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.


5 thoughts on “Sleight of Hand, Slate?

  1. ciedie aech says:

    WOW — a great and crucially necessary look at the frighteningly larger picture: “…. 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…”

  2. Laura H. Chapman says:

    Congratulations on the fellowship.. Thank you for all of your good work. If you have not done so, look at the Columbia Journalism speciality set up by Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction. Her blog is Her bio may have more specifics than I can muster at the moment.

    • wrenchinthegears says:

      The fellowship was awarded to Watters, who has been a strong voice in critiquing the ed-tech industry. I hope her affiliation with Columbia will not impede that work over the coming year.

  3. freedom_educator says:

    Wonderful analysis. Thank you for looking into this. The last of the eight stories was about my experiences and data. While I cannot knowledgeably comment of the bigger economic context you describe here, I can say that the info I shared with them has potentially negative implications for online courses generally. They realized this, and yet still wanted to include it. Happy to talk more if you like (

  4. bbetzen says:

    Excellent article.

    Regarding the initial problem of student Dropout percentages, we have virtually eliminated that here in Dallas with the School Time Capsule Project started 13 years ago. What used to be a 30% graduation rate pre-2004 is now near a 90% graduation rate at Sunset High School in Dallas. Sunset still has a the 95% poverty student body. Look at year end enrollment for Sunset at The 12th grade was 455 while 9th grade was 483.

    The Time Capsule Project has been at Sunset and all middle school feeders since 2011. 8th graders and 12th graders have been writing letters to themselves with plans for 10 years into the future. Parents are also writing letters to them about their dreams. All letters go into one self addressed envelope per student and into Time Capsule. Such written plans for future change everything!

    See blog at for most recent updates as project spreads into 30 Dallas schools due to results, and more schools next year.

    See other benefits at

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