Sleight of Hand, Slate?

Over the past few days, my social media feed has been buzzing about Slate’s “The Big Shortcut.” The eight-part series, developed in coordination with Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s The Teacher Project, explores “the exponential rise in online learning for high school students who have failed traditional classes.” Many of us have been working hard to sound the alarm about online education undermining teaching as an inherently human, relationship-driven endeavor and to draw attention to negative impacts of digital curriculum on student health and emotional well being. So to have our concerns seemingly validated by not just one article but by EIGHT was initially refreshing; that is until I read the whole series. Once I finished the last article, I was left scratching my head.

Why would Slate and The Teacher Project expend significant resources to discuss one VERY narrow aspect of online education, namely credit recovery? Certainly it’s an egregious practice, but given the rise of personalized “blended/hybrid” online learning that is overtaking regular classrooms, why choose to expend ALL their energy exhausting that topic while remaining silent on so many others? There are millions of students today enrolled in regular bricks and mortar neighborhood schools who are taking one or more online classes as a regular part of their curriculum. In fact, some states actually require students to take an online course in order to graduate. These are not credit-recovery courses. Austerity budgeting, teacher shortages and ever-more rigorous graduation requirements are increasingly pressuring districts to delegate core instruction to the cyber-sphere. Everyone is expected to do more with less—less money, less time, fewer human bodies; and with this disaster by design, digital curriculum becomes a convenient, but ultimately dangerous, remedy. Readers should take note that in this 8-part series, discussion of non-credit recovery cyber instruction, blended-hybrid-personalized learning and flipped classrooms is conspicuously absent.

As Slate focuses our attention on credit-recovery, you might ask what are they trying to distract us from or prepare us for? Well, you should first know that the magazine started out as a Microsoft-sponsored venture in 1996. The original staff operated out of the company’s Redmond, WA campus. It was sold to the Washington Post Corporation in 2004. Slate is now a business unit of Graham Holdings. The name change came in 2013 after the company sold the Washington Post newspaper. At that time Don Graham, Chairman of the Board noted: “We’re especially excited about the increasing number of digital opportunities available to expand our reach and the innovative kinds of services all of our divisions can offer.” Ventures beyond online and print news included a new education division featuring “Kaplan’s diverse and global education businesses.” Currently Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, serves on the company’s board of directors. Former Delaware Governor Jack Markell, a prominent figure in ed-reform, workforce development and blockchain initiatives, was added to their board this month. (Appreciation to Mythos: Education, Political Economy and Culture for making the Graham Holdings/Kaplan connections.)

Columbia University, home of The Teacher Project, has a rather checkered past with respect to predatory home-correspondence/distance education detailed in David Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills (see page 34). Following the money is my preferred strategy and in this case did not disappoint. Who funds The Teacher Project? As it turns out, the Carnegie Foundation is involved. They are among those seeking to kill off the seat-time-based Carnegie Unit in favor of digital learning that can take place “any time, any place.” They’ve been a regular donor to iNACOL (International Association of K12 Online Learning) since 2010 and in 2015 awarded them $1.2 million to advance innovative school models. Another supporter is the Emerson Collective, a financial vehicle for education reform established by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow. It is set up as an LLC just like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Emerson Collective’s most notable project has been the XQ Super School Initiative whose focus is school “redesign.” The third supporter is the Pinkerton Foundation, whose assets originated with the notorious, strike-breaking private detective agency. They fund youth programs and seem particularly interested in supporting out-of-school time learning, which is the other piece of the learning ecosystem program. Also worth mentioning is the significant amount of Gates Foundation money that has poured into Teachers College, Columbia University over the years in support of various education reform initiatives.

My take is that the series is meant to shine a light on “poor” implementation and “bad” online learning programs and establish the need for rigorous evaluation that will guide districts in purchasing “quality” education products that are managed “with fidelity.” Slate and The Teachers Project devote an entire article to poor quality online products, while wholly neglecting substantive discussion of the issues of social-control, surveillance and financialization that are crucial to gaining a true understanding of educational technology’s influence within the neoliberal education landscape. Their intent is not to fundamentally question the legitimacy of digital curriculum in all its varied manifestations or investigate the structural conditions that led to its widespread adoption. Rather, taken together, the pieces attempt to lay the groundwork for market conditions that will ultimately advantage major players like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft and encourage speculation on educational impacts via Pay for Success.

Quotes like the ones below make it clear the series really wants to lay out the circumstances under which online education will work rather than encouraging broader discussion of whether we should be pursuing digital curriculum at all:

  • “Yet Gadsden’s experience also shows that there are ways to implement online credit recovery without it becoming a sham. Administrators can trade information about providers to become savvier consumers of the myriad products available to them.” Source
  • “Above all else, the students’ stories show that what matters most when it comes to online education is how well—or how poorly—individual schools implement the programs.” Source
  • “An increasing number of states are getting serious about vetting the online education companies that are now responsible for instructing a growing number of their kids.” Source

While calling out problems with the existing credit recovery system, the articles manage to slip in propaganda for Ed Reform 2.0. Woven throughout are references to online learning as “fun and flexible,” “entertaining,” and offering “more freedom.” They note students appreciate logging into a class “anywhere, anytime.” It is true that criticisms are leveled against online credit recovery in the series, but you also get statements that could have been lifted straight out of a CompetencyWorks or iNACOL brief.

  • For scores of students, the flexibility and independence of the mostly online curriculum is invaluable. Source
  • Both teenagers say that online schools can serve an important purpose for disengaged youth. Source
  • For some, learning in a virtual silo is a relief. Sixteen-year-old West Gadsden student Luis Avalos says that he likes working online because he doesn’t get teased for asking questions or giving wrong answers. Another student, 19-year-old Keishon Derrick Brown, also likes learning independently—so much so that he does most of his work from home.  Source

Sarah Carr is the lead on The Teacher Project. According to her LinkedIn profile she has also been an editor and writer for The Hechinger Report since 2012. The publication, affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, was launched in 2009 with major support from the Gates and Lumina Foundation. Her article in the series, “Online Education Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating” tees up what the series is actually about, namely setting the stage for blended learning. Her piece describes online learning at Bronx Arena, which is part of New York City’s iZone initiative. According to the website “Innovate NYC School projects supports schools by connecting educators and students, who understand school and classroom needs, with edtech companies who are developing innovative teaching and learning solutions.” The program was launched in 2010 under Joel Klein using Race to the Top funding and is affiliated with Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. The program pushes technology, “personalized” learning, innovation, and alternative pathways—all the hallmarks of Ed Reform 2.0. This version of education is about teachers managing vendor content through data management tools. Carr’s task is to carve out a “middle ground” for ed-tech as a complement to face-to-face instruction. The horrors of credit-recovery provide a useful counterpoint. She describes teachers crafting their own “computer-based” content, which sounds a lot like playlist education using Open Education Resources. In the second-to-closing paragraph she notes that even though models like Bronx Arena may not be as cost-effective, there are benefits to having access to a human teacher who can occasionally offer “help” and supplement online instruction.

What is NOT said can be just as important as what IS said, and it pays to read between the lines. While it pleases me to see discussion of ed-tech’s many problems, we have to recognize this series represents an investment by a major media outlet in partnership with an institution fueled by ed-reform funding to further tech’s desired message. The message they WANT us to take away is that online education that includes some access to a human teacher is not all bad. Don’t buy it. That should NOT be your takeaway. Please, if you share these articles, include an introduction encouraging people to question why we’re allowing this type of controlled, surveilled digital education to be pushed into our classrooms the first place? Who benefits financially? Who holds the power?

This past March, Audrey Watters of Hack Education was awarded in Spencer Fellowship to the Columbia School of Journalism. As far as I can tell the fellowship is not affiliated with The Teacher Project. Ed-tech will continue to be the focus of her research. The day she made the announcement, she also deleted her Twitter history. We certainly need investigative research into ed-tech, venture capital and global finance. But can that come out of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism? After doing research for this piece, I have concerns. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Personalized Learning Poised to Take Center Stage

As new state education plans are unveiled, the ed-tech sector is positioning itself to take full advantage of the ESSA’s ample provisions for innovation / entrepreneurial experimentation on public school children. Language in Title lV-21st Century Schools Part F, Subpart 1 of the Every Student Succeeds Act allocates $200 million+ annually in fiscal years 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 to “create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.” Any state educational agency, local educational agency, consortium of such agencies, or the Bureau of Indian Education may partner with a non-profit organization, business, educational service agency or institution of higher education to develop these “innovative” products.

The New Schools Venture Fund Summit 2017, an invitation-only event, expects over 1,000 entrepreneurs, funders, policy makers, educators, and community leaders to converge on the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame, CA next week to “reimagine education.” Technology features prominently with sessions on rigor in personalized learning, tech in special education, tech as an equity issue, and developing a robust R&D program to “drive the kinds of technological breakthroughs we need in education.” Platinum level event sponsors include the Gates and Walton Family Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative-all forces behind the Ed Reform 2.0 digital curriculum agenda. According to EdWeek, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently teamed up with Chiefs for Change (CFC) to establish a “Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Platinum sponsors

Their partnership will promote adoption of “Personalized Learning” at state and local levels, building on efforts underway in states like Rhode Island where Chan Zuckerberg funds are being used to pilotLighthouse Schools” that have adopted online learning platforms developed by the Facebook-affiliated Summit Learning. Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools, is slated to speak at the New Schools Venture Fund conference referenced above.

With backing from Zuckerberg, the company’s “free” Summit Basecamp has expanded its reach from ten bricks and mortar charter schools to over one hundred public schools nationally. The Gates Foundation helped underwrite this expansion via two grants totaling nearly $3.5 million and funded a white paper documenting the program prepared by FSG, a social impact consulting firm. Facebook provided technical support to develop Summit Learning’s “Personalized Learning Platform” that embraces Ed Reform 2.0 principles of competency based education and playlist modules. A New York Times article from August 2016 contrasts Zuckerberg’s current approach to education reform with earlier top-down efforts in Newark, noting this time around he plans to employ “a ground-up effort to create a national demand for student-driven learning in schools.” The Chan Zuckerberg/CFC collaboration appears to be part of that plan.

Established as a program of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2010, Chiefs for Change spun off in 2015, expanding its mission to include city school districts as well as state departments of education as targets for their bi-partisan ed-reform strategies. Though the group at one point had dwindled to four members, it’s growing again and currently numbers twenty-six, seventeen of whom joined in 2016. The four newest members are: William Hite, Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools; Kunjan Narechania, Superintendent of the Recovery School District Louisiana; Paymon Rouhanifard, Superintendent of the Camden City School District; and Candice MacQueen, Commissioner of Education for Tennessee. As of now, seven state departments of education are represented in addition to eighteen school districts. You can find information on members of CFC here.

Chiefs Map

In 2015 CFC received $500,000 in support from the Walton Family Foundation and $250,000 from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that manages Mark Zuckerberg’s donor-advised fund. Board members listed on the organization’s 2015 990 tax filing included: Hanna Skandera, New Mexico Secretary of Education and CCSSO board member; Mark Murphy, former Secretary of Education for Delaware and now CEO of Griptape and member of America Achieves; Deborah Gist, former Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Rhode Island and now Superintendent of the Tulsa School District; and John White, State Superintendent of Louisiana. Michael Magee, founder of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies and Walton Family Foundation “Educator to Watch,” is both CEO and a board member.

Over the past year CFC has produced numerous policy papers detailing how to dovetail ESSA implementation with choice initiatives and school redesign efforts. While charters remain a key element in the privatization picture, increasingly reformers are pursuing “Third-Way,” cyber colonization tactics (like Summit Basecamp) that are imposed on neighborhood schools via turnaround protocols. In the coming year we are likely to see how the tech industry’s push for innovation, flexibility, growth, and multiple measures in assessment will play out in classrooms. My guess is Silicon Valley’s online-embedded assessment / data-dashboard / competency-based framework is not what alternative assessment advocates had in mind when fighting punitive end of year testing. Adopting growth measures means non-stop data collection yielding “efficacy” metrics that will likely set the stage for public-private partnerships and impact-investing down the road.

Summit PLP

So where will Chan Zuckerberg / CFC be focusing their efforts? As I discussed in a previous post, reformers in Rhode Island seem intent on making theirs the first “personalized learning state.” Officially there are no CFC members from Rhode Island, but the organization’s CEO, Mike Magee, co-founder of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, and COO, Julia Rafal-Baer, are both based out of Providence according to their LinkedIn profiles. This article from Wired notes that ten percent of Summit Basecamp’s schools are in Rhode Island, right behind the much larger states of California, Texas, and Illinois.

Another candidate may be neighboring Massachusetts. Given its proximity to Rhode Island there would certainly be synergy in developing the two states in tandem. Massachusetts has recently set up a Personalized Learning Network via the Center for Collaborative Education; Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (performance-based assessments are part of the Summit Basecamp program); and Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed-Tech Consortium (MAPLE). Given that organizational capacity, the presence of ed-tech incubator LearnLaunch (that recently set up a satellite in RI), a growing ed-tech workforce of 6,000+, and keen interest from Boston-Based impact investors like New Profit, the Commonwealth seems a logical place to center a personalized-learning campaign of the type Chan Zuckerberg and Chiefs for Change are contemplating.

Springfield Innovation

Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, may have tipped his hand in a March 7, 2017 op-ed in the Washington Post “Radical Change for Struggling Schools? It’s reliably doable.” The piece was co-written with John White, Superintendent of Education for Louisiana. Both are members of Chiefs for Change. The piece calls for radical interventions in schools that put in place new leaders, autonomy, flexibility, and the involvement of third party non-profit entities. This rhetoric is consistent with legislation now under consideration that would establish “innovation partnership zones.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association provides background on these bills here. They have issued a statement of opposition to the bills here.

Even with substantial flexibility built into the ESSA, reformers are still pushing deregulation and waivers to speed ed-tech implementation. Innovation zones carve out spaces to pilot and develop proof points to advance the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda. In March 2016 iNACOL (International K12 Association for Online Learning) created an issue brief “Innovation Zones: Creating Policy Flexibility for Personalized Learning.” The brief offers sample language from Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi and New York that allow for implementation of competency-based education models. In the past year Districts of Innovation have also appeared in Texas, and model legislation for innovative districts is now available through ALEC. Note their emphasis on adopting plans that “try new ways of delivering instruction and/or allocating resources.”

ALEC Innovation Zone

Which brings me to the new Massachusetts state education plan. In preparing to write this piece, I spent some time with it and pulled a few excerpts to share below. Read between the lines and see if you draw the same conclusion I do.

Page 11: Massachusetts will continue our commitment to transforming the lowest performing schools and districts through a strategy that includes state/local partnerships, empowering school and district innovation focused on student success, and aggressive intervention authority.

Page 12: The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education employs five overarching strategies to advance the goal of success after high school for all students:

  • Strengthen standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessments
  • Promote educator development
  • Support social-emotional learning, health, and safety
  • Turn around the lowest performing districts and schools
  • Use technology and data to support student learning

Page 18: Supporting high-quality professional development for educators to personalize learning and improve academic achievement through technology. Through a public-private partnership, we will catalyze personalized learning in the Commonwealth to better prepare students for their future. Among other activities, the partnership will help schools pilot projects that allow students to progress through the curriculum based on demonstrated competency on the expectations set forth in the curriculum frameworks.

Page 22: In an era of increasing demands for public services as the state’s population ages, the education sector will be competing with other public services for financial resources. Districts must continue to find ways to get more out of the people, time, and fiscal resources they already have to help improve outcomes for students, including by reducing inequities in the allocation of resources to different types of students. To this end, the state has created a new Office of Resource Allocation Strategy and Planning to develop new tools and supports for districts to rethink how they use their resources.

Consider the ALEC innovation legislation as it applies to the following scenario. The commonwealth attempts to establish a position that additional resources for public education funding are not possible and should not be expected. However recognizing the importance of every child having a “quality” education they will employ data and technology via “personalized learning” and competency-based education to attempt to achieve that goal cheaply and efficiently. Schools will be scrutinized regarding their use of the limited resources provided to them. Those that do not meet required outcomes or use their resources “wisely” can expect aggressive intervention, likely involving some sort of outside partnership arrangement. Autonomy and flexibility will be offered under the guise of helpfulness, but in reality it will be used to remove existing contractual protections from teachers and recuse the Commonwealth from its responsibility to fully and adequately fund public education. Does that sound about right?

Massachusetts  teachers will be gathering with educators from across the nation a few months from now as Boston hosts the 2017 NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly in late June and early July. It is imperative that rank and file educators raise concerns and begin to organize NOW around the threats ed-tech and personalized learning pose to their profession. In Arizona, pretty much any “warm body” is allowed to teach due to the state’s dire teacher shortage. A few years from now, who knows, they may not even require human teachers, or at least face-to-face teachers as cyber instruction becomes the norm. Don’t let that happen. Children are counting on adults to pay attention and act on their behalf.

Reasoning Mind

Out of School Time Learning, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time

Digital education, pitched to parents as innovative, future-ready, and personalized, reduces student access to human teachers and builds robust data profiles that can be used for workforce tracking, behavioral compliance, and fiscal oversight. While adaptive online learning is a key element of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda, it is not the only concern. Another issue that merits close attention is the push to expand “out-of-school time” (OST) learning programs.

Increasingly states are passing credit flexibility legislation where students have the option to earn school credit for activities that take place outside school buildings and without the direct involvement of a certified teacher; though teachers are often pressed to manage the associated paperwork with no additional resources. These are known as ELOs, extended, expanded, or enhanced learning opportunities. States with credit flexibility may also allow online classes to be considered for ELO credit. Even when not offered for credit, out of school time partners have stepped in to provide programs that have been intentionally and systematically stripped from the curriculum through the imposition of punitive austerity and accountability measures. Increasingly, student access to art, music, drama, creative writing, and enrichment activities, particularly in low-income and turnaround schools, is contingent on tapping into programs offered by community-based organizations (CBOs).

I’ve written previously about ELOs but wanted to raise the issue again after obtaining correspondence via an open records request to the Pennsylvania Department of Education regarding input provided on the development of the state’s new education plan as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. One letter stood out from the rest. You can read it HERE.

Mila Yochum, Director of APOST, or Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time, sent it to Ted Dallas, Secretary of Health and Human Services on September 28, 2016, and it was apparently then forwarded to the Department of Education. APOST is a program of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and a member of the Remake Learning Initiative, which, based upon the work Knowledgeworks has done in the greater Pittsburgh region, appears to be a fairly well-developed trial run for the learning ecosystem model.

The first paragraph of the letter asserts that APOST is “uniquely well-positioned to support state and local implementation efforts, particularly with regard to expanded learning and partnerships with community-based and intermediary organizations under the new law.” It is notable that the text of the letter never specifically references “Pennsylvania” but only “the state” or even “the states,” which leads me to suspect this was a template letter provided to numerous OST organizations by a national group. The fact that the letter was sent to the wrong department (Health and Human Services rather than Education) also raises a red flag. I would be very interested to hear from others who have submitted open records requests on ESSA input if you have a similar letter in your file.

Given this blog’s focus on CBE, I found it notable that APOST specifically references their interest in developing “innovative assessments” under the new ESSA provisions, see a screen shot of the top of page three of the letter below:

APOST Out of School Time Leaning

Why would “community partners and intermediary organizations” take such a strong interest in developing innovative assessments that involve “mastery” and can take place “regardless of the time or setting?” Maybe because they are looking to outsource many core elements of public education to OST settings? You have to wonder if “the state” took this “expert partner” up on their kind offer of assistance, and if so, what “innovative approaches” they developed? Tot date, the Pennsylvania has still not released a draft plan for public review.

In recent years, CBOs have aligned their offerings to Common Core State Standards, and moves are being made to remove barriers to data sharing between schools and OST providers. We are headed towards a scenario where students could spend their in-school hours toiling on devices that generate data on core academic competencies and are then shipped out to community partners for hands-on, project-based learning where their social emotional competencies can be evaluated and measured against industry standards. This educational paradigm is designed not to develop the intellect and imagination of children, but rather to monitor the “efficacy” of educational investments dictated by the global economy.

The United Way is incubating OST networks across the nation; they have been involved in “Pay for Success” deals associated with early childhood education; and they sponsor numerous workforce development initiatives. Transitioning to a 21st century educational system reliant on privately-financed community partnerships and tied to workforce outcomes would certainly be one way to create a vast new market for Social Impact Bonds. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania seems to know which way the wind is blowing and has already set up a pipeline to train a the next wave of impact investment managers as can be seen from these course offerings and the numerous conferences they’ve hosted since the fall of 2015.

Fortunately for all those up and coming managers there appears to be no shortage of foundations interested in jumping into the education sector. Grantmakers for Education is a network of hundreds of education philanthropies based in Portland, OR. Cristina Huezo, board chair, is the Program and Policy Officer of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Other board members include Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation that has funded Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning ecosystem test bed, Nicholas Donohue of iNACOL and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that funds CBE implementation in New England, and Sanjiv Rao of the Ford Foundation, funder of the American Alliance of Museums report described below. Their report “The Funders Guide to Quality in Out of School Time” asserts the need for expanded OST options as well as new metrics to monitor program “quality.” Impact investing is ALWAYS about the metrics.

Elizabeth Merritt, Futurist for the American Alliance of Museum, wrote the opening essay for in a 2014 Ford Foundation-funded whitepaper entitled “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem.” The quotes below are from “Setting the Stage: Forecasting a New Era of Education.”

“We see signs that the U.S. is nearing the end of an era in formal learning characterized by teachers, physical classrooms, age-cohorts and a core curriculum—what some people call the era of industrial-age learning. The signals presaging this transformation include the rapid increase in nontraditional forms of primary education such as homeschooling; near record dissatisfaction with the existing K–12 education system; funding crises for schools at the state and local levels; growing gender imbalance in higher education; and proliferation of digital content and digital delivery platforms designed to transform the nature of classroom learning.” p. 10

And on the next page:

“The End of the Neighborhood School: communities have long been fiercely protective of the schools in their own back yards, valuing the way these schools keep their children close to home, in their own neighborhood, with the support of their peers. Now the economic crisis and state and local funding crunches are driving a wave of school closures and consolidations in New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere in the nation. This may increase the willingness of parents, already unhappy with school performance or school options, to opt out of the public school system and into independent charter schools, private schools, homeschooling or unschooling.”

and on page 13:

“In 2012 the National Governors Association released a report documenting that 36 states have disconnected “seat time” (time spent in the classroom) from the awarding of educational credit. States are waiving seat time many different ways (by basing credits on mastery of material, allowing for individual seat-time waivers, basing credit on performance-based assessments, etc.) and for individuals with many different needs (students who have fallen behind, students who excel, students who don’t do well in traditional academic environments, etc.). As states formally validate learning that takes place outside the classroom, this paves the way to educational networks that encompass a range of place-based experiences (including museums), as well as online resources.”

This was written three years ago, and now the future is here as evidenced by the Grand Rapids Public Museum School that recently received a $10 million grant from Laurene Powell Jobs’ XQ: The Super School Project. Remember, learning doesn’t just happen in schools!

In July of 2011, Michael Robbins, Senior Advisor for Non-Profit Partnerships at the US Department of Education, convened a working group of national and community-based nonprofits, philanthropists, business interests, parent organizations, schools and school districts. The chief Education Evangelist for Google was there, as was a representative of iNACOL (International Association of K12 Online Learning). The YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, The After School Corporation and 4-H were in the room, as was the “entrepreneur in residence” for City Light Capital. Foundations included the MacArthur Foundation, an advocate for digital media learning, and Motorola Mobility, focused on innovative technology. Click HERE for the complete list of attendees. It should come as no surprise that most of the discussion at this meeting involved how best to utilize CBOs in scaling ed-tech blended learning opportunities and opening up avenues for education entrepreneurship.

Notes from this working group session used to be available on the US Department of Education website, but were later pulled. You can see a copy of the document obtained via the Wayback Machine HERE. I’ve excerpted quotes from the eight pages of notes generated that day to give you a sense of the proceedings:

“CBOs can also serve as “routers” on the network of learning, helping to coordinate a student’s learning experience across multiple nodes such as libraries, museums, online communities, schools, and student homes.”

“Alignment across nodes. Blended learning systems can help align education efforts across schools, CBOs, homes, and other diverse settings. This alignment can facilitate community-wide networks of learning where students move seamlessly from one node to the next, making anytime/anywhere learning a reality. It can provide a common framework for conversations between students, teachers, youth development staff, and parents about a student’s goals and progress. These systems 
can also embed parental consents required to share school records and education data between schools and community partners.”

“The workforce of informal educators is 1 million strong, with CBO staff disproportionately young adults who are unafraid of technology. We need to translate ed tech to these potential partners and include them in professional development.”

“CBOs offer fertile ground for developing badges and electronic portfolios, adapting and broadening assessments.”

“Free online educational activities are powerful tools for both families and CBOs; new PowerMyLearning learning platform funded by Gates can enable easy use.”

“There is significant concern that there is limited capacity for schools to absorb the technology. CBOs may provide an opportunity to augment that capacity to sustain promising technologies.”

“Edtech ventures are working on a variety of different focus areas, but one of particular interest is technologies that allow schools to become “team players” and incorporate the efforts of CBOs.”

“There are barriers we need to address around blending organizations with different staffing and pay structures, regulatory requirements, who pays who, who controls facilities, etc.”

“Community engagement. Blended learning can be a cornerstone for high-quality education partnerships between communities, families, and schools. It could increase engagement of CBOs in education at an unprecedented scale, leveraging after-school networks, national nonprofit organizations, and national and community service organizations. Blended learning, especially if it is linked to proficiency-based credit achievement in non-school settings, has the potential to unleash a new wave of educational entrepreneurship.”

And so the truth is revealed. Shifting educational opportunities from neighborhood schools to non-school settings is actually about unleashing “a new wave of educational entrepreneurship.” While maker-spaces and community-based programs can be incredibly appealing, we should be wary. We must have a commitment to fully fund a rich curriculum and extracurricular activities using PUBLIC funds within our public schools. Non-profits, by their very nature, are beholden to the monied interests of foundations and investors that do not answer to the public. Even though OST programs being peddled by community partners may seem like a breath of fresh air, know those groups will be no more able to escape the grip of algorithmic education than our schools are. The notes from the working group above make that very clear. Today’s world runs on data, and the venture capitalists won’t hesitate to chase it out the school door and into the museum. Resist the ecosystem model; it won’t be good for children or society.




Hoping to escape Competency-Based Education? Looks like Wyoming is your only option.

Last week Susan Patrick of iNACOL (International Association of K12 Online Learning) and Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks presented “An Overview of K12 Competency-Based Education for Education Leaders and Teachers.” The webinar and slides can be accessed here. Compare the slides below and consider the gravity of our situation.

The first shows the reach of Competency-Based Education policies today. Only Wyoming remains untouched.

iNACOL CBE Map 2017

The second shows the reach of those policies in 2012.

iNACOL CBE Map 2012

Over the past five years digital learning interests have advanced steadily, infiltrating districts and classrooms under the guise of “personalized,” “student-centered” and “blended/hybrid” learning models. The transition to “playlist” online education where teachers are relegated to being “guides on the side” will be gathering steam as state education plans aligned to the Every Student Succeeds Act and its innovative assessment provisions roll out in the coming months.

The Carnegie Corporation has signed on as a sponsor of iNACOL’s 2017 National Summit on Competency Based Education to the tune of $50,000. A list of 2016 sponsors can be found here.

Last September the Gates Foundation awarded iNACOL a grant “to develop an evidence-based report that identifies how personalized learning is emerging in the United States, what the drivers for moving to personalized learning are, and identification of patterns of why and how personalized learning is taking hold.”

In 2014 the Nellie Mae Education Foundation awarded a grant to “support iNACOL in the development of an integrated learning system that provides a platform for a school’s learning environment by enabling the management, delivery and tracking of student-centered learning and includes robust reporting and analytics capabilities.”

This week the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Digital Promise are bringing hundreds of researchers, teachers, entrepreneurs, professors, administrators, and philanthropists to Washington, DC to collaborate on EdTech Efficacy Research. Click here for bios of working group members who will be finessing data analytics that will set the stage for widespread adoption of impact investing in public education.

With the Ed Reform 2.0 transition well underway, it is imperative that education activists familiarize themselves iNACOL’s operations. The organization’s 2014 tax filing states their mission is to “Ensure all students have access to a world-class education and quality blended and online learning opportunities that prepare them for a lifetime of success.” Susan Patrick, President and CEO, left her position as Director of the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology in 2005 to launch iNACOL. While at the US DOE, she was the primary architect of the 2004 National Educational Technology Plan. Her LinkedIn profile notes she earned degrees in English and Communications and was employed as a legislative liaison and administrator of educational technology programs, but never taught or worked in a K-12 school setting.

iNACOL maintains close ties with the Florida Virtual School, an incubator for K12 digital learning, and receives funding from many education reform interests. A PDF of grants found received by iNACOL from various sources can be reviewed here.

Click HERE to see $4,391,050 in Gates Foundation grants to iNACOL since 2010.

Click HERE to see $2,050,000 in Carnegie Corporation grants to iNACOL since 2010.

Click HERE to see $1,483,000 in Nellie Mae Education Foundation grants to iNACOL since 2010.

2010 was the year Gates launched Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) to provide capital for ed-tech development. The program’s goal was to create competency-aligned, modular content with embedded assessments that would move education beyond “seat time.” The foundation has plowed over $55 million into technologies they hope will allow students to learn “any time, any place,” free of the encumberances of school buildings and teachers (a 2001 report by the National Association of State Boards of Education indicates just how long this plan has been in the works). Other NGLC funders include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Broad Foundation. iNACOL is a partner in NGLC along with the Chief Council of State School Officers. See the full partner list here. Proposals funded under NGLC to date include 58 secondary schools, 29 blended learning/learning analytics products, and 19 additional technology products tied to Common Core State Standards.

iNACOL receives additional support from membership dues that start at $60 annually for educators and $500 for institutional members: school districts, state departments, education agencies, universities and colleges. According to their website, iNACOL has over 200 institutional members spread across 43 states. There are 75 Associate members in 18 states that identify as nonprofits, think tanks, and research organizations. Check this link and this link to see what members are active in your state. Blackboard, Pearson, and Connections Academy each pay iNACOL $25,000 per year for platinum level corporate memberships.

iNACOL’s board includes members representing organizations that advocate for learning ecosystems (Knowledgeworks), blended online learning (Jaquelin Hume Foundation), competency-based education (Nellie Mae Education Foundation), school redesign (Donnell-Kay Foundation and Lindsay Unified School District), cyber schooling (Connections Academy, Florida Virtual School, and Arizona State University), and online learning management systems (Dreambox).

Click here for interactive relationship map of the iNACOL board.

iNACOL board

CompetencyWorks is an online information clearinghouse and public relations vehicle for iNACOL and associated reform interests. A relationship map of their advisory board can be found here.

Competency Works

I stumbled upon iNACOL in 2015 watching recordings from the December 2009 convening “Redefining Teacher Education for Digital Age Learners.” Below is the feature image used on the convening’s website:

Redefining Teacher Education

At the event Susan Patrick gave a talk entitled “Trends in Online Learning, Implications for Teacher Education” that has haunted me ever since. You can watch it here and review the associated briefing paper here. For some reason her half-hour presentation is split across four separate segments; you’ll need to click to the next segment at the conclusion of each clip. I encourage you to, at the very least review the third segment at timestamp 1:48. At that point Patrick describes Singapore’s adoption of a national policy of holding an e-learning week once a year where schools are shut down entirely, and all students “learn” from home. Singapore’s program was ostensibly set up as a precautionary measure during the SARS outbreak. However as ed-tech’s influence over public education grows, we should be extremely wary of creating digital infrastructure, whether public or charter, that reproduces in virtual form the functions of bricks and mortar neighborhood schools.

Talk of e-learning days in the United States has begun to surface, mostly within the context of snow days. Last year Park Ridge High School in New Jersey experimented with a work from home day “where in-person classes were replaced with written lessons and real-time video chats delivered online.” E-learning from home during district professional development days have also been piloted in Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama and Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. The state of Indiana created an E-Learning Flex Pilot Program in 2012 “that supports “school corporations interested in exploring innovative approaches to school schedules by leveraging eLearning options.” Not limited to inclement weather, the pilot encourages “utilizing digital learning that innovatively alters the traditional school day.” Program participation grew from six districts in 2013-14 school year to twenty-eight this school year. The article “Portage schools launch E-Learning Day” identifies the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club as important community partners. In order for a virtual school model to work, there must be a support network in place for young students where adults are employed outside the home during the day. Robert Behning, Chair of Indiana’s House Education Committee attended the 2016 iNACOL symposium. You can listen to his remarks about the event, as well as his enthusiasm for Competency Based Education and assessment reform in Tom Vander Ark’s Getting Smart Podcast between timestamp 8:08 and 12:30. At one point he likens his experience at the conference to being in a candy shop.

The description of Patrick’s 2009 talk reveals the direction Ed Reform 2.0 is pushing the teaching profession. If we don’t push back vigorously and very soon, we will end up with a disempowered, de-professionalized “education” workforce that, due to the contingent nature of employment, will feel compelled to oversee data-mining of students’ academic and non-cognitive skills via online learning management systems, no questions asked.

“The innovation of online learning is creating new delivery models to solve the bigger challenges of K-12 education reform: offering more rigorous courses and internationally-benchmarked curriculum to ensure all students are prepared for college and 21st century careers, providing highly qualified teachers through virtual learning, creating new professional opportunities for teachers with part-time, adjunct and telecommuting jobs, generating new engagement models to expand the use of informal and formal learning time, and enabling new capabilities for student learning through personalized, differentiated and individualized instructional models in data-rich blended and online courses for students.”

Would it shock you to learn the American Federation of Teachers was among the convening organizations for the 2009 “Redefining Teacher Education for Digital Age Learners” event? Perhaps. Or perhaps not, for those of you already aware of top union leadership’s decision to partner with ed-reformers in redesigning the US education system through the “Education Reimagined” initiative launched in 2015. If this is this news to you, be sure to read Saving Maine School’s “Anatomy of a Betrayal.”

AFT Redefining

I’ll close with an examination of an interesting $2.5 million Gates Foundation grant made last November to the Lindsay Unified School District in California.

Lindsay Unified

Thomas Rooney, superintendent of the district, serves on iNACOL’s board. The district has been a pioneer in competency-based education and digital learning. In describing the district’s approach to school redesign Rooney states “We didn’t just make a tweak. We dismantled our entire education system.” Pay close attention to the wording below.

Purpose: to design and test a tool for adult learning that clearly defines competencies adults need to master to implement personalized learning, highlights the systematic barriers that stand in the way of adults mastering those competencies.”

A focus of early-stage Ed Reform 2.0 has been training teachers to implement digital “personalized” learning. In fact Getting Smart (Tom Vander Ark) and Vulcan Inc. identified “competency-based teacher prep” as a high-impact, moderate risk option for investors (see below).

Impact Investment Opportunities EdTech

So why does this grant not mention teachers given that the “Topic” was identified as “K-12 Education”? In the world of Ed Reform 2.0 will it be sufficient to merely have an adult, any adult, monitoring children while they are hooked up to their cyber assignments? Well, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is supporting Lindsay Unified’s efforts to create a program where their competency-based education model (you know, the one based on dismantling the existing system) can be prototyped and implemented in other districts and charter management organizations via teams of student and staff change-agents. Based on this press release it appears they are collaborating with Summit Charter Schools. And with Summit’s “free” Basecamp platform gaining ground in states like Massachusetts, it’s time for the resistance to get organized. We can’t all move to Wyoming.