Ted Dintersmith is not here to save neighborhood schools!

No, Ted Dintersmith is not coming to save our schools, because to him they’re obsolete. Last week Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post pitched Ted Dintersmith’s new book “What School Could Be,” and many ed-activists ate it up. I thought by now a “philanthropic” white male technocrat investor with absolutely no teaching experience coming on the scene to tell us how to fix our broken-on-purpose schools would be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Dintersmith might say what we want to hear. His pitch might validate our concerns about punitive high-stakes standardized testing and the psychological damage caused by developmentally inappropriate education standards. He may criticize AP classes and the College Board; but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Consider his quote from a recent EdSurge article “the focus should really be on funding schools that produce future entrepreneurial adults, instead of entrepreneurial adults today funding obsolete schools.”

Dintersmith’s is the face of Ed Reform 2.0. The new paradigm for education he envisions replacing our “obsolete” schools with is one where:

Competency or mastery-based education is the norm.

Skills are uploaded to online portfolios via apps.

Mindsets and habits of work are tracked.

Children teach one another.

Students are expected to be “in charge” of their learning.

Teachers become “mentors;” or are even replaced by volunteers.

Out of school internships are prioritized.

Instruction may be outsourced to community or work-based organizations.

Students are expected to have a passion and a pathway to the workforce.

With such a model, bricks and mortar schools and certified teachers could wither away and eventually disappear.

I had exchanges this week where I was told that everything in the Strauss piece sounded so good. It couldn’t be argued with, even though the person delivering the message hailed from one of the largest early-stage tech venture capital firms in the world. We should simply accept what he said at face value and be grateful that someone was saying it. I expect many teachers reading the article wanted to believe they would be the ones leading the project-based learning Dintersmith pitched; that one day they would be given back their autonomy and allowed to manage their classrooms again. If they had paused to consider the how the venture capital crowd is reimaging education, surely they would have seen realized those were unrealistic expectations. The Dintersmith version of “personalized” learning is about disempowering teachers. Those projects will happen “Out of School Time” and be run by cyber-education companies or gig-economy precarious labor in the learning ecosystems envisioned by Knowledgeworks.

Dintersmith knows good storytelling has the power to sway people’s opinions. He founded and funded the Catalyst Initiative with Sundance to match “forward-thinking financiers” with social justice film projects. He has the money to buy the best messaging. His first outing was “Most Likely To Succeed” a documentary screened nationally with the goal of initiating discussions about disruptive education. Many many ed-activists took the bait and screened the film not understanding it was a Trojan horse for Ed Reform 2.0. The blogger Edu-Shyster interviewed him at the time, and Diane Ravitch shared Berkshire’s post noting, “This is good news! A venture capitalist has seen the light.” At least one thoughtful commenter, Dienne, saw through the sham.

Dienne on Dintersmith

It is interesting that in her piece Strauss attempted to set up Dintersmith as a foil to Gates, a kind of “good philanthropist” “bad philanthropist” dynamic. In fact, they are both on the same team. Case in point: High Tech High, which was a focal point of Dintersmith’s film, is a charter school based in San Diego that was provided seed money in 2000 by the Gates Foundation to the tune of $9.3 million.

High Tech High Foundation Gates

A recent feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education ran the headline “A Venture Capitalist Uses Philanthropy to Reimagine Education,” while a Forbes article from last November proclaimed “How A Former VC Wants to Disrupt American Education.” Are you seeing the red flags now? Dintersmith made his fortune at Charles River Ventures, where he is listed as partner emeritus. The company invests in technology startups. A few are education-related, like Udacity, but more involve AI, robotics, cloud-based computing, biotech, and automation. You can review the company’s extensive holdings in Crunchbase. CSV’s Boston office is located at One Broadway in Cambridge, a stone’s throw from MIT’s Sloan School of Management where Jean Hammond, founder of the Learn Launch ed-tech accelerator, sits on the board. They also have offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto.

Charles River Ventures


Dintersmith likes to portray himself as just an average person who happens have the wherewithal to take two years off to tour, meeting with billionaires, politicians, teachers and students to reimagine public education. Though retired, he is cultivated as a thought leader in tech and innovation. The year he launched his film, Dintersmith met with Gates and Global Education Futures Forum affiliate Tom Vander Ark in Seattle to discuss impact investments in education.

The 2015 gathering, hosted by Vulcan Inc. included representatives from Digital Promise, the Clayton Christensen Institute, and Dreambox. Vulcan Inc. is the “engine behind Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen’s network of organizations and initiatives.” Mr. Allen has his hands in many enterprises. In addition to being an incubator for innovative technologies, the firm manages extensive real estate holdings, ownership of the Seattle Seahawks, and the Allen Brain Science Institute. A number of guests at the Vander Ark/Vulcan meet-up created videos to promote impact investing in education. This is Dintersmith’s clip.

Dintersmith Getting Smart 2015

That conference resulted in the 37-page report “25 Impact Opportunities in K12 U.S. Education.” It references Dintersmith’s film and can be read here. I have found no evidence that Charles River Ventures is directly involved in Pay for Success or Social Impact Bonds. They are, however, based in Cambridge, the epicenter of the innovative finance sector, and make investments in the types of technological “solutions” that will enable the data-collection and impact evaluation of outcomes-based contracts.

In November of 2015, Dintersmith was referenced in a White House press release detailing the launch of the Obama administration’s Next Generation High School initiative. The president’s call to action specified a more “personalized,” “real world” approach to learning that, of course, emphasized STEM. Dintersmith, along with Ed Reform 2.0 funders like the Nellie Mae, Grable, and Overdeck Foundations, teamed up with Hewlett Packard to create a MOOC that would promote a “deeper learning” approach to education to a thousand school leaders nationwide. Their “School ReTool” effort is housed within IDEO, a global design and innovation company focused on “social impact.” Among IDEO’s partners are the Gates, Rockefeller and Bezos Family Foundations. Richard Culatta, Director of Educational Technology under Obama, former Chief Innovation Office for the State of Rhode Island and now CEO of the International Society of Technology in Education, is currently a design resident for IDEO.

School Retool

In recent years Mr. Dintersmith has invested some of his fortune in Big Picture Learning, a school model where students pursue work-based placements for much of their school week. The organization based in Rhode Island launched in 1995, and with considerable support from the Gates Foundation expanded to a network of 65 schools operating in the United States, Canada, Belize, the Netherlands, Italy, New Zealand and Australia. Work-based internships are a key element of their program, and Dintersmith put $100,000 towards Big Picture’s capacity to share the ImBlaze internship coordinator and data collection platform app created by Salesforce with other education service providers. The platform tracks academic and social-emotional competencies students demonstrate on the job.ImBlaze Dintersmith

Dintersmith also financially backed the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a collective of private schools and non-profit groups that hopes to replace traditional transcripts based on graded academic content with mastery-based learning standards and micro-credentials. The plan is to leverage the reputation of elite private schools to fundamentally restructure the college admissions process for all high school students.

Dintersmith Big Picture

Members of the Mastery Transcript Consortium’s Advisory Council include:

Andrew Calkins of Next Generation Learning Challenges

Auditi Chakravarty of the College Board

Virgel Hammonds of Knowledgeworks

Emmi Harward of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools

Mark Milliron of Civitas Learning

Kaleb Rashad of High Tech High

Todd Rose of the Mind, Brain and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

David Ruff of the Great Schools Partnership

Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks

Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart

Connie Yowell of Collective Shift (Cities of LRNG, formerly of MacArthur Foundation)

Knowing the background of these individuals it seems clear they are laying the groundwork for a system along the lines of Edublocks described in Institute for the Future’s video “Learning is Earning.” This is a must-watch if you have not yet seen it.

Competency-based education is a means by which reformers and investors intend to move instruction outside schools, away from certified teachers, and into cloud-based platforms and community and work-based learning programs. It’s about making education subservient to the needs of industry. It will erode the centrality of the student-teacher relationship and cement public education as a profit-center for the technology and social impact investors. That is what Mr. Dintersmith is selling. While I appreciate many teachers want to believe the best about people, I need for you all to start to be more skeptical and militant in pushing back against this transformation. He is giving you a sugar-coated poison pill. They know how to play you, and they are doing it. Let’s turn this around, shall we?





Too big to map, but I tried.

I realize this is a very long post and not all that readable. I will try and break it down further in the near future, but for now consider it a work in progress; a way for me to gather a lot of divergent ideas, spheres of influence, and money trails in one place. The graphic above is my attempt to trace what is happening with Out of School Time learning where I live; how it relates to impact investing; how they are building the data infrastructure around it; and how that data will advance social impact investing in Philadelphia, a city of deep poverty. I am including selections from the map in this piece, but the interactive version can be accessed here.

On Wednesday March 14, members of the Philly OST (Out of School Time) Coalition presented a report prepared by Howard Tucker, President of Vision4EDU, on listening sessions conducted with community providers of Out of School Time youth services in our city. The event was held in the offices of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce on South Broad Street and was hosted by Salvatore Sandone, CEO of Zhang Sah Martial Arts, and Vince Litrenta, Founder of Sunrise at Philadelphia. The two men identified themselves as co-chairs of the initiative. Mr. Tucker’s firm conducted these listening sessions at branches of the Free Library system located in each City Council District between January 16 and February 13, 2018. The Philadelphia Foundation’s Fund for Children provided funding for the effort, as did the Public Health Management Corporation.

PhillyOST Meeting

The Philly OST effort is aligned with the operations of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Human Services, and the School District of Philadelphia. It is meant to be coordinated with ongoing work being done in the city around Pre-K, Community Schools, Read By Fourth and ReBuild.

PhillyOST Agencies

Beyond providing an overview of the listening sessions, the event organizers also discussed this work as providing a template for a “muscular” statewide advocacy effort to support expanded Out of School Time initiatives. The creation of this report, along with implementation of the PhillyBoost data system, was a major milestone they hoped would bring more people into the fold. There were references to the accomplishments that Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) and the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC) had made in early childhood education, and the plan was to do something similar for Out of School Time learning statewide.

The presenters anticipated that in the near future there would be eight or nine OST hubs across the state. The umbrella organization for OST is the Pennsylvania Statewide Afterschool Youth Development Network (PASYDN), established in 2004. PASYDN has a bi-cameral, bipartisan caucus that was set up in 2016 to support its work. Among its members are Senator Ryan Aument, a major supporter of cyber education and hybrid learning, and Senator Anthony Williams, a vocal advocate for charter schools and vouchers in Philadelphia. The network is housed within the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU).

PSAYDN Screen Shot

PSAYDN Caucus List


In 2013, CSIU helped the Pennsylvania Department of education prepare “Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning,” a report that provided a framework for implementing credit-flexibility and competency-based learning in the Commonwealth. With such policies in place, a significant amount of student instruction for credit could take place outside the walls of neighborhood schools. Out of School Time program providers, as well as online learning companies, will be well positioned to benefit from such a policy change. The National Governor’s Association, supporter of Common Core State Standards and a major player in Ed Reform 2.0, funded the study. These policies have not yet been put into place, but a Carnegie Foundation scan of credit-flexibility policies nationwide noted that in 2014 Pennsylvania wanted to “move away from the term credit to make room for non-traditional learning experiences (e.g. online and out of school time).”

PA Credit Flex Carnegie

I expect pressure for these flexibility measures will ramp up if elected officials manage to pass enabling legislation for Education Savings Accounts. While many education activists have framed ESAs as vouchers, they are actually considerably more dangerous. Instead of a single lump sum tuition payment, ESAs would allow payments to be made to multiple providers. This type of system aligns with the “credit-flex” model, one in which cyber-education providers and Out of School Time programs could offer a range of standards-aligned instructional opportunities. When Betsy DeVos spoke about funding students, not schools or districts in her recent interview for 60 Minutes, THAT is what she had in mind.

Rather than having families sign up with a single provider, they would have the capability to assemble a menu of experiences for their children. When you hear venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith, who made his fortune in tech, selling his new book “What Schools Could Be” and pitching project based learning as the antidote to toxic high-stakes testing culture, people need to recognize that the projects he’s talking about will ultimately be removed from schools. The interests he represents foresee a future of learning ecosystems where competency-aligned projects are run through maker spaces, libraries, apprenticeship programs, etc. Out of School Time providers are the leading edge in building these learning ecosystems. Knowledgeworks issued a new report on the future of wearables and augmented and virtual reality in education, taking things a step beyond what most people today can even imagine. In this brave new world, even the maker spaces may be virtualized.

Mentor Connect

I envision within the next five to seven years we will likely see a new educational model emerge that combines cyber instruction with a mix of “hands-on” “project-based” or “work-based” learning opportunities tied to workforce skill development. Ohio is already heading down this path with their hackable high school program. Funds siphoned into privatized education providers will decimate what remains of our struggling public schools, leading to more closures and possibly the dismantling of entire systems in under-funded districts like Philadelphia.

The teaching profession will be Uberized as outlined Knowledgeworks’ report “Exploring the Future Education Workforce: New Roles for an Expanding Learning Ecosystem.” Rather than teachers who have salaried jobs with benefits, most educational services will instead be rendered by “data stewards,” “micro-credential analysts,” and “pop-up reality producers” who must cobble together a living from an ad-hoc network of precarious employment opportunities. What is terribly sad is that during the Philly OST meeting, there was much talk of Out of School Time staff wanting to be treated as professionals and creating infrastructure to support that.

Knowledgeworks Future Workforce

I think most have no idea once they are done with teachers IN schools, reformers will be coming for OUT of School Time educators next. The data-driven accountability machine will consume everything in its path to achieve demonstrated impact for pay for success investors at the lowest cost possible. Lean production will alway be the priority. The strategic plan for Philly OST identifies a need to expand civic engagement around early literacy support. If you read between the lines it is clear that civic engagement means leveraging the use of volunteer labor to teach children to read, not the hiring of certified, trained literacy instructors. In fact, they are even setting impact metrics around civic engagement, which will make hitting those targets part of the overall impact investment framework.

Citizen Engagement Philly OST

I anticipate Education Savings Account funds will be placed in online student accounts where allotments can debited down over the course of a school year. The state of Arizona already has ESA debit cards. It is likely that performance measures will be built into the services delivered, and certainly there will be intensive data-collection on student performance for “accountability” purposes. I also foresee weighted funding could make our most vulnerable families susceptible to educational fraud, since accounts serving the poor, English Language learners and students with special needs will have the largest allocations. Weighted funding is now being promoted by the Thomas Fordham Institute, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, and iNACOL (International Association for K12 Online Learning.) All of them say that it is a crucial component in furthering educational choice.

Attendees at the Philly OST meeting were encouraged to attend a lobbying day in Harrisburg on May 2nd. Sal said that Philadelphia really needed to step up, because Pittsburgh was way ahead in terms of the robustness of their advocacy program. Remake Learning, an initiative supported by Knowledgeworks in Southwestern PA where the network is led by APOST, Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time. Last May I wrote about the lobbying the organization had been doing to pitch the services of OST providers in developing mastery-based “innovative” assessments allowed for under provision of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Philadelphia’s Out of School Time Coalition officially launched last February, when a plan for expanding after school opportunities was presented at the Franklin Institute by Mayor Kenney, City Managing Director Michael DeBerardinis, DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, and Superintendent Hite. During the previous five years, significant work had been done surveying after school opportunities and building a system-wide data architecture called PhillyBoost. The Philly OST website notes the importance of data to program delivery: “Reliable data is a central piece of afterschool systems building as it allows for collecting, analyzing and applying data to accomplish its goals.” Of course, such data analysis is also a lynchpin for social impact investing. The Wallace Foundation funded that work.

Philadelphia was one of nine cities chosen by the Wallace Foundation to participate in their “Next Generation Afterschool System-Building Initiative.” The initiative, which ran from 2013 to 2017, was carried out in partnership with the National League of Cities. Other participants included Louisville, Baltimore, Denver, Fort Worth, Grand Rapids, Jacksonville, Nashville, and St. Paul. Beyond expanding youth participation in afterschool activities, creating a data-driven focus to program delivery was clearly a priority. An interim report prepared by Chapin Hall, University of Chicago “Connecting the Dots: Data Use in Afterschool Programs,” noted the shift towards a “culture of data use” and growing interest in developing systems that could capture social emotional indicators as well as academic measures (see page viii). It is important to note that many of the funders of the Pennsylvania Statewide Afterschool Youth Development Network have also been putting considerable resources into organizations that promote digital learning and tracking of social emotional data (see the PSAYDN map above). The software selected for Philly Boost was created by Social Solutions, a company that specifically promoted its capacity to facilitate Pay for Success implementation. A screen shot of some of the data collected in its Efforts to Outcomes software platform can been seen in the screenshot below.

PhillyBoost ETO

In October 2010, the Wallace Foundation put out a knowledge brief calling for a new “systems-approach” to delivering out of school time programs for city kids, emphasizing the importance of data in making a case for program investments. The foundation noted their specific interest areas included: creating coordinated citywide systems of OST delivery; encouraging collection of data and adoption of ongoing assessment policies; re-imagining and expanding learning time; and using technology as a teaching tool.

The technology piece is consistent with discussions that took place among representatives of the US Department of Education, foundations, tech interests and venture capital that took place the following year in August 2011. A report (which has since been pulled from the US DOE website) entitled “Blended Learning Partnerships for Community-Based Organizations” describes a meeting of the minds in which OST providers were encouraged to get off the sidelines and jump into the “nascent blended learning revolution.” The working group included Google’s senior education evangelist, numerous executives from The Afterschool Corporation, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club of America, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (read about their predatory foray into AI literacy apps here), Afterschool Alliance, City Year, Motorola, TVTextbook, iNACOL (International Association for K12 Online Learning), City Capital, and Tom Vander Ark of Global Education Futures, Getting Smart and Learn Capital. The full list can see seen below.

Blended Learning Working Group Participants

Of course implementation of technological education platforms in Out of School Time settings reinforces the culture of data the Wallace Foundation seeks. It also provides a framework for Pay for Success financing of public programs. The Managing Director’s Office of the City of Philadelphia released its “OST Strategic Plan for 2018-2026” in November of 2016. Page seven of that document states the desire to increase private funding for OST programs and identified the Fund for the School District and the Philanthropy Network as potential partners. The Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia is a membership organization of over 140 institutions and corporations that together make over $500 million in philanthropic contributions in the greater Philadelphia area annually. This is their board:

Philanthropy Network Board

They helped plan “Capital for Communities,” an event sponsored by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve in November 2015. The event had then Mayor Michael Nutter and representatives of Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Living Cities, the Federal Reserve, and the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation come together to discuss innovative finance models, including Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds.

Capital for Communities

On May 8, 2015 Maari Porter, Executive Director of the Philanthropy Network, wrote to Traci Anderson in the Governor’s Budget Office to discuss how they might work together to advance Pay for Success finance in the state.

Philanthropy Network Pay for Success


Materials provided to meeting attendees include a page acknowledging nineteen organizations that were engaged in the process. Among these were:

AfterSchool Alliance: A national advocacy network for afterschool programs supported by foundations pursuing Pay for Success investment strategies. Their board is composed of high-level public policy figures, media and technology executives, and social impact investing leaders. One board member, Barry Ford, is COO of Council for a Strong America, a bipartisan group that promotes early childhood investment to achieve military readiness.

Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce: Promoter of the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (backdoor vouchers) and supporter of education as a workforce development pipeline. Recently held a closed-door meeting at Girard College exploring the role of business in educational in our city that excluded parents, teachers, and students.

PhillyBoost: A database and performance management software system for Out of School Time Activities in Philadelphia underwritten by a multi-year grant from the Wallace Foundation. The grant was issued in 2012, the same year that the first social impact bond was created in the US. Social Solutions, selected as the software provider, pitches the their Efforts to Outcomes system as being able to “maximize impact and attractiveness as potential investment opportunities” and be “specifically customizable for pay-for-success programs.”

The Free Library of Philadelphia: Recipient of a 2011 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to implement youth digital media Learning Labs and pilot skills-based badging programs.

The Salvation Army Great Philadelphia: Nationally, the organization has partnered with Comcast to promote Internet Essentials, a program to provide Internet services to low-income people for a reduced fee. Closing the digital divide for poor children is a touted benefit of the program.

It seems clear that Pennsylvania and Philadelphia are moving steadily towards a Pay for Success model of education finance. When I asked about it at the Philly OST meeting, Mr. Tucker seemed to blanch and after recovering from the shock of someone raising this issue said somewhat hesitantly, “Not yet.” The laudable goal of literacy is being used to advance a program of informal, out of school time learning and digital instruction that will deliver impact metrics at the expense of authentic education that is developmentally appropriate and acknowledges the humanity and agency of students and teachers. In putting together this enormous map, I am trying to resolve a situation I feel is akin to the blind men and the elephant. Many people involved in this machine see one small part of it. The part they see, might in fact look like it is a good thing. It is only once you step back and grasp the enormity of it that you can properly assess the situation.

I would love feedback on what I have presented thus far. Are you seeing this in your community? How do we tell this story in a way that make it comprehensible? If nothing else, I hope this post will be a useful point of reference for further investigation.



Additional Video Testimony from the March 12, 2018 Hearing on Early Childhood Education-Philadelphia City Council

In addition to the testimony I gave at today’s hearing, several other activists attended and shared their thoughts on humane education. Please hear what they had to say.

Lisa Haver, retired educator, reading testimony written by retired educator Karel Kilimnik, who was unable to attend.

Tomika Anglin, parent and community member

Catherine Blunt, retired principal and educator

Alison McDowell, public school parent

Humane Education Versus Educational Technology and Pay for Success: My Testimony to Philadelphia City Council

Today I offered public testimony at a special hearing discussing early literacy education and standards held by the Education Committee of Philadelphia City Council. Below is a recording of my testimony, followed by the written text I submitted for the record. In my introductory remarks I mention Econsult Solutions, a firm that has two affiliates who made it from the pool of hundreds of candidates to be considered for appointment to the new school board. Suzanne Biemuller, Senior Advisor, and Lee Huang, Senior Vice President,  were designated finalists, their names among the twenty-seven put forward for consideration by Mayor Kenney. I wrote about the firm’s ties to Pay for Success and Ready Nation here.

“In 1976 my third-grade class constructed a geodesic dome reading nook under the guidance of our teacher Mrs. Nevius. Inside, with books and carpet squares and flashlights, a bunch of eight year olds found magic. Wilder Elementary had a librarian who could place the perfect book in the hands of each and every child. We anxiously waited for Mrs. Nevius to take out her bookmark to read the next chapter of The Cay or Island of the Blue Dolphins aloud to us. Those were formative experiences for me. I am now the parent of a Philadelphia student and have witnessed a relentless campaign to steal this magic from our schools. Today, I welcome the opportunity to consider what humane education looks like and how we can support it.

  • reduce class sizes
  • hire certified reading specialists
  • make sure every school has a library with a certified librarian
  • shower children with books that are culturally relevant
  • build a teaching force that reflects our student body
  • choose teacher-led professional development over disruptive consultants
  • give children time to think, to discuss, to reflect, to challenge and to question

Many students, including pre-k and kindergarteners, are instead being logged into software programs designed to harvest personal data. Rather than age-appropriate, play-based learning, they are being put in front of screens. Increased screen time leads to social isolation and creates angry, depressed children. Instead of developing healthy relationships through quality time with teachers and peers, they are having their education shaped by algorithms and computer code.

They may not have libraries, but they do have unique IDs that track their every move online. Children have no idea their data is fed into predictive analytics systems; that their unpaid digital labor creates value for ed-tech investors. There is no guarantee their data will be protected from hacks or leaks. No one can be sure it won’t be used to profile them in ways that limit their future opportunities rather than open doors.

The most powerful companies in the world are cloud-based computing companies that have an interest in pushing education online. Venture capital and philanthropies are helping to facilitate this transformation through social impact investments. In the name of “evidence-based” policy, there is a now a bipartisan push to embrace “innovative” finance schemes that use private money to fund social programs, including pre-k and early literacy.

The “Pay for Success” model requires a lot of data to prove that programs “work.” Not coincidentally, this is what education software systems promise to deliver. Remember the housing market crash of 2008 when bundled mortgages were turned into vehicles for financial speculation? There are powerful global interests who want to do it again using the debt associated with pre-k and literacy program investments. The next “Big Short” could very well be our nation’s education system, gambling not on homes but on children’s lives. Philadelphia’s youth must learn to be independent, creative, courageous thinkers. No software system is going to teach them that. When allocating resources for education, invest in people first. That’s where the magic is. Approach big data with caution. It can be weaponized against children and the common good.”

These are the three pages I shared with Council members that support my concerns about securitizing debt associated with pre-k and early literacy social impact bonds and Pay for Success contracts. I encourage you to explore the website created for the Ready Nation Global Business Summit on Early Childhood. It’s eye-opening.

Additional testimony from Lisa Haver (for Karel Kilimnik), Tomika Anglin, and Catherine Blunt here.

Kauffman ReadyNation SIB 1

Kauffman ReadyNation SIB 2

Global Business Summit

Will Econsult Solutions be a foot in the door for early childhood “Pay for Success” in Philadelphia?

My friends at the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools have done commendable work researching the slate of candidates initially selected by the nominating panel to be considered for the mayoral-appointed Philadelphia School Board. Reading through their first installment, I noticed that two of the twenty-seven have ties to Econsult Solutions. Suzanne Biemuller is a Senior Policy Advisor and Lee Huang is a Senior Vice President. The name rang a bell, so I decided to do a little more digging.

It is a large economic consulting firm that does business with private and government interests from the Philadelphia region and farther afield. Their extensive client list includes the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as philanthropies like the MacArthur Foundation, known for promoting digital learning, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, known for promoting Pay for Success, and the William Penn Foundation, known for hiring Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia schools and recent initiatives to promote out-of-school time, informal learning initiatives.

One of Econsult Solution’s four areas of practice is public policy and finance. Philip Peterson, a former actuary who now acts as an expert in the use of Pay for Success finance in early childhood education, became an advisor to the firm last September. Peterson’s LinkedIn profile states that he manages KidSucceed LLC, a firm he founded in July 2016 with addresses in Marlton, NJ and Manchester, VT.


His company provides services similar to those offered by Econsult Solutions, advising on the use of Pay for Success for homelessness and healthcare in addition to early childhood services. This six-minute video features a Q & A on Pay for Success that Peterson did with the National Conference of State Legislatures in August 2016.

Between 2014 and 2016 Peterson worked as Deputy Director for ReadyNation, an organization that promotes adoption of this “innovative” approach to pubic finance. It embodies Third Way privatization, employing private capital to fund public services while demanding that specific measures of success be met. Demonstrating “success” requires collection of copious data, which is most efficiently gathered by pushing service delivery onto digital platforms. Cue the ed-tech impact investors.

ReadyNation is an organization under the umbrella of Council for a Strong America, a coalition of leaders representing military, law enforcement, religious, business, and athletic national interests. It emerged from work initiated by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Biemuller’s former employer. ReadyNation and the Council for a Strong America promote investment in early childhood for the purposes of ensuring children are workforce and military ready. According to his profile from the Institute for New Economic Thinking website, Robert Dugger is a hedge fund manager who co-founded ReadyNation and seeks to build business coalitions to support “high-return investment spending in children prenatal to age five.” There is a lot of money to be made from children living in poverty if you know how to structure it properly. Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds provide the fiscal policy infrastructure that enables poverty mining.

As Pew wound down their involvement in 2011, ReadyNation went public. That was the year before the concept of social impact bonds was brought over from the UK and piloted at Rikers Island. The following year Dugger, who maintains a close working relationship with University of Chicago human capital researcher Dr. James Heckman, teamed up with the Kauffmann Foundation as the “Kaufmann-ReadyNation Working Group on Early Childhood Finance Innovation” to prepare a progress report entitled “Social Impact “Pay for Success” Finance: A PKSE Bond Example.” Page six of the report boldly states their intention to securitize debt associated with early childhood social impact bonds enabling them to be 1) bought by for-profit and non-profit investors; 2) traded among investors worldwide; and 3) be aggregated into asset-backed securities.

Kauffman ReadyNation SIB 1

Kauffman ReadyNation SIB 2

If you’re not familiar with the dangers of securitized debt, I recommend watching the film The Big Short about the 2008 housing crash. Imagine what they did to mortgages, but next time the vehicle for financial speculation could very well be student education data. I should note that a representative of the Kauffman Foundation was among the Social Innovations conference attendees who participated in a bus tour Comcast brought to Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in February. You can read more about that excursion here.

Without question, there is serious money on the table. This is not just about early childhood and early literacy being transformed into investment markets for impact investors in the United States. No, this is a global market. On November 1st, hundreds of business people from around the world will gather at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City to plot their strategies to reap profit from children at the 2018 ReadyNation Global Business Summit on Early Childhood. The agenda includes: brain science and economics; corporate leaders in social innovation; effective business-led advocacy; and taking successful programs to scale. What is especially notable is that while the speaker list includes people representing the World Bank, the Federal Reserve, the Marine Corps, chemical companies, venture capital interests, figure skating, churches and even coin laundry operators, there are no early childhood educators. To attend this conference one must request to be approved, and those who are “children’s advocates” or “policy experts” can only attend “with a pre-approved team of at least four business people.”

Global Business Summit

While attracting investors like Goldman Sachs, the metrics demanded by the Pay for Success model have led many to call into question whether or not this approach is actually good for children. See this article in the New York Times and this one in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. There are many ways to define the metrics and deploy screening tools to game the system, just as with charter schools. Additionally, the focus on measurable outcomes is pushing data-driven service delivery via ed-tech platforms. The growing number of early childhood literacy apps coming to market in recent years is surely related to anticipated expansion of this finance model.

Waterford Upstart online preschool, pioneered in Utah and currently being used with refugee families in Philadelphia, is an example of the type of software literacy program designed to harvest data to prove the “impact” required for investors to obtain their profit. Programs like Upstart are promoted as a cheap way to achieve “literacy;” but at what cost to children? If you are not familiar with Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds and their ties to technology and Big Data, please watch the video in this post and explore some of the supporting materials.

Philadelphia City Council’s Education Committee will hold a public hearing on Monday March 12, 2018 at 1pm in Council Chambers to “discuss how we can better implement educational standards in the early childhood years from Pre-K to 3rd grades to prepare our children for success later in life.” You can read the resolution here.

Is this setting the stage for early childhood and early literacy Pay for Success programs that will usher in expanded technology purchases and data mining? Will Econsult Solutions get a foot in the door with an appointed representative to our new School Board? Will Mr. Peterson perhaps be there on Monday pitching his “innovative” approach to standards-based education funding? Will we be going down the road paved by Salt Lake City and Chicago? Or will Philadelphia strike out in a different direction and instead choose to invest pubic funds to support human relationships that nurture children in ways that cannot be put on a rate card, generate data points, and or enrich Goldman Sachs? Stay tuned.

Student-Teacher Relationships Are Central to Authentic Education

Today I share a guest post from an elementary school teacher in Maine, a state in the vanguard of Ed Reform 2.0 implementation. Unless changes are made, this year’s freshmen are expected to graduate under the state’s new proficiency-based diploma requirements. In recent months, push-back against this new educational paradigm has grown substantially. Parents, teachers and students are finding standards-based education, a model that emphasizes technology-based education delivery, highly problematic. Here is one teacher’s perspective:

“I love technology. I love it so much that I got my Masters in educational technology through Boise State University in Idaho. Through this program I learned to teach online, gamify my curriculum, personalize learning, use countless technology tools, and promote digital literacy in the classroom.

When I switched to a school district that had one to one technology for my students, I was over the moon! That was until I actually saw it implemented on a large scale. What I saw was not more engaged students, but students clicking through activities without a moment’s notice or even thought. What I found were kids wanting tablets, but not wanting to learn on them; they just wanted to play on the devices.

So I tried to implement activities that would get them really thinking and creating. We made PowToons for our learning. We used educreations to show our thinking. We used Google docs to share writing. Most of what we tried did not enhance learning one bit. Sure, it looked cool and professional, but my students could present a wonderful powerpoint and not even be able to answer questions about what they presented.

In addition, I had to sift through hundreds of different websites, tech tools, and resources to see what would be the best to use in my classroom. I found very little that was better than what I had been using in the classroom before technology. I was disheartened to discover that this was not the silver bullet I thought it was for education. The funny thing is that I thought technology would save me so much time. It really hasn’t, except for a few instances where I don’t have to grade spelling tests; and the apps that I use for spelling do not promote better spellers.

Unless you think I am now anti-technology, I am not. I use technology every day both personally and professionally. I appreciate how it connects me with some of my family far away. I love how I can create products only imagined before, like an iMovie. I love the ease of a word processor and platforms to collaborate and share my writing with others. I also love having my students use the technology for many of the things listed above, but now I know they need so much more than a flashy program for learning. They need me. They need my instruction. They need to discuss face to face with myself and their peers. They need to struggle through problems, with me encouraging them to press on and knowing when to come alongside them and help, but not enable. They need human accountability.

There is a movement in our country to transition students into more digital learning. I could go on about why this is all happening, but others have done that work for me (see Save Maine Schools and Wrench in the Gears). In the end, it will boil down to fewer teachers and more screen time for even our youngest learners. Kids will adapt and learn to click through the system like Pavlovian subjects. We will probably have “experts” claiming increased performance on their very narrow metrics.

What I see in my own school district is not better learning but more behavior. As we push kids beyond what they are capable of understanding, and think that “personalized learning” through technology will be the answer, we are sorely misinformed. Technology has its place in the classroom, but it should never replace what has made education great for hundreds of years-teachers.”

Signed, An Elementary School Teacher in Maine