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SES Providers: Notes from the Bottom

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Message Vev Ketcham

For all things, there is a season. Fall is rich in seasonal associations. Vacations and relaxed living come to an end (even when sealed with a kiss). Nose to the grindstone: Back to work, and, most relevant to these notes, back to school. Even if we do not partake of these events, they permeate our minds. In South Texas, for instance, we know about autumn leaves despite having few of our own. This past summer, I learned about another seasonal event. This event, engaging millions of American families as it sweeps across our nation every school year, is not yet firmly established in our national consciousness. It exists where, in the words of Jacob Riis, "the other half lives."

It is the season of the SES Provider.

Chronically unemployed, I was doing my daily troll through the employment postings online when I came across an ad offering $15.00 dollars an hour for "tutors." $15.00 an hour? In Texas, that's big money. This must be just another Internet scam, I thought, but what the heck, I'll apply anyway. It turned out to be a real job. Like many who applied, and despite the fact that I had no "tutoring" credentials whatsoever, I was accepted. From the applicants, our "team" was rapidly assembled. Surprisingly well educated, we comprised a diverse group. There were young and old. These included those seeking a second job, ex-military, students, rich kids trying to pick up a little pin money, and a few, such as myself, who just flat out needed to make a buck. An all-American balance of Hispanics, Anglos, and African Americans, the team was dominated by the ladies. All the inside workers and all the supervisory personnel were females.

As the training quickly demonstrated, this job had very little to do with "tutoring" and everything to do with door-to-door sales. Sales professionals would laugh, but our challenge was to give away our product. The students didn't have to pay a dime -- Uncle Sam was picking up the tab. The trick was to make the "sale" before other "tutors" could sign up the kids. It also turned out that $15.00 an hour was an illusion. Yes, we did get paid that amount, but the company demanded that we provide a cell phone and our own ride. The daily routine would consist of following a route and driving to 30 or 40 stops in some neighborhood on every shift. The company offered no compensation for the use of the phone or vehicle, and we had to pay for our own gas. No matter what you drove, this amounted to a substantial reduction in real pay. This, of course, did not take into account the wear and tear that depreciated your vehicle. Nonetheless, in today's labor market, beggars can't be choosers. Something is better than nothing. I know of no one who quit when they learned of the real compensation.

It turns out that "SES" stands for Supplementary Education Service. A SES provider is expected to correct the failure of public education. These companies and this industry were created by the "No Child Left Behind" legislation that was enacted in 2002. In the United States today, there are thousands of these companies operating door-to-door from border to border.

The first few hours of training acquainted us with our role within this basic legal mandate. The first phase of the seasonal operation would consist entirely of lining up and enrolling students in grades six through 12. Unlike other sales organizations, no mention was made of making profits. Instead, proper conduct with the public was emphasized. We were never to break the rules when enrolling students, lest we risk losing our franchise. Within the scant time allowed for basic training, the primary goal was to impart to the new employee that they were now working for a company providing a public service and on a high-minded mission. One of the four 1-hour sessions, for instance, was devoted entirely to teaching us how to detect and report child abuse. This righteous conditioning was hard-wired into our minds with a viewing of the movie "Waiting for Superman." This opumentary, a must see, is very well made. In fact, I would call it a masterpiece -- of propaganda. It was made in 2010 by Davis Guggenheim. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance. It details the failure of American education. It is a real tear-jerker. I've seen it twice now, and, on both occasions, had to fight back the tears. The point of view of this film has generated a ton of controversy. Most of the debate, it seems, centers on the film's contention that KIPP charter schools greatly outperform their counterparts in the public school system. Thus, the public can be easily misled to arcane comparisons between KIPP and public schools. These discussions tend to overlook the truly breath-taking assertions made by the movie.

First, and most startling, is the idea that bad schools produce bad neighborhoods, rather than bad neighborhoods producing bad schools. The second idea -- a corollary to the first -- is that bad schools are created by teacher's unions. Thus, teachers unions are the cause of our slums and all the social evils that flow from them. The theory is that if teacher's unions can be overcome, bad schools would disappear, and the bad neighborhoods these failing institutions create would also disappear. The greatest part of America's social problems could be relieved by simply rewriting teacher contracts. By dramatizing the heartbreaking story of a few young Americans and their parents trying to get a decent education, the movie makes its points with remarkable power. The makers of this film fully understand the principle behind Hollywood's unchallenged global supremacy -- "Schmaltz."

Although minimal, the company's training has been superb in the psychological effect produced in the minds of its new employees. After less than a day's worth of basic training followed by viewing this film, the new team has the picture required to fit within the framework of "No Child Left Behind." In this view, the professional, college-trained educators who have dedicated their lives to teaching are officially designated failures. If not pilloried, if not required to wear a scarlet letter, they are nonetheless publicly humiliated and required, if you will, to sit in a corner wearing a dunce cap. There, they are forced take their medicine. Under "No Child Left Behind," SES Providers are that medicine.

The failing schools and districts are required by law to make SES Providers available to every student. The only proviso is that the student be low-income. A student is eligible if he or she goes to a failing school and qualifies for a reduced lunch program. The schools and districts have little say in this determination. Even though the funds provided by "No Child Left Behind" to SES Providers may be equivalent to as much as 15 percent in addition to the school's own budget, and even though these schools may be suffering from inadequate funding and swelling class sizes, the "No Child Left Behind" funding is diverted to SES Providers.

For about a $130 and a couple of slices of pizza, the company sends its new hires out into the field totally "sold," conditioned with missionary zeal, each believing they are about to alter the course of destiny for the hundreds of families they are about to interact with, and, incidentally, cure most of America's problems in the process. I wonder if the Jesuits started like this?

This cultivated naïvete' was revealed in a disputed conversation with a co-worker. He was a bright and bushy-tailed young man of means with a 4-year college degree. Having been assigned to train a newcomer, I was explaining to the newbie what was expected of him. This explanation conveyed my view that this was a sales job and that his value to the company was in direct proportion to the amount of revenue he generated through enrollments. Having overheard my sober advice, the young man objected. He disputed that profits were important. In fact, he asserted that our company was non-profit and engaged in public service. His sense of mission was offended. His remarks made it clear that he regarded me as something of a subversive, and at the very least, a cranky, sour old man. Judging the moment inopportune, I let the matter drop. Within a few weeks, as the grubby side of the business wore away our conditioning, this young man (to his credit) apologized. Nonetheless, I remain deeply impressed with the sophistication of our training and the psychological effect it had on our crew.

The idea of "public service" also afforded our company the opportunity to exploit other businesses. Each shift began and ended with a team meeting. These meetings took as little as 30 minutes, but could last up to two hours, especially in the evenings when team members straggled in one by one to hand in their enrollments. These meetings did not take place at our own office. Rather, twice a day, seven days a week, we used Starbucks. During these times, we took up almost all the seating and all the available parking. Given the high-line pricing, few of the team could afford to buy anything from Starbucks. I never dropped a nickel. Nonetheless, because Starbucks thought they were doing a good deed by providing us free meeting space, it took a couple of months before they finally wised up and realized their own (paying) customers were being inconvenienced. This result was hastened by one of our newly-minted team leaders. Both to advertise her importance and because she was too lazy to carry her paperwork from a nearby parking space, she began to routinely double park her car, further complicating shopping for the real customers, narrowing the take out lane, and generally pouring salt on a wound. On one occasion, when asked by a Starbuck's employee to move her car, she refused. About this time, we were given our walking papers. Nonetheless, we were assured by the very same team leader not to worry. She was confident that she could convince other businesses nearby to offer us their facilities free of charge because "we were providing a public service." This never happened. We were forced to retreat to our own overcrowded room. But it is another illustration of how the company took advantage by cultivating the airs of a non-profit.

Our company offered "tutoring" in math and reading. Math tutoring was more complicated, and, because it might involve students and parents travelling to a "learning center," raised possible objections. As a result, because of my background in business and sales, I religiously avoided the subject of math. Virtually all of the students I signed up were for reading. Reading tutoring, in almost all cases, was provided through the use of technology. If all went according to plan, no humans were involved. The course was divided into two parts: vocabulary and comprehension. A cell phone and a workbook were provided to teach the vocabulary, and a notebook computer provided for teaching the reading comprehension.

The kids got the phone and computer free of charge. Having assured the parents that there was no charge for the tutoring program, the kids were seduced into what amounted to an additional homework assignment by the lure of a telephone and a computer. Two "frees" are better than one -- and taken together, they eliminated virtually all objections. These items were never to be referred to as gifts, bribes or rewards by team members. While we were expected to make the sale by highlighting the free stuff, we were always instructed to refer to them as "learning tools."

The people of San Antonio have a well-deserved reputation for being nice. Having gone door-to-door in many of the poorest neighborhoods here, I can tell you that this reputation is well deserved. While I did run across a few cranks, by and large, the people were delightful, and it was a pleasure to meet them. Even those few kids who tried to impress me with being gangsters were fairly respectful. It was as if they were saying "I'm a gansta, sir. At no time, during daylight, did I feel the least bit threatened. On the contrary, once I announced that I was trying to hook kids up with a free government program, even the mangiest street people were happy to point me in the right direction. Even in the largest public housing developments, the parents expressed a sincere and straightforward desire to help get their kids get the best education possible. Almost every parent I spoke to who had eligible kids wanted the kids to get tutoring. The fact that it was a gift from the federal government sealed the deal.

The kids, being kids, were a bit more savvy. They knew all about our "learning tools" from talking among themselves (something the parents don't do). They were eager to get a cell phone and a computer. In fact, a few of them knew that other companies were offering iPads and wanted to hold out for the better bribe. These were usually mildly disappointed when the parents signed on without getting the iPad. Among the hundreds of eligible families that I made my presentation to, I only failed to make the sale with less than a dozen. There were a few kids who held out for the iPad. There were a couple of bratty types who simply repeated over and over "I don't want to!" There were a couple of high school seniors who simply did not have the time and for whom the dye was already cast. There were a few meat-headed men who felt challenged by a program they felt undermined their moronic and iron-fisted (and drunken) control of the family. There were a couple of princesses who could not be induced to leave their thrones long enough to listen to the pitch. Taken together, these few constituted only a tiny minority of the people I had the pleasure of meeting.

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