This week the Network for Public Education launched another video in their series on the privatization of public education. The video featured John Kuhn, superintendent of the Mineral Wells Independent School District in Mineral Wells, Texas. Kuhn, an admittedly charismatic speaker, discussed the important issue of funding inequities and how lack of funding hurts students in low-income school districts. I was curious where Mr. Kuhn’s school district was located, because I have been following the work of a number of intrepid parent activists in Texas who have been busy exposing the next wave of privatization in the state including: education savings accounts, social impact bonds for mathematics instruction, and districts of innovation.
When I pulled up the Mineral Wells ISD website, I was surprised to see a link for “Future Ready” in the “Learn More About Us” footer of each page. I had shared my concerns regarding the “Future Ready” pledge last October. You can read about them here. If you want the short version, the program is affiliated with the reform outfit The Alliance for Excellent Education and funded by the Gates Foundation, Google, Apple, Pearson, Summit Learning and the Carnegie Corporation, among others. Those who sign the pledge commit to “implementing meaningful changes toward a digital learning transition.” The “About the Effort” page of the Future Ready website makes it clear pledge signers support the idea that “personalized” learning is about adoption of digital technologies: “We believe every student deserves a rigorous, personalized learning environment filled with caring adults and student agency. District leaders must recognize the potential of digital tools and align necessary technologies with instructional goals to support teaching and learning.”
The Future Ready link on the Mineral Wells ISD website takes you to a page promoting many elements of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda: flipped classrooms, hybrid-distance learning, and gamification. The first thing that struck me was a description of how the district is using Google hangouts for so-called “peer” learning experiences. I found the associated image really upsetting. The district was promoting a pre-school age child being plugged into a headset and tablet doing a read aloud with a fifth grade student. Where are the children’s teachers? Where are the actual books? What data is being captured from this online interaction and for what purpose? There is absolutely no pedagogical reason this “Future Ready” approach should be imposed on young children. It is not developmentally appropriate, it erodes teacher autonomy in the classroom, and it is dehumanizing.
Kuhn signed the pledge while working at his former district Perrin Whitt in Jack County, Texas. Gail Haterius, who preceded Kuhn at Mineral Wells, signed the pledge on behalf of her district at the time. Kuhn, upon taking over Mineral Wells, maintained the district’s “Future Ready” status. If you’re wondering where NPE stands on the “Future Ready” pledge, Diane Ravitch’s blog lauded it in a post from February of 2015 featuring Thomas Ralston, a superintendent from my home state of Pennsylvania. Ralston was at the launch of the initiative in Washington with Arne Duncan. At the time “Future Ready” was being pitched as an antidote to high stakes testing, though we later figured out the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda was designed for technology-based all-the-time testing, including data collection on workforce-aligned soft skills. If you read the comments on Ravitch’s post, it is clear parents and teachers know something is not quite right and push back against the program’s technology focus. It turns out Ralston is part of the “Remake Learning” initiative in the greater Pittsburgh region, a program that aims to implement badge-based learning ecosystems as part of the MacArthur Foundation/ Collective Shift funded Cities of LRNG program. This foresight document “The Future of Learning in the Pittsburgh Region” from Knowledgeworks is a real eye opener, I assure you.
Many have said Mr. Kuhn is a wonderful person. I am certainly willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is why I tweeted him a few questions about this Google hangout peer learning program and what his funding priorities would be as an avowed “Future Ready” school superintendent. I was also curious about an infographic promoting “grit.” I am still waiting to hear back, because neither he, nor NPE, nor Diane Ravitch have acknowledged or replied to my tweets as of the time of this post. See: link, link, link, and link. If you would like to hear their responses, consider helping me out by retweeting. If I get an answer, I will be happy to post them here.
Kuhn says he wants equal opportunities for poor children. Ok, so if he were to switch places with the superintendent of the poor district described in the video, and the funding inequities were addressed, how exactly would he spend that money? All children deserve cruelty-free education. Having more money doesn’t guarantee the education being purchased is humane, especially if it is spent on devices that are designed to employ learning management systems, gamification, and big data to profile students based on their academic performance and behavioral compliance. See Kuhn’s opening remarks in this piece written for other school superintendents.
So, with whom do you stand Mr. Kuhn?
Carnegie or children?
Gates or teachers?
Pearson or Parents?
As a Future Ready signatory would you spend increased funding on literacy coaches, librarians, real books, foreign language teachers, and reduced class sizes for poor children? Or, with the Alliance for Excellent Education and their cloud-based partners looking over your shoulder, would you instead spend it on intelligent tutoring systems like Dreambox, Duolingo, online classes, and grit training? The NPE video tells part of your story. It’s the story people want to hear. But buried underneath is a murkier truth; one you share with fellow superintendents as you pitch “ethical” Big Data solutions for childhood poverty. In various articles Kuhn’s language aligns very closely with that of social impact investing-stay tuned, my instincts are pretty good.
I encourage education activists to please pay attention to what is NOT being said as much as what IS being said. That is an important skill. Sins of omission are sometimes hard to spot. Knowing the onslaught of online learning that Texas teachers are facing at this very moment, it is telling that Mr. Kuhn does not speak to that threat nor does NPE surface it. My concern about TASA and online learning in Texas goes back almost two years, details here. As many unthinkingly consume superficial content that tugs at the emotions but doesn’t promote organized resistance, urgent new threats are taking over classrooms one chromebook, one tablet, one headset at a time. This is not the time to sit disconnected, absently clicking “like.” We must build communities of resistance and begin to take direct action. I will close with a comment I shared on my personal Facebook page about this situation. It’s time to do the work folks. It’s well past time.
“Future Ready schools are the next privatization threat. I’m sure it is very hard for people who have embraced Mr. Kuhn and his message to accept that they have been manipulated. For people who really need a ray of light, having a shadow cast upon it seems unfair and a huge blow to teachers who have lost so much. I get it. But his adoption of this corporate agenda that will further data-driven profiling of children, particularly the most vulnerable among us, means he cannot be the role model we need. We need to acknowledge that and move forward. I am offering no apology nor looking for others to apologize for actions taken or not taken. There is work to be done. It’s time to organize and do the work. We know what has to be done, and that is unplugging kids, protecting them from predatory community partnerships looking to profit from their data and “fixing” them via evidence-based programs, and standing up for humanity. For goodness sake, isn’t it about time?”