Kaplan Crunch

Will Private Firm Put the Squeeze on Public Education?

ACC teacher and tutor Gary Hillman
photograph by Jana Birchum

When word leaked out recently that Austin Community College President Richard Fonte was considering hiring Kaplan Educational Centers to help overhaul the college's remedial studies curriculum, an understandable furor ensued. Rumors began to fly that secret deals were being cut and jobs were in danger -- especially those in the remedial, or developmental, studies program. For more than 60 years, Kaplan has built its reputation on coaching students for standardized tests such as the SAT. But more recently, Kaplan has discovered the joy of a new niche market -- taking over community colleges' remedial education programs on the theory that a private company can teach basic skills better and faster than in-house staff.

That's a theory that ACC faculty members are willing to challenge. Only a year ago, many ACC staffers fought an emotional but unsuccessful battle against a controversial reorganization plan that dismantled ACC's Parallel Studies Department. The department oversaw all ACC remedial programs -- programs designed to aid students who are stumbling along in basic reading, writing, and math courses. As part of the reorganization, the department's remedial math program became part of the college's mathematics department, and remedial reading and writing programs merged with the regular humanities programs. The changes created such feelings of betrayal among teachers that the Faculty Senate issued a vote of "no confidence" in then-interim President Hosni Nabi. Some say that decentralizing the Parallel Studies Department weakened ACC's basic skills program, which long has enjoyed a reputation as one of the better remedial programs in the state.

Wounds from last year had barely scabbed over when news began to spread that ACC's new president -- Fonte -- was tinkering with the developmental studies program yet again, perhaps by contracting its tasks to a private company. Clearly, there is hardly a word more controversial in the world of public education than "privatization." More and more frequently, and often under the auspices of "education reform," school administrators from the elementary level on up are looking seriously at what private companies have to offer. Unhampered by bureaucracy and political in-fighting, these private firms seem to hold the promise of accomplishing what public institutions cannot. Whether they actually live up to that promise remains to be seen.

"Privatization of higher education is attractive to legislators because there is this idea that the corporate side can do things better and easier and cheaper," said Grady Hillman, ACC writing professor with the developmental program. "I'm fearful of the idea if we just hand things over to the private corporations, we can get it off our backs and we won't have to worry about it."

Fonte, who took over the college's top spot in February, tried to downplay the idea of a possible consulting deal with the test-taking gurus at Kaplan. He said that option is one of many avenues the college is considering in an effort to improve developmental studies. Perhaps recalling Nabi's no-confidence vote, Fonte stressed that the faculty would be "fully involved" in the process taking place in every department throughout ACC, and that no outside entity would replace the college's faculty in any department. "We are engaged in a curriculum-renewal process in all our departments," said Fonte. "It's very common to examine what approaches are out there. This is what colleges do."

Coping With Change

But teachers in the remedial studies program aren't the only ones concerned about the college's talks with Kaplan. As one teacher put it, the past months have been "excruciating" because the entire college has been dealing with a major restructuring under Fonte's leadership. Changes have included lopping off a layer of administration in almost every department at ACC. Indeed, the move saved money at the fiscally strapped college, but it also shifted additional administrative duties to teachers, and in some cases increased their teaching workload. "Each week there seems to be something else for us to digest and adapt to," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified. "Some of the initiatives may be good, but we've been dealing with so much here that it becomes overwhelming."

Some faculty members see "the Kaplan issue" and other restructuring efforts as further evidence of how ACC is changing its mission from a strong academic two-year program to a vocational school producing workers trained in technical skills rather than critical thinking skills. The concern is that students wishing to transfer to a four-year college could be lost in the land of higher academia if ACC concentrates all its energies on simply preparing a future workforce to meet the local demands of a booming high-tech industry. "Business interests may be served better in a vo-tech program, but will our students be better served?" asked Hillman.

The privatization issue has grown so thorny that the ACC Faculty Senate last month passed a resolution reminding Fonte that the faculty must be actively involved in his curriculum plans, particularly if he intends to hire an outsider like Kaplan. After all, several teachers said, spearheading curriculum revision is traditionally the realm of college faculty, not college presidents, and when a specific problem in a program or department arises, it is the faculty that traditionally decides whether to bring in an outside expert to address the areas of weakness. Developmental program faculty members say the administration never informed them of major deficiencies in the way the program's remedial math, reading and writing courses were being taught. So why, then, is Fonte considering revamping the program? For his part, Fonte said remedial skills' "curriculum renewal" is especially important in light of a bill passed by the Texas Legislature last session, reducing the number of state-funded remedial courses a student can take at a community college.

Faculty members say they are not opposed to looking at different educational approaches, but they wonder if Kaplan is right for ACC.

"We just don't know a lot about what they [Kaplan] do," said Mike Midgely, president of the faculty senate. "They have a history in test prep, but they have an unproven track record with regard to basic skills." Added faculty member Hillman: "The bottom line to me is, why are we talking to Kaplan at all? There is no evidence that they can do anything better than we can."

One reason ACC is talking to Kaplan is John E. Roueche, director of the University of Texas Community College Leadership Program and head of Kaplan's community college advisory board. Roueche, who carries a lot of clout among community college presidents -- including Fonte -- says ACC should consider going with Kaplan because of the company's decades of experience and reputation in the test-taking arena. Schools are spending millions to assist students who are not prepared for college-level study, he said, and outside agencies like Kaplan can be important in helping improve student success in these classes. "This is a big issue for two-year colleges," Roueche said. "We have a lot of colleges spending a lot of money on remedial education."

Texas colleges, of course, are no exception. The cost of providing remedial education at state-funded colleges has jumped from $38.6 million in the 1988-89 budget cycle to $153.4 million in the current two-year budget period, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

At ACC, officials estimate that over one third of its 25,000 students will take some type of non-credit remedial education class based on how they score on the Texas Academic Skills Program test. For example, a student performing poorly on the TASP might be placed in non-credit Basic Math Skills. Before he can begin to take math courses for credit he must first pass Basic Math Skills, Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, and Intermediate Algebra -- all without credit -- as well as pass the TASP test. However, the student may retake the TASP test at any time and move immediately to credit coursework if he passes. If Kaplan is promising that it can better prepare students to pass the TASP test -- and therefore speed students through their basic skills requirements -- perhaps it should not be surprising that Kaplan might be called in to do the ACC job.

A Textbook Case

Kaplan currently works with several two-year colleges, including South Carolina's Greenville Tech, whose president, Thomas Barton, claims Kaplan has been "a blessing" to the college since it hired them last spring. According to Barton, about 40% of Greenville's 10,000 students take non-credit remedial classes. The average student spends at least part of three semesters on such work, he said. Barton said he won't have any tangible evidence of Kaplan's impact until the end of the spring semester, but he said anecdotal evidence suggests the company is worth the several hundred thousand dollars the school is spending for the outside help.

"They've been a great help in helping us streamline our program so we can get students in, get them tested, and get them out into a program of their choice," said Barton, adding that the Greenville-area industry is clamoring for workers with an associate's degree. "That's what this program is all about: making darn sure our students have the proper basic skills training to pursue their future educational goals. If we don't do that, we've failed."

At Greenville, Kaplan employs a full-time administrative manager and uses Greenville's own faculty to teach its curriculum. Kaplan's techniques include having math students explain in writing how they are trying to solve mathematical problems, and assigning students "learning contracts" -- lists of specific skills they will acquire in each unit of instruction -- instead of tests and papers. At first, Barton said, some Greenville faculty were concerned about Kaplan's presence, but with teachers' jobs still intact, and their input on the curriculum still solicited, those fears have pretty much vanished, Barton observed.

Of course, that is not to say ACC will experience a similar happy ending with Kaplan, at least not if the faculty has anything to say on the matter. Fonte acknowledges that "change, particularly in instructional methodology, is always difficult." But he said the school must be open to different ideas if it wants to continue to be "on the cutting edge."

Still, faculty members remain wary of Fonte's plans, at least where Kaplan is concerned.

"I tend to see programs like Kaplan like the Borg on Star Trek, assimilating everyone. We don't have books to look at or techniques to study [from Kaplan], and they have no real curricular background," said Hillman. "If I seem confused, it's because I am. I'd hate to be a guinea pig."

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