Sunday, March 3, 2013

Rethinking External Service Providers

Note: This is an uncommon blog for me, an effort to simply engage readers in helping me think through a set of issues that I've been pondering but never had a chance to really study. These are initial, baby ideas, and shouldn't be taken as my final word on the subject. Thanks.

Some recent exchanges on Twitter, including with folks attending the Students for Education Reform summit, and people responding to the latest KIPP evaluation report, have me thinking about the role that external service providers play in schools.  I know there's been a fair bit written on this topic, but perceive that there's a lack of clarity and cohesion when it comes to some crucial issues.  By writing this, I'm hoping to get some input and ideas, and perhaps even recruit a co-author to write an article on the topic.

First, let's define what I mean by external service providers.  I am conceiving of them as running the gamut from external management organizations, typically defined as for-profits and non-for-profits that operate entire schools under contract (e.g. Edison Schools), to other types of comprehensive school design providers (e.g. KIPP), to those that provide a specific type of service, be it a teacher mentoring model (e.g. New Teacher Center--where my husband works) or benefits provision (e.g. Single Stop USA--which I'm studying).  While I think the latter types are usually separated from the former, I see little reason not to place them on the same spectrum when considering the issues I'm concerned with here.  (See if you agree with me, or not.)

In each case, a school's  use of these external entities has the potential to generate conflict with community norms and interests and grassroots activists, and to bring unintended consequences by serving as an existence proof that intervention from external actors can serve to outperform locally grown efforts.  Of course, whether you view any of these things as problematic depends on your politics-- and that's precisely what's bothering me.

Is there a non-political, value-free way to assess these external service providers? The conversations I've been observing suggest that perhaps the answer is no.   For the very notion of protecting the rights of communities to determine their own solutions without intrusion, and the idea that even a well-meaning external provider might take the place of local workers, these are inherently evaluated with a perspective that includes a moral judgment.

I think it's for this reason that my friends and colleagues arrive at such very different assessments of these actors.  I'm uncomfortable with the fact that many on the Left are supportive of efforts like NTC that encourage strong mentoring of new teachers (a value-laden approach, even if local mentors are used), but unsupportive of other models, like KIPP.   Similarly, those on the right seem ok with KIPP but reluctant to support actors that will bring greater benefits access to community college students.  I think external service providers are differentially cast as "supportive" or "intrusive" based not merely on how they operate but what they provide-- and thus critics need to focus clearly on that content rather than on the idea that external actors are simply inappropriate.

Similarly, I think the way we define the outcomes which should be measured to assess the performance of external service providers is also a political act.  A narrow focus on student achievement, without measurement of impacts on local community members or the local labor force, belies a focus on the individual vs. the social.

So...this is what I'm thinking. Perhaps it's something that has already been written about-- and frankly it's an area I've not studied deeply, so please point me toward the right work.  Thanks!