Lawsuit filed after state terminates contract
By Cameron Pipkin
Here’s some interesting news out of Florida I thought I’d pass your way — Cameron Pipkin
Originally printed online in Education Week, on November 13, 2012.
By Jason Tomassini and Nikhita Venugopal in Education Week, November 13, 2012
If the implementation of the Common Core State Standards is an opportunity for government and the private sector to work together toward a mutual goal, a bitter dispute in Florida over a website planned to prepare teachers and students for the standards is proving the messy realities of what can happen when government agencies and private companies can’t get along.
The Florida Department of Education terminated a $20 million contract with Infinity Software Development on Oct. 30, about a week after the company filed a lawsuit against interim Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart. The dueling public disclosures outlined a bitter dispute in which both sides claim the other acted too slowly and too sloppily on the project.
While the project is in litigation, Florida educators are left without a preparation resource officials expected would be in use by now, in advance of the curriculum being in place by 2014. Assessments for the common standards are set to begin in the 2014-15 school year.
“It’s the definition of building a car while it’s careening downhill at 60 miles per hour,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
As a majority of states scramble to meet the common academic standards that were unveiled in 2010, Florida’s dispute could serve as a cautionary tale for the unusually complex public-private relationships developing to make sure the new standards are used in classrooms.
“It’s one thing to procure for buses and desks, but if you’re procuring for a more complicated product, you need more expertise and resources to manage contracts,” said Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “It needs to be a collaborative effort, and the state needs to take a leadership approach.”
Last December, Florida’s education department signed the contract with Infinity, an established software company based in Tallahassee. Infinity would create a website for students and teachers featuring mini-assessments and lessons aligned with the common standards and Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards that were adopted in 2007. Tutorials in high school biology, English/language arts, civics, and mathematics would prepare students for more rigorous state testing, and eventually the common assessments, which are being developed in the common-core subjects of English/language arts and math.
Infinity earned the contract in a roundabout way. Florida had initially turned to the Microsoft Corp. to develop the website in early 2011. However, Infinity challenged the contract, claiming Microsoft’s intent to retain ownership of the software was not in the state’s best interest, according to the Associated Press. Infinity won the contract in July 2011 and signed it a few months later.
Right away, the relationship went bad, according to court documents and correspondence between the two parties. Infinity accused the education department of not altering the contract’s timetable to account for Microsoft’s dismissal, and of missing review deadlines. The department claimed the company missed its initial deadlines and had fallen six months behind schedule.
Both sides accused the other of missing meetings and communicating poorly. The department said Infinity “thwarted” efforts to “foster an environment of cooperation and support,” accusations that Jon Taylor, Infinity’s president, called “inaccurate and offensive.”
A particularly heated exchange arose over allegations that Infinity wasn’t properly submitting content produced for the website to a panel of experts, as required, and that factual errors resulted.
For example, one civics lesson suggested a discussion on the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, though the phrase is actually found in the Declaration of Independence, the department said. In response, Mr. Taylor said the department didn’t understand the point of the lesson, which was to draw comparisons between the ideals in both documents.
Students were supposed to begin work on the site last month, and in an Oct. 3 letter, the department said it would be “extremely damaging” if lessons weren’t delivered this school year. On Oct. 22, Infinity sued the state, and a week later the state terminated the contract.
Infinity, which told the AP it laid off 17 employees and halted work with 100 contracts because of the situation, requested a payment of $3.23 million for the completed work.
The state education department reportedly has spent nearly $2.5 million on the project already, according to the AP. The department is now in the process of rebidding the contract, the letter of termination says.
Test scores suggest there is a need for the resources. Just a few months ago, a more rigorous Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, caused student scores to plunge and led the state’s board of education to lower the test’s passing score.
The education department declined to comment about the legal feud.
Mr. Taylor also declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal situation, but issued a statement. “Our goal was to reach a resolution that would be in the best interest of everyone, especially Florida’s students and educators,” he said. “Unfortunately, it now appears that a fair, objective arbiter, in this case the courts, may be the best means to addressing our concerns.”
Florida is not the only state looking for large-scale ways to use technology to prepare for the common standards, Mr. Levin of SETDA said.
Massachusetts and Ohio are negotiating with vendors to build a shared, comprehensive training and classroom-management website for teachers in both states. It will be Ohio’s first statewide online instructional system, said John Charlton, a spokesman for the Ohio education department. In addition to serving as a digital repository for lessons aligned with the common core, the site will allow for creation and delivery of lessons and assessments, search of online educational resources, and student data reporting and analysis.
“It’s an ambitious project,” Mr. Charlton said.
Complex projects, like the one Infinity was hired for, bring with them difficult management decisions. In August, the Florida education department asked to meet with Infinity to discuss “turning over the content-development portion” of the contract to the state. It appears that Infinity hired subcontractors to help create content aligned with the common standards for the site, and the department wasn’t satisfied with the quality.
The content creation was too “intertwined” with the technology component for the responsibilities to be separated, Infinity responded.
Disputes over content development could become more frequent on common-core projects, because the standards are such a large shift for educators, administrators, and vendors, Mr. Levin said. And with budget and personnel constraints, that content development could be increasingly contracted and subcontracted to parties further from the classroom.
“Staffing levels are only going in one direction,” Mr. Levin said. “This is more complicated work than states have done before.” He added: “Departments absolutely have expertise, but they have few experts.”