Friday, August 15, 2008

Tyranny of the test: One year as a Kaplan coach in the public schools

A fascinating article at Harper's by a former NYC teacher on the Kaplan and test prep scan. Long, but worth a read as the author, Jeremy Miller (who will probably never be asked to work for Kaplan again) spent serious time at a bunch of NYC schools, including Wadleigh, Truman, John F. Kennedy HS, and the George Washington HS campus.

Excerpts illustrating the true purpose of NCLB, which could have been designed (and probably was) so companies can gain maximum profit follow. Read the entire piece at Harper's.

...failing students become trapped in a foundering system, and the schools where students land en masse are left to carry out the test-heavy requirements of NCLB. For the New York schools “in need of improvement,” this means preparing students—many of whom are utterly lacking in basic academic skills and subject knowledge—to pass a battery of standardized exams.

Toward this end, it also means paying money to outside entities (often private companies such as Kaplan, the Princeton Review, and Newton Learning) up to $2,000 per student for courses focused not on improving content knowledge or on intensive educational counseling but on strategies for a “particular testing task.” (The total annual government expenditure per student in New York City is $15,000.) The failure of schools serving low-income students has been a windfall for the testing industry. Title I funds earmarked for test tutoring increased by 45 percent during the first four years of NCLB, from $1.75 billion in 2001 to $2.55 billion in 2005. With the ever growing stream of funding flowing through the nation’s schools, the number of supplemental-service providers nationwide has exploded. In New York City, the number of providers approved by the state’s department of education jumped from forty-seven in 2002–2003, the first full school year of NCLB, to 202 today.

The company’s revenues have jumped from $354 million in 2000 to more than $2 billion today, and it is now the most profitable subsidiary of its parent, The Washington Post Company, accounting for almost half of the conglomerate’s income. More telling are the margins: in 2003, Kaplan posted a loss of $11.7 million; in 2007, the company reported a $149 million profit.

Kaplan hired former N.Y.C. Chancellor of Education Harold Levy as an executive vice president and general counsel, and in 2006 relocated its headquarters for Kaplan K12, the division of the company that works in schools, from Midtown Manhattan to luxury offices downtown. According to Crain’s, the company made the move “to be closer to the New York City Department of Education.”

“Customization” and the educationally in vogue “differentiation” are two of Kaplan’s professed guiding principles. But Kaplan’s boilerplate assignment sheets and teaching materials hardly reflect the particulars of each of its customers.

I tell Ms. Semidey [who is supposed to be observed] I can teach the class tomorrow, since I’m scheduled to be in the school for two days. A little smile returns to her lips. “I’ve worked my ass off on this lesson,” she says. As I turn to leave, I am met by a small, perky woman. “Are you Jeremy?” she asks. It is the assistant principal, Ms. Campeas. She listens as I explain the conflict and the proposed resolution. “No,” she says. “This is Kaplan day. We will do the observation another day.” She calls Ms. Semidey over and firmly tells her the same. [So much for consideration for a teacher who has prepared for an observation.]

I find myself desperate. I can’t accept that I have not reached a single student in the program. Kaplan was being paid $1,200 per student (attending or not) for a job it knew from the outset it couldn’t complete. The money could have been used for an ESL or special- education teacher. Instead, I was receiving an entire day’s wage for each hour I sat in a nearly deserted classroom.

Kaplan coaches are taught to handle the strangeness of each new workplace by falling back on their highly scripted lessons and by quickly identifying school faculty as one of several possible archetypes; e.g., whether they are “trailblazers” within their schools or dreaded “saboteurs.”11. Kaplan’s handbook for coaches suggests that saboteurs be dealt with in a counterintuitive, Sun Tzu-esque way: by keeping them “on the inside where they can be watched rather than on the outside where they can cause trouble without it being detected until their effects are felt.”

I was cut off after I asked the teachers what the SAT was designed to do. It was a lame question, I admit, but the vehemence it unleashed surprised me. “It’s designed to keep people in their places,
” a teacher shouted from the back of the room. “It serves the status quo.” There were approving snickers.

Yet as I came under attack at Truman, I found Kaplan’s training reflexively surging into my chest. We had been told in practice seminars to diffuse criticism by acknowledging complaints and then responding with an array of talking points intended to play on teachers’ anxiety over metrics and accountability. As a kind of disclaimer, we were to emphasize our transient and limited role in schools: We, Kaplan, could not ultimately be held accountable for whatever inadequate form of instruction was taking place at the school.


  1. The section on over-aged and under-credited kids can give you a sense of what Brooklyn Comprehensive was sometimes like. We didn't have massive ESL, but we had a lot of kids like Yinette, and a lot of classes in which the ebb and flow was full of stops and starts. Attendance was affected by students real lives and its not hard to understand why -- it could take a term or even a year for a student to get his or her life into enough shape to go to school on a regular basis and sometimes they went in and out of "shape". That's why we needed small classes, a lot of time for one-on-one and they took so long to graduate. GED's make things simpler, but it's replacing one set of knowledge that they already have, with a new structure of some of it. Plus, it's giving up on them. Either way KAPLAN was ALWAYS IRRELEVANT to us. We tried hiring in individual tutors once a week and they were helpful, but not enough. The materials are completely useless for kids who are scoring below 500 and I can't believe the folks at JFK didn't know that! We came up with our own SAT Prep for our kids which was useful to them. With over-aged and under-credited kids you really have to design the materials for the kids -- at least, that's what I found. I never found a single textbook that worked. There are too many gaps. You also have to choose works which will fill gaps that they desperately need -- there are contexts that they just plain need to know. I believe the folks at JFK KNOW ALLTHIS and that SOME PRINCIPAL just wanted TO BUY THIS CURRICULUM TO LOOK GOOD.

  2. Listen. Not all test prep is like Kaplan. Some of us actually hire extremely qualified teachers and design stategies that go beyond "read the passage carefully." How underqualified is Kaplan to really make a difference on tests such as the SAT? Ask yourself this: "If you were a Kaplan executive, would you send your daughter to Kaplan?" If you are a former CEO of the Washington Post and largely responsible for the acquisition of Kaplan many years ago, the answer is NO. That gentleman sent his daughter to my Chyten Educational Services. When asked why, he said, "Because it's my daughter." Nuff said.


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