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For-Profit SPEDx’s End Game: Cut SPED Services for a Lower Bottom Line

April 16, 2018

SPEDx (aka Avenir Education) is a for-profit company that purports to “ensure a student’s disability status does not dictate their path to success in life.”

Its founder and CEO, Richard Nyankori, is a Teach for America (TFA) alum with no degrees or certification in special education or educational research. However, he was placed in charge of special education in DC by another former TFAer, former DC chancellor, Michelle Rhee.

SPEDx had a controversial, $4.4M no-bid contract with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), a contract that TEA canceled in December 2017, but not before it had paid SPEDx $2.2M.

Former TEA sped director Laurie Kash was fired from TEA via email on November 22, 2017, the day after she filed with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG) a Request for Investigation regarding TEA’s no-bid contract with SPEDx.

Louisiana also has a contract with SPEDx, one of the more suspicious elements of which is that the Louisiana-SPEDx contract is supposedly for “no cost.” However, the word from Kash is that Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) sped policy director Jamie Wong indicated that the Broad Foundation is funding SPEDx’s work in Louisiana and that Wong shared concerns based on SPEDx’s Louisiana report with Kash and likely with California sped director, Kristen Wright (an idea supported by a Wong text provided later in this post).

From Kash, via email on April 09, 2018, and, as it happens, as previously sent to me via email on February 17, 2018, as part of a larger narrative:

NASDSE Conference (October 14-16)

When I attended the national conference for the National Association for State Directors of Special Education, I was able to meet the director from Louisiana, Jamie Wong.  I introduced myself after the first general meeting and said that we had something in common because we both got to work with SPEDx. She gave me an interesting expression.  I said that look is familiar. I said, aren’t you glad they found those 40% of missing IEP goals? She was surprised and angry. She said that she had found the 40% information was incorrect herself and that she had demanded Richard Nyankori of SPEDx fix the slide.  She was angered the information had been passed along to another state. She was not impressed with SPEDx.  She said all the information was data they could get from their own central data system. I agreed that had been true to that point in Texas as well. We agreed to talk more later in the conference.

Later in the day, Jamie told me that the SPEDx was funded by Broad.

She said they would never have paid for SPEDx outright. She and I agreed SPEDx was not a product beneficial to school districts for their special education students and did not reflect accurate data analysis.

Later in the conference she brought her written copy of the report out and showed it to me. The Special Education Director of California, Kristin Wright, was detained, but I think Jamie wanted to show it to Kristin. Jamie had warned Kristen about SPEDx as I had. Kristin had been recently approached by SPEDx and Richard Nyankori. She said she had already said no to them in meetings prior to NASDSE.

Laurie Kash, PhD

In an email exchange dated April 09 and 10, 2018, I asked Wong about Broad funding for SPEDx. In that exchange, Wong maintains that SPEDx is doing the work at “no cost”; she denies that Broad is involved, and she denies telling Kash that she believed Broad is involved.

Below is the text on my email exchange with Wong:

From: Mercedes Schneider <deutsch29@aol.com>
Date: Monday, April 9, 2018 at 2:53 PM
To: Jamie Wong <Jamie.Wong@LA.GOV>
Subject: spedx

Hi, Jamie. I am a La. Teacher/researcher/blogger, and I have a question for you regarding SPEDx:

Is SPEDx’s work in Louisiana being funded by the Broad Foundation? If not, who is funding SPEDx’s
work in Louisiana?

Thank you.

–Mercedes Schneider
deutsch29.wordpress.com

On 9 Apr 2018, at 4:24 pm, Jamie Wong <Jamie.Wong@LA.GOV> wrote:

Hi Mercedes-

The project completed by SPEDx for the LDOE was part of a no-cost contract and was not funded.

-Jamie

On Apr 9, 2018, at 6:00 PM, “Deutsch29@aol.com” <Deutsch29@aol.com> wrote:

Yes or no: Did the Broad Foundation fund SPEDx for SPEDx’s work in Louisiana?

Yes or no.

Thank you.

—Mercedes

 

From: Jamie Wong <Jamie.Wong@LA.GOV>
To: Deutsch29 <Deutsch29@aol.com>
Sent: Mon, Apr 9, 2018 8:18 pm
Subject: Re: spedx

No

From: Mercedes Schneider <deutsch29@aol.com>
Date: Monday, April 9, 2018 at 8:26 PM
To: Jamie Wong <Jamie.Wong@LA.GOV>
Subject: Re: spedx

One more:

Yes or no: Did you tell former TX sped director, Laurie Kash, that Broad money was paying for SPEDx’s services

in Louisiana?

Yes or no.

Thank you.

–Mercedes

From: Jamie Wong <Jamie.Wong@LA.GOV>
To: Mercedes Schneider <deutsch29@aol.com>
Sent: Tue, Apr 10, 2018 10:35 am
Subject: Re: spedx

No, and I will not make any further comments on this topic.

-Jamie

 

On April 11, 2018, I told Kash of Wong’s denial via the above emails of Broad funding; Kash stands by the veracity of her conversation with Wong in which Wong identified Broad as the money source for SPEDx’s work in Louisiana.

Though Wong denies that Broad funded SPEDx’s work in Louisiana, she appears relieved to be able to say that LDOE did not fund the work.  On December 13, 2017, Houston Public Media published a pointed critique centered on SPEDx’s Louisiana report, which had been made public in Texas by SPEDx officials ostensibly as an example of SPEDx’s work.  On December 15, 2017, a member of the press contacted LDOE press liaison Sydni Dunn, which resulted in a flurried email exchange among LDOE officials over how to handle the bad press over Louisiana’s SPEDx report.

Among those emails is this response by Wong, in which she references LDOE assistant superintendent of academics, Rebecca Kockler and LDOE general counsel Joan Hunt:

From: Jamie Wong <jamie.wong@la.gov>
Date: Friday, December 15, 2017 at 2:14 PM
To: Sydni Dunn <sydni.dunn@la.gov>, Bridget Devlin <bridget.devlin@la.gov>, Rebecca Kockler <rebecca.kockler@la.gov>, Joan Hunt <joan.hunt@la.gov>
Subject: Re: Request from reporter

Looping in Rebecca and Joan. I think we need to keep a response very short but should make sure they note that we did not spend any money on this.

As though handing over Louisiana sped data to an incompetent company is okay because someone other than the state elected to foot the bill.

I also asked Kash to provide correspondence between herself and Wong regarding SPEDx. Kash provided the following texts, which I have chiefly edited to focus on Wong’s thoughts regarding SPEDx, including the arrangement between TEA, LDOE, and SPEDx.

Individuals referenced in the Kash-Wong texts include Kockler, TEA exec director of special populations, Justin Porter; TEA deputy commissioner of academics, Penny Schwinn, and California sped director, Kristen Wright. Wong also mentions “our superintendent,” who is John White.

The Kash-Wong texts span approximately 3 weeks, from October 25, 2017, to November 17, 2017, with most correspondence occurring on October 25, 2017:

 

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Kash’s correspondence with Wong via text ends on November 17, 2107, only five days prior to Kash’s firing.

The “enabled advocacy” that Wong mentions appears to be the parent group, Texans for Special Education Reform (TxSER), which indicates on this timeline receiving La.’s SPEDx report via PIR (“public information request”) on December 04, 2017.

Finally, in trying to better understand what transpired out of the public eye regarding the handing of Louisiana’s special education data over to Nyankori and his SPEDx, I filed public records requests for emails between Nyankori and Wong (12/01/16 – 03/08/18), and for emails between Nynakori, LDOE superintendent John White, and LDOE data governance and privacy director, Kim Nesmith (11/01/17 – 03/08/18).

Below is some of the info gleaned from those emails.

  • No emails apparently directly connect White and Nyankori for the dates requested.
  • Nyankori has apparently subcontracted with a fellow DC crony, Andrew Patricio, who has his own data company, dataeffectiveness.com.
  • I was reminded that Wong and Nyankori also have a connection via DC and Michelle Rhee, with Wong also having minimal exposure to the sped classroom and no degree in special education; still, like Nyankori, she was boosted in ed-reformer fashion to a position of authority as LDOE sped policy director.
  • Nyankori also apparently subcontracts with McKinsey and Company, with three McKinsey and Co. individuals (Neil Chianini, Jake Bryant, Jimmy Sarakatsannis) copied in emails. It is possible that there are layers of subcontracting, with McKinsey serving as a subcontractor to Data Effectiveness, which, in turn, is a subcontractor to SPEDx, who has a “no cost” (ahem) contract with LDOE. What this means is that there are numerous individuals who have access to Louisiana’s sped data, and the public has no idea.
  • The above subcontracting is not the end of the story. Nyankori asks Nesmith for test scores on the sped students, and Nesmith is not prepared for this; she was prepared to provide sped data but not assessment data. She brings in an individual who represents the company, Computer Aid (“Compaid,” or CAI), a contractor that “maintains software that aids in development, configuration, problem resolution, programming and other support in the special education reporting (SER) database system,” as per this LDOE-CAI contract that spans 2012 – 2020 and costs as follows:
    • IMG_1025 (1)

Some more info on Nyankori’s request for assessment data:

From the outset, Nyankori and his subcontracted sidekick, Patricio, want access to assessment data on Louisiana’s sped students. Nesmith was prepared to provide sped data, which makes it seem that Nyankori’s goal differs from Nesmith’s expectation.

There seems to be two goals for Nyankori and his SPEDx: a surface goal, and a secondary, less-publicized goal. As I read these emails, it seemed that one expectation was that Nyankori would somehow advise LDOE on how to construct “better” IEPs (whatever that might mean).

The other expectation– and one more in line with career ed reformers who go the route of starting their own for-profits– is to promote their services as somehow leading to cutting costs.

In trying to ascertain for-profit SPEDx’s bottom-line offering to states, I asked former Texas sped director, Laurie Kash, to draft a narrative about her experience with SPEDx. Below is what she offered via email on April 07, 2018:

I can definitely understand why there would be confusion about how the analysis is conducted and the purpose for SPEDx.

SPEDx has a different message for each of its two audiences. One audience is the school district, otherwise known as the local user. For this audience, it promises analysis of IEPs that will lead to improved IEP writing. This is very appealing.
However, for the other audience, the high-level, state user or the person who will be funding the SPEDx project, it promises streamlining of “unnecessary” services for a reduction of overall state costs—with “necessity” being determined by standardized testing outcomes.

Here’s how this works: The analysis that is conducted by SPEDx compares the standardized tests scores of SPED students who receive a given service with SPED students who do not receive a given services. For example, SPEDx wanted to compare English Language Arts standardized scores of students who had received speech as a related service versus students who had not received speech as a related service.

SPEDx used their data to try to persuade higher-ups that students who did not receive benefit in the form of standardized test improvement in the area of the English Language Arts should not be receiving speech and language services as a related service.

This struck me as inappropriate for the following reasons:

  1. I can affirm as a former regular-education English language arts teacher and special-education director that that there is not a direct correlation between related service in speech and English Language Arts standardized test scores that works across the board.
  2. Philosophically, this is a profound violation of the spirit of IDEA and IEP meeting laws. The team is to decide the services needed to accomplish the goals set for the child. This is not to be determined by a company or the state. This is not to be abridged by a company or the state.

When one reads the fine print about the purpose of SPEDx, one finds that really the way they make their money is to promise to return the investment the state makes in their services by reducing the necessity for services. This is a violation of the spirit of IDEA. I couldn’t stand for that though it cost me my job.

Laurie Kash, PhD

When SPEDx shows up at a state department of education, advocates of special education have reason to be concerned. Below are Nyankori’s (and Rhee’s) thoughts on the matter are noted in this May 24, 2011, Huffington Post article:

We know, there are a lot of people out there who think we’re too focused on standardized tests. But, really, how can you diagnose learning problems, move kids to the next level or hold teachers accountable if you don’t measure student progress in an objective, standardized way? …

…Arguing against testing for kids with disabilities is discriminatory. Good instruction comes with good assessments. You can’t separate them, and to try to do so creates two, unequal systems, one with accountability and one without it. This is a civil rights issue.

For much of our country’s history, society has expected less of people with disabilities. For all its shortcomings, however, the federal No Child Left Behind law marked a change in that thinking. The law requires that students with disabilities generally have to be included in school accountability measures — meaning they must be tested and schools are judged on those test results. Any weakening of this policy would hurt kids, and we must remember that as Congress considers reauthorizing the law.

Some people say it’s cruel to make students with disabilities take challenging tests. We think it’s cruel to leave them out. Sure, it can be difficult as adults to see kids struggle with a tough task. But think about the smile on that kid’s face, or the confidence in his eyes, after he gives it his best shot. We have to teach children to deal with frustrating moments, not shelter them from ever having them.

It doesn’t take much to see how Nyankori’s enthusiasm for using standardized tests to determine sped outcomes translated into his forming a for-profit that *helps* states reduce overhead in the form of special education services judged unnecessary via standardized testing outcomes.

The SPEDx bottom line is a financial bottom line, and the likes of SPEDx appeals to states looking for a means of cutting overhead linked to dimension-lacking, misapplied standardized test scores.

When one reads the fine print about the purpose of SPEDx, one finds that really the way they make their money is to promise to return the investment the state makes in their services by reducing the necessity for services. –Laurie Kash

…Make sure they note that we did not spend any money on this.  –Jamie Wong

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Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

3 Comments
  1. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    What a thuggish move–firing a whistleblower.
    I wonder to what extent the charter school environments differ in the states/districts where the effort is clearly to lower costs for special education. This effort to lower costs is evident in the SIBS (pay for success contracts) for preschool were students are cherrypicked from the get-go, eliminating those who cannot pass some initial tests (e.g., Peabody Picture Test). It is clear from this report that some national and state data on charter schools and special education is available, although not as up to date as one might wish. Your post has done a heroic job of display the various forms of communication in this case. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52feb326e4b069fc72abb0c8/t/5a9556768165f588f48664fe/1519736443922/280272+NCSECS+Full+Report_WEB+%281%29.pdf

  2. Abigail Shure permalink

    I tested some SPED kids one on one who could barely read. They bubbled away with pleasure. We spent the extra time allotted chatting, coloring and reading picture books together. The notion that anything was being assessed was beyond ridiculous.

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