Smart Cities & Social Impact Bonds: Public Education’s Hostile Takeover Part II

Ed Reform 2.0 is a different variety of privatization from the one to which we’ve become accustomed. End-of-year high-stakes testing, imposition of value-added measures, alignment to Common Core State Standards, and destabilization of districts through charter school expansion, closures, and turnarounds were actually setting the stage for the final act that is now on our doorstep. Educators and parents can see the harm being done by 1:1 devices, Big Data’s domination of classrooms and the relentless deprofessionalization of teaching, but may have difficulty making sense of it, because it takes deep background knowledge to put all the pieces together. Hoping to make it more accessible, I’ve prepared a series of slide presentations called “Education in the Cloud.”

My goal is to introduce concepts I believe people need to become more familiar with as we navigate the post-ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) landscape. It begins with an overview followed by six sets of slides, each telling a part of the story:

Big Data vs. Teachers: Slideshare Link

Digital Classrooms as Data Factories: Slideshare Link

What is a “Smart” City? Slideshare Link

Tracking Children Via the Internet of Things: Slideshare Link

Blockchain and “The Ledger”: Slideshare Link

How Austerity Generates Data: Slideshare Link

Reinventing Education for Impact Investing: Slideshare Link

I’ll post the introduction at the end of this piece, and share the rest sequentially over the next few days. There are links to the Slideshare uploads above, however, the links and the video in these uploads are not fully operational. I also have a visual timeline in the works that pulls content from the slides and includes links to additional resources for those who want to take a deeper dive. It’s not yet complete, but in the meantime you can take a look here. If there are items you think should be added, please leave your suggestions in the comments.

About two years ago, via Save Maine Schools, I fell into the Global Education Futures Forum agenda and never quite made it back out. So I found myself on July 4 trying to figure out the best way to explain the enormity of all this to you. We need to wrap our minds what it would mean for most of the people on the planet to be living life “on the ledger” and begin organizing effective resistance to a future defined by technocratic feudalism.

Be sure to watch the seven-minute  Learning is Earning video if you haven’t yet.

I’m a mom creeping towards the half-century mark with a daughter enrolled in a large urban school district that’s been under siege for years, which means education activism has been part of my life in some form or another for the better part of a decade. I first lent a hand with the parent association at her elementary school, then stepped up to school district policy and eventually concentrated on opting out of high stakes testing. Now, I’ve finally begun to understand in a more holistic way the complex structures of systemic oppression and racism that underlie the privatization and financialization of our public schools. It is far beyond what I ever imagined in those naïve early years when I started this journey. Along the way I’ve benefitted tremendously from the support and camaraderie of inspiring activists I’ve met in person and in the virtual worlds we’ve come to inhabit. People are incredibly generous with their time, and though the task before us is daunting, I continue to draw hope and strength from our collective power.

I never anticipated I’d willingly spend hours wading through white papers on Blockchain, impact investing and cognitive computing. My graduate work was in historic preservation, after a brief flirtation with art history, and I was trained to look at landscapes, not derivatives. By examining physical clues and the documentary record, I figured out how to discern and describe the stories of places. I also learned to stick with the search even when the trail peters out. Deeds, census records, maps, and oral histories; often if you persevere, the piece you’re looking for eventually clicks into place. That training has turned out to be invaluable as I’ve poked around dark corners of the Internet uncovering next-gen education reform. Being able look beneath the surface, read widely and synthesize information into a bigger picture has been, I think, either my gift or my curse.

The Ed Reform 2.0 push to atomize knowledge into bits and pieces for validation by badges and micro-credentials has me very worried. It’s not what I want for my child, for other people’s children or for future generations. There are many days I feel like a Cassandra. It’s not that people don’t believe my predictions; rather, they are down in the trenches fighting more immediate battles and don’t have the luxury of time or head space to step back and let things come into focus. Part of the strategy, in fact, is to create repeated immediate threats that zap our resources and distract us from the true end game. It is unclear exactly what is to be done, because pushing back against these powerful global forces will take tremendous collective effort. And of course it is a weighty thing to hold this knowledge. I sense there are a lot of people who simply don’t want to look for fear that it will be too hard to carry that knowledge going forward.

I recognize there was no era in which public education was designed to care for ALL our nation’s children. As we stare down Ed Reform 2.0, we must be prepared not only to fight the reformers’ surveillance, human-capital management tactics, but also to collectively imagine and realize a new paradigm that will cultivate the intellect and talents of each and every child while recognizing and celebrating their human dignity. Rather than the toxic construct of “personalized” online learning that railroads children into set pathways, isolates them, and forces them to compete against one another, we need to embrace learning as an inherently human process, one that encourages students to take pleasure in discovering and constructing knowledge with the guidance of trained educators, in the fellowship of engaged peers, and within the context of their communities and culture.

I live in Philadelphia,  home of the Liberty Bell. July 4 is a big deal here, but I can muster little enthusiasm for potato salad or sparklers. This “Independence” Day, I spent the afternoon at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia listening to a reading of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass. The understanding that this freedom we celebrate was built on land theft, genocide and the enslavement of millions weighs heavily on my mind. In recent years I’ve grown as a person, recognizing national myths for what they are. In this confluence of national and world events we sometimes have the good fortune to connect with thoughtful and brilliant friends who challenge us and expand our horizons. Through organizing and resistance I’ve been included in conversations I never had access to as a child of corporate suburbia. I simply would not have had the base of knowledge to do this research three years ago, and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped me get to this point, knowing that I still have much farther to go.

I now hold in the forefront of my mind the understanding that our society relies on large segments of the population being rendered disposable, people who are cast aside after their value has been extracted-people of color, the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable. The education system as it is presently constructed is part of that. To normalize this, systems are maintained that isolate us, keep us in echo chambers, dull our senses, peddle distraction and cultivate contempt for one another and for critical thought. Sometimes we allow these systems to operate unimpeded; we don’t disrupt.

I used to be much better behaved than I am now, and I regret that. I hope I can in some way begin to make up for my previous inaction by using this blog to transgress, to ask troubling questions, to provoke discussion and throw a few wrenches in the gears of the disimagination machine. The financial elite class is closing ranks, and technology is on their side. The hour is late. I’m starting to appreciate just how much I did not know, and how much work there is yet to be done. I’m ready; I just hope we have the tools and solidarity needed to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

I write this blog as a digital skeptic parent, but acknowledge that I am doing this work from a place of privilege, a relatively safe perch. I have flexibility in my work schedule that allows me to pursue this research, and this broken system is not yet directly harming my child or threatening my family. I am not a teacher or an academic or a union member. I arrived here without pedagogical credentials, without heroes, an outsider. I aspire to no elected office or position within this world and as such I am free to follow the money, look at the evidence and turn over each and every rock that seems promising. I pursue the facts, and my goal is to share and discuss them with as wide an audience as possible, so we can come to a common understanding of what we are up against and what to do about it. Unraveling these threads has been a challenging, somewhat abstract intellectual exercise that has occupied a lot of my bandwidth over the past year. But as I began to put the timeline of events together last month, I couldn’t help but notice how rapidly things are speeding up. I cling to a fleeting hope for safety, but recognize global finance and digital surveillance reach not only into education but into all aspects of our lives and will soon hit us like a ton of bricks. If you’re not yet familiar with Sesame Credit, you should read How China Wants To Rate Its Citizens. Of course it will hit marginalized communities and communities of color earlier and harder than others. I expect Philadelphia will be on the front lines.

I love my adopted city, a place I’ve called home for over twenty years. We live with stark contrasts; conspicuous consumption bumping up against extreme deprivation. Fueled by generous tax incentives “luxury” townhomes spring up at rates defying the number of residents who could ever possibly afford to live in them. Meanwhile librarians are being trained to administer Narcan to waves of heroin addicts seeking shelter in the restrooms; black men are killed by police during traffic stops, like David Jones just this June; our prisons are full and evictions are rising. We celebrate our status as a sanctuary city with a vibrant immigrant culture, but thousands live in daily fear of deportation. Philadelphia has all the accouterments of hipster culture, food trucks and pop-up beer gardens, nestled in the shadow of Comcast’s massive new headquarters. Once complete, it will be the tallest building in Center City and central to the public private partnership’s goal of governing for profit and control. We cannot allow a reductionist approach to education to take hold, one where knowledge is constrained by ones and zeros and consumption prevails over questioning.

Surveillance in the digital world as well as the physical world is something all citizens need to reckon with moving forward. Predictive policing that incorporates “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) analysis of police body camera video footage, ubiquitous CCTV cameras, gunshot sensors, and listening devices, continues to focus the powers of the police state on those deemed problematic and/or expendable. “Smart” technology advancements will soon make that control apparatus absolute. Moving forward, our “smart” cities will be occupied not only by the flesh and blood humans, but also by our cyber doppelgangers, quantified, aggregated “federated citizens” uploaded to the cloud for optimization within increasingly complex, automated man-machine systems. Their vision of the future would value us primarily for the data we produce, and when we consume public services underwritten by private capital using “innovative” partnerships that very data would be used to enrich the impact investment class, driving an engine of speculative derivatives built on the securitization of social impact bonds. In the coming decade we may very well see the rise of fixed digital identities linked to crypto-currency systems; the data flow from every aspect of our lives, seamlessly added to Blockchain, “the ledger.” We must recognize that in bridging the digital divide we are inviting the surveillance state into our lives and into our classrooms. Broadband, mesh networks and 5G will bring a degree of digital discipline to society that, standing on this side of the threshold to the Internet of Things, most cannot yet fully appreciate.

Philadelphia is a “Smart” City. We jumped on board in 2011 with a workforce badging program underwritten by IBM and more recently accepted a large grant from the Knight Foundation to investigate the Internet of Things. This fits nicely with Comcast’s plan to pilot IoT systems using LoRa Wireless Radio Frequency Technology in the coming year. I’m not sure how all of this will play out given that Philadelphia skipped over the Y2K issue, having never upgraded our municipal computers systems in the first place. Sometimes those intractable Quaker values come in handy. But if the transition happens, deliberate austerity makes it unlikely that the city would have funds to retain in-house professionals to manage these complex systems. Which leads us to these larger questions:

If you outsource municipal operations to multinational corporations and those systems become embedded into your city’s infrastructure to the extent they cannot be easily removed, what role then do locally-elected officials play?

If Cisco or IBM is running the show, does that let “smart” city mayors off the hook?

Do they become figureheads providing cover for corporate partners (and their algorithms) to make “data-driven” policy?  

What would local elections even mean in that context?

To whom are the companies running “smart” cities accountable, citizens or shareholders?

And with increasing automation, cognitive computing and Big Data, are humans even going to have a meaningful role in running the show at all?


Pennsylvania recently launched its first Pay for Success project, and while it wasn’t directly for pre-K education, I have concerns about where things are headed. The John and Laura Arnold Foundation (New Orleans school takeover and Baltimore surveillance project) teamed up with Michael Bloomberg (NYC education reformer and founder of the Domain Awareness System) to underwrite an advertising campaign in support of the soda tax intended to fund the city’s universal pre-K program. I don’t take their involvement as a good sign.

Meanwhile out in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Problem Solutions is refining xAPI, the protocol they hope will truly open the door to “anywhere, any time learning.” Philadelphia has an extensive array of museums and cultural institutions that I’m sure would find such an arrangement very attractive. Our public library system, the Philadelphia Free Library, was identified as a national model for community-based learning experiences in the American Alliance of Museum’s 2014  whitepaper “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem. The William Penn Foundation, the philanthropy that hired Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia public schools in 2013, just launched an initiative promoting informal “out-of-school time” learning. The Wallace Foundation has underwritten digital architecture to track data in afterschool program settings, all the better to feed the impact investment machine. Philadelphia is one of a dozen “Cities of LRNG” supported by the MacArthur Foundation. They want the “smart” city to become our classroom, but what does that mean for people who seek an education beyond the reach of badges and proficiency demonstrations? If learning happens outside an xAPI protocol will the authorities recognize it as legitimate? Do we need to build an infrastructure to support fugitive learning? Maybe we should have already started.

The corporate partnership’s ability to track water, buses, energy, people, transactions and knowledge through state-monitored systems should give everyone pause. Anyone who’s seen Snowden (or better yet Laura Poitras’s CitizenFour) or followed the advocacy work of William Binney knows this. Our virtual selves live on in Bluffdale, UT, at least for a hundred years.  “Smart” cities are surveilled cities, though undoubtedly this oversight will be presented as being for the collective “good.”

The narrative being crafted by Ed Reform 2.0 aims to convince us that through “personalized” data-driven education any child can become a “winner” in the global economy. That simply isn’t true and completely disregards grave concerns many hold about future labor markets with respect to automation. These interests are very happy for us to take out bonds to build 21st century schools and purchase legions of tablets and laptop carts. Global finance thrives on debt, and if it hastens the demise of neighborhood schools, so much the better. Reformers are selling us the idea that learning ecosystems will be “vibrant learning grids,” when in reality this loose system of unaccountable cyber and community-based learning opportunities will only magnify inequities inherent in the existing system. Their “learning grid” will be a disorienting maze that only children who have the most support and resources can navigate successfully. They know it and even write about it in the dystopian essay A Learning Day 2037. Such a fate would be a disaster for my city. That is why I am doing this work, and why I hope you will join me on this journey.

There are many moving parts to the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda but fundamentally it is about enclosing the commons of public education, pushing learning onto digital platforms where it can be monitored, disciplined, and turned into a commodity for speculation in the global financial marketplace. That fact must be internalized before we can move on. I hope the slides that follow help you in that process, so we can collectively strategize for the resistance.

Education in the Cloud-Introduction

5 thoughts on “Smart Cities & Social Impact Bonds: Public Education’s Hostile Takeover Part II”

  1. I haven’t even viewed the slides out clicked in any links….WOW Alison! Trying to keep up…. Antoinette

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  2. So much anxious hand-wringing and blind defensive yelling about what political leaders might need do… when understanding the current political/economic moment depends heavily upon digesting and recognizing this one every-day-more-devastating fact: “…our society relies on large segments of the population being rendered disposable, people who are cast aside after their value has been extracted-people of color, the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable.”

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  3. I am glad you credited your studies in art history for at least part of your impulse to investigate, interpret, and communicate.

    This is another splendid, clear, and also scary report on developments that are not getting critically infomed attention and the press they deserve.

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