Philadelphia’s Children Deserve Human Teachers Not Algorithms and Data-Mining

The following commentary was originally published February 12, 2018 by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to approve both technology resolutions at their February 14 meeting; details here. Numerous community members testified against the $19.5 million allocation for online learning and data; see video recorded by Kenneth Derstine of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools here.

“On February 15, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission will vote on two resolutions. One allocates $10 million for virtual classes and adaptive learning systems, while the other awards Pearson $9.5 million for cloud-based services that collect data and deliver educational content to students. Online curriculum is gradually replacing face-to-face instruction in schools, and it appears the SRC intends to cement this trend firmly in place before disbanding. For our underfunded district to devote these enormous sums to cyber education when so many other pressing needs remain unmet amounts to a hostile takeover.

Philadelphia has become a hub for educational technology development. Wharton-affiliated venture capital combined with research support from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and Temple fuels growth in this sector. Many ed-tech companies have positioned themselves as vehicles for social impact investments, which ImpactPHL promotes as a tactic to expand our regional “impact economy.” Digital education will greatly benefit telecommunications companies that build skyscrapers with tax abatements that undermine tax revenue for neighborhood schools. One such company recently sponsored a closed-door event where Chamber of Commerce members discussed the future of business in schools while public school parents, teachers and community members protested outside.

Digital education is a business. Children are the mechanisms through which economic value is extracted. Eric Schmidt, former board chair of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said data is the new oil. These resolutions make it clear the plan is to frack data from Philadelphia’s vulnerable public school students, the majority of whom are black and brown and live in poverty. It is a profit-taking enterprise that unites venture capital, higher education, and philanthropy.

If passed, these resolutions will push our schools towards automated education. No one consulted parents. We were not given the option to choose between teachers and online test-prep, because district officials knew we’d tell them that virtual courses and adaptive software are no substitute for face-to-face instruction. Data dashboards cannot replace the nuanced assessment human teachers provide. Even as “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) learning assistants are breathlessly promoted, parents know it is teachers that change children’s lives, not computer code.

Achieve 3000, iReady, and Lexia Learning will not empower children. Instead, they restrict learning to limited pathways using data-mining. Learning online is learning that is constantly monitored and surveilled. With a learning management system, the algorithm is in charge, not the teacher. In an era of leaks and security breaches, nothing about our children that is uploaded to the cloud can ever truly be “secure.” We know data is used to profile, algorithms are racially biased, and classroom devices collect vast amounts of personally identifiable information. Serious health concerns arise with increased screen time, especially for young children. These include vision impairment, concentration and behavioral problems, and Wi-Fi exposure. Plugged-in children can become isolated, disconnected, and destabilized. Digital products are harming children in their schools, places they should feel safe. When bridging the “digital divide” means hooking students up to corporate learning modules, it is a bridge too far.

Parents want money spent to reduce class sizes and restore librarians. We would make sure every child had access to school plays, choirs, foreign language instruction, sports, debate teams, and field trips before putting a dime into virtual classes. We want public funds spent bringing joy back to schools. Parents don’t want data-driven education. We don’t want our children treated as human capital. Our schools are not profit centers for predatory social impact data-mining ventures. The interests of students, teachers and parents must take precedence over for-profit interests as well as those of their non-profit partners. Local control of Philadelphia’s schools means nothing if corporations control classrooms through contracted ed-tech vendors. The voice of the people must come first.”



Philadelphia Education Fund’s Data-Driven Education Meeting: An Informational Picket at the United Way Building, February 1, 2018

On social media yesterday someone asked me what exactly I was doing to stop data-driven “personalized” ed-tech education, and I realized I hadn’t posted the video for the informational picket I set up outside the Philadelphia Education Fund’s February Education First Compact Meeting. Since the focus of the meeting was data, I decided to ask attendees to complete a survey that required some self reflection about their complicity in the ongoing defunding of Philadelphia’s public schools and how data-driven education was actually about profiting from the unpaid digital labor of students. I also included information about changes that had been made by the Philadelphia Education Fund to their event registration policy that allows them to screen people wanting to attend these meetings. If you’d like to print or adapt the survey for your own use you can download it here.

I also created a video summary of this action. Remember, you don’t need a lot of people to start an education campaign. Just one or two people who are willing to show up with materials and document the proceedings can be enough to get things rolling. The meeting took place at the United Way Building on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. It is important to know that the United Way is heavily involved in pushing data collection on children and promoting the use of social impact bonds to fund early childhood education and was a facilitator of the problematic Salt Lake City pre-k SIB. The gentleman from the United Way came out  that morning and took a photo of the banner seen in the image above about children not being impact investment opportunities.

This is a video summary of the action. Apologies for the poor camera work; it is challenging to hand out papers and hold the camera at the same time. I was grateful to have the support of my friend Barbara who spoke eloquently about the importance of fully-staffed and resourced libraries to authentic literacy education. Even though data-driven education proponents might like to push literacy as an “evidence-based” online app, we know reading books of one’s choice and discussing those books with educators and friends is truly what changes lives.

This is the survey we handed out to attendees.

PEF Survey 020118

This is a screen shot of the email describing the agenda of the meeting and the speakers.

Education First Compact 020118-1

Education First Compact 020118-2

This is a copy of the “voluntary” subscription page. You are only guaranteed access if you pay $100-$750 to become a subscriber. Kind of makes it hard to get excited about “local control,” doesn’t it? Especially given that the Mayor’s Office of Education is in favor of special meetings on education policy with “diverse stakeholders.”

Education First Compact 020118-3

Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Education Responds to Demands For Transparency

Last Monday, parents, teachers, and community members took to the streets outside the marble halls of Girard College to protest a closed-door event where representatives of the Mayor’s Office of Education, the Philadelphia Education Fund, and the Read by Fourth Campaign met with Chamber of Commerce affiliates about the future of business in Philadelphia’s schools. We handed out a sheet with five demands to the attendees on their way into the event and requested the Mayor’s Office of Education respond by February 9, 2018.

I share below the response we received with annotated comments. While I appreciate Mr. Hackney’s efforts to address the demands, I am left with a lack of clarity about the role private interests, corporations and non-profits, will play in shaping education policy going forward. We specifically asked the mayor to take a public stance against adaptive learning management systems for literacy and the use of Pay for Success or Social Impact Bonds to fund early childhood or K12 education and workforce development. The letter below endorses the former and says nothing about the latter, which is a serious concern. It supports the use of software in literacy but there is no mention of reduced class sizes, restoration of libraries with librarians, or reading specialists.

The letter also indicates an acceptance of closed door meetings whereby “feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders” is obtained. What stakeholders would need to meet with the mayor and his representatives in small groups outside the public eye? As we move to “local control,” that is a very important question. Will we have a version of “local control” that preferences “Big L” interests like Comcast over “little l” interests like regular parents and teachers? Who gets a seat at the table? Will community engagement drive policy development or remain an easily-dismissed charade as it was under the School Reform Commission?

For reference, these were the original demands:

1. No private “stakeholders” who have financial dealings with the Philadelphia public school system will sit on any policy boards or committees. The voices and needs of students, teachers, and parents must take precedence over those of private interests, including corporations and non-profit organizations.

2. No public official or employee of the school system or school board may be present at any closed-door meetings where public education business or policies are discussed. Public education policy and business will NOT be developed in any venue that restricts public access. All provisions of the open meeting laws will apply: nothing about us without us.

3. Philadelphia’s corporations and non-profits are obligated to pay their fair of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for the full public funding that is needed to make our neighborhood schools whole.

4. Establish a clear public commitment to early literacy by reducing class size, restoring school libraries with librarians, and providing reading specialists to all schools. Refuse technological solutions, like Waterford UPSTART, and adaptive online learning systems that isolate and data-mine children.

5. The City of Philadelphia must take a public stand against the use of social impact finance “solutions” including Pay for Success contracts and social impact bonds to fund early childhood education, K12 education and workforce development. Public schools should be funded with PUBLIC dollars, not philanthropy or venture capital.

This is the response that was offered:

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618-2

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618-3

In light of this letter, it is important to know that Comcast sent a bus of ed-tech, social impact investor conference attendees to the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences on February 7, 2018. Mayor Kenney was a featured speaker with David Cohen at the conference, which was billed as a Social Innovation Summit. This tweet indicates Cohen and Kenney participated in a morning discussion about “innovation” and the “future of work.” I wonder if any teachers, students or parents were included?

Social Innovation Summit 6


An informational picket was set up outside Feltonville that morning to welcome Comcast’s investor guests. Banners were laid out on icy sidewalks: “Teachers Before Tech,” “Children Are Not Data, Human Capital or Impact Investment Opportunities,” and “Public Schools NOT Private Profit.”

We handed out this flyer. To print a copy, use this Link.

Feltonville Flyer

A quick glance at some of the conference lanyards indicated the following were in attendance: a representative of the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City that is working with Ready Nation to promote the securitization of early childhood social impact bonds; venture capitalists from Landmark Ventures; and a person with the Lili’uokalani Trust serving poor indigenous Hawaiian youth.

Superintendent Hite was there as was Fran Newberg, Deputy Chief of the Office of Education Technology for the district. On April 10, 2018 she and Melanie Harris, Chief Information Officer, will be guest speakers at a “Day of Discussion on the Next Stage of School Transformation.” An email forwarded to me indicates the event will examine: “a new incursion of data from software, from the intersection of technology with redesigning the physical environment, and more. This event helps you make sense where it is all going.” Read the full event description from the email here.

It seems we are facing some challenges Philadelphia. We have a school district that desperately needs additional funding. Austerity doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. We have a mayor who is pretty cozy with Comcast, seems very interested in social impact investing and educational technology, and who might very well be inclined to fund our schools through “innovative” financial tools like pay for success and/or social impact bonds. We have education policy officials condoning special meetings with unspecified diverse stakeholders who seem open to “cross-sector” opportunities. To me this sounds an awful lot like public-private impact investing opportunities. If you haven’t yet, please spend some time with my video about social impact bonds. I have a feeling the information is going to be relevant very soon.

Philly Education Street Talk at the Eagles Super Bowl Celebration Parade

Given the outgoing School Reform Commission’s plans to vote to spend almost $20 million dollars next week on corporate computer-based curriculum and data management by Pearson, the celebratory Eagles Super Bowl parade seemed like a perfect time to go out and ask Philadelphians how they would use the money instead. It’s time we started listening to the voice of the people. It was a great experience that made me so appreciate the wonderful human connections that are possible in our city. If you want to build a movement, education is critical and it can happen many places, including the streets. After watching this video I encourage you to share it with others who value human teachers over data and algorithms. If you live in Philadelphia, please consider signing up to testify at the upcoming SRC meeting on February 15, 2018 4:30pm at 440 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19130. Everyone gets up to three minutes, but you have to register the day before by 4:30pm by calling 215-400-4180.

Choices: Part 7 of Building Sanctuary

Mak and Li meet twice a week. Talia brings produce from her container gardens, sketches, books, and articles in exchange. Some of the money Rex set aside to pay for therapy is instead used to cover replacement IoT tattoos. Li cannot enter the building with one but she needs to wear one to take part in her IoT education activities. The cost of replacements adds up, but Li seems to be making real progress so no one regrets the expense.

Grandpa Rex often comes along with Talia and the girls. It’s crowded in the apartment with all four of them there, and like many of his generation he appreciates being in the company of other people. He strikes up a friendship with Nan. They both spent their careers in the telecommunications industry, though with competing firms. They often reflect on the promise the Internet held before it was reigned in by corporate greed, and lately have taken to retreating to the basement lab for hours at a time.

Rex put some more of their nest egg into new equipment for the lab, and though the details are not openly discussed, most are aware that efforts are underway to test more technologically-advanced resistance strategies. As with Mackandal’s efforts to end slavery through poison, the cemetery contingent hopes to find a way to poison the computerized systems that hold their communities hostage.

They’ve been investigating the possibility of compromising the VR headsets with the goal of mobilizing warehoused citizens. Some of the off-liners at Maple Hill have relatives who are scraping out a miserable existence in the VR shipment terminals. Even with automation, some humans are still needed for quality control. If they can introduce a virus into enough units perhaps they can start a chain reaction that will shake those who have been plugged in out of their torpor.

Nan spends her mornings helping coordinate operations at Maple Hill. Everyone who lives there participates in tactical resistance, supply procurement, farm management, maintenance, care of children and elders, or some other communal task. It is difficult work. There is never enough food or shelter for the growing ranks of off-liners. Sanitation is a huge challenge, and with crowded conditions disease outbreaks regularly sweep the camp.

Even so, people continue to stream in. Life in the gig economy has become untenable, forcing more and more families into unmanageable debt and out of their homes. The VR industry has a hard time keeping up with demand, and many of the entry-level warehouses have wait lists. Joining an encampment is preferable to being alone on the streets with DARPA and Palantir’s drones and robot patrols.

Afternoons for Nan are devoted to the basement lab with the technologists, but she takes break every so often and decamps to a folding camp chair on the terrace, a basket of yarn at her side. Crocheting is meditative, and working with her hands helps her think through difficult problems. She taught Li the basics, and now Li can make a granny square on her own. Even Rex, always up for learning something new, is giving it a try. It takes about a week to make enough squares for a scarf, a month for afghan. These items provide warmth, but more than that as handmade gifts they symbolize communal care and are treasured by their recipients.

It may seem frivolous to undertake such projects, but in a world so out of control, creating something tangible and beautiful, one square at a time helps push back despair. The off-liners keep an eye out for worn sweaters they can unravel for yarn. At the Wheel House, mending and repurposing items that would have been tossed are valued skills. They embrace the sentiment of kintsugi, that there can be beauty in the repair of broken things. Life on the ledger has broken people in countless ways, so the idea that there is a possibility of repairing damage and moving forward is central to their collective hope for a better future.

Another regular at the Wheel House is Nan’s sister, Vi, whose area of expertise is traditional remedies and native plants. The domesticated lands of the city are now wild and overgrown. Few are inclined to maintain yards, and there is no money to keep up the parks. There is food and medicine for those who know where to look. Vi has created raised medicinal beds around the perimeter of the Wheel House that she uses to treat residents of the encampments. She eagerly shares her knowledge with anyone who expresses even a hint of interest, and often sends Talia home with bags of chamomile and mugwort to ease a troubled sleep.

Learning about these remedies has been fascinating for Cam, who has started to engage with science in a new way. She has latched onto the farm crew teens that come to the Wheel House to rehydrate. A welcoming group, they have invited her to join them whenever she can. Cam spends a couple of days each week learning the basics of soil science, seed saving and crop rotation, skills that were almost lost in the shift to indoor hydroponic IoT agriculture. These direct applications of science excite her in a way the labs in Skyward Skills cannot. Cam’s online studies have started to slip; it’s hard to focus on badges and modular learning when the real world is out there waiting. Perhaps Cam is more like Li than she cares to admit.

In the late afternoons, people gather to prep meals for the encampments. The Wheel House is midway between the Forest Park farm and Maple Hill, and since Mak has running water and a basic kitchen, much of the work is done there and finished on site. At least once a week, Talia’s family helps with a meal. Cam is proud to see the vegetables she tends shared this way, but it pains her that it’s impossible to make the produce go as far as it needs to.

At home they have to stretch their budget with rice and oatmeal and sandwiches, but the level of deprivation in the encampment is staggering. As a single parent Talia has a hard time making ends meet, but until now she sheltered Cam and Li from the harshest realities of life outside their sector. Seeing the off-liners first hand makes it difficult for Cam to maintain a striver mindset. Transporting food and water to sustain this growing community is taking a toll on the council of elders. Maple Hill is reaching its capacity, but it is hard to turn people away.

One of the newest members of camp arrived on stifling hot July day. A boy of about eleven wandered out of the woods and approached the farm crew. He didn’t speak at first, but after downing a bottle of water in the shade of a nearby tree they were able to find out his name was Nur and that he was alone. He was feverish, with an infected wound on his hand. He’d been expelled from the data-mines because of it and had nowhere to go. Cam was working that day and brought the boy to Vi, who prepared a poultice and found him a place to rest. Li, as usual, was eager to make a new friend, especially one her own age.

From then on, whenever the family came to camp, Li and Nur stuck close together. Nur is bright and a hard worker. Soon, the time comes to test some of the developments Nan and the others have been creating in the lab. There are two programs. One is intended to compromise the effectiveness of the virtual reality systems, while the other is designed to affect the integrity of DNA data storage. The council of elders approaches Nur to be their contact with the children in the data-mines, and he agrees even though the risks are great. For two months, the Wheel House lab technologists have coordinated with their contacts in the VR shipping terminals and the Data DNA mines to test the systemic poisons they’ve developed. These are targeted interventions, not wide scale yet, but preliminary results seem promising.

With fall approaching, the situation has become increasingly unstable. The size of the encampments makes them a threat to the authorities, and thus they are targets of escalating attacks. The Solutionists employ drone ammunition against the farmsteads, and food sources are dwindling. For Talia, the family’s participation in the Wheel House community has brought its own set of challenges. While they are in a better place mentally now than they have been in a long time, paid work is elusive, and Cam and Li have all but stopped participating in badged education opportunities.

There are hundreds of reminders sitting unread on their devices. An unannounced home visit from the sector’s administrative services unit has thrown the family into upheaval. Nur had been visiting the apartment at the time, and having an unaccounted for off-liner in their home, on top of other parenting infractions, means Cam and Li can be taken away from Talia and Grandpa Rex and placed in privatized care. As the visitor was leaving, he said he would be following up within the week.

Mak also receives bad news. His mother contacts him through private channels. The interventions the Wheel House technologists have been inserting in VR systems have been discovered and are being traced back to Queens. It is likely that agents of the Blockchain Collaborative are preparing a raid. Mak’s mother is furious that he would compromise her business interests in that way. Though she still loves him, and feels compelled to warn him, going forward she has decided to cut off all contact and financial support.

Nan and the council elders knew they needed to have a back up plan. It was unclear how long they would be able to hold on in the encampments, and now it seemed they would have to abandon the Wheel House and lab, too. They had carefully studied the Maroon societies of the American South, Caribbean, and Latin America, those who escaped enslavement and created resilient collectives in remote and inaccessible places. There were lessons to be learned from their resistance and survival.

In the years leading up to the lockdown, resistance camps had sprung up to counter petroleum pipelines as the industry gasped its final breaths. Indigenous communities had never lost touch with the land and were anchors of this movement. They sustained the core of the resistance in the years that followed. It was clear that as resistance grew in urban centers, those opposing the Solutionists would need to regroup beyond Smart City surveillance. Through her contacts, Nan had been in touch with a resistance camp in northern New Jersey that would welcome refugees from the encampments. Their ultimate goal would be for the group to make its way south, where larger communities of off-liners were coalescing in remote valleys of the Blue Ridge and the swamps of the Carolinas.

With a hurricane projected to hit coastal New York later that week, the elders feel it is the right time for them to begin that journey. Increased demands for power demanded by the ledger have resulted in countless jury-rigged systems of solar generators that mine Bitcoin dust and keep the systems going. Most of these installations have been dropped haphazardly on open surface lots and abandoned roadways. They would never survive gale force winds. After the storm passes, it will be several days before the Domain Awareness systems are entirely back online. That would provide a window of safe passage.

Nan puts out a call to the community, and they gather at Maple Hill for a briefing. Leaving Queens means that life, as they know it will never be the same, even for the off-liners. They will never be able to return. Leaving likely means a shortened life and tremendous hardship, but it is the only guarantee a person has of retaining free will in a world where one’s choices are fully controlled by the data stream. Not all will go in the first wave. Some members of the resistance choose to remain behind to maintain communication lines and monitor conditions on the ground. The rest will take the technologies they have developed out of New York in the hopes that they can establish a new lab and continue to grow the program.

Talia, Rex, Cam and Li have a weighty decision on their hands. For Talia, the writing is on the wall. It is unlikely that her gig employment prospects are ever going to improve, and their lifestyle will have to be supported by more and more data currency sales. Rex knows his years were counting down; but his health is still good and he’s up for the journey. The group will need the perspective of elders who knew pre-lockdown life, and he takes a lot of pride in the work he’s been doing in the lab. Of course he would also do anything to protect his daughter and granddaughters. Li, the family rebel, is eager, especially given that Nur will be leaving with Nan.

The wild card is Cam, who has long been a striver. She has a data dashboard that will likely provide with her if not a prosperous future, then at least one that will keep her out of the VR warehouse. But there is the threat that if she stays, she and Li will be pulled apart and separated from Talia and Grandpa Rex. The family won’t leave if they aren’t in total agreement. It is all or none.

No matter what, the future is fraught. To stay plugged into Solutionist society means navigating a world where she has to fight and compete to curate her life’s data, forever. Leaving means a shot at community and connection, but also the risk of physical hardship and uncertainty. That night Cam sleeps on her mugwort pillow. It is a night of dreams so vivid it is hard to believe they aren’t real. When the morning light comes through her window, she has clarity. Badges, Gold Coin, data be damned. She nudges her mom sleeping on the sofa and says, “It’s time to unplug.”


(PDF of the Full Story HERE)

Supplemental Links

Kintsugi: Link

Native Plants for Healing: Link and Link

IoT Agriculture: Link

Food Justice and Healing: Link and Link

Maroon Culture in the United States: Link

Pipeline Resistance Camps: Link

Solar Bitcoin Dust Miners: Link

$20 million for online learning in Philadelphia? Speak up now if you value human teachers.

It has come to my attention that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission plans to earmark nearly $20 million for contracts with online learning and data management companies to be spent over the next two years. The full resolution list is available here. Screenshots of resolutions A7 and B12 follow.

We are an underfunded district with a student body comprised primarily of students of color and students who live in poverty. Classes are crowded. Functioning school libraries are almost nonexistent. Building conditions are hazardous. Enrichments have been stripped from the curriculum, replaced by punitive test-prep programs. There are many ways $20 million could be spent to create safer learning environments for our children and support authentic education. Instead, the School Reform Commission seeks to enrich private interests by pushing Philadelphia’s vulnerable children onto online platforms that will mine their data and generate value for educational technology impact investors. See my research on impact investing in Philadelphia here.

If you live in Philadelphia and value education that happens in community, in relationship, in the space that is created between teachers and students learning together, please take a moment to contact me with a video or text comment expressing your opposition to these resolutions. Details can be found in the attached flyer. I am asking for submissions of video or text comments by February 12 so I can put something together before the meeting.

It would also be wonderful if local people could sign up to testify at the February 15, 2018 meeting which begins at 4:30pm at 440 N. Broad Street. You need to call 215-400-4180 the day before to register. Consider identifying a generalized topic for your testimony since they limit the number of people testifying on a specific issue.

Resolution A-7: $9.5+ million for an integrated data and instruction system.

SRC Pearson Contract 0218

SRC Pearson 0218-2

Resolution B-12: $10 million for online courses and adaptive instructional programs

SRC Adaptive Systems