Best Intentions

Hundreds of people with good intentions are putting forth their efforts into what is known as education reform. The disappointing irony is how often good intentions can result in destructive unintended consequences.

A February 4, 2013 post by Jeff Bryant on the National Education Policy Center website examines a couple of different possible unintended consequences, all of which were brought about by the same thing: money.

The last decade has seen a heavy influence of free market economics in the world of education reform. Fulfill a prescribed metric and your school district is rewarded with funding. Miss the targets and the district is penalized. Worst case scenario as with No Child Left Behind are the unfunded mandates: metrics that districts must meet to maintain current funding levels, with no assistance – monetarily or through proven policy – to help the districts meet the targets.

Money is a curious motivator, particularly when the access to dollars comes from the government. Take, for example, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) detailed in the Jeff Bryant post. For example, in Florida education reform policies were created encouraging school choice, and online education. Then, as reported in The Nation magazine,  “[Former Florida Governor Jeb] Bush’s top aide at his foundation, Patricia Levesque, communicated with school officials to urge them to use a company called SendHub, a start-up that uses cloud computing and text messages. Bush, according to TechCrunch, has a modest “five-figure” investment in SendHub. Garrett Johnson, the founder of SendHub, previously worked for Bush and still serves on the board of Foundation for Florida’s Future, another Bush-run education nonprofit.”

Other conflicts of interest are easy to uncover in the web of what firms receive contracts for education initiatives. In the quest to do the right thing, in finding new and novel ways to educate our children, however, an interesting paradox arises, as unwittingly and recently voiced by Minnesota State Representative Paul Marquart. “Any new dollars that go into the system must go to strategies and efforts that have a proven record of improving student performance and closing the achievement gap.”

The paradox? How do you create a proven record of improving student performance without first implementing it? And how do you get the dollars to implement a program if it’s not yet proven? Really, why would you implement an unproven program?

Given this paradox I can see why contracts are awarded to firms with potential conflicts of interest, or obviously unfair connections to decision makers. Trust.  If you’re about to put money into an untested online education initiative, and you give the contract to a friend, or business partner, there is theoretically accountability: most people want to do right by their friends or close associates.

Or there can be complacency because you know your friend or close associate would give you the business regardless, and, because the new initiative is unproven, there’s not as much personal risk if it fails: the general public will be more lenient in judging something that was based on best intentions.

So does this mean best intentions are not enough?

Leave a Reply