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.