Originally published: Chicago Tribune | By Kate MacArthur | Mar 14, 2017

As coding boot camps multiply to meet demand for programmers, it’s harder than ever for would-be engineers to pick a school. But growing complaints about the schools’ value and recent fines against one for misleading advertising have left many people looking for a consistent measuring stick.

Two new groups — the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting and the Quality Assurance Task Force — aim to do just that, create unified standards for audited reporting of results.

Coding boot camps often tout high job-placement rates and healthy salaries for their graduates, but the methodology for some of those numbers has been questioned. Both of the new groups would create rules for advertising salaries as well as boot camp graduation and job placement rates.

But the groups, each of which is allied with different coding schools that offer classes in Chicago, are at odds on some issues: Should the groups be independent of the schools they’re regulating? And how quickly should schools have to adopt the new advertising standards?

The Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, or CIRR, announced its standards March 1 and plans to publish its first reports March 29.

Led by Skills Fund, a student financing and quality assurance firm based in Austin, Texas, CIRR has 16 initial members, mainly boot camps including Fullstack Academy, Hack Reactor, Turing School of Software & Design and Code Fellows. The council says it’s a voluntary, informal group, not part of any one company or formal organization.

“Figuring out how you understand the outcomes in a clear way that’s scalable, auditable and can’t be gamed — and with students graduating on time and getting jobs for what they’re trained in and if they pay something relative to how much it costs — this helps answer that,” said Rick O’Donnell, founder and CEO of Skills Fund. “The power of CIRR is it’s on one page.”

Neal Sales-Griffin ⇒, CEO of kid-focused nonprofit CodeNow in Chicago, is affiliated with CIRR through his former company Starter League, which was acquired by Fullstack Academy. He still advises Fullstack but isn’t on its payroll.

“It will help level the playing field and ensure that a lot of the boot camps and programs are in line with standards of reporting in a transparent way,” he said.

The Quality Assurance Task Force announced its initial 25 members in December. It hasn’t published its standards yet but plans to open them up for negotiation in about two months. The group later plans to create an independent nonprofit organization to maintain the standards and support auditing, akin to the International Accounting Standards Board.

The task force is a project of Entangled Solutions, a for-profit innovation agency for education based in San Francisco. Its members include boot camps General Assembly and Hack Reactor, higher education leaders, associations and former North Carolina governor Bev Perdue.

“The sooner that there is a trustworthy process with a third-party auditor with no financial relationship to the institution, the better,” said Michael Horn, principal consultant at Entangled Solutions. “Those that don’t have it are hugely at risk.”

He said that the group doesn’t know what the nonprofit’s revenue model will be but that Entangled Solutions will not make any money from the task force.

Members of both groups agree that common standards are a good step to protect students. But some criticized CIRR, citing conflicts of interest and squishy rules about advertising standards.

One is Jim Deters, co-founder and CEO of Denver-based Galvanize, which is working with the Quality Assurance Task Force. The company has five boot camps in the West and does skills retraining for Allstate in Northbrook.

Deters wants a single, unified assurance organization and chose not to be a part of CIRR “because it’s an echo chamber. … You can’t self-police yourselves.”

Another critic is Tarlin Ray, chief operating officer of Dev Bootcamp. He said his company isn’t allied with the Quality Assurance Task Force, though the CEO of parent company Kaplan is a member.

Ray said he participated early on with the CIRR working group but declined to join it in the end, because its advertising standards as written and publicized don’t follow the standards he had recommended. He also said they don’t start immediately, even though CIRR’s standards are supposed to apply now.

“We’ve always said that data collection is not the problem … the issue is advertising and marketing.” he said. “Until we stop seeing these unrealistic numbers promoted in their marketing, we remain skeptical and we will not sign on to the initiative. Actions speak louder than words.”

Skills Fund’s O’Donnell said schools would begin using the new advertising standard in two weeks. But he was quick to note that by not participating in CIRR, Dev Bootcamp isn’t held to the same reporting standards.

“People who criticize us for not solving every problem in the world is a red herring,” O’Donnell said. “We’re trying to address some very specific issues. I believe we’ve made good progress.”

Sales-Griffin knows there’s criticism of the CIRR initiative, but said that’s no reason to disown the whole project.

“The fact that a large group of companies is signing up for additional accountability in a transparent way is progress,” he said. “It’s good to get feedback and say that you’re going to refine it even more. I don’t think it’s something to derail involvement. It’s such a positive step in the right direction.”

An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of former North Carolina Bev Perdue.

Kate MacArthur is a freelance writer.
Twitter @KateMacArthur