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Mandated reform subjects educators to sales pitches


SPIRITS WERE high at the cocktail party thrown last November at an educators conference at a deluxe hotel in Dallas. The reception was hosted by the education software company LeapFrog SchoolHouse, and among those in attendance were the company's president, the head of Prince George's County schools, and the school chief's girlfriend, a saleswoman for the company. Questions had been raised in Maryland about the superintendent's dealings with the company, but no one was letting that get in the way of the party.

Half a year later, the celebrating is officially over. Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby resigned on the eve of Memorial Day weekend, days before the county school board was to receive an audit of the county's $1 million purchase from LeapFrog. Hornsby's departure follows those of the company's president, Bob Lally, and the saleswoman, Sienna Owens, both of whom left LeapFrog in December after a company inquiry into the sale. Hornsby's dealings with LeapFrog remain under FBI investigation.

Hornsby's resignation is being described by some Prince George's board members as the result of a single ethical lapse, or "questions regarding the propriety of certain operational issues," as the school system put it in its opaque official statement on the resignation.

But the roots of the scandal that felled the head of the state's second-largest school system run deeper than that. What happened in Prince George's is only one of the most eye-catching examples of an increasingly close relationship between school administrators and education vendors in a time when national education reform has made the stakes for both groups higher than ever before.

It is nothing new for sellers of textbooks, software and other classroom materials to try to ingratiate themselves with the administrators who have the power to make six- and seven-figure purchases, wooing that often includes product giveaways and wining and dining at professional conferences. But companies are pursuing educators with greater intensity today because, under the No Child Left Behind law, there is more demand for their products and more money to spend on them.

The 2002 law places heavy pressure on schools, requiring them to show "adequate yearly progress" on annual math and reading tests in grades three to eight, with the goal that all pupils show proficiency on those tests by 2013. Schools must show improvement not only schoolwide, but also in subsets of its student population, such as those classified as minority or low-income. Schools that repeatedly fail to make gains face state takeover or shutdown.

Though the law has been credited with getting schools to focus more on poor and minority students, it has also made it easier for education vendors to pitch products that in many cases have not proved to be effective in the classroom.

Desperate to raise test scores quickly, administrators are vulnerable to vendors' claims that a given textbook or software package can produce immediate gains. These same administrators, especially those in struggling districts, have more money to spend because of the same law that is mandating improvements. While the funding increase is not as much as critics say was promised, there has still been a nearly 50 percent increase in federal funding for poor students under No Child Left Behind. The law also makes it easier for schools to use the money for education technology.

Many districts, particularly in better-off suburbs, remain wary of vendors. But as a series of Sun articles on the school software industry last fall found, vendors using the demands of the law as a selling point are making inroads in the poorer rural and urban districts - those that are under the most pressure to improve. In Camden, N.J., the superintendent spent $8 million on rudimentary math and reading software scorned by wealthier districts; in rural Alabama, a principal spent a $100,000 annual grant on educational video games rather than on the parent liaisons or art classes that she also wanted.

If administrators are questioned by board members, parents or reporters about the wisdom of such purchases, they invoke the demands of No Child Left Behind, often repeating the claims of vendors that compliance is not possible without the materials and that the products have produced large test gains in other districts. But those reports of success typically come from the companies' research; objective studies of the products being funded by the federal government won't be completed until next year.

Few districts have been as successfully targeted by vendors as Prince George's. Since Hornsby took the helm in 2003, the county has spent, among other purchases, more than $1 million on LeapFrog's laptop-like "LeapPads" for early literacy instruction in low-income schools; more than $3 million on the Grow Network, an "instruction management" system that assembles and analyzes student test scores online; and tens of thousands of dollars on Plato Learning's algebra software for low-income high schools.

As it turns out, some of Hornsby's purchases may have been driven by factors other than the products' merits. His girlfriend, Owens, 26, was hired by LeapFrog shortly before he initiated the $1 million purchase. She received a big promotion shortly after the sale. The company has acknowledged that some company rules may have been broken in the handling of the $40,000 commission, which was supposed to go to a saleswoman other than Owens. Plato, meanwhile, paid for Hornsby, 51, to go on a 10-day trip to South Africa in 2003.

But Hornsby covered his purchases with the veil of No Child Left Behind, saying such education technology was needed to raise the scores of struggling students. "Nobody can influence me. I'm not influenceable," he told The Washington Post in October. "If I decide to do something, it is the best decision for the children in this county." In April, he said: "I believe that minority children in this country are not achieving because people have not made the best instructional decisions about why they're not achieving. I'm very much tied to the scientific reality of instruction."

For months, the county school board accepted this line. Under pressure themselves to produce improvements, board members were eager to believe Hornsby's purchases were made with only student gains in mind, and they were not inclined to quibble over his choice of products.

"We had a gap we needed to narrow. We had to make [adequate yearly progress]," the board's chairwoman, Beatrice Tignor, said last week. "With state takeover looming and with No Child Left Behind looming, we needed to raise test scores."

Tignor said she still likes to believe that the materials the county is now left with after Hornsby's departure will prove their worth. But the board will never know for sure, she said, whether Hornsby bought the products for their educational value or his own motives.

"Only he knows the truth," she said.

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