An investment in personality profiles for top-level officials has grown to a six-figure expense for the Clark County School District, which recently approved its largest contract yet with a $1,000-per-day consultant in Emergenetics, a behavioral assessment product introduced in 2007.
The approval of the $80,557 expenditure in April came within days of Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky’s public pledge to cut all programs not benefiting “students and teachers in our classrooms and schools.”
Emergenetics consultant Erik Kieser profiles the personalities of district administrators and School Board members using a system of brain colors and provides related communication training. In 2009, the district said it would stop using Emergenetics when it was heavily criticized for such an expense during financial hard times.
Kieser’s pay rate is the equivalent of what’s earned by the district’s highest-paid employee, Skorkowsky, who makes a base salary of $1,000 a business day or $260,000 a year.
Emergenetics labels people who are analytical as blue. Social thinkers are classified as red. Conceptual thinkers are yellow and practical or structural thinkers are green. The classifications are based on participants’ responses to a 100-question survey created and sold by Denver-based Emergenetics International.
“It’s the kind of stuff you do at a cocktail party,” said Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-technical Employees.
Augspurger has heard much about the personality profiles from his members, who represent 98 percent of the district’s 1,300 administrators and have been the main subjects of personality profiling.
“It’s fun. It’s an icebreaker,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, is it something we should be spending money on in the Clark County School District when we have other pressing needs in schools, which aren’t funded?”
The district has paid Kieser and former Emergenetics associate Dale Erquiaga about $350,000 during the past six years, according to district purchase orders. Erquiaga is now Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval last year.
The district also pays $69 per profile to Emergenetics and has tested at least 1,000 school-level and district administrators in addition to School Board members, the superintendent and his staff.
“Return on investment, that’s a buzz word in the district right now,” Augspurger said. “What’s the return on investment here?”
Researchers specializing in personality assessment from multiple universities asked that same question about Emergenetics.
THE BUSINESS OF PROFILING
More than a hundred companies sell personality tests and there’s a tremendous range in quality, said Ann Marie Ryan, a Michigan State University psychology professor.
“While some do have good scientific research supporting their use for specific purposes, others have none,” she said.
“All of these companies are trying to make a profit and claim they can predict various things, like behavior,” said Laura Naumann, a Nevada State College assistant professor of psychology who earned her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. She specializes in personality research.
Validating the tests is a simple matter of using the scientific method, said William Follette, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. He specializes in behavioral research methodology.
Has the Emergenetics model and its founders’ work been tested and supported in peer-reviewed scientific journals? If not, that’s a huge red flag, he said. In early May, Follette searched the databases of peer-reviewed psychology journals for information on Emergenetics.
“I couldn’t find a single refereed article saying what Emergenetics does compared to anything,” said Follette, who also couldn’t find Emergenetics’ leaders — Wendell Williams, who has an employee-assessment company in Georgia, and Colorado-based Geil Browning — as having authored any research. He could only find testimonials on Emergenetics’ website. “It’s always a bad sign when you rely on testimonials instead of articles in science-refereed journals. I think the School District was sold a bill of goods.”
A similar conclusion was reached by Oliver John, a psychology professor at Berkeley and former acting director of the Institute of Personality and Social Research at Berkeley.
“It seems to be a well-marketed and successful business application system, but there is no apparent way we could evaluate its scientific basis or its empirical support,” said John, adding that Berkeley has never heard of Browning, Emergenetics or its seven concepts. Emergenetics claims there are four basic ways of thinking and three ways of behaving, which diverges from what’s “widely accepted in the academic field of personality research.”
But Emergenetics calls its system “scientifically proven,” and references its own research. Emergenetics has sent its product for peer review to the Buros Center for Testing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, said Morgan Browning, president and chief operating officer of Emergenetics, in a May interview.
Buros uses industry experts to review and evaluate commercially available tests. Buros Managing Editor Nancy Anderson confirmed the receipt of Emergenetics’ test but said a peer review could take six months.
Follette said he’s most alarmed that Clark County school leaders, who run the nation’s fifth-largest school district, were “impressed with a sales pitch opposed to data.”
Jeff Foster, vice president of science for Oklahoma-based Hogan Assessments, a personality profiling company in its 26th year, said clients should demand peer-reviewed research. His company provides a 36-page bibliography that includes its Buros review and supporting research published in professional journals.
Despite the lack of published evidence to show whether Emergenetics is effective, Skorkowsky contends that the personality assessments and related training have greatly benefited the district by improving communication.
“Any time we can increase effectiveness of communication, that’s a good thing,” said Skorkowsky, acknowledging that the improvement is only anecdotal. “We haven’t done any specific evaluation of the effect, yet.”
But without that, it’s impossible to determine whether Emergenetics has had any effect at all, Follette said.
Even if the brain-color profiles are scientifically valid, the district could have paid far less for them.
The district has paid Kieser more than $300,000 for his Emergenetics services and leadership training. It could have paid a one-time fee of $2,999 to certify a district employee in Emergenetics after less than four days of training in Denver, according to Browning. The district would have to continue paying $69 per profile, same as with Kieser, but not the $1,000 daily fee.
Skorkowsky said the district only recently became aware of the in-house certification option.
Kieser, a UNR graduate with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in speech communication, said that he and Emergenetics are worth the price. “There are a lot of values if the tool is applied,” said Kieser.
The district’s use of Emergenetics became public in 2009 when Erquiaga profiled School Board members in a public meeting. At the time, Erquiaga was performing multiple services to the district, including the personality profiling.
Erquiaga’s contract wasn’t renewed, and the district briefly stopped using Emergenetics. In early 2011, the personality profiles returned as part of administrator and School Board training.
The district also circumvented its own expense-approval policies in contracts with Emergenetics, Augspurger contended. District policy states that expenses of $50,000 or more must receive School Board approval in public meetings.
However that wasn’t done this year for Kieser, whose services were paid for in three chunks totaling $50,557. That was brought to the School Board only on April 10 when an additional $30,000 in services was approved. In that same vote, though, the School Board also approved the $50,557 in services that “have already been completed,” according to meeting documents.
Skorkowsky said the expenses were separate and not brought to the School Board because Kieser was serving different departments.
Contact Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279. Follow @TrevonMilliard on Twitter.