The following column originally was published by ECM Publications
Massive misunderstanding or classic ‘bait and switch’
The Minnesota Department of Education wisely passed on an offer recently that represented, in part, a massive misunderstanding and, in part, a classic “bait and switch.”
What initially appeared to be an opportunity to bring up to $100 million to Minnesota public schools to reduce achievement gaps turned out to be a request to pay a group called Equal Opportunity Schools almost $500,000 for its consultants. That’s a pretty dramatic difference.
On Feb. 25, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius convened about 50 people from about 25 school districts to talk with representatives of EOS. Educators drove from as far away as Bemidji and Rochester, as well as the metro area, to attend the meeting in Roseville.
The commissioner and many of the district leaders thought they were there in part to learn about a grant opportunity and try to convince EOS to give Minnesota a grant of up to $100 million.
Just a week before, Cassellius told me that Minnesota was one of a few “finalists to receive up to $100 million from EOS.”
As Osseo Public Schools Superintendent Kate Maguire told me via email, “We did have the impression going into the meeting that there might be a grant opportunity.”
However, about 90 minutes into the meeting, which I attended, it became clear that EOS was not giving out money – it was, in fact, asking for it. To work with a state, EOS wanted at least 20 schools to give it $24,400 each, a total of at least $488,0000.
Josh Collins, MDE communications director, told me, “We have a grant writer who has been in this business for 12 years, and she had never seen anything like this situation before.”
What had happened? Clearly, major misunderstanding and perhaps partly a bait and switch.
In 2015, EOS announced a Lead Higher Initiative that “commits more than $100 million to enroll 100,000 low-income students and students of color in taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests.” EOS said it would be “leading the largest effort ever to fully reflect America’s diversity at the highest academic levels.” EOS began working with the College Board, which sells AP tests, and International Baccalaureate, which markets a curriculum and tests.
I reviewed 14 pages of materials that EOS sent to Minnesota. Throughout the 14 pages, states are urged to apply to be part of this $100 million initiative. Nowhere in these pages does EOS state that it is asking at least 20 schools in a state to give it $24,400 per school as a consulting fee. At one point, the EOS application state officials were asked to complete mentions “subgrants to schools.” I hope EOS funders will review how this organization presents itself.
Shortly after the meeting, Cassellius wrote to Reid Saaris, EOS’s founder and executive director: “As you may have recognized from our discussion, the actual grant opportunity is very different than what I had anticipated. Specifically, I did not expect that districts would be expected to provide funding for this initiative. This is not the right opportunity for the state at this time, and so I respectfully withdraw our interest.”
Fortunately there is substantial interest in Minnesota for increasing the number of students – including students of color and low-income students – in dual-credit courses. Although EOS focuses on AP and IB, Minnesota offers a wide array of dual-credit options. Minnesota’s experience and national research show that there are many benefits to dual-credit courses: reducing the number of students who take remedial courses on entering college; saving literally thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars in college costs; and increasing the number of young people who not only enter postsecondary education but graduate with a certificate or degree.
Here’s how several districts that were represented at the meeting responded afterward.
Jeff McGonigal, Anoka-Hennepin School District’s associate superintendent of high schools, told me: “We have been working hard to achieve the goals of EOS going back eight years. … We need help at both the state and federal levels making teacher credentialing more reasonable and valuable. We also need help being able to retain teachers who agree to special certifications or training.”
Les Fujitake, Bloomington Public School District superintendent, told me: “Our district will not be applying to work with EOS because it is not the right opportunity for our district at this time. But we strongly support and have worked hard to help more students earn college credits, whether it’s in the building or via collaborations with, for example, Hennepin Tech and Normandale. These partnerships help build students’ confidence in college education.”
Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District Superintendent Joe Gothard wrote: “It was disappointing to learn the details about this partnership opportunity. … We will continue to offer AP, CIS (College in the Schools), concurrent enrollment and increase career pathways that allow students to enroll in college-level courses when possible.”
Zena Stenvik, interim director of teaching and learning in Columbia Heights Public Schools, wrote: “We were hoping for access to additional funding that would support postsecondary success for our students. … We could not afford to commit that large a dollar figure to this opportunity at this time. … We support the conclusion the commissioner came to after attending the meeting and hearing the details of the proposal.”
Steve Massey, Forest Lake Area High School principal, wrote: “Following the session, we were not convinced that the EOS would add value to our equity work in helping underrepresented student groups gain better access to and success in AP and CIS (College in the Schools) courses. … Given that we would have to pay to be a part of the EOS program, we do not believe that this is the right fit for (Forest Lake Area Schools) at this time.”
Robbinsdale Area Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins told me: “Our district feels that taking an expansive approach to dual-credit, not solely limited to AP and IB, enhances a student’s opportunity for learning. This will allow a broader group of students, who have various goals, to encounter more enriching educational experiences and more rigorous curriculum. … After leaving the meeting, our team was contemplating approaching this work without the assistance of EOS, and the commissioner’s announcement seems to be in line with our thoughts.”
What happens next?
I hope Commissioner Cassellius will convene district and charter educators later this year to build on the enthusiasm at the meeting with EOS and elsewhere for expanding dual-credit opportunities to low-income students and students of color, as well as to other students. A meeting also could clarify ways to make it easier for school districts to offer these courses and retain teachers who have been trained to offer them.
First, educators should learn from each other about what’s working to expand dual- credit enrollment.
Hopkins Public Schools and Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul offer two of many great Minnesota dual-credit models.
As Hopkins Superintendent John Schultz explained to me, one of their high school graduation requirements is that all students must take a class on financial literacy, offered in collaboration with North Hennepin Community College. So every Hopkins grad earns some college credit – and in an area that is excellent preparation for life after high school.
Higher Ground Academy, a charter, strongly encourages virtually all of its 11th- and 12th-graders to take at least one dual-credit course, whether in the school or on a college campus, via Postsecondary Enrollment Options, or PSEO. More than 80 percent of HGA juniors and seniors do so.
EOS did not respond to email or phone call requests regarding the commissioner’s decision to withdraw from the initiative. I talked with more than a third of the districts represented and all agreed with Cassellius’ decision. I hope EOS funders will examine how this organization is presenting itself and spending dollars it has received. It appears the organization spends a substantial amount on staff. Its website, http://eoschools.org, shows 28 staff members.
The most important thing for Minnesota students and families is that the state learn from, build on and expand great models that have been created. There’s plenty of expertise in the state to do that. We don’t need EOS to expand opportunities for students.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at email@example.com.