Dispute over contract highlights clash of priorities among District leadership

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A lawsuit filed by a losing bidder over a one-year contract awarded to The New Teacher Project for coaching principals has drawn new attention to what the District prioritizes in educational leadership.

At the national level, there is a decades-long clash of values over the best way to train teachers and principals for leadership in underperforming school districts. This clash pits traditional methods — valuing classroom experience and supports for students dealing with external barriers like poverty and trauma — against a “disruptive” approach. The latter puts students’ low performance at the feet of the people who work in schools and says the path to higher achievement involves replacing them with newly trained teachers and principals, often those who come from outside the traditional educational pipeline at universities.

The disruptive approach emerged in the 1990s and grew in popularity through the expansion of programs like Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in historically understaffed schools for two years after five weeks of training. Teach for America created its own spinoff programs, including The New Teacher Project, to train educators, and another called School System Leaders, which places Teach for America alums in temporary fellowships in school districts to prepare them for careers in administration.

The lawsuit against the District was filed by Joseph Merlino, whose Conshohocken-based company, 21st Century STEM Partnership, lost out on a principal training contract to The New Teacher Project. The District, in its response to the lawsuit, maintains it has no obligation to follow city procurement rules, or its own procurement guidelines, in awarding professional services contracts — a stance that Merlino says is misleading and unfair to bidders.

“The existence of these defects indicates at best incompetence and at worst corruption,” Merlino told the School Reform Commission in April.

He is now suing, not to overturn the contract, but to force to the District to follow its own written procurement procedures on all competitive bid contracts in the future.

The contract has angered local education activists who see an intrusion of a free-market market ideology that seeks to erode quality standards and regulations — as shown by the leaders of the company, most of whom have business degrees and little to no teaching experience.

Former SRC commissioner and current school board member Chris McGinley agreed with much of the criticism of the company and initially opposed the contract. He voted to approve it only after Superintendent William Hite cut its duration from three years to just one and promised to bring the coaching in-house afterward, to be run by experienced educators working for the District.

Effectiveness called into question

In a blow to advocates of the disruptive approach, a RAND Corp. study in June found that Gates Foundation partnerships for hiring new teachers, evaluating their effectiveness, and customizing professional development to their needs had no impact on students’ academic outcomes when compared to districts that used more traditional approaches. Gates itself commissioned the study.

The total cost of these initiatives was $575 million, with well over half of those costs borne by the three school districts and four charter management organizations. The districts studied were in Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Hillsborough County, Fla., where Tampa is.

The New Teacher Project and Teach for America were two of the three companies contracted to do this work in Memphis. The contract that drew the lawsuit is for principal coaching, but the New Teacher Project has also been contracted by the District for years to recruit and screen teacher candidates.

“We looked at what the sites were doing to customize professional development to the needs of particular teachers,” said Brian Stecher, RAND’s lead researcher on the study.

Gates called the program the Intensive Partnership for Effective Teaching.

“It was an initiative across seven sites, designed to develop a rigorous measure of teaching effectiveness,” Stecher said, “and use that measure to improve all aspects of professional management: hiring, incentives for better performance, career ladders, professional development, and support. The goal was to transform the way human resources was done and have it be driven by the ratings of effectiveness to get rid of persistently bad teachers and retain persistently good teachers.”

But Stecher’s research found that student achievement at the three school districts studied was no better than at the control group of school districts that used traditional methods for hiring and professional development.

“It turned out to be bigger than just the Gates initiative, because these ideas were incorporated into Race to the Top and were used by other groups as well,” Stecher said. “It became a movement as well as an experiment.”

Race to the Top was the $4.3 billion education initiative of the Obama administration, begun in 2009, that offered grants to states only if they implemented certain policies, such as performance-based evaluations of teachers and principals, reducing the restrictions on opening new charter schools, and taking over neighborhood schools with the lowest test scores to more-aggressively implement similar policies or to turn them into charters.

Assumption contradicted

Stecher said the initiative’s top priority was to improve the effectiveness of teachers in school districts with high populations of low-income and minority students. This was based on the assumption that those schools and districts had far less effective teachers.

Stecher said that assumption was contradicted by the data.

“At the very beginning, low-income and minority students actually already had the same access to teachers that were effective,” Stecher said. “Six years later, that hadn’t changed very much. The initiative did not, in fact, cause students and teachers to be remixed in any significant way that would give low-income and minority students better access to effective teachers.”

Stecher pointed to external factors in the Memphis city school district that may have hampered The New Teacher Project’s ability to perform, although these factors were not present at other sites that yielded the same results. In 2013, the Memphis city school district merged with the neighboring suburban district of Shelby County. In 2014, some suburban schools seceded from that district, and the state also began taking over very low-performing schools.

Superintendent Hite said he is happy with the work that TNTP has done in training principals in Philadelphia — through two contracts, one to train new principals and the contract being challenged that trains current principals.

“Everyone calls it coaching, but not many programs actually do coaching,” Hite said of the many other bidders, including the graduate schools of education at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. He said TNTP’s coaching style is different, with more one-on-one time between coaches and principals.

He described the more traditional approach to coaching as simply “a set of recommendations that someone sends back to a school after they observe — just instructions to focus on these things next time.”

The Notebook’s research found that the District has also contracted the New Teacher Project for “teacher/principal screen and recruitment.” The original contract was in 2015 for $79,000. That contract seems to have expanded since then, with the District paying TNTP $160,000 for recruitment and screening last January. This is the kind of work conducted in Memphis. In Philadelphia, it includes rating teachers who have applied for a job, interviewing them, and managing the data produced by the ratings.

The local history

The New Teacher Project first came to Philadelphia in 2012 as part of PhillyPLUS, a partnership funded by the Gates Foundation and the Philadelphia School Partnership. Each summer, TNTP staff help run a six-week training session for prospective principals and facilitate the ongoing work as those candidates are placed as assistant principals in Philadelphia schools and mentored along the way to their own principal position — assuming they make the cut. Principal candidates come from public, charter and parochial schools.

The work they were contracted for recently uses four coaches from TNTP to coach principals who are already serving in schools.

“We expanded that work from PhillyPLUS to what we were doing internally with our own principals and new principals,” Hite said. “Part of why that was necessary was the budget cuts [under then-Gov. Tom Corbett] had eliminated whole divisions [within District administration], and frankly, we didn’t have the bandwidth or capacity to provide coaching to new principals.”

Hite compared TNTP’s coaching to the detailed feedback that a basketball coach would give a player shooting free throws — how the player should use each limb while shooting. The coaching leads to deep discussions between principals and coaches, Hite said, with questions like, “’How did you just have that conversation about data? What did you focus on? Were those the right things to focus on?’ It allows individuals to focus on the things they are trying to develop.”

‘They’re selling a product’

Marjorie Neff, a former School Reform Commission chair who voted against the TNTP contract to recruit and screen teachers, said that in her experience such national education vendors use an approach that is “formulaic” and doesn’t tailor well to the needs of an individual teacher or the “context” of teaching in Philadelphia, where a teacher’s needs are different than in the suburbs. Neff is a former principal at Samuel Powel Elementary and J.R. Masterman who earned a master’s degree in education from Temple University.

“They’re selling a product. From that perspective, their formula is their vested interest,” Neff said. “Their bottom line is profitability, and we need to take that into account. Is it the most effective way to do this, or is it the most profitable? I don’t think those necessarily have to be in conflict, but sometimes they are.”

In 2017, TNTP reported that its expenses were $20 million higher than revenue. In 2016, its revenue was nearly $21 million higher than expenses, but this was entirely due to the $41 million it brought in from “all other contributions, gifts, grants” (excluding government grants). That pot includes grants from outside philanthropies, such as foundations, but also investments from venture capital firms. In 2015, the nonprofit lost $6.1 million, despite millions in outside funding.

Shifting funding, but consistent ideology

Bain Capital’s consulting firm has two members on the board of TNTP. Since 2009, Bain’s consulting arm has partnered with Teach for America to develop “high-impact leaders in education” by placing TFA alumni in “leadership” positions in public education. Together, TFA and Bain designed “a series of programs to inspire, prepare, match and support Teach for America alums on the path to leadership.” Bain aimed to bring leadership development practices from the private sector into public education.

In 2012, the two organizations got together to “expand the scope of work” of their partnership — the same year that Teach for America founded School Systems Leaders to train TFA alumni to “serve at the highest levels of leadership in public school systems.”

Matt Glickman, an employee of the Bain consulting firm and board member of TNTP, has also served on the board of the NewSchools Venture Fund. That fund has invested in free-market education reforms since 1998. The Sackler family – whose fortune is based on profits from Purdue Pharma, developer of OxyContin – decided to invest heavily in the fund.

In his complaint, Merlino noted that the contract was awarded when Katie Schlesinger was a deputy in the office of Leadership Development & Evaluation, which managed the bidding process. At the time, she also had a fellowship through School Systems Leaders.

The NewSchools Venture Fund collaborates with TFA and has invested in both TNTP and School Systems Leaders — where Schlesinger, the District staffer accused of bias, had her fellowship.

The Broad Foundation has invested millions in the NewSchools Venture Fund. The foundation runs programs such as the Broad Academy — a training institute for school administrators of various kinds that is frequently criticized by advocates of traditional public schools for promoting corporate-style leadership.

The Broad Foundation favors alternative teacher training models, like those used by TNTP and TFA. The foundation’s former executive director, Paul Pastorek, is on TNTP’s board.

Every member of the leadership team at School System Leaders is also a high-level staffer for one of the Broad organizations. Broad has been the subject of criticism from Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.

“It is important to recognize that this ‘academy’ has no accreditation nor standing with any state or federal or private agency,” Ravitch wrote in her blog. “It was invented by the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation to train future superintendents about Eli Broad’s theories of management. The Broad Foundation, for example, has encouraged school closing, both to save money and to make way for charter schools.”

The connections to this national network upset Philadelphia public education advocates, who see it as promoting a brand of educational change guided by a free-market approach to education reform that relies on privatization and replacing union jobs with non-union jobs.

“Few members of [TNTP’s] leadership team have spent more than two years in the classroom. Many have had no experience teaching,” said Deborah Grill in her testimony to the SRC in opposition to the principal training contract. “The president of TNTP [Karolyn Belcher] has two years teaching experience through TFA. The charter school she founded was closed after three years by the State of New York due to low test scores, financial improprieties, and, ironically, high teacher turnover. Yet this is the group you hired to recruit and train prospective principals.”

Grill, a member of the watchdog group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, researched TNTP once she heard that the School Reform Commission was considering it for a contract. After following the money, Grill called TNTP a “corporate education reform group” that uses scientifically questionable research methods to produce papers that prove its model is necessary — a point echoed by union-affiliated academics as well.

And that’s another thing these groups have in common — they are rank-and-file private contractors, administrative consultants, advocacy organizations, and think tanks all rolled into one company. Local groups like Merlino’s organization, which lost out on the principal training contract, are contractors and consultants who stay out of the political policy arena.

Bringing the coaching in-house

Of the nine TNTP board members, only two have any teaching experience, though this lack of experience has not stopped other board members from running educational consulting companies and curriculum vendors.

Of the 14 highly compensated officers listed on the company’s latest tax filing, only two are career educators. Three others served the minimum of two years with Teach for America and haven’t taught since.

“I would much rather see the District engage with local stakeholders, like universities or locally grown programs that have an investment in the School District,” said Neff. “Most importantly, I would like to see the District doing more of its own professional development. We have a lot of talented people here. … I came up through a system where there were lots of mentorships within the District and lots of support from universities.”

Neff has done principal mentoring through the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Hite said he was trained as a principal under a similar traditional system, but didn’t like it because the coaching “wasn’t in real time; it was after-the-fact.”

But Hite agreed that the District should ultimately be doing this coaching in-house. He said TNTP’s goal is “to work themselves out of the contract” by helping the District build the capacity to do professional development internally. The examples he cited were Baltimore and the school district where he was superintendent before Philadelphia, Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland.

A TNTP representative said they have been collaborating to bring the work in-house for years.

“Our Philadelphia-based staff is working side-by-side with [the School District of Philadelphia] on the transition, as we have been since 2013,” said Michelle Mercado, vice president of TNTP, in an email.

McGinley, the school board member and former SRC member, said he does not think companies with so little experience are best qualified for the work. McGinley is also a former Philadelphia school principal, and his father, Dan, was the longtime president of the principals’ union.

When he successfully pushed to cut the original three-year contract with TNTP to a single year, Hite assured him that the District would develop the internal capacity to train principals the following school year.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people with no experience running schools to pretend to train other people how to run schools,” McGinley said. “This is not a simple role that people play when they’re becoming a school leader — it’s a complicated position and one of tremendous responsibility.”

McGinley now helps mentor principals at Temple’s School of Education.

“Every school district should have qualified, competent individuals to guide new leaders on the path who understand the role a principal plays in the school community.”

Hite looks forward to starting that work.

“We want to build internal knowledge of the best coaching strategies,” Hite said. “We’re using this next school year to begin setting up a process.

“This whole structure is really about creating a tight line of leaders and managers who are all able to directly coach our new school leaders.”