’s gone after some big names. Rod Paige, a former secretary of education, sits on his companies’ boards and serves as a senior adviser. Mike Moses, a former Dallas Independent School District superintendent and state education commissioner, is a key executive.

There are three major Best-funded education businesses:

*Early College, a still nebulous plan to offer students the chance to earn college credit while they finish high school;

*The Whitney International University System, a global chain of for-profit universities;

*The American College of Education, an attempt to build the first national college of education.

It’s difficult, at this early stage, to tell whether these ventures will produce a high-quality education. But some analysts believe they have a good shot at making money.

“They’re on to some ideas that could be very successful,” said Trace Urden, an analyst who covers the for-profit education market for the financial services firm Baird. “They’re spending Randy’s money, and I wouldn’t count them out in a head-to-head competition with anybody.”

Entrepreneurial career

Mr. Best first took interest in education in the early 1990s. He had enjoyed a long career as an entrepreneur, beginning with the class-ring business he founded in college – and later sold, at age 25, for $10 million. He went on to found or acquire dozens of businesses through his company Best Associates and an earlier incarnation, Mason Best.

In 1994, he founded Voyager Expanded Learning, a company that initially provided after-school programs in public schools. Later, Voyager shifted its focus to selling a prepackaged, phonics-based reading curriculum to schools.

Despite losing money for its first eight years, Voyager became a business success. More than 1,000 school districts have purchased its curriculum products. Company officials point to studies that have shown Voyager improves student test scores, although some of those studies were funded by Voyager. Some prominent reading specialists, such as Yale neuroscientist Sally Shaywitz, have expressed support for Voyager’s products.

But Voyager has sparked controversy in some education circles. Some don’t like the approach of its curriculum, which is more scripted than some other reading methods. But much of the criticism comes from perceptions that Voyager sells its curriculum to school districts through connections rather than quality.

In Voyager’s early days, Mr. Best attracted a number of top local education officials to his payroll, including DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery and Richardson ISD Superintendent Vernon Johnson. Both men had agreed to allow Voyager to offer its programs in their schools in the months before leaving their positions.

Voyager later hired Jim Nelson, the Texas education commissioner at the time.

Voyager also was known for its political connections. During President Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Mr. Best volunteered to be a “Pioneer,” meaning he pledged to raise $100,000 for the campaign from friends and family. (Records indicate he did not reach the goal.)

Voyager officials strongly dispute the criticisms.

“Voyager’s success is very much founded in results,” said Voyager spokesman Chris Cook, pointing out that 95 percent of the districts that buy Voyager products become repeat customers.

Knowing the system

Mr. Best defends his hiring of top public officials – a pattern he has repeated with ACE. “We really know K-12 and how to navigate that system,” he said. “I’ve hired a lot of people from that system. And the main reason I did that was so my initiatives would be taken seriously. They know Randy Best doesn’t know anything about education. But I try to hire people who are respected.”

Mr. Best sold Voyager to Michigan-based ProQuest in January 2005 for $361 million. By then, Mr. Best was already moving on to new ventures.

One was the American College of Education, a new national teacher-training college.

Mr. Best says his interest in the education business was inspired in part by his mother, a schoolteacher. “She taught about 6,000 students over 50 years, but looking back, what she taught was not scientific,” he said. “We want predictability, consistent outcomes.”

Top researcher

Perhaps the most important part of that effort is a researcher named Reid Lyon.

In November 2002, Dr. Lyon sat in front of a Washington crowd of policy wonks and said the words that would come to define his public image. “You know, if there was any piece of legislation that I could pass, it would be to blow up colleges of education,” he said. “Those are some of the most resistant, recalcitrant places you will ever get to.”

Dr. Lyon was then a top boss at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, after an academic career that included stops at Northwestern University and the University of Vermont. He was also a key adviser to the Bush administration on education issues, an architect of its Reading First program.

One move to Dallas later, Dr. Lyon is ACE’s senior adviser in charge of research. Dr. Lyon believes most education schools are too wrapped up in ideological battles and not rigorous enough in teaching techniques that actually improve student achievement. He said ACE would filter through competing claims and determine reality, using sound research and brain science.

“There is a knowable truth, and we can find it,” he said.

Some people in traditional colleges of education say that Dr. Lyon’s criticisms can be extreme but that they are not without merit. “I got quoted once saying we prepared plumbers in this country better than we prepared teachers,” said Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, which is a part-owner of ACE.

Dr. Radner said ACE’s standardization is an interesting alternative to traditional academic freedom. “At a university, it’s idiosyncratic – the professor is powerful,” she said. “This is Reid Lyon’s big annoyance. A professor can say, ‘I’m going to teach this,’ and he can do it no matter what the evidence says.”

Beyond Dr. Lyon, ACE has attracted many people from other for-profit education companies and the Dallas school district – and not just Dr. Moses.

Carmyn Neely is a senior vice president of ACE’s parent company, Higher Ed Holdings. Before that, she was DISD’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Her husband, Joe Neely – a special assistant to the superintendent during Dr. Moses’ time in DISD and a former Rockwall superintendent – is also a senior vice president.

Mr. Best also hired another prominent Dallasite: Rena Pederson, who spent 31 years at The Dallas Morning News, most of it as editor of the paper’s editorial page. She is now spokeswoman for Mr. Best’s new companies.

The test for the American College of Education will be Chicago.

ACE opened for business there in October, and it has received a contract with Chicago Public Schools to run a master’s degree program. The 25 students in ACE’s first class are teachers and other district employees who Chicago officials believe might someday make good principals.

Most colleges of education get their students the traditional way: Students hear about their programs and decide to enroll. ACE plans to get most of its business by contracting directly with school districts, which would supply the students and pay a portion of their tuition.

Wave of retirements

Arne Duncan, Chicago’s superintendent, said the coming wave of baby-boomer retirements would require the district to train dozens of new principals. “Obviously we’re early on, but I’m hopeful it will work out well,” he said of the district’s deal with ACE. “The feedback I’ve gotten from our aspiring principals has been very positive so far.”

Mr. Duncan said he was introduced to ACE by Dr. Paige. “We talked once or twice” after he left office, Mr. Duncan said, “then he started to put this team together. He was getting something going very interesting.”

About half of the program’s course content is taught in spare Chicago school classrooms, after the regular school day. The other half is delivered online, through documents and discussions that students access at home.

Danusia Gerlach is a math specialist in Chicago schools and one of the students in ACE’s inaugural class. She said she was initially hesitant about taking education classes from a company based in Texas, known in some circles for a test-heavy approach to education. “I don’t have a real positive view of Texas,” she said.

But she said she has been happy with her experiences. “I really enjoy the classes, actually,” she said. “The instructors share their experiences and really tie things into practice. It’s very well-presented.” The online component has been good for collaboration and getting feedback from classmates and instructors, she said.

Ruby Everage, a math and science specialist, said she liked the convenience ACE’s classes offered. The first course in the master’s program, taught by former Woodrow Wilson High School principal Judy Zimny, was outstanding, she said – but a more recent course was lackluster.

“It’s a great bargain,” she said. “I do plan to continue, and I am satisfied.”

Since ACE has only been in operation since October – and on a very small scale – it’s too early to judge its quality. There’s not enough data, Dr. Lyon said, and “we’re all about analyzing data.”

ACE is only one player in a competitive teacher-education market in Chicago, with several established universities offering similar master’s degree programs. But ACE’s tuition, at $1,000 a course, is slightly below most in the market, and the idea of a new approach to training educators appeals to many districts.

“Like most districts across the country, we are aware that the master’s degree programs for administrators need to be revised,” said Nancy Laho, who leads Chicago’s principal-training programs. “There has to be some connection made between the theory and what it looks like when you’re standing there in that role.”

Making money

ACE believes it can do that, and at a profit – even though it plans to offer cut-rate tuition.

Teacher training programs are traditionally moneymakers for colleges. At the same conference where he made his famous comments about colleges of education, Dr. Lyon noted their profitability. “We talk to deans and presidents all the time, and of course they have a business situation with colleges of education,” he said.

“Those colleges of education generate a heck of a lot of credit-hour production, tuition dollars. Those tuition dollars pay the physics professors where you don’t have a lot of money going in there, studentwise.”

Master’s degree programs, in particular, are known as cash generators for colleges of education. That’s because school districts generally pay their teachers more if they have a master’s. (In DISD, the annual pay bump ranges from $1,000 to around $6,000, depending on a teacher’s experience.) Some districts even require teachers to pursue a master’s.

ACE’s own budget projections, filed with Illinois regulators, reflect the company’s optimism. It expects to be generating $4.6 million in revenues annually by 2009. And it expects a profit margin of around 21 percent.

But Mr. Best said that even the relatively low tuition ACE currently charges in Chicago would be cut severely when the company expands. Because ACE will use public-school classrooms instead of a traditional campus – and because it plans to rely heavily on online learning – he expects tuition to be around 20 percent to 25 percent of what other colleges charge. ACE plans to make up the difference in volume.

“Our dream is to be truly the first national college of education,” Mr. Best said. ACE officials expect to have operations in Texas this fall and are in talks with districts in at least three other states.

When ACE officials met with Texas regulators last fall, they produced a document titled “The Big ‘To Do’ List.” It outlines the company’s plans to expand, including offering a full bachelor’s degree program.

Then comes an expansion “in all 50 states” and a broadening of ACE into other subjects, from engineering to law. The final step on “The Big ‘To Do’ List,” the only item in bold print: “Expand everything internationally.”

In addition, ACE has hired two lobbyists from the Dallas law firm Locke Liddell & Sapp to work on its behalf in Washington, particularly on the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. The version of that bill passed by the House in March includes $300 million in federal grants for teacher training programs – many of which ACE could be eligible for in partnership with states and school districts.

Lessons learned

Dr. Moses acknowledged that the company has had to learn some lessons in its early days. ACE initially planned to teach more students in its current Chicago program and to charge them more in tuition, but both numbers have been scaled back.

Plans originally called for a Dallas operation to launch this fall, but Mr. Best said the company’s immediate Texas plans have shifted to rural districts. ACE has not yet officially sought state approval to open a Texas campus, a process that takes several months. Spokesmen for both the Dallas and Houston school districts said there have not yet been any talks with any of the Best companies about a business relationship.

“Right now, our main thrust is getting our courses developed,” Dr. Moses said. “Getting our degree programs in place, getting those properly authorized, and we’ll see how that expands out.”

But he said he has high hopes for how the American College of Education can outperform the status quo – even with the added pressure of having to turn a profit.

“My dad was head of the school of education at Stephen F. Austin for 20 years,” he said of the state university in Nacogdoches. “We’re not diminishing anything that anybody else is doing. But I’ll hold up what we’re doing. We have assembled a pretty talented group of people, and I think we’re going to produce something good.”

Regional accreditation ‘the gold standard'; Colleges work hard to earn — or buy — key stamp of quality

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 19A

American colleges and universities have to negotiate a complex network of approvals and accreditations to be successful.

The most important come from state officials, who typically grant colleges the right to operate and grant degrees. Without state approval, colleges generally can’t open their doors.

But the most prestigious stamp of quality a college can get is regional accreditation. Six regional bodies exist to evaluate colleges and their academic programs, leadership and financial stability.

Nearly every prominent university in the country is regionally accredited, from the Ivy League to the University of Texas. There are forms of national accreditation that are considered less prestigious, used most often by trade schools and career colleges.

But many employers, licensing agencies and graduate schools won’t accept degrees or transfer credits from colleges that aren’t regionally accredited. For instance, Texas regulators generally won’t let an out-of-state college open a branch campus in Texas unless it is regionally accredited.

“That’s viewed as the gold standard,” said Sean Gallagher, a senior analyst at Eduventures, a company that tracks the for-profit education market. “Colleges work very hard to get it.”

Or, increasingly, they buy it.

Easing access

It has become more and more common for for-profit companies to purchase struggling not-for-profit colleges, particularly small schools in the Midwest. And they are often motivated, at least in part, by a desire to ease access to accreditation or other permits.

But in most cases, the colleges were either trade schools or maintained a significant portion of their past identity after the sale – keeping the name or campus, maintaining academic staff, or continuing to enroll the same students.

Perhaps the closest analog to the Barat sale was the financial collapse of Jordan College, a small chain of not-for-profit colleges in Michigan. It offered primarily career training to a population of poor and nontraditional students, some of them on welfare.

Jordan ran into financial difficulties in the early 1990s, including a federal inquiry into misspending grant money. It shut down in 1995.

For-profit colleges must meet relatively tough requirements before they can open in Michigan. But the University of Phoenix wanted an entry to the state’s market. So it bought Jordan’s paper remains, including its state authorizations, and used them to open Phoenix campuses.

When a for-profit buys a college, accreditors generally still require the purchaser to meet a number of standards, on things like academic offerings and financial stability.

For instance, North Central has required the American College of Education to answer a number of questions about its library facilities and other matters. But buying an existing college still gives a start-up a big jump in accreditation.

Contrast ACE’s story with another recent start-up, Ave Maria College. The conservative Catholic college is the brainchild of Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, and opened its doors in Ypsilanti, Mich., in 1998.

Michigan is in North Central’s jurisdiction, so Ave Maria applied for accreditation with the agency in 2002. As a start-up college, it had to go through the standard process: an application, a site visit, a promotion to “candidate” status, and eventually accreditation. Four years later, it still hasn’t reached that final stage.

Ron Muller, the college’s former president, acknowledged that Ave Maria searched for a dying college it might be able to buy out. That would have sped up Michigan’s difficult state approval process. But it had no luck.

“In Michigan, there was no kind of wobbly institution that we could make a deal with, but we did look,” he said.

Under Michigan’s rules, Ave Maria couldn’t even call itself a college legally in its early days. It went by the name Ave Maria Institute instead.

“There’s a certain element of trust in enrolling in an institution, and it’s a handicap” not being fully accredited, Dr. Muller said. It may have pushed some students away, he said, and limited students’ access to federal financial aid.

(As it turns out, Ave Maria will never reach full accreditation with North Central. The college’s leaders have decided to move the campus to a new site in Florida, which falls outside North Central’s jurisdiction.)

Dr. Muller said he was surprised North Central would allow Barat’s accreditation to transfer to ACE. “The accrediting people want to assure good student outcomes and make sure real learning is going on,” he said. “How can you demonstrate that before you open your doors?”

Friendly reputation

North Central has a reputation among some as being friendly to for-profit and other nontraditional forms of higher education. For example, it was North Central that accredited the for-profit University of Phoenix in 1978. The founders had moved their operation from California to Arizona two years earlier because California’s regional accreditor had considered the school a diploma mill.

But several education observers said that other accreditors have become more like North Central in recent years, approving for-profit and nontraditional institutions regularly.

“It’s very troubling, because if North Central has done it, others will do it, too,” said James Perley, a retired college dean and chairman of the American Association of University Professors’ accreditation committee. “North Central stands out as the star among the group.”

Steven Crow, executive director of North Central’s Higher Learning Commission, defended his organization’s standards.

“We know their ultimate goal is to make some money, but you can make money and still do a good piece of work,” he said of ACE. “We were told the intent of ACE was to actually breathe life into those programs that were the largest at Barat.”

He said North Central would ensure that ACE’s promises are actually being met.

For students, for profit, or for both?; Dallas firm’s tactics spur debate over buying accreditation

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

For a newborn college, the road to respectability runs through accreditation. It can take a school up to a decade to earn the nation’s official mark of quality.

But last year some Dallas investors, keen to quickly launch a profitable revolution in higher education, found a shortcut to accreditation.

They bought it.

Whether that was a legitimate purchase is hotly debated. But there’s no question that the new school embodies the tensions between traditional academic values and a new movement toward no-frills, assembly-line for-profit education that claims it can be both cheaper and better.

The American College of Education – whose leaders include former Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige – bought a dying Catholic school in suburban Chicago named Barat College.

ACE didn’t buy Barat’s campus. It didn’t keep any of Barat’s professors or students. It isn’t legally allowed to use Barat’s name, and ACE isn’t using any part of its curriculum. But ACE did buy Barat’s accreditation with the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

So far, North Central has agreed to let ACE keep it. When ACE held its first classes in Chicago last October – with no campus and a faculty that commuted from Dallas – it was every bit as accredited as Harvard and Yale.

North Central’s directory of schools even lists ACE as being accredited since 1943 – even though the school didn’t exist until 2005.

Some in academia have cried foul. A member of the American Association of University Professors committee that watches over accreditation issues said the situation “sickened” her.

“It really bothers me that you have someone essentially buying an institution in name only. It’s a shell game,” said Denise Tanguay, an associate dean at Eastern Michigan University. “It’s the people who make up the quality of an institution; it’s not the name or a piece of paper. … If all of the folks who staffed Barat College are now gone, then you don’t have anything left to accredit.”

ACE’s leaders say they’re rewriting the rules, not breaking them. Their goal is to create the country’s first national college of education. They want to supplant the education-school establishment, injecting business values of efficiency and profitability into what they see as the expensive and fuzzy-headed schools that produce America’s teachers and principals.

Its first effort is in Chicago, but it hopes to open programs from coast to coast by this fall, featuring a standardized curriculum and tuition that will eventually drop to a small fraction of its competition’s. Accreditation is a vital part of that plan, because it opens the legal doors to expansion, gives credibility to the fledgling enterprise, and allows ACE’s students to receive federal financial aid.

ACE’s founder, Dallas businessman Randy Best, argues it was legitimate to keep Barat’s accreditation, partly because the college had to meet other academic and financial requirements and partly because it shares some of Barat’s philosophy.

“We didn’t want to be a brand-new college of education,” he said. “We wanted a history. We wanted to be a continuation of a tradition. Whether that was right or wrong, that was very much in our minds.”

But ACE’s claim to Barat’s history has angered some of the old college’s loyalists – not to mention those who believe ACE should have to earn its accreditation the traditional way.

“I find it fraudulent and crassly misleading,” Sister Sally Furay, a former Barat College board member, law professor and member of the religious order that founded Barat in 1858, wrote in response to questions from The News. “If ACE wants to adopt some of the same values [as Barat], advocated by numerous good institutions, that is their prerogative. But it is false and deceptive to claim a nonexistent connection to Barat College.”

The Barat deal looks much less controversial to investment experts.

“From a business perspective, it’s a pretty logical approach, a ‘buy rather than build’ approach,” said Sean Gallagher, a senior analyst at Eduventures, which tracks the for-profit education market. “If it’s going to take a couple years to get accreditation, those years are very valuable from an investment perspective.”

Founder’s vision

Mr. Best, ACE’s founder, is best known in education circles for his last company, Voyager Expanded Learning, which sells a phonics-based reading curriculum to public schools. Mr. Best sold it to a Michigan company last year for $361 million.

His new idea is to build the first truly national college of education, training teachers and principals across the country. Today’s teachers aren’t being taught key practical and research-based methods for reaching children, he said. Mr. Best said he wants to cut the cost of teacher training by about 80 percent, by standardizing the curriculum and replacing some in-person class time with online education.

“I believe that public education has to take responsibility itself for its instructional quality,” he said. “To me, that means that public school districts need to act as colleges of education. I want to be their supplier.”

He hopes to link ACE with the other education businesses he is launching: a chain of global for-profit universities and a college-level curriculum he hopes to sell to high schools.

ACE has assembled an all-star group of educators for the effort. Dr. Moses came on board not long after resigning as Dallas ISD’s superintendent in August 2004.

“If you look back in the mid-’90s, a lot of people were asking the private sector to become more interested in education,” Dr. Moses said. “And so you saw a lot of people step up – textbook companies, technology companies, a lot of literacy companies, including Voyager. I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

Mr. Best also brought in Mr. Paige, the former Houston superintendent and education secretary, to be a board member and a senior adviser. Other board members included a former commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, a former Houston school board president, and a senior vice president of the testing company ACT.

From the start, the company’s leadership team had big dreams: programs all around the country, online learning, contracting with school districts to improve their professional development programs. But ACE needed a place to start.

That ended up being the remains of a dying college in suburban Chicago.

Barat College (pronounced BERR-uh) was founded in 1858 as an academy for young women by the Society of the Sacred Heart, an order of Catholic nuns. It expanded to a four-year college in 1919 and was named for the order’s since-sainted founder, Madeleine Sophie Barat.

The college trained generations of young women in the liberal arts, including many who went on to become teachers. As a Catholic institution, it had a strong focus on issues of social justice and serving the poor. It was heavily influenced by Bernard Sheil, the controversial Chicago archbishop who was an outspoken advocate for the poor and marginalized.

Barat produced a number of notable alumnae, including the first female mayor of Chicago, but its history was not always happy. Enrollment was often below 1,000 students, and financial difficulties were common. It switched to a nonreligious board of directors and started accepting men as students, but money was always short.

In 2001, Barat merged itself into the DePaul University system of campuses, the largest Catholic university in America.

DePaul invested millions in improving Barat’s campus and building new academic programs. But enrollment did not increase as much as hoped, and in February 2004, DePaul’s board voted to close Barat the following spring and sell its assets.

Striking a deal

More than a dozen organizations expressed interest, including Mr. Best’s Dallas start-up. Negotiations ensued, and in March 2005, DePaul announced that a deal had been struck. Both sides have declined to disclose the terms, but according to public records filed with the state of Illinois, DePaul became a part owner of ACE in the transaction.

“They had the resources to be successful,” DePaul spokeswoman Denise Mattson said. “They had people, an expert team, and the finances to succeed, where some others had more of an idea and the promise or hope of success.”

What exactly did ACE purchase? It bought Barat’s 15,000-volume library – about a third the size of a small Dallas branch library – and some computer equipment. But it kept only one Barat employee: the college’s librarian.

It also did not purchase the campus, which was later sold separately to a housing developer. Mr. Best said the fact that he did not have to buy Barat’s campus was one of the biggest reasons ACE bought it instead of some other college.

Most important, the sale included “permits and other authorizations by or of governmental authorities, education agencies, or other third parties,” including its accreditation.

Accreditation is extremely valuable to a for-profit college. For example, Texas law does not allow out-of-state colleges to expand to Texas unless they are accredited. ACE hopes to start operations in Texas this fall. If it had had to go through the normal accreditation process – which commonly takes four years or more – such an expansion could have been delayed several years.

Former Barat officials and employees said the Barat tradition is more than shelves of library books and a few permits.

“ACE has had no relationship with the real educational business of Barat College: its faculty, its students, its broad liberal arts curriculum, its spiritual roots, and the long Catholic heritage, all of which made Barat College what it was,” Sister Furay wrote. “ACE has no genuine link with this heritage.”

Dr. Tanguay, the Eastern Michigan dean, said she believes accreditation should not be passed along as an asset. “They should be starting from scratch,” she said.

In Barat’s footsteps?

But ACE officials say they are serving as guardians of Barat’s mission. Dr. Moses points out that the education department was Barat’s largest and that it offered master’s degrees in education. At the moment, ACE’s only academic program is a master’s degree program in education, in which 25 Chicago public-school teachers are currently enrolled.

“It’s a continuation of the Barat mission,” said Dr. Moses, who now chairs ACE’s board and served for a time as its CEO. “Their mission was to serve urban and suburban students in the field of education, and other offerings as well. We’re a continuation.”

Within two years, ACE officials say, they hope to add programs in business and computer science, which were also popular offerings at Barat. It hopes to eventually add bachelor’s degrees, too.

And as ACE hires more professors based in Chicago – rather than those who commute from Dallas, as most have so far – it may hire some former Barat faculty, said ACE spokeswoman Rena Pederson, a former editor at The News.

“We were very interested in a number of things that Barat College provides – the tradition, the mission,” said Joe May, ACE’s vice president for administrative services. “Our agreement was that we would pick up where Barat had ended, and that’s exactly what we did. We’ll be putting our own stamp on it.”

At least one former top Barat official has no problem with ACE’s actions. The Rev. Edward Udovic was president at Barat at the time of the ACE sale. He said that while former Barat officials may have emotional attachments to the old school, the sale of assets to ACE was appropriate. “There is a distinction between Barat College and Barat Campus, and DePaul divested them as separate entities, even though some people with an historic connection to the campus do not separate the two,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Best said he would have liked to purchase one other part of Barat: its name. Despite the pronunciation problems it poses, “We thought it was a neat name. It would have been perfect to use the name in our name,” perhaps as the Barat American College of Education. But a group of alumni and supporters did not want the name to be sold.

After reviewing some of ACE’s promotional material – in which it says it “will embrace and build on the history of Barat College” – the American head of the Society of the Sacred Heart issued a statement wishing ACE no ill.

“Certainly, if the American College of Education provides prospective teachers with a quality education deeply rooted in spiritual values, we would wish them well,” wrote Sister Kathleen Conan, the religious order’s provincial based in St. Louis.

“But we would want them to do it in their name, not in ours.”

Regional accreditor

For colleges in Illinois, the regional accreditor is the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, specifically its Higher Learning Commission. North Central’s policies allow a college’s accreditation to be passed to a new owner if a number of criteria are met, including “that the academic programs will continue” and “that the institutional mission remains unchanged.”

“I think we’re looking for the spirit of the mission as much as the technical aspects of it,” said Karen Solinski, the accreditor’s assistant director for legal and governmental affairs. She said that ACE’s interest in teacher training matches up with Barat’s, even if the programs are not identical.

“The fact that they don’t have the exact same courses, that’s immaterial,” said North Central associate director Robert Appleson. “That’s getting into micromanagement.”

Steven Crow, North Central’s executive director, said that ACE’s current offerings are close enough to Barat’s – “A master’s of education is a master’s of education,” he said – to allow ACE to avoid the standard process. “The decision to transfer the accreditation was a reasonable decision,” he said.

ACE officials say critics are off base. “Nothing could be further from the truth than to say we purchased the accreditation,” Ms. Pederson said. She noted that ACE still had to submit a large number of documents to verify its financial stability, its governance structure and the quality of its academic programs.

“That is an excruciating process,” Mr. Best said. “I bet you we prepared a book 3, 4 inches thick.”

ACE officials also had to undergo a site visit by a North Central team in February. That team recommended approving the transfer of Barat’s accreditation to ACE. That transfer must still be formally approved by North Central’s board, but Dr. Crow said he is “confident they will validate it.”

Ms. Solinski acknowledged that, had ACE not bought Barat’s assets but otherwise launched in exactly the same manner, it would be facing a multiyear wait for accreditation. “If it were a brand-new institution, it would be starting from scratch,” she said. “But that isn’t what happened.”

However, that’s how Illinois regulators see ACE.

All Illinois colleges must seek approval from the state’s Board of Higher Education to enroll students or grant degrees. When ACE bought Barat, it attempted to use Barat’s old state approvals. But state officials determined that ACE was not substantially continuing Barat College.

“As you are aware, we are treating this application as a request for a brand new institution in Illinois,” wrote S. Lynn Murphy, the board’s senior associate director, in an e-mail to ACE officials. “Continued references to Barat will only confuse things and raise additional questions.”

In the end, ACE had to apply on its own for operating authority, which was granted last summer. Gary Alexander, Dr. Murphy’s boss, said that ACE looks like a solid addition to the Illinois college market.

“They dealt with us very straightforwardly, and the quality of their product looks good,” he said. “We hope they can do the job.” But ACE had to go through the same state approval process other new colleges do.

When asked what Illinois regulators thought of North Central’s decision to let ACE keep Barat’s accreditation, Dr. Alexander said: “We were surprised at that. That’s as discreetly as I’ll put it.”

Bernard Ricca, an education professor at Barat until its closure, doesn’t blame DePaul or ACE for the accreditation dispute. “It really seems that DePaul had the legal right to do what they did, but it seems to me that North Central didn’t do their job,” he said. “Not based on whether ACE is good, bad or indifferent, because I don’t know. But there’s a problem with the process.”

College without doors

Just like Illinois, Texas requires colleges to seek state approval before opening their doors in the state. But Mr. Best said he believes he has found a way to deal with that rule: Just don’t have any doors.

ACE has not yet applied for operating authority from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a process that takes at least several months. But it wants to be able to start work in several rural Texas school districts this fall.

Mr. Best said ACE would legally be able to train Texas teachers without state approval as long as none of its instructors were physically in the state. Instead, they could be beamed over the Internet. That would mean ACE qualifies as a “distance learning” program under Texas law, which he said does not require state operating approval.

“The professor is there, but they’re online,” he said. “It could be live. But they aren’t in the state.”

To navigate the thickets of authorizations and accreditations, ACE recently hired a top lawyer from the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix. “This is a new world to me,” Mr. Best said.

But David Linkletter, a program specialist at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said he isn’t sure what Mr. Best describes would pass legal muster. And Dr. Crow at North Central said that ACE would need to seek a separate approval from his agency to offer distance-learning classes or to expand outside Illinois.

No matter where ACE expands, Barat loyalists say they’re upset with what the company has done in their small Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. Sheila Smith, a businesswoman who formerly chaired Barat’s board of trustees, now leads the Barat Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to continue Barat’s legacy by funding scholarships, women’s leadership programs and other efforts.

She said she is not opposed to for-profit education; for a time she actually tried to get her foundation to partner with a different for-profit college, Corinthian, to buy back Barat from DePaul.

But she said she finds it offensive that ACE is promoting its ties to Barat.

“I don’t think they are interested in Barat’s values,” she said. “I think they’re just in the education business. And that’s different.”

Analysis suggests cheating on TAKS; TEA consultant cites suspicious scores in 1 in 12 Texas schools in ’05

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

About one in 12 Texas schools had unusual TAKS results that suggest cheating occurred last year, according to a consultant hired by the Texas Education Agency.

The consultant, a Utah test security firm named Caveon, was hired after a Dallas Morning News series found suspicious scores in nearly 400 schools statewide, based on 2003 and 2004 testing results.

Caveon’s analysis, using 2005 TAKS results, found even more: 609 schools, or 8.6 percent of the state’s campuses.

But state officials say even those numbers are not a sign of cheating in Texas schools.

“Given the size of this program and the size of this state, yes, we had 600 campuses identified,” said Gloria Zyskowski, TEA’s director of test administration. “But we have over 5,000 campuses where the test was administered.

“While we take very seriously any allegations of cheating – we don’t take any of that lightly – I believe that for the most part these tests are being administered according to the guidelines provided by the state.”

The report, obtained using the Texas open records act, reopens a debate about the validity of results on the state’s top test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. TEA has traditionally left investigations into allegations of cheating to the districts, and few teachers or students are ever disciplined for wrongdoing.

Caveon’s report, like The News’ analysis, is based on an extended statistical analysis of student answer sheets. For example, it would flag a classroom where every student answered all the test’s questions in exactly the same way, or a classroom where very weak students made seemingly impossible gains in one year.

It would also catch classrooms in which an adult erased a large number of student answers after the test was completed.

The analysis found “statistical inconsistencies” in 609 of the 7,112 Texas public schools where testing was conducted last year. In many of those schools, only one classroom was found to have suspicious activity; in all, 702 classrooms statewide were identified.

Caveon’s report emphasizes that the statistical measures are not, by themselves, proof of cheating. In some cases, there may be another explanation for the unusual data patterns.

But the report says Caveon used “a very conservative statistical approach” that means “reasonable explanations of these inconsistencies by referring to normal circumstances become improbable.”

TEA does not plan to investigate each of the 609 campuses identified, and Dr. Zyskowski said the agency may not even release their names to school districts. “You want to be pretty cautious about releasing something like that,” she said. “As soon as something like that is posted, you have to be very cautious that it is as accurate as it can be.”

Instead, agency officials will compare the list with incident reports from 2005. Those reports are generated whenever an educator witnesses something improper during testing at his or her school. If no such report exists for a school on the Caveon list, Dr. Zyskowski said, it’s unlikely there would be any further investigation.

Self-investigation

If further investigation is warranted, TEA typically asks districts to investigate themselves. Dr. Zyskowski said the agency does not have the resources to look into many allegations of cheating.

“That’s sort of why we tend to be a little judicious, because we are limited in our resources,” she said. “So we can only look at a certain number of issues, and we try to look at those that appear to be most serious.”

The Caveon report also recommended increasing the number of staffers who monitor the testing process in suspicious schools. But Dr. Zyskowski said TEA does not have the staff to do that; additional personnel would have to come from school districts.

She defended the state testing system as fundamentally sound. State and federal government school accountability systems are based on test scores, which are a major driver of nearly everything in Texas public schools. “I really think that overall that it’s not as big of an issue as it sometimes is portrayed to be,” Dr. Zyskowski said.

The Caveon report did not name any of the schools it found, but it did provide examples without identifying them.

In one elementary school, 45 of the 262 answer sheets were exact duplicates of one another. An additional 29 students had perfect scores. In all, 141 answer sheets were flagged by the analysis, and Caveon says the chances of such a pattern happening naturally would be less than 1 in 1 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion – a 1 followed by 72 zeros.

The results also indicate the prevalence of cheating on the TAKS test with the highest stakes of all: the 11th-grade test, which students must pass to graduate.

The Caveon report does not break out suspicious incidents by grade level. But while it examined math and reading scores in grades three through 11, it looked at science and social studies scores only in 11th grade.

The study found suspicious scores in 4.8 percent of all 11th-grade science classrooms and 4.2 percent of 11th-grade social studies classrooms. Those figures are much higher than the 0.7 percent of math classrooms and 0.3 percent of reading classrooms flagged.

If those 11th-graders cheated on the TAKS test last year, they are probably graduating this month.

The News’ series on cheating was prompted by unusual scores in Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, the much-troubled district on Dallas’ southeast side. A News analysis found strong evidence of cheating in the district’s elementary schools.

For example, it found that Wilmer Elementary had Texas’ highest raw scores on the third-grade reading test in 2003 – despite the school’s abysmal academic track record and having one of the state’s most disadvantaged student bodies. Nearly every student at Wilmer had a perfect score on the exam.

The News’ findings prompted a state investigation into Wilmer-Hutchins that found evidence that two-thirds of the district’s elementary school teachers were helping students improperly on the exams, in some cases creating and distributing answer keys on test day.

As a result of those findings, the Wilmer-Hutchins school board was removed from office and the district is being dissolved. Later stories led to investigations, which led to educators being disciplined in Houston and Dallas.

The state’s reaction

In response to the News stories, state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said she did not think cheating was a significant problem. “If we have cheating on one campus, or in one classroom, that’s unacceptable,” she said in February 2005. “But I just don’t think it’s quite the widespread problem that it’s been reported to be.”

Still, her agency hired a test security firm as part of the renewal of its overall testing contract last year. That company is Caveon, which is led by former state and national testing officials.

Proving a cheating allegation after the fact is very difficult. Typically, discipline is not pursued against a cheating teacher unless there is eyewitness evidence of wrongdoing – something that can be hard to obtain. As of 2005, only two teachers had lost their teaching license because of cheating allegations in the previous decade.

That problem is compounded by the Caveon report’s long lag time – which covers alleged irregularities more than a year old. Dr. Zyskowski said she hopes the company’s analysis of 2006 data will arrive more quickly. Having two years of data will also make it easier to see patterns, she said.

Column: U.S. a failure at evaluating teachers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Three education stories that caught my eye this week:

Item: Federal officials announce that not one single state will meet a key requirement of the No Child Left Behind law: that all teachers in core academic subjects will be deemed “highly qualified” by this fall.

This comes as a surprise to no one. The teacher-quality portion of the law is among its most ridiculed, since its strange network of rules says some tremendous 20-year veterans aren’t good enough to teach but declares many rookies “highly qualified” before they’ve ever set foot in a classroom.

Item: A group called the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has come up with a process designed to recognize top-notch teachers: a much-touted credential it calls National Board Certification.

Hundreds of millions of public dollars have been spent promoting it.

So the board hires a noted researcher to prove that National Board teachers really produce better results in their students.

But the researcher finds the opposite: Kids whose teachers had National Board certification didn’t score any higher than anyone else.

The National Board, despite paying for the study and helping design it, declines to release the results publicly.

Item: The Washington Post reports that suburban kids, as an alternative to high-priced tutors, are hiring their homework helpers offshore. Companies are now hiring smart folks in India and elsewhere to offer one-on-one tutoring sessions to American teens over the Internet.

But American teacher unions say they think those overseas tutors should have to meet detailed American teacher-certification requirements before getting their hands on a big pot of federal money.

Three different stories, but one consistent theme: The ways we have to judge a teacher’s quality aren’t very good.

Check that: The ways the government has to judge a teacher’s quality aren’t very good. After all, wasn’t it always pretty easy to tell which teachers were good when you were a kid?

Miss Johnson always had a good lesson plan, had answers to all your questions and made you interested in the subject she was teaching. Miss Smith always took naps during “quiet time,” lectured in a dull monotone and sometimes seemed a textbook chapter behind her students.

Not too hard to tell the difference, is it? So why is it so hard for the government?

The problem is that teacher quality gets evaluated on credentials, not quality. How many hours of math classes you took in college. Whether you’ve filled out the paperwork for a certain certificate. Whether you’ve gone back to get a master’s degree.

The federal “highly qualified” standard, for instance, is primarily about what hoops a teacher has jumped through, not how good of a teacher she is.

But there are awful certified teachers and terrific uncertified ones. There are amazing teachers with just a bachelor’s degree and terrible ones with a doctorate. Plenty of research has shown that quality doesn’t align neatly with credentials.

Differentiating good teachers from bad ones has always been a touchy subject. Take salary. Great running backs get paid more than benchwarmers. Great trial lawyers get paid more than mediocre ones. So shouldn’t the best teachers get paid more than the worst?

In Dallas ISD, an amazingly talented 15-year veteran teacher makes $46,176. And a thoroughly mediocre 15-year veteran teacher makes…$46,176.

(There are a few ways those figures can budge by a couple thousand bucks. But they’re tied to things like job titles and credentials – not individual performance.)

There have been a few stabs at “merit pay” proposals around the country, but most have flopped. Teachers, rightly, have complained that most such plans would reward teachers primarily on their students’ test scores. That’s not fair because teachers in Dallas get different kids to work with than teachers in Highland Park or Plano.

But why can’t a teacher’s quality be judged the way everyone else’s is? Not on some mechanized system tied to test scores, but by their bosses’ evaluation of their performance.

Once a year, their bosses evaluate their performance and adjust their pay accordingly. A top-notch teacher might get a 10 percent raise. Someone struggling might get none at all. Educators talk about wanting to give principals more autonomy – why not give them the power to reward good work?

Sure, some principals might play favorites. (Some schools tend to have a whiff of All My Children about them, full of feuds, alliances and backbiting.)

But some bosses play favorites in the private sector, too. We don’t respond by saying every American gets the same 2 percent raise every year. And there’s no reason the folks in a school district’s central office can’t watch their principals and make sure they’re not giving out raises inappropriately.

The point is to reward excellence. And the great thing about a system that rewards excellence is that it attracts the excellent.

If a teacher knew she could be making $70,000 if she did an amazing job, wouldn’t that attract some talented folks who otherwise might not consider teaching?

And if a teacher knew her raise was tied to her performance, wouldn’t that push her even harder to do the best job she possibly could?

The point is that principals know who their best teachers are. They should be rewarded for being the best – not for jumping through bureaucratic hoops.