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OP-ED | An Expensive ‘Gift’ for Taxpayers Without Accountability

by | Jan 24, 2013 2:43pm () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Education, Opinion, Greenwich, Hartford

While receiving additional money for schools is always a cause for celebration, it’s worth taking notice when a small group of people accept a grant that results in additional costs for the state’s taxpayers without that grant having been voted upon by an elected body. It’s also worth taking notice when, in fact, the grant is purposely structured in such a way to avoid the scrutiny of an elected body. Back in December, when everyone was applauding the $5 million grant the Gates Foundation made to Hartford Schools, I had a few questions, particularly about MAP testing, and the expense of its associated technology.

Because of a loophole in current policy that only requires that it vote to approve Federal and State grant applications, the Hartford Board of Education never agreed to apply for the Gates Foundation grant, or to approve it, even though the acceptance of the grant has an impact on Hartford Public Schools and, ultimately, the Connecticut taxpayer.

Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto, Mayor Pedro Segarra (a self-appointed member of the school board), school board Chairman Matthew K. Poland (Director of the Hartford Public Library), and representatives from Jumoke Academy, Achievement First, ConnCAN, Achieve Hartford, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving met with the Gates Foundation to discuss the grant in the summer of 2012 without the full school board’s knowledge. In August, the board was asked to renew the contract for the Northwest Evaluation Association MAP program for two years at a cost of $592,443, or $11.50 per student. MAP, or Measures of Academic Progress, was piloted with the 9th grade last year, but this year was extended K-12. At the time the school board was asked to renew the contract with the rollout of the program, the source of funding was described as “special funds”, with no mention of the Gates grant.

The full board was only notified of the grant in October. But because the money is being administered through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which will receive $50,000 per annum of the three year grant period to manage it, the school board was not given the opportunity to vote on the matter despite the cost implications for Hartford Public Schools and state taxpayers.

One of my major questions regarding the Gates grant and the impact on HPS has to do with technology resources. According to the NWEA technology requirements, each student requires a workstation or client and these must have adequate and stable Internet connectivity for the test to be successfully administered. “NWEA requires a persistent connection to the wireless access point, free of interruptions, to successfully run Test Taker. Any outages in the connection, regardless of how brief, may cause errors during testing or require re-testing particular students.”

Although the Gates grant budgets $592,443 over the three-year period for license fees for NWEA computer adaptive assessments, there is a mere $34,500 budgeted for computers and equipment, and that goes to Achievement First for “Technology for Residency Program for School Leadership.” As far as HPS goes, there is zero in the grant for the implementation of any technology.

It took time to get answers from the state Board of Education — to be fair, the Sandy Hook shooting happened in the interim — but I was then referred to Diedre Tavera, the Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Development in the Office of Institutional Advancement, and Leslyee Frederick, Executive Director of Assessment and Intervention at Hartford Public Schools. According to Tavera, the adaptive untimed tests will be implemented three times a year in fall, winter and spring, with a one-month testing window for each. I asked Ms. Tavera and Ms. Frederick if HPS had sufficient technology resources to administer the tests without denying students access to school media center computers for researching projects — you know, the kinds of things that involve actual learning, rather than testing.

I was assured this was the case.

According to Ms. Frederick, “HPS has been planning for the MAP testing for three years including extensive training for teachers and administrators in order to ensure all were and are prepared for the administration. In addition we have conducted a technology readiness survey to determine the level of resources available in each school. Our goal is to ensure that all schools are fully resourced to implement the test during the testing period. Purchasing computers for the schools that are the most in need is an ongoing priority in the district. When dealing with technology, issues can and do come up. When that happens, we have a system in place for resolving the issue immediately. To date, we have had very few problems administering the test district-wide.”

Ms. Frederick continued, “In administering the test, schools are very creative in using the resources they have while ensuring there is little disruption for other students. Many students take the test in a dedicated computer lab, others take the test in their classroom using either classroom computers or laptops. Several schools have laptop carts that move from classroom to classroom allowing students to remain in their classroom to take the test. In year one of the test, we have been pleased with the results both in participation and how successful schools have been in administering the test. We continue to evaluate and plan for improvement.”

Something about “creative use of resources” sounded the alarm bells with me, particularly because I’ve been hearing concerns from media and technology specialist friends in wealthy school districts about having adequate resources to implement SBAC, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium adaptive tests that will replace the CMT/CAPT in 2014-15. I put out feelers to teachers in the trenches to try and ascertain the picture. Most were not willing to go on the record for fear of retribution. But William Morrison, a social studies teacher at the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology at Hartford Public High School, painted a somewhat less-than-rosy picture in telling me that the testing was problematic because of bandwidth problems.

Another teacher at a Hartford magnet school told me the school’s Wifi is turned off during assessments in order to limit bandwidth to testing computers. This means students and teachers not taking the assessments cannot use tablet devices. Both of the school’s laptop carts are used for testing for 3-4 weeks, making them unavailable for student projects.

Given this, one has to wonder if it is acceptable for a private entity to accept a grant that will inevitably result in added costs for the public school system without a vote by the Board of Education? Hartford school board member Robert Cotto Jr. has raised a proposal to prevent this from happening.

School districts statewide should be cognizant of the major costs coming down the road to implement SBAC — particularly since the state is running a budget deficit. Greenwich Superintendent of Schools William McKersie sent a letter to parents and teachers this week detailing how Internet “access problems are now affecting daily instruction and undermining lesson plans and other educational activities” — and this is one of the state’s wealthiest communities. Let’s have a look at the requirements for SBAC:

“These tests include animations, technology-enhanced items, and other state-of-the-art functionality. The actual bandwidth demands will depend on the media included in the Smarter Balanced tests. For example, one English language proficiency test includes recorded audio and a speaking component, which captures oratory responses. This type of media can increase the bandwidth. We currently estimate that the Smarter Balanced assessment will require 10-20 Kbps per student or less. For basic calculations, consider the typical bandwidth draw of 10 Kbps and multiply by number of students for an estimate of bandwidth needs to deliver the assessment in its most intensive iteration. Therefore, 100
students assessing simultaneously could draw up to 1,000 Kbps (1 Mbps) as a reasonable estimate.”

Of course, that assumes no one else is using the bandwidth anywhere else in the school.

While we can only hope that the Mr. Gates has the best of intentions with his foundation’s education reform efforts, it can’t help but strike one that the tests for which the foundation is paying require upgrades to the most recent Microsoft products, and that Gates still owns — as of his latest Sec 4 Form 4 filing on10/29/12 — 440,984,209 shares of MSFT stock. As for his foundation’s interest in primarily funding “public” charter schools, perhaps it’s best explained by investor David Brain, of Entertainment Properties Trust in the following interview:

CNBC interviewer: “Why would I want to add charter schools into my portfolio?”

David Brain: “It’s a very stable business, very recession resistant . . . growing 12-14 percent a year . . . a public payer, the state is the payer on this category . . . a $2 1/2 billion opportunity annually.”

I have asked the State Department of Education for their estimates of how much it will cost to implement SBAC. I suggest legislators and local districts do the same, otherwise taxpayers will be left holding a very expensive baby.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(11) Archived Comments

posted by: Speak up | January 25, 2013  5:50pm

Google MAP and Seattle schools…there is a boycott starting that will roll across this nation. Teaching is not testing. Kids are not data and teachers are not robots….search United Opt Out and Parents Across America. This is child abuse….we don’t need eduvultures descending upon our schools.  Do the Gates children take the MAP, Obama’s, Rhee’s…when it is good for their kids, then we can talk and that will never ever happen.

posted by: Speak up | January 25, 2013  5:52pm

Read here and cut and paste the link.,the teacher know what is going on. The administrators are clueless or they lie:

To illustrate, let me explain how the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, tests (and as you’ll see, the plural “tests” is appropriate here) disrupt my school and harm students.
In Chicago, schools administer the MAP assessment three times a year — at the beginning of the school year, in January, and toward the school year’s end. (The mid-year assessment is technically optional, but schools are encouraged to give it and many do.) The Northwest Evaluation Association, which markets the test to districts, claims that it provides a “wealth of detailed information for teachers, parents and administrators.”
The test does provide piles of numerical data and gives school-based educators new jargon to toss around (“RIT bands,” anyone?). But that doesn’t mean the numbers are necessarily useful, or that the alleged benefits of MAP outweigh its real costs.
The test is web-based, so students in my school take it in the computer lab. (Notice that I said “the” computer lab, not “a” computer lab — we have only one.) This means, of course, that the lab is unavailable during that time for any purpose that might involve students actually learning something.


posted by: The Other Cotto | January 25, 2013  6:50pm

Pre Stephen Adamowski, the City and the Hartford System of Schools split the costs of MHIS (the City of Hartford’s IT Dept) although the department spent considerably more person hours on school business.

In 2008, Superintendent Adamowski started to cut back on what the school system paid MHIS.

Pretty ironic to get money from a technology company that includes a technology requirement with zero money going to the technology department of the affected school system.

posted by: mkpoland | January 25, 2013  7:08pm

Ms. Littman, you have been misinformed about the loophole in the policy regarding approval required for grants because no loophole exists. The policy requires Board approval for federal and State grants—clear direction that was applied in this case.

posted by: saramerica | January 25, 2013  8:15pm


Mr Poland, you are arguing a matter of semantics. Whether we call it a “loophole” or “current policy” the fact is that the full BOE wasn’t notified of the grant application until it was a done deal, and yet the MAP testing required by the Gates grant clearly has cost implications for Hartford Public Schools. As a taxpayer of this state, I do not feel this transaction was conducted with the transparency I would expect from elected officials - or appointed ones, for that matter.

posted by: ConnVoter | January 26, 2013  2:46pm

I would rather blow up the Hartford Public School system, draw and quarter the city, and send the kids in each quarter to the corresponding suburban schools (e.g., West Hartford, Bloomfield, Windsor, South Windsor, East Hartford, Glastonbury, Wethersfield, Newington).  HPS has been a colossal, expensive failure and the city’s kids deserve better (and so do the state’s taxpayers, who foot about 80% of the HPS bill).

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | January 26, 2013  5:04pm


Gates is sincere. To properly understand him you would need to look at the Microsoft Training Network that evolved in the 1990s to train IT staff and Developers who are tested and certified using adaptive testing.

Call them a form of Charter School to Certify Tech staff in a rigorous 3-month program often with a follow on internship.

The lack of qualified tech staff in the US was addressed by these training and certification Centers and they evolved to be integrated into Community Colleges and High Schools offering certifications in Office products, Windows Servers (Exchange, SQL) and programming languages like C#.

Trainers are evaluated on line but they didn’t quite close the loop to link the Trainer to the test results of the would-be certification students (many take the classes without any intention of getting certification and sitting through the test regimen.)

The Microsoft IT Academy program’s been adopted by 5 states for their High Schools (and Washington).


States like Kentucky are turning over the IT work to Microsoft and giving the kids tablets and connecting via WiFI to avoid IT costs of running Lan and Wan systems.


Greenwich can’t afford technology? Sounds like a personnel problem. Likely an entrenched union thing.

posted by: brutus2011 | January 26, 2013  5:13pm


While I appreciate the depth of reporting this article demonstrates, I am very interested in the video interview link provided re: “invest in charter schools?”

We spend a lot of money on K-12 public education—about 600 billion annually, pretty big pie.

And I’ll bet less than 1% of 1% of people have any real idea of where it gets spent or how.

If I were a fund manager, I would be right there as well.

If we citizens could look the other way during the Savings and Loan fiasco, and then the Enron debacle, and then the dot.com bubble, and finally the CDO derivative disaster, then why not keep our heads in the sand about our tax dollars and our kid’s futures?

posted by: sparkplug | January 26, 2013  7:50pm

Great article Sarah. I find it very troubling that school systems are so anxious to “outsource” their curriculum (via outside assessment programs) for what APPEARS to be a few easy bucks, even if the new curriculum may be more “social” based rather than academic based. It’s no wonder that our educational system nationwide is in such a steep decline.

posted by: justsayin | January 28, 2013  10:11am

First, additional money is not always a cause for celebration. Proper, responsible funding is. Second too much focus on the “test” what ever the form. Need get back to basic’s, the rest will take care of itself. Always amazed by the people in charge who came thru school using the basics pontificating how the new process is better. Only to see “test” scores decline, and colleges providing remedial classes to get graduates up to speed.

posted by: Kerri | January 31, 2013  10:08pm


It’s telling when officials respond to criticism with comments like “Where do these people come from?”. These people pay attention to proceedings and controversies. They have the cojones to call it like it is, unlike other members of the media who are afraid that if they don’t play nice with the BOE and Superintendent, their access to the schools will be cut off. Good for Ms. Littman for having the guts to report on this behind-the-scenes nonsense.

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