Teachers and school districts across Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Ohio were in for a rude awakening last week when they went to administer an online assessment or dig into their student data to plan a “data driven” lesson only to find that the link to Thinkgate, an online testing service that received millions in Race To the Top funds, suddenly shut their doors-taking droves of district, state, and teacher generated assessments and student data with them.
In Miami-Dade, we received an email suggesting that we download our assessments and data within 48 hours because Thinkgate was doing a data transfer. Since they did not say that Thinkgate was going to implode within the next 48 hours, and since there was no way I would have time to suddenly sit there and try to figure out how to download all of my assessments in the two day window I was given in the middle of the school week, I didn’t save anything. This week when I went to set up my final online assessment of the year, poof, the site no longer existed.
After having spent a day of my summer vacation getting lost in the labyrinth of West Hialeah so I could attend a Thinkgate training for which I did not even receive a token $100 stipend, nor 15 master plan points to renew my license, you could say I’m a little bitter. I spent countless hours trying to figure out Thinkgate’s clunky software for creating my own assessments thinking in the end it would save me time and save my school money on copies and scantrons. Thinkgate’s software was so user-unfriendly that even after creating ten assessments, it still took me multiple attempts to remember which icons to click (I don’t feel too bad anymore now that I know that the CEO of Thinkgate could not even create an assessment in his own software program, see ex-employee review below) . I am not one to learn software programs by sorting through a 500 page manual. My strategy is to madly click on every icon until I find something that works. Unfortunately, Thinkgate’s icons were incredibly cheesy and random. If you never had the misfortune of using Thinkgate, think back to the software programs of the late 1980s with black screens and yellow font. Thinkgate was a software platform that screamed “Developed for the sole purposes of government bureaucracies. Not to be sold on the free market under any circumstances for fear of consumer ridicule and competition.”
Even though Thinkgate’s software was cumbersome and unattractive, it worked. Since the district never full-filled their promise of installing a server to restrict our students’ Internet usage, I relied on Thinkgate to curb student cheating during tests since it did lock them out if they opened another browser. And since our students have been raised in a world where information is just one click away and gratification immediate, it was nice to be able to let them know their test scores immediately. Now, with one month left in the school year, teachers are left holding the bag.
“Charlotte-based Thinkgate has provided testing software used to administer 150 tests for about 500,000 students statewide for the past five years.
Teachers are now preparing to give students paper tests rather than online exams.
Debbie Parrish, career development coordinator at Broughton High School in Raleigh, said the change will mean a delay of a day or two in getting student scores back.
“In the long run, as teachers, we’re used to making adjustments and making things work,” Parrish said.
Thinkgate’s contract, which paid the company $7.2 million over five years, was to expire at the end of June.” http://www.wral.com/nc-students-to-take-paper-tests-after-online-exam-firm-closes/14622748/
Two things stand out to me from this article. One, teachers have become so accustomed to failures at the top, that scrambling and picking up pieces at the last minute have become just another part of the job. Two, the state of North Carolina was paying $7.2 million over five years for 500,000 students but the Miami-Dade School District was paying $2 million annually for approximately 300,000 students. Seems like we got a bum deal.
The Miami Dade public school system was Thinkgate’s largest customer according to public contractors.com. http://www.publiccontractors.com/Thinkgate/20431.html At first I thought this site was for the purposes of government transparency. But a quick look at the advertisements on this site holding up money bags and stating “81.5% of government purchases are completed without a bid or RFP. Use smart procure to find businesses that others don’t see,” reveals that the purpose of the site is to entice other businesses to discover the untapped gold mines of lucrative government contracts.
This may explain the sudden demise of a company that was created for the purpose of cashing in on the millions in now expired Race to the Top funds. A business model that relies on exploiting stupid government legislation is bound to fail. Now that the evil DOE bunny has run out of carrots and school districts are left holding the sticks, legislation is being passed to circumvent previous Race to the Top grant money inspired legislation. I think it’s more than a coincidence that Thinkgate’s last tweet was sent out in early March, when the Florida legislature was in the midst of passing a bill that would limit the amount of annual testing and eliminate the need for district generated End of Course exams. No doubt the Thinkgate CEO could see the writing on the wall and made plans to dissolve the company. It would have been nice if the company could have at least honored their contracts until the end of the school year. One has to wonder if Thinkgate’s financial situation was so bad it just couldn’t afford to keep its doors open one more month, or if it was a deliberate flicking of the bird to school districts for cancelling future contracts.
This review from a former Thinkgate employee might provide the best insight on why Thinkgate collapsed. It also simultaneously outlines the inevitable failures of organizations led by incompetent and unethical leaders who’s top down approach ignores both employee input and the needs of the clients they serve. His review might sound familiar to anyone working in a large public school district (except for the part about free snacks, beverages galore, and new office furniture).
Unlimited free snacks (candy bars, granola bars, popcorn, nuts), beverages (soda, fruit juice), and coffee. Newly furnished office.
This has to be one of the most dysfunctional places I have ever worked. While this company does have a good vision; that being building software to empower educators; it quickly stops there. Most of the issues in this company start with the CEO. During my several year tenure there I watched him make countless unethical and tactical decisions that left you scratching your head. Disregarding suggestions from subordinates he constantly went in a different direction thinking his way was the right way. Unfortunately, under his direction he has lead the company into a negative financial situation, built a toxic work environment, an incredibly high employee turnover rate, and frustrated his customers who are leaving in droves.
Thinkgate used to be an environment that was filled with talented people who cared about each other and their work. However, due to the CEOs constant firing of the C-level executives, mass company lay-offs and the resignation of many key employees this environment no longer exists. The people that are left are either untrustworthy, unethical, and politically motivated individuals or the few of the talented individuals whose spirits have been broken. Many current staff members who have the luxury to work remotely no longer come into the office because of how toxic and depressing it has become. Most remaining managers frequently will be positive to your face while saying negative things behind your back.
Most work is generated by the CEO and sales team as they continuously over-commit and over-promise what the company can realistically deliver. Many people have mentioned “they bite off more than they can chew” and this is what happens. Sales deals are signed and then project work is given to the development teams with no realistic means to deliver the work on-time. Excessive hours are worked by team members to get features developed and tested, but, corners are continuously cut in order to meet the unrealistic deadlines. As staff members get tired of this and attempt to push back on the CEO they either resign or are fired.
To make matters worse most of the projects I worked on had little or no benefit to the end customer. When the feature is released the support teams are then forced to support a product that the customer does not want to use or in most cases is useless. However, in the end the company receives a paycheck at the expense of their employees and customers.
Due to years of constant cutting of corners in order to meet sales deadlines the software platform has incurred a technical debt beyond belief. The software is slow, difficult to use, and expensive to maintain. Development managers and teams have attempted to address these issues, but, are eventually stopped by the CEO who would rather push new functionality and instead of resolving open issues for customers.
What is most painful to see is that the C-level executives don’t even know how to do one of the basic fundamental actions in the software, i.e. make an assessment. If they took the time to understand the product they could possibly see how their aggressive and tactical decisions have led to the current state of the product and how in turn it hurts the customer.
Advice to Management
The issues in this company start at the top. Immediately replace the CEO and CTO and replace them with more competent executives that practice strategic thinking instead of tactical decision making. Next direct the focus of the company on the needs of customers. Those being the teachers, superintendents, school administrative staff, and especially the students. Let the customers and their valuable educational experience drive the product and work on helping them instead of hurting them. Finally, implement a better work-life balance that helps employees and their families instead of the current environment that tears them apart.”