PJSTA Live- Episode 3- Ed Reform 2.0

It’s great to have another opportunity to discuss where things are headed with this next wave of privatization. Thanks so much to Brian St. Pierre and the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association for the invitation to participate in tonight’s discussion.

The Offical Website of the PJSTA

Our third episode of PJSTA Live deals with Ed Reform 2.0.  We were joined by two guests, Alison McDowell and Jia Lee.  McDowell, a parent and a public education activist, blogs at Wrench in the Gears where she takes a skeptical look at digital curriculum in public schools.  Additionally she has been involved in United Opt Out and has presented her findings regarding digital curriculum at various locations across the country.  Lee is well known in public education and teacher union circles.  She has been a conscientious objector for several years, ran against Michael Mulgrew for UFT President last year, and has been a dedicated member of the Movement of Rank and file Educators.  She has worked tirelessly to organize teachers in the fight against school privatization.

You can access McDowell’s blog post “Digital Curriculum: Questions Parents Should Be Asking” here.

You can access the slideshow used by McDowell by clicking…

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We change the world by showing up. I went to Seattle and got a video on Ed Reform 2.0 / Learning Ecosystems to share!


This weekend I relished the opportunity to meet up with some wonderful activists with whom I have been collaborating online for many months. Virtual worlds provide useful starting points for building networks and sharing information, but nothing beats being able to be in the same physical space, shake hands, share a hug, and discuss the future of education looking directly into each other’s eyes.

There are days when I wonder how I ended up where I am, where this is all headed, and who am I to be pushing the conversation forward? But I continue to believe that our voices matter, our questions matter, and public discussion matters. The future our children and grandchildren inherit hinges on our willingness RIGHT NOW to challenge educational surveillance and profiling being enabled by so-called “personalized” online adaptive learning systems and a “playlist” approach to education that is aligned to workforce skills and social-emotional competencies. I am heartened to hear of the legal challenge in Tennessee regarding a student’s right to have a human teacher rather than a computer. I was grateful to have a full room of everyday people, people like you, show up to the Lake City Library on a Saturday morning to hear what I had to say, and I hope you will help carry the message into your community.

While in Seattle we spent an afternoon visiting ed-reform landmarks, including the visitor center of the Gates Foundation. There wasn’t a gift shop, but I did get the best possible souvenir of my trip, a professionally done video prepared by Mike McCormick. Thank you Mike! I hope you will consider watching it, sharing it and starting these important conversations where you live. You might find this post on digital curriculum a useful starting point.

Link to the slides used in the presentation.

Opt Out 2.0: Adding Tech Concerns to the Conversation

Earlier today I posted the following comment on Diane Ravitch’s March 12 post “Send a Message to Betsy DeVos: Opt Out of Federally Mandated Testing.”

I second Former Teacher’s comments regarding the damage interim assessments are doing to the educational process. Opt Out can no longer simply be focused on end of year testing. It MUST expand to address student data-mining that takes place throughout the school year via interim assessments as well as use of adaptive learning management systems that “learn” our children. These programs disempower both students AND teachers, putting the educational process in the hands of AI algorithms.

Resist data collection at all levels, including (especially) surveys and games that gather non-academic, social-emotional competencies. End of year opt out is a valuable access point for parents, but it is up to teachers and long-term activists to begin to expand the conversation. The time to do this is now! The Learning Accelerator and Education elements just released an updated communications plan with step-by-step instructions on how to sell “personalized” (digital) learning to community members.

We must not waste this opportunity to begin introducing the dangers of blended learning into the opt out conversation.

I shared it a few places online and received feedback that it is becoming increasingly difficult to opt out of the many online curriculum and 1:1 programs being imposed. My response was that while it may not be realistic to opt out without leaving public education entirely (which is not something I advocate), we must resist. We need to begin to have conversations about the role of technology in our schools, and we need to do it sooner rather than later. Each person who shares this concern should be actively seeking out opportunities to spark conversations about technology, educational surveillance, and what it means to prioritize devices and data over human interaction. To that end, I am heading out in a few hours to share the testimony below with the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. We don’t have an elected school board, being under state control, so I don’t anticipate they are likely to change course based on this testimony. But the meetings are streamed, and I hope to reach parents and teachers in the audience. If I can turn on a few lightbulbs, it will have been worth a walk in the cold to get there and a few hours of my evening. I hope you will consider adding your voice where you live.

The image below is from the table of contents for the US Army Research Lab’s 2014 report “Design Recommendations for Intelligent Tutoring Systems, Volume 2.” MATHia, developed by Carnegie Learning, is featured in Chapter 6. Carnegie Learning is the topic of my SRC testimony, which follows:

Intelligent Tutoring

Philadelphia School Reform Commission: March 16, 2017

I’m here today as a parent to speak against SRC Resolution B-6 that would increase the contract with Carnegie Learning by $3 million and extend it through June 2018.

Carnegie Learning develops and sells adaptive software that employs artificial intelligence and cognitive science to “teach” children math. Algorithms in products like Cognitive Tutor and MATHia “learn” our children through intrusive data mining. Carnegie Learning also sells professional development and analytics services that reinforce use of data-driven products. I strongly oppose the SRC’s decision to purchase services from a company that maintains a vested financial interest in “personalized” e-learning solutions that marginalize human teachers and limit student access to face-to-face instruction.

Carnegie Learning developed their products with financial support from the US Department of Defense. In 2013, Carnegie Learning was awarded $1.4 million by the Advanced Distributed Learning initiative (a DoD program) to develop “hyper-personalized intelligent tutors.” Their “MATHia” program was profiled in Chapter 6 of the US Army Research Lab’s 2014 publication “Design Recommendations for Intelligent Tutoring Systems, Volume 2.” The MATHia chapter focused on “personalized” content. Other chapters reveal a troubling trend in e-learning, namely software developers’ desire and capacity to monitor and manipulate the emotions and behavior of program users: “Addressing Behavioral Disengagement with Online Learning,” “Strategies and Tactics to Manage Learner Affect, Engagement, and Grit,” and “Adaptive Interventions to Address Students’ Negative Emotions During Learning Activities.”

Philadelphia’s children must not be plugged into algorithmic educational surveillance systems. They are not meant to be cogs in a data-generating machine. They should not be subject to software systems that have been designed to manipulate them. We must respect the basic right of all humans to learn, in person, in relationship to one another with a human teacher being central to that process. Students deserve an education where they are free to think and explore independently, without fear of being profiled and commodified by the data they generate.

As a parent, it is my duty to speak out against the transition to blended learning that is taking place. In a recent report “Making Blended Work,” Cheryl Logan, Philadelphia’s Chief Academic Support Officer, was among the contributors listed. This industry-funded publication was produced to hasten adoption of online learning by promoting so-called “best practices.” Featured was Cabarrus County School District’s decision to double the number of students taught by the “best” teachers, reducing face-to-face instruction by half. What are students doing when they aren’t with a teacher? Why yes, they’re online.

Last year the School District of Philadelphia “saved” nearly $65 million by failing to adequately staff and provide substitute services to our schools. Our teachers are nearing 1,300 days without a contract. At the same time, blended learning grants were awarded, dropping thousands of chrome books into our schools. If we don’t fight back now, austerity will push us into a world where automated teaching becomes the norm rather than the exception. In 1951, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story titled “The Fun They Had” where there were no real books or schools, and teachers were machines. No surprise; the result was very unhappy children. There’s still time to change course. Invest in people, not devices. And save the $3 million you’d planned to spend on Carnegie Learning’s contract extension. I trust our teachers can find ways to spend those funds that would be far more beneficial to our children.

What You Should Know About “Pay for Success” as Testing Season Approaches

From this week’s newsfeed:

  • Chicago schools may end classes three weeks early due to lack of funding.
  • Several dozen Detroit schools close temporarily due to a “boil water” advisory.
  • Some Boston schools anticipate 20%+ cuts to already meager budgets.
  • Philadelphia teachers crowd-fund a billboard explaining they’ve been working without a contract or raises for nearly five years.

Against this backdrop we enter another high-stakes testing season where teachers and students are expected to relinquish their classrooms to the demands of big data, praying they score high enough to avoid the turnaround list. Each year this becomes more difficult as schools are deprived of even the most-basic levels of public support. Test scores are used to punitively grade schools and rate teachers even as the most important human aspects of education, the ones that cannot be uploaded to data dashboards, are carelessly dismissed. It makes no sense until you realize that data, rigorous assessment and ranking systems are demanded to accomplish the true goal of transforming public education into a vast market for private investment. Tim Scott offers a detailed analysis in his piece “Social Impact Bonds: The Titans of Finance as the Altruistic Merchants of Schooling and the Common Good.”

Pay for Success (PFS) is an investment model where public institutions seek infusions of private capital to finance programs that would otherwise remain unfunded. Returns are paid if programs demonstrate they’ve met predetermined metrics for “success” as outlined in the Social Impact Bond (SIB) deal. Deal brokers determine the metrics without input from the people accessing the programs. Those who have the money define what “success” looks like.

Provisions for Pay for Success were written into the new Every Student Succeeds Act, and last October the first two deals were issued by the US Department of Education. One, promoting workforce development, is being run through Social Finance and Jobs for the Future. The other was awarded to American Institutes for Research (AIR) to investigate pilot programs for English language learners. While the number of Pay for Success deals in education is currently small, the article “Paying for Success in Education: Comparing Opportunities in the US and Globally” prepared by the Brookings Institution in June 2016 indicates there’s likely to be a big market for SIBs moving forward if these early deals pass muster.

Pay for Success (PFS) originated in the UK around 2010. New Profit and their policy arm America Forward were instrumental in bringing the idea to the US, successfully lobbying to have PFS provisions incorporated into WIOA in 2014 and ESSA in 2015. Way back in 2007, George Overholser, founder of Boston-based Third Sector Capital Partners, addressed attendees at America Forward’s annual “Gathering of Leaders” and pitched the concept of investing private capital in public programs that were determined to be both scalable and rigorous in measuring outcomes. He felt the timing for such programs was right due to the growth of nonprofit capital markets and improving technological capabilities.

“Information technology, with its amazing ability to coordinate minute-to-minute activities, is gradually transforming the way social purpose organizations are able to operate. For the first time, without going seriously broke, they are able to monitor quality in real-time, across hundreds of locations, and to track and control expenses as well.”

Given that quote, consider how digital education and embedded online assessments might function within a PFS framework. Technology-based education, heavily promoted during the Obama administration through initiatives like Future Ready Schools, ConnectEd and Digital Promise, seems like a perfect fit. SIB returns rely on data that can be readily processed by third party evaluators like SRI International, MDRC, and the Urban Institute. What better way to gather vast quantities than pushing students onto online learning management systems? Despite recent talk of “innovative assessments” it is clear that evaluators will not be sifting through portfolios of authentic student work to determine whether or not Goldman Sachs or Pritzker get their payout. The pressure for data-driven instruction will only mount if SIBs become a regular part of the education funding mix.

Thus far education SIBs in the US have focused on early childhood interventions and workforce development, both identified in a 2011 article written by staff of Third Sector Capital Partners and published in the Community Development Investment Review of the San Francisco Federal Reserve:

“Fit with Issue-Area Priorities-As the bonds unite private investors or philanthropists with government entities, alignment with issue areas is critical. Sectors such as education and workforce development are two areas in which local and federal governments have a vested interest in both increasing social outcomes and the efficiency of public funds spent. Strong government benefits will help attract public sector partners.”

Proving success in workforce development requires significant, and intrusive, levels of data collection and the ability to track students beyond high school. I can’t help but think the push to create longitudinal data systems and federal clearinghouses like the one discussed in hearings held by the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making could well be paving the way for widespread adoption of PFS models a few years down the road. Jeffrey Liebman serves on the Commission, and his profile from their website indicates more than a passing interest in PFS, “Since 2011, his Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab (GPL) has been providing pro bono technical assistance to state and local governments interested in implementing pay for success contracts using social impact bonds.” While the repayment structure of several early childhood SIB deals are linked to data collection that takes place at kindergarten enrollment, the “Parent Child Center” SIB program in Chicago provides an additional payout if children meet specified levels of literacy attainment based on test scores in third grade. It’s clear that PFS-related data collection will not stop at the schoolhouse door.

The John and Laura Arnold Foundation has worked steadily to advance Pay for Success. A 2015 article from Inside Philanthropy notes, “The Arnolds and Bloomberg Philanthropies both recently received props from the Obama administration for being “essential partners” in government’s quest to surface the tools, programs and approaches that will help the country adapt to a changing educational and economic landscape.” Both are high-profile figures in the movement to privatize public education, and the Arnolds have also been at the forefront of pension “reform” efforts. Since 2013, the foundation has poured tens of millions of dollars into an “Evidence Based Policy and Innovation” initiative. In 2015, the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy wound down its operations after 14 years and merged with the Arnold Foundation. Among the coalition’s accomplishments were successfully lobbying for the creation of the Social Spending Innovation Research program in K12 education as well as Paul Ryan and Patty Murray’s Commission on Evidence Based Policy Making.

Below is a relationship map of select John and Laura Arnold Foundation grants showing strategic investments that have been made in various arenas to enable widespread adoption of Pay for Success and Social Impact Finance at a national scale. These include investments in funders, think tanks, lobbyists, data brokers, evaluators, as well as reform groups like KIPP and Teach for America suited to working within the constraints of data-driven educational environments. I plan to create maps for other Pay for Success players in following posts, so that we can better understand the financial networks operating behind the scenes to advance SIB implementation and school redesign efforts linked to these initiatives. To access the interactive map click here.


The tests are coming, and the data will be extracted from all but those who refuse to participate. So by all means continue to opt out! The reason for it has nothing to do with education. It’s about power and control. We are experiencing a hostile takeover of one of our most precious resources, our schools. If we cannot turn the tide, the idea of public school as a physical space in a community where students gather to learn face-to-face with a human teacher, certified and professionally trained, could disappear. And once our public assets are liquidated and teachers cast aside, the learning ecosystem model could very well be built on that wreckage using Pay for Success. I imagine a day in the not too distant future where online education companies or community partners compete for payouts based on the performance of students whose data is extracted on a minute-by-minute basis, not just during an end of year test. Public education would be transformed into a human capital pipeline to be mined for profit. Educational surveillance would become normalized with the Personally Identifiable Information of everyone interacting with these systems tracked in real time. The evidence-based policies advocated for by folks like John and Laura Arnold are not ones that value humans as individuals. Their world view is one where education is a series of generic programs to be scaled, controlled and managed for profit. Keep this in mind when you see those testing dates coming up on the school calendar. This is all happening for a reason, even though for the uninitiated none of it makes sense.

Future Ready Schools: How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education: A talk by Alison McDowell

Do you live in the Seattle area or have friends who do? I’ll be presenting there on March 25th.

Seattle Education


Future Ready Schools:

How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education

March 25th, from 10:30 AM-Noon

Lake City Branch of the Seattle Public Library

12501 28th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98125

This talk is free and open to the public.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, schools across the country have been destabilized by ongoing austerity budgets and punitive data-driven policies. Meanwhile, an alternative infrastructure of digital education has been quietly developed and refined through public-private partnerships set up between the Defense Department’s Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, technology companies, and higher education interests.

The Obama administration made a big push for 21st Century School redesign where teachers would be turned into “guides on the side” with children spending more and more time on adaptive learning management systems. Now we face a future in which education policy is being handled at the state level, where…

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