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Making Failure PayFor-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools$

Jill P. Koyama

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780226451732

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226451756.001.0001

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Neglecting Failure: Ignoring the Need for “Help”

Neglecting Failure: Ignoring the Need for “Help”

(p.95) 5 Neglecting Failure: Ignoring the Need for “Help”
Making Failure Pay

Jill P. Koyama

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

The juxtaposition of the stated goal to fix failure and the daily actions in which failure was admittedly ignored illuminates the ways in which failure was made to matter through inactions. This chapter demonstrates that failure can be constructed through everyday actions. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), like all policy, has gaps of ambiguity—spaces in which actors can take “charge” and establish, for themselves and often others, elements of the policy that may or may not be in line with the initial stated aims of NCLB. Policy is made in many contexts by diverse actors, and supplemental educational services (SES) mandates link an increasing variety of public and private policy mediators, each of whom makes claim to policy authority. NCLB steers action toward school failure in a generic manner—i.e., local educational agencies, schools, and SES providers must do something about it—but what exactly they do is somewhat flexible.

Keywords:   school failure, policy, educational agencies, charge, NCLB

Given the aims of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), one might expect that attending to school failure in all schools in need of improvement (SINI) would be made a priority throughout the New York City school district. In this chapter, however, the failure—and the legislated necessity of attending to it—are minimized, masked, or disregarded, even though, by NCLB measures, it is more substantial than the failure seen in the previous chapter. Unlike the failure illustrated in chapter 4, the failure examined in this chapter is nearly neglected. Given the same and even more obvious signs of school failure, actors in the forthcoming examples take actions different from those in the previously discussed cases. The juxtaposition of the stated goal to fix failure and the daily actions in which failure was admittedly ignored illuminates the ways in which failure was made to matter through neglectful actions and inactions. The three cases that follow demonstrate that failure can be constructed, through everyday actions, as something quite different from “critical.”

(p.96) In the first example, Public School (PS) 472 was prompted, both by its failing circumstance and a written order from a regional superintendent, to partner immediately with a supplemental educational services (SES) provider. The school's principal initially contacted United on a day when I was interviewing managers at the main office. Then she expressed her enthusiastic desire to have the company provide SES at PS 472. Yet, as I soon discovered, partnering with United to get educational support for its student population, half of which had tested below grade proficiency, conflicted with the school's ongoing relationship with Great Works, a community-based organization (CBO) housed in the school. Clashes quickly ignited as diverse stakeholders from the CBO and United sought to enact their interpretation of supplemental education at PS 472. Partnering with an SES provider required the administration of PS 472 to engage in a series of actions that ironically ultimately dicounted the need of attending to failure. This led to a myriad of problems for themselves, Great Works, the Department of Education (DOE), United Education—and the children, who were literally left behind when the tutoring program, which was never fully implemented, ended prematurely.

While NCLB places emphasis on ensuring a highly qualified teaching staff in schools, the DOE set minimal requirements for SES instructors. The second example of this chapter examines how United Education neglected the failing scores of prospective instructors' prescreening tests and later hired the instructors who failed the tests to teach the very material on which they had failed to exhibit proficiency. The exam questions—taken directly from an eighth-grade mathematics and English language arts (ELA) state test—were administered during the hiring process and were initially intended to eliminate candidates from employment. However, the tests were presented to the prospective instructors as a normative exercise rather than an evaluative measure. This led to an arbitrary use of the test scores in hiring decisions and ultimately teaching assignments. In their SES classes, five of the instructors, whose test failure was ignored by the United managers, either excluded teaching the material or provided incorrect explanations to their students.

The final case in this chapter shows how the very organization, the DOE, responsible for distributing SES enrollment forms in New York City, created procedures that, in fact, reduced the number of students who received services. Throughout the study, there was an overall inconsistent, if not arbitrary, allocation of forms to many of the schools in the study, including PS 427 and Middle School 532 from the previous chapter. Some (p.97) schools received twice as many forms as they had students. Others received less than one-third the number they needed. Further, some schools received enrollment forms in languages other than English, although the majority of their students spoke English as a first language. Focusing on the process by which the DOE dispensed or did not dispense the SES application packets to students and their families led me to discover that some schools were just not giving out the forms. In contrast, other schools and SES providers were illegally reproducing forms, which were then identified as fraudulent by the DOE and destroyed. Both actions excluded thousands of eligible students from enrolling in SES from fall 2005 to fall 2008.

Triangulating Associations

Prior to NCLB, PS 472, a Brooklyn school located at the edge of one of the borough's housing developments, had partnered with Great Works, a CBO that provided daily afterschool and weekend activities for students and adult development classes for their parents. Great Works had also helped families of PS 472 access medical and social services. At PS 472, the staff of Great Works had developed strong ties to the students, the parents, the community, and the school administration. According to the PS 472 parent coordinator, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood: “They've [Great Works] done a lot for us. That is, except raise test scores. They're, between you and me, they don't have what it takes.” Great Works had been reliable in providing particular services to the students and their families, but had not implemented a strong academic component.

Great Works limited enrollment in their student programs to two hundred and carried a waiting listof twenty to twenty-five students. The program operated an in-school center in a large first-floor room, complete with necessary office equipment supplied by the school. The center was staffed by a full-time program director, his administrative assistant, student supervisors, and occasional parent volunteers. Students participating in the Great Works program snacked and engaged in activities, including Monopoly and homework help under the supervision of high school students, hired as counselors by the CBO. Grouped into classes of twenty to twenty-five students, the Great Works program occupied most of the first-floor classrooms in the school from 3 to 6 p.m.

By the fall of 2005, Great Works had been unable to develop a state-approved SES component, so the school entered into contract with United (p.98) to provide SES at the school.1 During the initial planning meeting the principal, the assistant principal, and one of United's managers agreed that United would hold its program on Mondays and Wednesdays. Simultaneously, Great Works would continue their program Mondays through Fridays. Any student enrolled in Great Works who signed up for SES would attend United's SES Mondays and Wednesdays for two hours and remain in the Great Works program the remaining days and one hour after SES on Mondays and Wednesdays. Students who were not enrolled in Great Works would only attend United's program Mondays and Wednesdays.

Within weeks of their agreement with United, the principal and assistant principal made changes to the initial plan. They decided that students enrolled with United would remain in the Great Works classrooms on Mondays and Wednesdays. The United instructors would “push into the classes” to teach with the assistance of the Great Works counselors. The United field manager was notified of the requested change by a voice mail left by the assistant principal, who concluded that the change was necessary so that Great Works could fulfill the hours of their program.

In an online chat the day following the requested change, the assistant principal encouraged the United manager to accept the change—and to bill the DOE according to the original two-hour lesson plan even though Untied would not be providing two hours of instruction.

Assistant Principal (AP):

  • It's okay. Don't worry. The kids will go one hour to Great Works and then your teachers can go into the rooms and teach for an hour for SES.
  • Manager 4 (M4):

  • But our program runs for two hours—one ELA and one Math—and we do not want to be in the rooms with other programs. I'm sure Great Works doesn't want us in their rooms either. They do art and games and sports. We teach math and ELA. How can that work?
  • AP:

  • Well, we don't have any more rooms and so that has to happen. Don't worry. I'll talk to them [Great Works staff] and we'll work it out. You can bill for two hours. It's okay. It's taken care of.
  • M4:

  • That is not what was agreed upon during our program planning meeting. You knew our program was a sixty hour program split into two-hour sessions, not one hour and we are not authorized to have other, non-United staff in our rooms. We can only bill for time spent with the kids teaching them math and English.
  • AP:

  • Don't worry. Bill them as usual. (September 28, 2005)
  • (p.99) The discussion ended with the manager telling the assistant principal that she was unhappy about the change in hours, was not able to bill for services rendered, and was not prepared to accept the change, which would ultimately need to be approved by the director, to whom she would later speak.

    Beyond the reduction in lesson time, the administration's change was multiply problematic, according to the field manager. First, some of the students in the Great Works classrooms had not, in fact, signed up for United services so were not authorized, according to NCLB and SES regulations, to be receiving United instruction. Likewise, some students that enrolled in United's SES program were not enrolled in the Great Works program. Further, the twenty students in Great Works classrooms were twice the number optimal for United instruction, which had some individualized components. Finally, United could not employ the Great Works counselors nor could the company be held responsible for their actions in the classroom.

    In conversations with the manager and the director of United's SES, the principal conceded that her plan seemed not to satisfy the program needs of United, but said there was no other choice for students in Great Works. Despite the manager's protest, United acquiesced to the change in program. To accommodate the reduction in lesson hours, United proposed extending its program into June so that it could complete and legitimately bill for its contracted hours.

    The principal assigned separate areas for students who would enroll in United but were not participants in Great Works; the assigned spaces, however, were not classrooms and were found, by the United manager, supervisors, and instructors, to be inadequate, if not dangerous. The spaces included a gymnasium foyer with no windows, chairs, or tables; a closed and locked hallway where fertilizer was stored; a corner of the cafeteria; a small office with one table; and a corner of the parent coordinator's busy office. Complaints by the manager yielded the use of an additional two rooms—a computer room and large storage closet, which housed two large photocopy machines. Neither of the two new rooms had usable tables. None of the spaces had chalkboards or whiteboards.

    When the United program began in October 2005, tables and chairs were moved by the United coordinators and instructors into the spaces on program days—but often they could not find enough chairs. Again, the United staff, and now the students, complained about the inadequacy of the spaces. One week after the program began, two students became (p.100) ill after sitting next to the fertilizer in the hallway, and the instructor experienced severe headaches. The manager refused to have a class in that hallway and instead moved the class to a table in the cafeteria. The refusal and subsequent request for different room assignments prompted a series of discussions about the assigned spaces between the United manager, the program director of Great Works, and the assistant principal, who was assigned by the principal to act as the main SES liaison for the school.

    The following excerpts from a series of e-mails, dated November 18 to December 6, 2005, highlight the space limitations and the increasing tensions between the Great Works and United.

    Great Works program director to United manager and supervisors:

    Hi there all. I wanted to touch base with you folks to discuss room assignments. I wasn't quite sure which rooms or areas you folks were using with children who do not attend our program. The reason why I am asking this is because we need to have a sense of which rooms or areas are being used and are free so that I can shuffle groups as need be. Also, we are trying to make sure that School Safety has a sense of which children are receiving services from United but do not necessarily attend our program.

    United manager response:

    Thank you for contacting us. I need to have another conversation with the assistant principal regarding our rooms. Currently the spaces assigned to us are not adequate for teaching. None of these rooms has seating/table space or board space.…I will let you know what happens after I talk to the AP on Monday.

    The AP cancelled the meeting set for Monday, prompting a series of voice mail exchanges between the AP and the manager and the following e-mail from the manager to the AP and principal.

    Monday, November, 21, 2005

    We need more/better rooms and spaces to hold the United classes for the non-Great Works students. United curriculum touches multiple learning modalities—auditory, tactile, etc.…so we need, atleast [sic] a board/writing space for teachers and tables. They foyer is okay when it has chars [sic] and tables set up in it, but does not have a board. Also Great Works holds a dance (p.101) class next door and the music blasts higher than our teacher's voices. Room 108 is a bit small and often has other people using it and the parent coordinator room is okay, but also crowded with other groups. Some suggestions: we could run the United program for non Great Works students on Tuesdays and Thursdays or on Saturday and use classrooms not used on those days (are there any?) or we need to have classrooms on another floor. I know you are working your best with what, to date, is available, but it is a priority to United to provide consistent, safe, and stable learning environments. We don't yet have these at PS 472. So, let's talk and see what options we have.

    The e-mail and follow-up afternoon meeting yielded no changes in room assignments, prompting another series of e-mail communications in which the situation was repeatedly deconstructed. The principal and assistant principal remained steadfast about keeping all afterschool activities on the first floor despite an unused second floor, filled with classrooms. in the school.

    The problems that occurred with teaching the students in the Great Works program rivaled the inadequate space as concerns for United. There were two serious complaints: First, SES instruction was allotted only one hour and, second, Great Works staff members were physically restraining/disciplining students during SES time.

    E-mail from PS 472 principal to United manager and Great Works program director:

    Monday, December 5, 2005

    Please let me know when we can all set up a meeting to discuss the partnership model we outlined originally.…In particular, I would like to discuss the ways the staff of both United and Great Works Services can work together with regard to student conduct and fitting United into the philosophy of our school's mission. I would like to have a sit down meeting with regard to procedures for building on the strengths of the existing program and the expectations we have of a fully realized partnership between both organizations.

    Great Works counselors, according to the United supervisors, instructors, and manager, physically restrained students during United's classes and disrupted teaching by yelling profanity at students who were not paying attention to lessons. Excerpts from a letter sent from United supervisors to the director explain the difficulties. (p.102)

    Monday, December 5, 2005

    Dear [name of director]

    The situation at PS 472 has gotten progressively worse. The frustration that we have experienced over the past few weeks has reached its boiling point today. United hired us (coordinators and teachers) because the company believed that we were capable of handling our positions. We have gone way past the call of duty with this site but now we just cannot continue. It is simply not feasible. There are a great number of obstacles in our way.…Our main concern is for the students who are being cheated out of an academically challenging curriculum. One that has been praised by numerous parents, staff, and teachers at the school.…It is not a positive environment for anyone involved, especially not the kids.…Please see below for our specific list of grievances.

    1. 1. Insufficient rooms/space for students NOT participating in the Great Works (GW) program.…The cafeteria and all of the other rooms that we have had to use are not conducive to learning. They are noisy, unkempt, and disruptive and lack basic resources such as a chalkboard.

    2. 2. The United teachers who are going into the Great Works rooms have been in ongoing struggles with the GW staff. The GW staff has been defiant, disrespectful, and hostile. We are under the impression that they are purposefully inciting the students to act out when United is in the room.…One GW counselor took one of our students out of the classroom with his arms wrapped around his neck and gripping his hands. The student was crying and other students were screaming.…Another GW counselor shoved one of our students against the wall because he was talking. It took myself and another coordinator to talk him into releasing the student.…I am aware United staff is not allowed to physically restrain or grab uncooperative students and we do not want GW counselors treating students in our classes in this way.

    3. 3. More GW students [who are in the rooms we go into teach in] are not enrolled in United than are enrolled. Thus, we are illegally serving many students whose parents have not chosen us as a provider. The kids whose parents have not enrolled them in United are essentially held “prisoner” in that room for an hour lesson. They are expected to behave and defer to our rules even though we technically do not have the jurisdiction over them. They are not our students and it is a huge liability to teach them when their parents have specifically refused our services.

    (p.103) The letter made clear that not only was the Great Works-United compromise not attending to the children's academic difficulties, it was in jeopardy of ignoring the students' physical well-being.

    The day after receiving the letter, December 6, 2005, the director and the manager sent a letter to the administration of PS 472 and the Great Works director, requesting their “immediate assistance” in order for United to continue its program at the school. In the letter, the unacceptable teaching locations and the behavior of the Great Works staff was addressed. The letter closed by stating that while United wanted to continue providing quality services to the students of PS 472, the company would be forced to discontinue services at the school if these conditions persisted.

    On December 13, a meeting was held at the school to review what had become a significant problem for United, the school, Great Works, and the DOE, who had been notified of the trouble by PS 472's principal. During the meeting, the DOE administrator agreed with the United manager that the teaching conditions were unacceptable and suggested that United offer its program on Saturdays when Great Works would not be providing services. On December 15, one of United's vice presidents sent a letter to the principal offering the Saturday program. The letter went unanswered, the DOE released United from its contract with PS 472, and United stopped providing afterschool services prior to the program's completion.

    On the last day that United held SES, the day before the winter holiday break, many of the eighty-one students enrolled in United's program and the United staff expressed anger and sadness over the program's end. Several United instructors received thank you notes from parents, and one received a homemade cake. Some children cried when they left; one third-grade girl clung tightly to the leg of her United instructor, pleading her not to go. Even as the staff was leaving the school building, the parent coordinator begged the manager to continue the program after the holiday break. She pleaded: “You know this about the principal and her craziness. She has to do whatever it takes to keep Great Works, but that doesn't mean the kids who need tutoring should end up empty.…You know she [the principal] won't get another SES for them. She never really wanted one and now you're leaving.” The manager said she was sorry and left the building with the rest of the United staff.

    All adults present on this last day of SES noted the neglect of children, whose actions had not factored into the decision to end the program. (p.104) The children, who had been deemed failing and in need of tutoring, would be denied SES because the adults, who had turned their attention toward “fixing” the failure, had made so many more problems for each other—and more important to this examination—had neglected to address the students' failure in the ways expected. The practical circumstances had transformed the condition of failure. Each entity had taken actions to carry out its work, but this had not guaranteed the formation of a three-way collective. Appropriating NCLB through PS 472 produced social relationships between Great Works, United Education, and the school that were more limited in their existence than could be anticipated by policy mandates. NCLB created “landing strips for other entities [namely, United] to enter the collective” (Latour 2005, 239). It also created strips for departures. Tracing the departures, the changes, in the actor-network became part of the appropriation of NCLB and the attention to school failure that moved through PS 472.

    Throughout the tenuous association between PS 472 and United, NCLB was refracted in multiple trajectories in the form of smaller texts, which, once localized, took on a life of their own, often challenging the aims of the original policy. The policy texts or scripts were “encoded in complex ways (via struggles, compromises, authoritative public interpretations and reinterpretations) and decoded in complex ways (via actor's interpretations and meanings in relation to their history, experiences, skills, resources and context)” (Ball 2006, 44). As each text circulated and became modified through particular readings of it, the resulting transcript reflected the compromises made during the practical sense making of the actor's work. Since the actors could not necessarily control the meanings of their texts, even when they aimed to exert their authority, the policy transcriptions gained their own momentum, guiding action and molding SES behaviors, both expected and unintended.

    Passing as and Being Passed Off as Skilled Teachers

    Hiring, training, and retaining a skilled part-time, seasonal work force to teach United SES lessons is one of the company's, if not the industry's, largest ongoing challenges. The eligibility requirements, as listed in New York City's education law, the regulations of the commissioner of education, and chancellor's regulations C-105, for non-DOE employees who are hired to work as SES instructors, requires no particular education or experience. (p.105) Rather, the requirements demand that prospective instructors pass a fingerprint and security check, which are conducted by the DOE's Division of Human Resources' Office of Personnel Investigations and are paid by the SES providers. All hired SES staff must be issued a photo identification badge by the provider, and the failure to have all staff members cleared by security prior to any student contact results in the withholding of payment or the termination of contract.

    Given the NCLB stipulation of having highly qualified teachers in failing schools, it is remarkable that the legislation does not also require SES instructors to have any teaching experience. Minimally, the instructors, who at United were hired in numbers between one and three hundred during this study and received no greater than twenty-five dollars per instruction hour, needed to pass initial company interviews, twelve hours of training, and evaluations—and also to be cleared to work with children in schools through a DOE-determined background check, initiated by fingerprinting. All of that, however, did not necessarily ensure that they were qualified to teach ELA and mathematics to students in failing schools. United, like many other SES companies, also hired teachers who worked in the schools where the SES programs were provided. The DOE teachers, hired by United, exhibited variable skill levels, but all were certified as teachers and were well acquainted with NCLB, the state's standards, Children First reforms, and the city's curriculum.

    Until 2005, DOE teachers across the country could be hired by SES providers as instructors regardless of the status of their district, but the schools in failing districts could not, under the law, offer services using their own teachers. New York City sought and received a waiver in November 2005, the third city to do so after Chicago and Boston. In March of the same year, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city teachers' union, was approved to provide SES, under the provider name of “United Federation of Teachers ‘Young People's Academy.’” After the UFT received approval, Randi Weingarten, the UFT president, was quoted in the New York Times as having said, “We wanted to compete with these private firms that had no connection to the schools, and we were given the green light” (Saulny 2005). Many principals in this study agreed, requesting United only hire DOE teachers on staff at their schools to instruct SES.

    Still, during the 2004–5 school year, non-DOE instructors were being hired by United. Some demonstrated a lack of ELA or mathematics knowledge while teaching the SES lessons, so in September 2005, a (p.106) written assessment including twenty ELA and twenty mathematics questions, written at the state's eighth-grade level of proficiency, was added to the instructor training. The examination, which was intended to eliminate—or “weed out”—candidates from employment as SES instructors, was given at the end of the initial instructor. (Mis)represented to the prospective instructors as a normative exercise, the test measured their abilities to perform materials that they might be required to teach, if hired.

    The examination, which was implemented by the academics team without notifying other members of the United staff, prompted a debate during a September 15 staff meeting:

    Director (D):

  • The quiz won't just be normative. We'll use it to test them, to evaluate their abilities.
  • Trainer 1 (TR1):

  • But, we didn't tell them that. It's not ethical.
  • D:

  • Well, we don't have to tell them it's evaluative. It's our test. We can use it for whatever we like.
  • Manager 2 (M2):

  • If we don't hire them, we do not need to tell them that it's because they failed the test.
  • TR1:

  • Not fair. Why would we do that?
  • Manager 4 (M4):

  • Holy shit! We are testing them and not telling them and then not hiring them. What do you want us to do with that? Sounds like lawsuit territory, huh?
  • Trainer 2:

  • Yeah. Let's just tell them. Be upfront and like say we need to test your skills if you're going to teach kids.
  • M2:

  • Well from now on we will, but up to now, we haven't.
  • M4:

  • How are we going to tell them? Who's going to tell them?
  • TR1:

  • And what are we going to tell the DOE when they ask what qualifications our instructors have? They do ask, you know.
  • D:

  • We don't want teachers who fail the quiz, so it makes sense that we screen. I'm just not sure how legal it is to use the examination across the board to make decisions.
  • M2:

  • Right, some can pass the test, but are not well-suited to work with kids.…We'll figure out how to deliver the information [about the examination].
  • Despite the concerns expressed, the examination was presented as a normative exercise—and over time, many potential instructors who failed the examination were hired based on their “outstanding” presentations. (p.107) They were told that they failed the examination, but that their failure was ignored because of their “overall presentation as a teacher.”

    The arbitrary use of test scores in hiring decisions resulted in a handful of United instructors who were assigned to teach the eighth-grade material on which they had not demonstrated adequate knowledge. Most who failed the examination but succeeded in providing exceptional mock minilessons during training were assigned to teach grades 3 through 5. Of those who failed the examination, slightly less than one-third were assigned to teach eighth-grade classes. I followed these teachers to their SES classrooms to examine how they would, indeed, “perform” (Goffman 1959) their roles as instructors, especially when teaching the material they did not seem to know.

    In one class, the instructor, who had failed the mathematics portion of the assessment, directed students to solve the expression 10 − [24 ∕ (3 + 5)] by performing all the operations from left to right. In the same lesson, the teacher explained that the order of operations was unnecessary to learn as operations—addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication—can be performed from left to right. This is not accurate.2 When the students used the instructor's method to solve examination questions, incorrect answers resulted. Reviewing the answers with his class, the same instructor told the students that the “machine which scanned the answer sheets must have made a mistake.” He noted that it was impossible for him and all of his students to get the “same exact wrong answer.” “Clearly,” he said, “there is a problem in scoring, not in our math.” Again, not accurate.

    Similarly, an instructor, who attempted to teach converting fractions to decimals, told her students that she was giving them a “new, better way to do fractions.” As she converted the fraction 18/30 to 0.3 “because 6 goes into 18 three times and it also goes evenly into 30,” two students corrected her. One of the students rose to the board and said “see how to do it” as he wrote, “18/30 divided by 3/3 = 6/10 = 0.6.” The teacher was unconvinced by the student's method even though several students agreed that his answer was correct. She insisted that her way worked and argued with the students for fifteen minutes until class dismissal. At the following session, only one of the nine regularly attending students showed up for class. When the teacher asked the student the whereabouts of the other students, the student replied that they weren't coming back until she learned her math. She didn't, but four of the students returned the following week at their parents' insistence.

    (p.108) In another eighth-grade class, an instructor who had failed the ELA portion of the prescreen examination chose either to skip the content that she didn't understand or presented it incorrectly. When asked why she had skipped two lessons of material, she stated that “those things don't really help kids pass their tests.” “Those things”—persuasive essays and structure in formal writing—were in fact elements of the state's examinations.

    The same teacher attempted to teach a lesson on genre, which she pronounced “jen-ree,” and defined as “the generalities, the general ideas of certain kinds of writings.” After introducing the lesson topic with her definition, the following dialogue ensued:

    Student 1 (S1):

  • Uhm, I think genre means type, like fiction or mystery.
  • Student 2 (S2):

  • Yeah, it means like kind, a kind of story. I mean, I like horror stories but not romance novels.
  • Instructor (I):

  • Well, yeah, but it's about the generalities of those kinds of stories.
  • S2:

  • Huh? Not really, it's the kind of themes, right?
  • I:

  • Okay, so we have it. Let's move on … Okay write down the genres or general ideas of the story we read earlier.
  • S1:

  • Plot?
  • I:

  • Sure, if you think plot is a general idea.
  • The class ended with some students writing the plot, or “jenree” according to the teacher, in their workbooks and others making a list of genres, including “fiction,” and “poetry.”

    It was apparent to me that the instructors were not able to teach certain topics, but the failure of these instructors, who were hired to directly attend to, if not fix, school failure, was repeatedly neglected. The five instructors I followed, like all other United instructors, were observed twice during the year by a United manager. All but one received passable marks and all were retained until the end of the program despite complaints by students and students' parents.3

    The students assigned to these instructors seemed to fare less well; one-half of the forty-four students did not complete the SES program during the 2005–6 year. An experienced United instructor gave a plausible explanation for the higher than normal dropout rate in her colleague's class. She reasoned:

    (p.109) Well, loads of kids dropped out because frankly their teacher didn't really know enough. I tried to help him, but he was, well, weak on his math knowledge and skills. What are the kids going to do? Keep coming and unlearn all the math they know only to get taught the wrong formulas. I wanted those kids to come to my class, but I teach sixth grade. I saw that teacher struggling and I told the coordinator to move him to elementary or something. I don't even like to be associated in the same program with him. (interview, March 5, 2006)

    Students were likely most affected by United's neglect of the instructors' ineptitudes. If these students were failing, there was little, if anything, to indicate that the instruction they received, or did not receive, by these instructors helped them not fail.

    These United instructors were “passing” as people who were teaching “well enough.” United was “passing them off” as teachers who were teaching well enough. Theirs was the work of achieving and securing their positions “while providing for the possibility of detection and ruin carried out within the socially structured conditions in which this work occurred” (Garfinkel 1967, 118). They were also passing and being passed off as actors attending to failure. To comply with the legitimate expectations of United, the partner school, and NCLB mandates, they were doing the “unavoidable work of coming to terms with practical circumstance” (Garfinkel 1967, 185). They were using the skills they had, in the ways they knew how, to do the jobs they had been hired to do.

    NCLB, like all policy, has gaps of ambiguity—spaces in which actors can take “charge” and establish, for themselves and often others, elements of the policy that may or may not be in line with the initial stated aims of NCLB. Federal policies, like NCLB, conflate the specific and the general. In this case, the training of the United instructors, which was subject to specific measures and evaluations, got folded into more general NCLB processes. Sunderman (2008) notes that when aiming to attain the high standards and bring the proficiency of all students up with the tools and requirements specified by NCLB, “the devil is in the details” (1). Training and hiring qualified SES instructors was one such detail that became ignored in a broader view of policy implementation that focused more on sanction-driven outcomes than processes. However, this particular appropriation of the SES mandates points to the fissures between the formal policy, the discourses that surround it, and their diffuse practical application.

    (p.110) Distributing Enrollment Forms

    The Education Industry Association, a lobbying group for eight hundred corporate and individual SES providers, suggests that some schools and districts in fact “dissuade parents from accepting tutoring on grounds that it would eat up federal aid that schools need for other reasons.”4 Across the country, nearly 2 million students qualify for free tutoring, but according to the DOE's more recent data, only 226,000 or nearly 12 percent, enrolled in SES programs in the school year that ended in 2004. A 2007 report, extracted from the National Longitudinal Study of NCLB and prepared for the U.S. DOE, found that 24–28 percent of eligible students in grades 2–5 participate, while fewer than 5 percent of eligible students in higher grades enroll in SES (Zimmer, Gill, Razquin, Booker, and Lockwood 2007).

    Despite a 20 percent increase in SES enrollments nationwide in 2005–6, the proportion of eligible students using the services dropped 5 percent even as the total number of eligible students increased from the 2004–5 year. Recent data (Sunderman 2007b) shows that as federal funds for SES have increased and more students have become eligible nationwide, there has simultaneously been a decline or leveling off of demand for SES. National trends demonstrate that overall, there are more students receiving services, but they represent a smaller portion of those eligible. The number of students reportedly receiving services in New York City, however, decreased, even though more students were eligible.

    In New York City, the number of eligible students has fluctuated between 243,249 in 2002–3 and 208,016 in 2006–7; however, the number of enrolled students dropped each year since 2003–4, when nearly eighty-seven thousand students were signed up for SES. Over four years, as the number of eligible students increased steadily in the city, those who actually enrolled, decreased. The greatest decrease of fourteen thousand students was experienced in 2006–7, prompting United's SES managers to accuse the DOE of mishandling enrollment forms—i.e., providing an insufficient number of forms and not regulating how and when schools distributed the forms.

    United's SES director repeatedly railed against the DOE for not providing enough forms and held it responsible for the decrease in enrollment numbers in 2006–7. During a staff meeting, he lamented: “So, they [DOE] say they want us to enroll more students, but they aren't giving schools forms. No forms, no students. Low overall enrollment numbers (p.111) this year. It's an easy equation, in that sense. Schools have asked, right? And they haven't gotten any more [forms], so that's just where we are for now. They don't do their jobs and we lose revenue” (November 19,2006). Other managers expressed similar frustration during meetings with principals and parent coordinators, but emphasized that the kids, not United's profits, were suffering. Principals and parent coordinators seemed to agree that the DOE's inability to provide and distribute forms was negatively affecting SES enrollment.

    Dispersing enrollment forms at the beginning of each school year is an enormous task—first, for the DOE officials who must determine how many SES packets and in what languages each school should receive, and, second, for the school administration (usually the parent coordinator) who must determine how to get the packets to the eligible students. Since only students that receive free lunch are eligible for services, the school must first determine who gets free lunch.5 There are often changes from one year to the next, and the final free lunch rosters are not compiled until mid to late October, the same time SES programs are scheduled to begin. Thus, every autumn estimates are made when determining how many forms each school will need, and sometimes enrollment packages are given, by the parent coordinators, to families that do not qualify.

    In fall 2006, schools began reporting a shortage of enrollment packets. A few schools reported receiving no SES packets, while others received materials in languages incongruent with their student population. Of the thirty-six schools with which United had partnered that year, nearly two-thirds had not received enough forms, and three had received forms only in Spanish. Parent coordinators distributed enrollment packets based on various criteria, including grade level, test scores, and class number. Such dispersion systems led to parent outcry. Why had a sister's child received a form instead of her child? When would her form be coming? Why was his child not receiving free tutoring? Had her child done something wrong in school to deserve this omission?

    Officials cited several reasons for their refusal to supply additional forms, including a previous waste of unlimited forms and the improper distribution by parent coordinators. According to a regional superintendent in Brooklyn, the DOE was merely making the system more efficient. She explained: “We need to get them [parent coordinators] to be mindful of who gets forms and who doesn't. Do you know how many calls I get every day from parents who signed their kids up for SES only to be rejected by us because they don't qualify? If they just gave forms only to free-lunch (p.112) families, we wouldn't have this problem” (interview, December 7, 2006). Some parent coordinators did, in fact, conserve forms and minimize later DOE rejections of eligibility by giving them only to those families who qualified for free lunch. However, because the free-lunch determinations were not made until after SES enrollment began, some students who qualified did not receive enrollment packets.

    Regional superintendents and DOE officials also accused SES providers of seizing forms for their own interests. One explained: “Listen. We know there's a problem. I must've gotten ten calls today from PCs [parent coordinators] asking for more forms, but none of them could explain where missing forms were. I told them if they can give me an explanation for the disappearance, then I'll get them more forms.…I can't just be sending more and more forms out there. I don't mean to sound paranoid, but each form represents $2,000 for a provider and we have been told that [SES] providers are out there buying enrollment forms” (interview, December 12, 2006). When I asked for more details, she admitted that the DOE had no evidence that providers were hijacking forms, but added that the DOE was taking the allegations seriously.

    The reasons offered by the superintendents seemed implausible. In order for a student to be admitted to an SES program, there were a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that a student not only be eligible, but also that the student had enrolled in only one program. Each enrollment form required a label, which could only be generated by the DOE database, prior to being submitted to an SES provider, so providers could not actually “forge” enrollment forms. Because each enrollment form was processed by the DOE, there could not be duplicates. Reporting attendance was also highly centralized to ensure that SES providers billed only for time attended, in quarter hours.

    The DOE's reasons for insufficient enrollments did not make sense to a parent coordinator from a Queens middle school, who, desperate to get forms into the hands of her students, photocopied additional enrollment forms. The school had received enough enrollment packets for only two-thirds of the SES-eligible student population and the demand for packets exceeded the supply. To solve the problem, the parent coordinator distributed full-colored photocopies that were a good likeness for the originals, although the paper stock was unmatched. Two hundred twelve students returned the counterfeit forms, which were submitted to United and accepted by the DOE. As more parent coordinators photocopied counterfeit versions of enrollment forms, parent coordinators and principals were (p.113) notified by a DOE administrator that photocopies would not be accepted. One SES provider was later reprimanded by the DOE for giving a school photocopied enrollment forms, with their name and provider code handwritten in on the form, a clear violation of SES regulations.

    Parent coordinators also asked the DOE for solutions to what one Bronx principal referred to as the “heaping mounds of papers, the overwhelming amount of SES information given to parents.” The process, they argued, presented numerous challenges to parents and guardians. In particular, the parents received too much information and too few directives on how to use the information. Some parent coordinators did not give out the complete SES information packets, but instead distilled the main SES points into an SES fact sheet that they distributed. Other coordinators chose not to distribute the packets at all, but invited parents and guardians to SES informational events. At the start of each school year, however, most schools distributed SES information packets, which included a parent notification letter, a brochure, a provider directory that in 2006–7 was a hundred pages long, and a provider selection form. Parents and guardians were also provided with enrollment guides that covered the following sections: frequently asked questions, SES calendar, parent/guardian checklist, questions to ask providers, and list of providers, as well as a provider selection form and instructions on how to complete it. In addition, parents were, in each publication, directed to “visit the website of the New York State Education Department” to get more information.

    All the actions parents were to take, according to federal and local authorities, were nearly impossible for most working parents and guardians; even those who wanted particular SES programs to best meet the needs of their children, often did not have the option of choosing it. Although SES was represented in NCLB as a “parent-choice” program, schools, not parents, entered into partnerships with SES providers. Principals decided which providers would offer services at their schools, and parents were directed to enroll only with those providers.

    Still, there was a need for local educational agencies to “manage impressions” (Garfinkel 1967)—to appear that in fact, parents were free to choose any SES program.6 There was also the need for school administrators to present themselves as the experts who knew best. Parents were often told in parent meetings and open houses that they were free to choose an SES provider, but that the school had already found the best programs for their students. During an open school night, the principal of one Queens middle schools introduced the SES providers she had chosen (p.114) as the most qualified to meet the distinct needs of the schools' student population. She stated: “We have thoroughly researched it and these three providers are by far the best to meet your children's needs. They are, without a doubt, the highest qualified to get our test scores up. All our years of experience tells us that these three are the only three to choose” (field notes November 13, 2007, emphasis added). Ironically, while the school's population was comprised of 42 percent emergent bilinguals, none of the three providers chosen by the principal offered specific curriculum for those students. Still, her strong recommendations went unchallenged by parents, who deferred to her expertise and authority.

    Policy is made in many contexts by diverse actors, and SES mandates link an increasing variety of public and private policy mediators, each of whom makes claim to policy authority. School administrators, the DOE, and United Education are observed, in this chapter, to be vying for decisionmaking power. The ability to affect, if not make, policy is dispersed internally in organizations and schools, as well. In the chapter's last example, a parent coordinator takes matters into her own hands by literally creating simplified SES fact sheets rather than dispersing the official SES materials, and a principal chooses an SES provider that likely cannot adequately serve her students.

    In examining the acts of SES selection and other processes of localization in this chapter, multiple, intersecting, and often conflicting practices in appropriating NCLB are revealed. So too are many small acts of defiance in the everyday actions (de Certeau 1984) made obvious. Photocopying enrollment forms when not enough were available; hiring teachers who may not have been skilled enough to teach; and providing inadequate space for students to attend SES, for example, are all somewhat noncompliant in fixing the problem of failure. The actions were all, however, practical and thus necessary actions in appropriating NCLB and attending to failure. Actors constructed their reality through their actions to make sense of their ceaselessly changing circumstances. NCLB steers action toward school failure in a generic manner—i.e., local educational agencies, schools, and SES providers must do something about it—but what exactly they do, is somewhat flexible. Collecting the local agencies, schools, and the tutoring industry together implies a certain regulation of actions. It does not, as demonstrated in this chapter, prohibit the flow of activity in multiple, and nonlinear directions. NCLB directs, but does not determine, action.


    (1.) There is no evidence, other than statements made by the principal at PS 427 that Great Works was, in fact, intending to become an approved SES provider. I obtained no verification from the state that Great Works had submitted an application.

    (2.) The order of operations to be followed in solving mathematical expressions is as (p.163) follows: first, perform all the operations in parenthesis, then evaluate all exponents, next multiply, divide from left to right, and finally, add and subtract from left to right.

    (3.) Three teachers continued their employment with United the following year; one was not invited back; and one left to pursue his acting career.

    (4.) CNN.com, “Parents, kids getting shut out of free help: Tutoring companies and advocates point to unkempt promise,” February 17, 2006.

    (5.) Some schools are designated as “universal free lunch sites” for three years at a time. At these schools, all children are eligible to receive SES.

    (6.) An NCLB/SES Action Brief, compiled by Public Education Network and the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education (2006) deconstructs the “parentchoice” provision. The brief states, “At the state level, parents must be consulted in order to promote participation by a greater variety of providers and to develop criteria for identifying high-quality providers [and] at the local level, parents must be able to choose all SES providers identified by the state that are within the geographical areas of the school district” (emphasis added, 5–6).