Fast Food Miseducation

Silicon Valley serves up schools on screens.

Faceless data dashboards echo drive thru menus.

Illusions of choice codified by corporations

after focus groups strategically set the frame.

Designed for profit, efficiency, and control

of imagination, intellect, portion size, and calories.


Cheap ingredients and harried workers

draw in students with online games.

Content consumed without thought.

A siren song of greasy fries

sits leaden in the stomach for hours or weeks,

dulling the senses, eroding humanity.


Dare we demand an alternative,

requiring us to be fully present for each other?

Can we still envision alternate futures

where, instead of automation, intention prevails?

Will we place our children at communal tables of possibility,

or allow them to slip into personalized isolation?


Not my normal format, but as this is the last day of poetry month I thought it appropriate to share. With thanks to a friend who suggested exploring this idea and to my daughter for her editorial input.


Automated Education + Chasing Skills + Debt = Social Control

I posted the scenario below in November of 2015 as a Facebook note. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across a number of items having to do with skills, automation, and human capital management, so I thought I would pull it back out to share. Below are a couple of articles that caught my eye:

New Tools Needed to Track Technology’s Impact on Jobs, Panel Says by Steve Lohr of the New York Times

The EIDCC, The Experience Graph, and the Future of Human Capital Analytics by Shelly Blake-Plock of Yet Analytics

The Omidyar Network and the (Neoliberal) Future of Education by Audrey Watters

I’m a parent activist, not an educator or economist. But after reading and listening to a wide range of sources, I came up with the construct below. In the 18 months since I wrote it, many indicators seem to confirm this is where we are headed. I’d be interested in hearing your feedback and welcome comments explaining how this is all wrong.

Yet Analytics
Originally posted to Facebook November 2015:

Emily Talmage
noticed a connection between ed reformers, those funding CBE, and student loan financing. I was thinking about it today, and I think I see how it will play out. Follow the money. Who stands to gain?

1. Move to the idea of online credentialing. Call it standards-based skills mastery, etc. Get everyone on board with CBE.

2. Break down old-fashioned notion of “seat time.” Everything is “student-centered” and “self-paced.” You don’t need true distinctions between high school and community college and four-year college and professional certifications. It’s all just one process of gathering up the “bits” of education required.

3. Collecting badges is seamless, and you just transition without any real breaks. If they can get rid of physical school buildings and campuses and move learning into online virtual worlds, that will be a natural progression.

4. Accept that a four-year liberal arts education will be beyond the financial reach of most people. Provide some public funding for community college.

5. Take over the boards of the community colleges to ensure they only offer coursework that is pre-professional and serves industry’s short term needs.

6. Have the government underwrite or subsidize Associates degrees to boost college completion for more students. At the end of the process, however, students will need more training.

7. Online, for-profit companies will offer students the chance to obtain credentials at a price considerably lower than tuition for a liberal arts college, but most will still need to take out loans.

8. Accept the fact that companies will no longer pay to train you for their jobs. They don’t want thinkers with raw potential. They want a set of credentials to do the job they have right now.

9. Algorithms sift through online applications demanding the exact credentials listed for each job. This is being done now, but imagine the increased efficiency when each skill is given a unique number, like a healthcare code. A person who doesn’t have the entire complement of codes up front will be out of the running.

10. When industry outsources your job or makes it obsolete, they lay you off and put up another online ad for a job with different competencies/skills.

11. People throughout their life (lifelong learning) will chase the newest set of in-demand credentials. Rather than paying for a four-year college, plus some higher degree, they’ll get a baseline pre-professional education and try to accumulate competencies/credentials that will allow them to keep up with a job market shaped by AI automation.

12. A liberal arts education is less and less valued unless you have a job at the highest levels of a company. Those jobs will go to the graduates of elite universities who secure positions through their networks. Children of the elite will not have to run the gauntlet of algorithms.

13. Companies will no longer do on the job training in a real sense. You will need to be serviced by these online education providers for training and professional development.

14. There will be a big new market for student loan financing that will be repeated throughout your life. That’s where Lumina and Nellie Mae come in.

15. Redefining education as a largely online process will benefit technology companies as well as Internet providers (but not human teachers or those whose job it is to support school operations and facilities). Plus, data!

16. There will be zero quality control. People pay education providers up front to try and get the credential for mastery, but if they don’t ever attain mastery, they don’t get their money back. The debt, however, stays with them.

I believe that is why interests associated with student loan finance are working so hard to transform K12 education into digital data farms that can be mined for profit and used for social control.

Global Finance Needs Our Schools to Fail

Yesterday Peter Greene expanded on an idea I’d put forth a few months back that Competency Based Education (and really all digital curriculum) was a way of gradually turning neighborhood public schools into charters from the inside out. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read his piece “Charterizing From Within.” I’m glad this proposition is making it out into the world and finding a wider audience. However there are still many who doubt CBE / Personalized Learning / Blended Learning etc. will ever take hold. This despite the fact that adaptive “personalized” learning systems are popping up all over the country each passing day.

Doubters say virtual schools and e-learning don’t “work.” So there; it won’t happen. But therein lies the problem. Many assume that a system that “works” is one designed to serve the needs of children and society as a whole. The present system, however, is being increasingly twisted to serve the interests of global capital markets. When you look at it through that lens, the “failure” of CBE is actually “success.” Succeeding by creating failure moves the ball forward for those who seek to kill the old system and create a new educational paradigm, one custom-built for profit.  That is why global capital needs our schools to fail. Comprehensive dismantling of public school districts across the nation will throw open the doors to a new age of social impact investing. If you’re not familiar with the the term yet, please set aside time to read “Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy’s Role in Sowing the Seeds of Financial Opportunity” carefully. Take the time. It’s important.

In the aftermath of the failure that has been intentionally created, venture capitalists will install learning ecosystems in the place of neighborhood schools. These diffuse networks of online and badge-based learning opportunities will be structured for maximum social control, surveillance, and behavior management (the nudge) as well as financialization. Children will no longer be children, but rather commodities to be monitored in real time (Internet of Things), bet upon and securitized.

Below is a comment I left on Peter’s piece. I’ve shared it a few places, and some found it helpful, so I thought I would blog it here today.  I fully anticipate New Profit will be a central character in the drama that is unfolding. Below is a list of grants they’ve received from the Gates Foundation since 2014, $23 million+.

New Profit Gates Foundation

“People do not yet understand the role that global finance will play in transforming public education from a human enterprise to a digital one. It’s not about creating a system that “works” for children or teachers or society as a whole. It is about creating a financial market, a market that is different from the charter school market. In my gut, I believe that this new market is going to revolve around social impact investing-pay for success and social impact bonds.

Public schools will be starved of public money, broken to pieces, and then rebuilt through public-private partnership investments where the payback is determined by growth as evidenced by data and metrics. To get to that point you have to make education all about the data. Data that will later be evaluated by 3rd party SIB evaluators doing the bidding of Goldman Sachs and Pritzker. It’s not about humans, it’s about finance.

I wish more people could look ten years down the road to see that. All of this started with New Profit and is looping back to John Arnold and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Sure, they’re taking their cut from the first round of ed reform via charters and the development of ed-tech software, but the big payoff is coming later; and it’s all wrapped up in evidence-based policy. I write about Pay for Success and its relationship to testing here. You can access an interactive map of New Profit here. New Profit brought SIBs over from the UK to the US.

Tim Scott has a much more expansive write up here: “Social Impact Bonds: The Titans of Finance As the Altruistic Merchants of Schooling and the Common Good.”

We have to step back and grasp this or we are not going to be able to organize to stop it in time, if that is even possible at this point.”

Understanding why global finance needs our schools to fail is key. Please read up and educate yourself and others.

Dear Rhode Island: That April Fools Day Blended Learning Conference is no joke!


Competency-based education’s march through New England continues. In the fall it was Massachusetts with its fanfare around MAPLE (Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed-Tech Consortium), and now on April Fools Day the joke appears to be on Rhode Island. This weekend hundreds of educators gathered in Providence for the sixth annual “Blended and Personalized Learning Conference” hosted by the Highlander Institute, the Christensen Institute, and the Learning Accelerator. Event sponsors included the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Nellie Mae Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

The intent of this post is to describe the players and follow the money behind the shift to digital education in Rhode Island. If you’re new to the blog and not yet familiar with concerns about this shift please refer to this recent talk (it’s an hour, but I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback) or posts on learning ecosystems and “Future Ready” schools. Short on time? My 4-minute overview of the end game cuts to the chase.

The Highlander Institute based in Providence, RI began in 1990 as Children of Promise to serve students with diagnosed learning differences. In 2005 a partnership was established with the Highlander Charter School, and in recent years the organization has been become an incubator and cheerleader for ed-tech and blended learning in the state. A query of Gates Foundation grants shows that the Institute has received nearly $2.5 million in support of these efforts since 2015, including a recent grant of $1.7 million. EdTechRI, run by the Institute, is part of a national network of test beds funded by Gates that pairs ed-tech entrepreneurs with teachers and classrooms. Their FUSE RI program has trained 59 teacher fellows since 2014. These educators and administrators are coached in blended learning “best practices” (data, data, data) and sent out to assess readiness and implement these blended learning programs in LEAs throughout the state, 29 and counting. FUSE fellows have access to “flex funds” to supplement their learning and subsidize program development.

Woonsocket provides a useful case study in how Highlander’s programs influence school districts, guiding them to adopt policies friendly to ed-tech implementation. In 2014 Heather Neil, an elementary technology integration specialist, participated in the first FUSE RI fellows cohort. As part of the program she designed district-wide professional development for teachers, implemented district PLC around blended learning and supported the superintendent in becoming “more tech savvy.” Her profile page notes she “is an active member of EdUnderground, a PLC of education technology pioneers and early adopters from across Rhode Island.” Following her participation, the district entered into a two-year partnership with Highlander, piloting blended learning in select classrooms throughout the district and had one 8th-grade cohort using Summit Basecamp, a program developed by Summit Charter Schools. The Institute then recognized the Woonsocket Education Department with their 2016 FUSE RI Blended Learning District Leadership Award. By the way there is a regional Summit Learning Convening in Warwick, RI on April 24-25.

It will be interesting to see if Woonsocket applies for a RI Lighthouse School challenge grant. The Office of Innovation is administering grants designed to push mastery-based (aka competency or proficiency-based) education. It’s modeled after Dallas Dance’s Lighthouse School program in Baltimore County. Also known as STAT, the 1:1 device initiative is a darling of the digital learning community, but has come under fire by school board members and parents for the incredible expense and poor quality of education delivered. Regular financial support has flowed to the Highlander Institute from the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation since 2015. Don’t know who they are? Read about them here. A few small grants underwrote conferences like the one that happened in Providence over the weekend. There was a $280,000 one supporting the FUSE RI program, and a few in the $100,000 range for multi-stakeholder outreach efforts in support of personalized learning. However in December of 2016 a much larger, $1.2 million dollar grant was made to “leverage diverse stakeholders to create aspirational student-centered learning designs that have the potential to truly impact both marginalized, underserved students and the state education “system” as a whole.” I hope folks in Rhode Island are paying attention; that’s a lot of money.

Highlander Institute
Click here for an interactive relationship map.

The other two event sponsors are from out of state. The Learning Accelerator from Menlo Park, CA got its start in 2012 with $750,000, also from Gates. According to the description provided on their 990 tax filing from 2012, its purpose is to remove structural impediments to the widespread implementation of blended learning by funding scalable solutions, providing professional development for teachers, consulting with districts on technology purchasing and finance, and securing broadband capacity where needed. The Learning Accelerator serves as a pass through, handing out smaller grants to organizations that support its mission via research and product development as well as to charter management organizations and alternative teacher training programs that have been set up to carry out this data-driven dashboard form of “education.”

Learning Acclerator Blog

Click here for an interactive relationship map.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor known for disruptive innovation, founded the Christensen Institute and its sister organization Innosight, a strategy and consulting firm based in Lexington, MA and run by Michael Horn. The latter also receives Gates funding. The disruptive focus was initially the healthcare and education sectors, but now appears to encompass all social finance opportunities. In an incredibly informative blog post, Gisele Huff, founding board member of Innosight and iNACOL lifetime achievement award winner, shared that she had an epiphany working with Clayton Christensen in 2005 that led her to focus the assets of the Jaquelin Hume foundation to reform education through the use of technology. After initial investments in CMOs like Rocketship Academy and Carpe Diem, she and other reformers ended up making connections in Rhode Island that led them to change their strategy. Now they anticipate “reforming” districts internally through online “personalized learning” programs. For more information see my prior post on blended learning, and how it’s being used to charterize public schools from within.

“In February 2012, Michael Horn and Anthony Kim working with the Rhode Island Department of Education invited a total of 300 district superintendents and teachers to a day-long meeting to introduce them to the concept of blended learning and to the enormous potential of integrating technology into the curriculum to help students learn and teachers teach. This event was pivotal for the Foundation’s strategic plan because it demonstrated that it was possible to partner with traditional public school districts and it led us to make similar seed investments in Washington, D.C. and Oakland, CA.” (excerpted from Huff’s blog post above)

Christensen Institute

Click here for an interactive relationship map.

Big developments have been underway in the Ocean State laying the groundwork for widespread adoption of so-called “personalized learning” practices that are not personal at all, but rather isolating and dehumanizing. See this excellent recent post from Audrey Watters’ Hacked Education. Senate Bill 0103 is queued up for a vote next week and if passed would open the doors to competency/proficiency based education statewide. Ed-tech interests appear intent on making Rhode Island a proof point that that will green light the industry to scale tech-centric, lean, value models of automated education nationally. With friendly ear in the governor’s mansion (First Gentleman, Andy Moffit, is a Teach for America alum, co-founder of McKinsey’s Global Education practice, and Stand for Children board member), and Richard Culatta (former director of the US Department of Education’s Department of Technology under Arne Duncan) heading the state’s Office of Innovation, Rhode Island makes an easy target.

Last September the Rhode Island Office of Innovation and RIDE drafted a whitepaper and publicly launched a statewide personalized learning initiative. They took their show on the road over the next six months, soliciting additional input, and released a final version of the whitepaper this February. The report tries to downplay the role of technology in personalized learning, but two-thirds of the images included feature students with devices, including several of young children with headphones using adaptive learning management systems. In this brave new world of “non-factory” style education, the job of teachers is reduced to selecting educational resources for individual student “playlists” based on the data they generate, largely through devices.


Such a playlist is featured in this tweet, shared by a teacher who participated in a tour of local schools on the first day of the blended learning conference.

Playlist Tweet

Education is being reduced to watching videos from the Discovery channel and taking notes. But, hey everyone has their own “personalized” pathway that allows them go as quickly or slowly as they like. Open Education Resources or OER’s are a key element in this personalized playlist approach to education. Arne Duncan launched a national #GoOpen initiative in the fall of 2015, partnering with educational technology companies and non-profits looking to promote the use of online resources and digital devices in our nation’s classrooms. Culatta headed the Educational Technology department at the time. Shortly thereafter he left DC, returned to his home state of Rhode Island, and signed Rhode Island on to the #GoOpen program.

In addition to promoting the statewide personalized learning initiative, Eduvate Rhode Island (a public private partnership) received an “Industry Cluster Grant” from the Commerce Department in 2016 to prepare a study examining potential expansion of the Ed Tech sector. Looking to Massachusetts as a model, they intend to leverage their status as one of Digital Promise’s EdClusters and “the nation’s first personalized learning lab state” to attract and promote educational technology business growth in the state. Page seven of the report outlines the role the Highlander Institute is expected to play: “The Highlander Institute and EduvateRI can provide edtech companies with access to schools and engagement with educators and administrators in a way that few other edtech clusters can boast.” I wonder if anyone has told the teachers?

One of the report’s major recommendations was to create a physical hub, and it appears they may have found a partner in Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI. In early February LearnLaunch, the group running MAPLE (Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed Tech Consortium) announced the creation of the nation’s first edtech accelerator to be housed on a K12 campus. This co-working space / test bed is set to open in the fall of 2017. The idea is that ed-tech concepts will be developed and tested in cooperation with the students and staff of the private school that serves students in pre-K to 12th grade. It seems the payoff for the children being guinea pigs in this program is that they will receive enrichment activities geared towards “innovation, design thinking, and entrepreneurism.”

In states like Rhode Island, growing educational technology markets is taking precedence over the health and well being of children. The future of teaching as an inherently human and relationship-driven enterprise is at great risk. Corporate and neoliberal philanthropic interests picture schools as data factories and profit centers, showing callous disregard for those held hostage by screens, dashboards, and playlists, however personalized. Things are ramping up in Rhode Island, with reformers looking on eagerly as evidenced by a recent article on the state’s personalized learning initiative put out by Campbell Brown’s media outlet 74Million.

This rollout follows a pattern established first in Alaska, then Maine, and Massachusetts. Find one or two regional non-profits, donate funds, and use them as a front to carry out your grand digital transformation. Sell the public on “innovative” technology, adhere to your communications plan, deflect parent and teacher concerns, secure whatever research is required to support your program, and push bonds and levies so that by the time everyone realizes the whole thing is a sham, it will be very difficult to back out. Now that we know their game plan, we need to start making plans of our own. In Tennessee forward-thinking parents have already filed a lawsuit demanding a student’s right to have a human teacher rather than a computer. Sounds like a great idea! Get creative, organize in your communities, identify your wrenches and start sticking them in those gears. If we don’t act soon they’ll be plugging in our children and profiting from their misery.