Childhood Captured: Pay for Success and Surveillance Pre-K Play Tables

James Heckman and Robert Dugger, with support from philanthropies like the Pew Charitable Trusts and venture capitalists like JB Pritzker, have carefully honed a sales pitch for investment in early childhood education. After years of practice, it is now a well-oiled machine. The Heckman Equation promises high rates of return to investors willing to swallow the repugnant premise that through “evidence-based” programs, the character traits of at-risk toddlers will be “fixed.”

Heckman Equation

A new industry of social-emotional interventions is emerging that will supposedly assess, tweak and maximize a child’s human capital potential; set aside for a moment the fact that we’ve absolutely no idea what society’s human capital needs will actually be in the coming era of AI and automation. According to Heckman’s logic, once assessments indicate a child (likely a Title-One child) is not predicted to be a burden on society, their claims to future public services can be forfeited and diverted to “socially conscious” investors as profit. Should circumstances result in children needing public services as an adult? Too bad, that money will have long ago been channeled over to the coffers of Goldman Sachs.

Chicago Pre-K

Of course, this whole twisted plan is predicated on turning children, toddlers, into data; turning their behaviors into data; developing assessments to track those behaviors; and making predictions about their futures as workers. The entire market runs on data. It’s the data that makes it appear to be a legitimate enterprise. The data is the raw material that can be massaged to show “growth,” to justify a 13% annual rate of return. Clearly, they need a lot of data, and it needs to be acquired as cheaply as possible. But how best to capture it?

Hatch Classroom

A review of some of the products being offered by Hatch Early Learning provides a few clues about where the educational technology sector for pre-k is headed. Hatch is based in Winston-Salem, NC. Their technology division sells a range of pre-k classroom technology “solutions,” including iStartSmart. This product includes an adaptive tablet-based learning system for pre-k students as well as a teacher tablet that captures “documentation” on progress towards kindergarten readiness. They’ve partnered with Teaching Strategies, a national provider of early childhood curriculum. TS Gold is a mandated curriculum in the publicly funded preschools of many states including Colorado and California. It is a curriculum that turns the teacher into a data manager.

With this curriculum, teachers are required to spend significant amounts of time collecting and analyzing student data. The data-intensive nature of the curriculum compromises the delivery of authentic, age-appropriate learning and makes it increasingly hard to develop meaningful human relationships in preschool classrooms. Nevertheless, business and impact investment interests continue to double-down on data-driven, gamified instruction, because it extracts the “proof of impact” required to game the early-childhood “Pay for Success outcomes-based contract systems.

Using Hatchsync, pre-k students play online math and reading games, and documentation of their “progress” is sent in real time to the teacher’s data dashboard. Hatch’s website claims 45,000 children now play these online games at least 30 minutes per week with over two million iStartSmart gaming sessions logged. Imagine how those numbers will rise once “Pay for Success” money starts to flow.

Saving Teachers Time

Online games are an increasingly common way to capture cognitive data. But workforce leaders are now demanding information about the “soft skills” of children, too. They want to know about collaboration and cultural competencies. They want metrics on the Big 5 skills (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). Who’s a leader? Who will be a responsible follower? Who will work hard? Who has the most grit and resilience? They need to know how to slot children efficiently into an increasingly stratified workforce.

Play Well Together

While tablet based games are useful to track cognitive (academic) tasks, those pushing social-emotional learning investments require ever more sophisticated tools to capture behavioral data linked to group dynamics. Like, perhaps, a digital surveillance play table? The tech sector is hoping to convince parents and teachers that sand and water tables are obsolete now that twenty-first century data-mining and digital surveillance has become ubiquitous.

Hatch Smart Table

With the WePlaySmart table, children interact with a tabletop screen as a group activity. The digital platform captures data about their behaviors automatically. Hatch has patented a photo ID login that allows nonreaders to sign in and start to play immediately, and “just in time game instructions” enable unsupervised play. Instead of playing with actual toys, toddlers move virtual objects around on a two-dimensional surface. Not because this is a better approach to education, but because it facilitates data aggregation.

According to the Hatch website, the WePlaySmart multi-touch sensory table (for ages 36 months and up) is designed to promote “literacy and math skills and promote social-emotional and cognitive skills needed for academic success. The WePlaySmart Table helps teachers monitor social-emotional development over the course of a school year, capturing authentic video clips of strategic game play moments as children work together to complete fun activities.”



This two-minute video describes the capture of audio documentation tied to progress monitoring of four SEL categories: social competence skills, behavioral skills, emotional skills and executive function. Based on these recordings, which are organized under quarterly headings, children are assigned a number from one to five rating their progress in each area. It is not clear how this number is assigned. The video makes it seem it is NOT the teacher making the assessment. We do not know if this rating is coming from a machine learning algorithm or an off-site human evaluator.

Page 7 of their catalog talks about a built-in 190-degree fish-eye video lens that “captures and documents children’s progress in a more relaxed and inclusive environment. The video camera provides automated progress monitoring data and records children’s interactions as they play.” To me, the word “automated” makes it seem as though they are using machine learning to rate behaviors.

According to a video, recorded by Children’s Technology Review at the 2009 NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children Conference) a WeStartSmart table cost $8,000 at that time. Surely most family-run, neighborhood-based preschool programs won’t be able to afford such an expensive surveillance device. Nor would they be likely to install it. So will that mean those childcare providers will be cut off from accessing public funds for universal pre-k programs? Will “smart” tables and gamified instruction be the cost of admission for providers looking to take part in such programs. If you do not agree to track the behaviors of toddlers and offer up the data to “Pay for Success” evaluators, will you be excluded?

Hatch Table Monitoring

The promoters of this form of early childhood instruction are priming children in public pre-k programs, children who are predominately black and brown and come from economically distressed families, to accept constant surveillance in their social interactions with others. These children are being conditioned to accept that their lives are merely the sum total of the data they generate.

The use of Pay for Success contracting will further dehumanize instruction for our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable learners. Surely the behavior data will be used to identify a few outliers to be promoted for their grit and bootstrap mentality. They will be held up as exemplars in attaining the “American dream.” Meanwhile the toddlers who do not conform or who haven’t yet grasped the importance of conforming will be triaged by algorithm and redirected to  serve the system as human capital in the prison or military industrial complexes. The future of labor is uncertain, with Softbank’s robots waiting in the wings to take over more service-sector jobs (including education). There is an imperative to scale mass profiling and social control quickly, before things get out of hand. People need to be aware of what they are signing on for with Pay for Success. It’s very, very ugly, but ultimately also very, very American.

Pepper Robot


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