Schools have long provided a market for anyone with an eye for opportunity - from monster textbook publishers to the specialty shops that churn out all those crayon-and-teddy ties that only a principal would wear.
But recent demands for accountability in public education are opening up new vistas for education entrepreneurs. Under pressure from state mandates, many schools need to ratchet up student test scores fast, and legions of vendors are lining up with ways to do it.
Start-up software companies promise big gains in test scores with a computer and a CD-ROM. Freelance consultants claim they can do the same with color transparencies and pep talks to the staff. And big-name test-prep companies that helped dad get into Dartmouth are promising to get junior past the third-grade reading test.
For those on the consuming end, navigating the new choices can be daunting. Deciding what actually works for kids is a challenge faced by traditional public school principals as well as breakaway home-schooling parents. And there are signs that the education market's new consumers are taking a closer look at what they're buying.
"I'm sitting here looking at piles of this junk. I'm getting 10 catalogs and offers a day," says Ivonne Durant, principal of the H. D. Hilley Elementary School in El Paso, Texas. Her solution to the problem of ed-entrepreneur overload: Let the pile in her office reach a critical mass, then have teachers peruse it.
Some of the candidates don't take much perusing, such as the brochure that promised (in blazing red) to raise student scores on statewide tests by ordering special pins and buttons as rewards. "I guess these buttons were going to make them feel better, so they would learn to read. This kind of thing comes across frequently.... I just smile to myself," she says.
"In this school, we don't believe that any one quick-fix solution will be the tail that wags the dog. Anything we bring in has to fit our overall philosophy," she says.
If a new program makes it through this initial screening, the school sends away for samples, which may be tested on small groups of students. "If the children are indeed gaining from it - and they are gains that get at the heart of learning - then we'll bring in more teachers and students," she adds.
The market for private solutions for improving school performance has surged in recent years. A new report by Merrill Lynch, the nation's largest broker, predicts that 10 percent of the publicly funded K-12 school market will be privately managed 10 years from now - a market of more than $30 billion.
"The educational needs of the knowledge economy, contrasted with the current system's inability to fill those needs, provide innovative companies with open-ended opportunities for growth. We think the investment potential in this sector is tremendous," the report concludes.
Sylvan Learning Systems in Baltimore saw the value of its stock triple since 1995. The Edison Project, the largest private manager of public schools, expanded to 51 schools from 26 last year, as annual revenues jumped to $135 million.
And the Burlington, Calif.-based Knowledge Universe raked in $1.2 billion last year by using computers to make education more accessible.
"We're looking at a $750 million market in the North American K-12 educational software sector alone," says John Wandell, president of AutoSkill International Inc. His Ottawa-based company is a leading developer of reading software for "underachieving students of any age."
What's driving school boards to look to outside solutions, such as AutoSkill, is "necessity," he says. "Teachers, school boards, and districts are becoming a lot more accountable for results. At the end of the day, the schools that step up to the realities of accountability and show their gains will be permitted to continue on, and those that don't will more than likely be yanked by the governor or the state," he adds.
In the District of Columbia, where improving test scores is a mantra, AutoSkill is up and running in 1 in 4 schools. "AutoSkill promises something that none of the other approaches promised: that with set amounts of quality utilization [25 hours] you can jump 2.5 grade levels," says Howard Brown, federal program manager for D.C. public schools.
"If you're a seventh-grader who is reading four grade levels behind, and I bring you up a year or 1-1/2 years, you're still behind. A program that promises only a year's growth isn't a viable one for us," he says.
But Mr. Brown insists that this choice is not a blind flight into technology. Other programs were considered ("Most were awful," he says.) D.C. negotiated much more extensive training and monitoring than was initially proposed. And standardized testing done last week will be used to see if kids using AutoSkill made bigger gains than those that did not.
Kaplan for kids
In Los Angeles, Kaplan Learning Services is working in 25 of the city's 100 lowest-performing schools. All schools are under a mandate to improve.
"For every 40 hours of instruction that students have received from our program, they have grown on average one grade equivalent. We expect that this intervention will expand," says Marti Garlett, Kaplan's executive director of K-12 programs.
"It's not that the regular classrooms aren't working.... We have the luxury of taking the kids doing the least well and serving them - the kids that can be overlooked in a classroom. We just give them the direct instruction that they need," she adds.
One of the selling points of many programs aimed at low-performing schools is that products are "teacher proof." Some educators cite this claim as evidence that high-tech add-ons are skirting the core problem: the quality of instruction.
"By and large, things that don't invest in the knowledge and skills of people that work in the school are going to produce modest gains at best," says Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, the leading advocate for better professional development for teachers.
"Very often, raising test scores a few percentage points is enough to get a school off the [low-performing] list, and school boards may be looking for what is as foolproof as possible," he says. "But it may not be a wise investment in professional development."
Principals and teachers aren't the only ones looking for a way through the new products and choices in education.
Home-schooling parents are the original comparison shoppers. Many took a look at district public schools and private alternatives, decided they didn't like what they saw, and launched out on their own. Many are linking up with other home-schooling parents over the Internet.
Parents seek consultants
The availability of public charter schools (1,200 nationwide and counting) is also generating a need for better information for parents.
Five years ago, there were only a few hundred full-time education consultants in the country and their main interest was helping wealthy parents find a good boarding school. Now, the profession is doubling every year. One of the biggest growth areas is helping parents figure out whether new public charter schools would be a good choice for their kids.
"We're getting 100 requests a month from people who say they are entering the field," says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, in Fairfax, Va.
"The most common call we get is from a parent who has just moved to a new city and wants to know the best school. I tell them, 'I have no idea. I don't know your child.' Every single school is different, and what is a great school for one child could be a disaster for another," he says.
Education consumer Web sites are also gaining ground as a resource. School Wise Press (www.schoolwisepress.com) in San Francisco, for example, constantly updates its profiles of individual schools, as new data are released from the state. Editor and publisher Steve Rees says he started his business after noting that San Francisco had guidebooks for "restaurants, movies, even a guide book to public toilets, but no guidebook for schools.... This was not a good sign for our times."