By Guest Blogger George Thomson,

The vanishing of a conflict of interest case in Ontario’s education system is a sign of the extent to which the province has committed to importing the public-private partnership model and the extent to which such conflicts are now accepted as the natural side-effect of the new way of doing business. It is also a textbook case of how those who oversee and profit from accountability for boards, schools, teachers and students can never be held accountable themselves.

Allegations of the conflict of interest at Ontario’s accountability office (EQAO) were raised against Earl on September 28th by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the New Democratic Party and referred the same day by the Chair of EQAO, Brian Desbiens, to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, but the Commissioner’s ruling, which was sent back to Desbiens in mid-October, 2009 was never reported publicly in either the news media, or the legislature.

It seems likely Lorna Earl was instantly cleared of all wrongdoing and moreover that the matter was considered too far-fetched by EQAO’s Chair, Brian Desbiens, to merit any further attention: what could possibly be wrong with having the same person employed at the Education Quality and Accountability Office (overseeing tests), at the Ministry of Education (setting policy), and at numerous school boards (working privately as a consultant on raising “achievement”)? Surely the public has no business knowing anything about this.

The news media’s failure to investigate or further report on this issue can be attributed to several factors. It seems unlikely that Desbiens, who ordered and received the investigation, ever reported it to any media: whereas EQAO launched a news release to defend Earl the day of her allegations, there has been no subsequent release to explain that she has received a ruling. (http://www.eqao.com/NR/NewsReleases.aspx?Lang=E) Thus, it is possible that the media is still unaware a ruling has been made.

It should also be pointed out, however, that the Ontario corporate media is strongly committed to EQAO testing and the “standards” agenda which is the fulcrum of most privatization reforms. Thus, the Globe and Mail never even reported the original allegations, and the Toronto Sun instantly retaliated against the allegations by calling them a “character assassination” and insinuating that the unions were behind it as a plot to try and stop EQAO testing.

On Sept. 28, an Ontario CBC Radio report alleged Lorna Earl was involved in a conflict of interest between her roles at EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office responsible for province-wide testing) and her company, Aporia Consulting, which gets contracts from boards to help raise their “achievement” and prepare their “school improvement plans”. Then Minister of Education Wynne refused to comment in the Legislature but said that she had contacted EQAO’s chair who had ordered an investigation.

The Conflict of Interest Commission passed the report to Brian Desbiens, Chair of EQAO, in mid October, but it was never made public and the findings are still a mystery to the people of Ontario. Of course it would be difficult to explain to the public how they can be spending their education tax dollars to pay for the same person to be working at EQAO, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry-funded boards of education all at the same time. The public will see the relationships as a fundamental conflict of interest, based on the sheer potential for self-serving biases and for mischief.

EQAO’s Desbiens instantly defended Earl by framing the matter as one of cheating vs not cheating on the test: the original EQAO news release explained that “the board of directors is responsible for managing the agency through activities such as setting the goals, objectives and strategic direction of the agency, overseeing the preparation of the agency’s annual business plan, and establishing governance policies or by-laws for governing its operations and ensuring that public funds are being used with honesty and integrity. EQAO board members do not have any knowledge of the specifics of the assessments, beyond information already in the public domain. They do not see the tests or test questions, nor do they have any influence over the content of the tests.” http://www.eqao.com/NR/ReleaseViewer.aspx?Lang=E&release=b09R010

Of course the notion that Earl’s behaviour needs to be seen as cheating vs not-cheating is something of a false choice. The very language Desbiens uses to clear Earl proves that there is a conflict of interest beyond a doubt, for as a member of EQAO’s Board of Directors, she “sets goals, objectives and strategic direction of the agency.” This places her in a position of tremendous power and it makes her much closer to the knowledge centres about how to succeed on the tests and how to demonstrate success and improvement in the eyes of Ontario’s all-powerful Accountability and Quality Office—regardless of whether she is in a position to anticipate specific answers on the next test.  Earl was EQAO’s first Director of Assessment in 1997 so she carries a great deal more expertise on the tests than others, and obviously should not be in a position to render paid and therefore unequal services in helping boards raise “achievement” or improve their “quality” in any way.

And how accountable is the Chair of Ontario’s Accountability Office, Desbiens, himself, who publicly defended Earl as soon as the story was out? The original CBC report reads:

The chairman of the EQAO board, Brian Desbiens, defended Earl and also said his agency does not directly get involved with the testing.

“She’s I’m sure being hired because of her expertise in learning and teaching and testing assessment, only one part of which would be her work with EQAO data,” he said.

Desbiens said he does not believe Earl is in violation of the province’s conflict of interest rules.  http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2009/09/28/eqao-board-tests-conflict452.html

While Desbiens claimed in the EQAO news release that “At the same time, we understand and fully support the need for complete transparency,” how transparent is it to have someone so obviously biased in Earl’s favour from the start be the only one who received the Conflict of Interest Commissioner’s report? Where’s the “complete transparency” when nobody publishes the report or even puts out a news release to say the case has been completed?

Furthemore, Earl has been Researcher in Residence, a position created by the Liberals, to help direct policy on research and assessment reforms. Isn’t it a conflict of interest for Earl to be getting paid by the people of Ontario to be on EQAO, at the Ministry, and then again, privately via the Boards of Education? Isn’t she also using her Ministry position to get contracts at Boards on the same assessment based policies she sets at the Ministry?

Isn’t EQAO supposed to be an “arm’s length” organization which, from a detached point of view, evaluates such things as standardized tests? How can people at EQAO be allowed to work at the Ministry without there being a major risk of influence on this important matter. EQAO tests have changed during the Liberal reign and, not surprisingly, the schools have shown “improvement” on tests in relation to the Liberals making significant changes to the format, including halving the length of time they take. How can any government which allows for such conflicts in roles claim that it has objective accountability in the institution which most needs to exemplify detachment?

On September 28th the conflict of interest was raised as follows:

Mr. Rosario Marchese: Minister, your government is obsessed with EQAO test scores. Your control and manipulation of the process reached new heights when we found out that Lorna Earl, who is on the board of directors for EQAO, also runs a private company which specializes in showing boards how to get the numbers up. What Ms. Earl is doing in her own interest is also in your interest. Is that why you’re ignoring this clear conflict of interest?

Hon. Kathleen O. Wynne: I spoke with the chair of the EQAO this morning. The EQAO does, as the member opposite I’m sure knows, have conflict-of-interest provisions in place. But in order to be completely transparent, the chair is referring this situation to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, and we will await a ruling on the situation.

Mr. Rosario Marchese: I’m glad that you’re doing that, Minister, because in the interview on CBC, you didn’t think there was one. We were concerned about that because, in my mind, this is no different from a teacher tutoring students on a for-profit basis to pass a test that he or she has influence over.

Here are some quotes from school board documents showing why Linda Earl was hired:

“To refine school improvement planning and interpretation of data”-from Thames Valley.

“Emphasis will be on system-wide improvement of student results on a measure of performance targets”-from Lakehead.

So Linda Earl is hired to improve the test scores, and the government, through Bill 177, is prepared to take over school boards that fail to improve their test scores.

My question was, how could the minister allow this clear conflict of interest to continue? But I’m glad you are referring that for a conflict.


Hon. Kathleen O. Wynne: I’m not going to comment on the specifics of the case except to say the woman’s name is Lorna Earl, not Linda Earl.

The facts are that we are very conscientious in terms of our oversight of the EQAO tests. I spoke with the chair. I’ve said that the issue is being referred to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner. I think that the understanding that what we need are the best professionals to be advising us on our student achievement is exactly what we have attempted to put in place with all of our agencies and with all of our bodies.

The member opposite needs to get his facts straight. I have said to the press that this has been sent on to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, and I will not comment on the specifics until we hear that ruling.
http://hansardindex.ontla.on.ca/hansardeissue/39-1/l166.htm

Sources confirm that then Minister Wynne has heard that ruling. Why has she still refused to do what she said she would do and “comment on specifics”?

FACTS ABOUT APORIA

Boards want the magic bullet for EQAO tests and school improvement plans to keep from receiving “interventions” from the Ministry over test scores and board/school improvement plans: Earl’s firm promotes the notion that “data interpretation” will raise performance. Thus, while Earl measures performance at EQAO, she offers the hope of improved performance at the board level on a for-profit basis. Could the tests be manipulated to show stronger results for boards that buy data interpretation training from her?  Could key information be leaked during the tutoring sessions? As a matter of security, it is the potential for such action which is being built into the roles, which constitutes the conflict of interest.

While Earl has been employed as a director at EQAO, from 2005 to present, she was contracted by Toronto District School Board to ensure the “Identification of best practices in embedding essential skills into the curriculum.”

http://www.tdsb.on.ca/boardroom/bd_agenda/uploads/minutes/2006/60920.pdf

In 2008, Earl worked at Lakehead Public Schools along with her partner, Steven Katz, “to refine their school improvement planning process. Lessons learned from this project will form the basis for school improvement planning for the 2008-09 school

year.” http://webnew.lakeheadschools.ca/content/media/964.pdf

At the Thames Valley District School Board in 2006, Earl was clearly hired in order to be “consistent with Ministry expectations” and that is spelled out very clearly as a new “emphasis…on systemwide improvement of student results as measured by performance targets.” This is presented as the very reason for bringing in those who can sell not “the answers” but the WAY to do better as it has now been defined by the Ministry where Earl (and Fullan) both work:

“Supervisory Officers met with Drs. Lynne Hannay and Lorna Earl to discuss the framework for continued research in the area of Our Vision and knowledge creation.

-Planning is on-going for Principal/Vice-Principal Professional Development for 2006-07. Consistent with Ministry expectations and Board objectives, emphasis will be on systemwide improvement of student results as measured by performance targets. Dr. Michael Fullan is scheduled for November and it is hoped that Dr. Lorna Earl will present early in the school year on the use of data in improving student achievement” http://www.tvdsb.on.ca/boardroom/2006/m2006jun27.pdf

The “Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board” held a “Lorna Earl Workshop” in which she “presented a workshop at the CEC to principals and resource teachers relating to EQAO testing.” She told them that “testing time will be reduced by approx. 50% – grade 3 and grade 6 students will participate in 6 hours of testing rather than 12, grade 9’s will have 2 hours and the Grade 12 OSSLT will be 2.5 hours.”  It was reported that “Lorna made us aware of the fact that we have a tremendous amount of data available to us – we need to get it, work with it and come up with an action plan for each of our schools that will improve our program.” Furthermore, the “information will be used to create our School Improvement Plans.”

(http://www.bgcdsb.org/about_us/board_of_trustees/minutes/02-22_2005.pdf)

One of Earl’s defences, no doubt, is that she has been assisting boards with school improvement using research an data for many years prior to her being included on the board of directors at EQAO. Whether such involvement goes back to when she was also EQAO’s first Director of Asssessment, in 1997, or not, the fact would seem to be that Earl, via Aporia, has served numerous boards and been involved in a lot of test and strategic test-data interpretation activities, within roughly the same time period. Such boards include Niagara, Dufferin-Peel Catholic, Durham and Simcoe. (http://www.aporia.ca/clients.htm) Again, it needs to be recognized that conflicts of interest concern contracts taken both before and after holding a position in the government. Desbiens maintains that Earl’s private work was not in any way related to EQAO, but the following quote from a Toronto Sun report suggests otherwise:

“Desbiens had high praise for Earl’s expertise in national and international testing practices and called it “very valuable” for his board.

Earl is well-known in Ontario public education circles for her skill in testing tools, how to create good ones and how to learn from what their results show.

She set up the original EQAO tests back in 1997 as its first director of assessment, is a retired faculty member of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and joined the EQAO board after the McGuinty Liberals appointed her in 2005.”

http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/moira_macdonald/2009/09/30/11200646-sun.html

How can Desbiens say that Earl’s “expertise in national and international testing practices” is “very valuable” while claiming, in the EQAO news release mentioned earlier, that EQAO board members “do not have any knowledge of the specifics of the assessments, beyond information already in the public domain. They do not see the tests or test questions, nor do they have any influence over the content of the tests.” If they are not connected in any way to assessment, why would her “expertise” in “testing practices” be so “valuable”? Why are individual boards being allowed to buy this expertise on an unequal basis and using money they get from the Ministry?

Do Desbiens’ statements in defence of Earl suggest that the Conflict of Interest Commissioner’s Report should have been made public rather then left to Desbiens’ private discretion about who would be informed and when and how?

In addition to the above-mentioned school board contracts, Aporia has done contracts for the Ministry of Education, to produce “A multi-media system for schools to facilitate thoughtful and intentional use of data in educational decision-making.” http://www.aporia.ca/capacitybuilding.htm

Aporia has even been contracted by EQAO to generate a study called “Formulation of technical and policy positions for large-scale assessment.”  www.aporia.ca/facilitatingorgchange.htm

The influential podium at EQAO has been used to directly promote the need for Aporia’s services: Earl’s partner at Aporia, Steven Katz, gave a presentation as the keynote speaker at an EQAO school improvement conference. http://www.eqao.com/eMagazine/2008/01/eMagArticle.aspx?Lang=E&ArticleID=10)

Without naming Aporia directly, the entire speech promoted services which Aporia specifically provides. Professional development services by Aporia have the same title as the lecture: “Improving schools in a data-rich world” (http://www.aporia.ca/capacitybuilding.htm)

The need for “critical friends” was promoted. Aporia provides a research service called “critical friends.”  http://www.aporia.ca/facilitatingorgchange.htm

It is quite telling that Katz pointed out to a ripe audience of Ontario education leaders that “Critical friends are a valuable notion. Who are the people who, in the spirit of friendship and improvement, not of judgment and surveillance, can ask you the tough questions that you can’t ask yourself because when you are so close to something, it’s unlikely you can see it? Who will ask you the tough questions that will help challenge you in ways you haven’t been challenged?” http://www.eqao.com/eMagazine/2008/01/eMagArticle.aspx?Lang=E&ArticleID=10)

Of course, the above could easily be taken to imply that “critical friends” from the private sector like Aporia are going to be needed in order to help improve performance on the EQAO tests. One thing is for sure: the very people who have prescribed increasing dosages of accountability for the boards, schools, teachers and students have also driven up the demand for a broad range of school improvement services and for businesses which offer strategies for higher province-wide scores.

The strange disappearance of Lorna Earl’s case stands as proof that there is little accountability for those who oversee it, promote or profit from it—especially when they are the same people.