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.

2 thoughts on “Dear Rhode Island: That April Fools Day Blended Learning Conference is no joke!

  1. Sheila Resseger says:

    I’m so appreciative for your outstanding and comprehensive and chilling work, Alison! One slight correction–Senate bill 0103 will have a Hearing in the RI Senate Education Committee on April 5. I’m not aware that there is a companion bill in the House. The bill will probably be held over for further study, as most bills are. If there will be a vote, it wouldn’t be for some time in the future.

  2. Linda says:

    Citizens aren’t aware of the Brown University K-12 influencers, provided courtesy of Arnold and Gates. Brown University has a professor who is a Gates’ Impatient Optimist. He spoke at an Ohio Education “Summit” (funded by Gates) along with Stanford’s Hanushek (Hoover Institute). BTW, Hoover’s Chester Finn steered the Fordham Institute (Non-Partisan Education Review charted the money flow into the organization in a posted article).
    Arnold funded the Rhode Island Innovation Policy Lab. A woman attached to the Brown Education Alliance (who funds it?), who self describes as, “asked to serve on state education working groups”, is director of an international charter school. Gov. Raimondo, the hedge funds’ darling appoints privatizers to top education posts.

    Alison, thanks for the work you are doing.

Comments are closed.