Don’t Let Impact Investors Capture The Non-Profit, Activist Media!

I wrote last week about Sir Ronald Cohen’s assertion that the non-profit sector MUST be restructured and centralized in service of social impact investment markets. The elite demand this transformation, one that will ease the flow of performance data and venture philanthropy capital at scale. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this shift is poised to fundamentally remake education, and many other public service sectors. However it had not occurred to me, until a few days ago, that the reach of global impact markets would extend to the realm of media, communications, and documentary film.

In an impact investment scenario, media messaging must ultimately advance the interests of funders. Funders will pay content providers for desired behavior change. Narratives will be weaponized not only as propaganda, but as profit centers via innovative financial instruments like impact securities. Articles, tweets, comments, video clips, feature films, online games, even virtual simulations will be coordinated to achieve (or impede) social change. Powerful investors will use their largesse to compel digital media influencers to deliver (or withhold) votes, catalyze (or suppress) protest, and deliver (or derail) accountability to the public.

Source for infographic below here.

Impact Assessment Gauge

As the print model of journalism crumbled, new media paradigms emerged, creating opportunity and peril. Communication outlets today are increasingly structured as non-profits, which comes with a whole host of issues. The grants that support the work being done are de facto extensions of corporate and state power (the operations of WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate, currently underwritten by the Department of Homeland Security being but one example). It comes as no surprise that impact finance would wade into this arena, but the implications of such a move are grave indeed.

This month the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism announced the creation of a $20 million fund to promote “innovative” journalism for the digital age focused on metropolitan areas with profound challenges.  They’ve invited other philanthropists and corporations to pitch in, too. More here. Resources will be devoted to “change management training” around data-analytics, audience engagement, and product development. Philadelphia will be a focus area, because they are already working with a dozen newsrooms and institutions of higher education. The Knight Foundation press release notes the initiative is intended to “help news organizations accelerate their shift to digital delivery.” Remember, data is the new oil.

I sense the non-profit media is being positioned to advance the message that the answer to our entrenched poverty problem is venture philanthropy and data-driven, outcomes-based finance. The amount of money being poured into this effort indicates just how much profit financiers anticipate extracting from the misery of the poor in the years to come. They and the telecommunications industry aim to create a secondary impact investing market by hijacking activist media to SELL the broader poverty-mining impact investing agenda, a truly macabre example of vertical integration.

Tribune Lenfest

The image above was taken from an article in the Philadelphia Tribune, read it here.

Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) appears to be a hub of “impact” journalism activity. Headquartered in New York and funded by many of the most powerful philanthropic institutions in the world, it was launched in 2013 (a year after social impact bonds were imported here from the UK). SJN promotes coverage of social issues with a focus on evidence-based solutions. Link to interactive version of the map below here.

Solutions Journalism Network Supporters

SJN’s website states over 10,000 journalists have gone through their trainings; their curriculum is being used in 17 schools of journalism; they’ve collaborated with 148 newsrooms on projects; and are operating in nine communities including: New York, NY; Washington, DC; Los Angeles, CA; San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Paris, France; Kampala, Uganda; and Manila, Philippines. In Philadelphia their influence extends through a new venture called Resolve Philadelphia, an SJN spin off focusing on issues of poverty and re-entry of people who have formerly been incarcerated (both major impact investment sectors).

I don’t think it’s coincidental that Solutions Journalism Network launched the same year the Gates and Knight Foundations partnered with the Annenberg School of Communications at USC on the “Media Impact Project.” That grant was to “help media organizations, journalists, and social change-makers expand their use of storytelling through data and impact measurement.” The plan was to use the $3.25 million to “develop metrics that are more robust than TV ratings, page views, retweets and the like to determine how media influences people’s awareness and actions.”

A 2015 article by Anya Schiffrin and Ethan Zuckerman for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Can We Measure Media Impact? Surveying the Field” discusses efforts to devise metrics for media impact grounded in social change rather than advertising reach. Those working in this area include not only the Gates and Knight Foundations, but also the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and the Pew Center. Tools like Media Cloud, a collaboration between scientists and MIT and Harvard, are being developed to track digital engagement with content and ideas across the internet. The funders of this platform (Gates, Ford, MacArthur, Johnson, Open Society) are the same individuals funding the impact investment agenda.

Media Cloud

The implications of these developments are chilling. Media is changing, becoming more online than offline, more visual than text. Surveillance and predictive analytics are built into everything. We are inundated with information processed by opaque algorithms. Few people are aware of the sophisticated ways our emotional engagement with online content can now be analyzed. If you haven’t checked out Affectiva, you should. The way content creators and investors can track media consumption and engagement with digital platforms, correlating it to offline behavior in the burgeoning world of augmented reality and the Internet of Things, is unnerving. Media streams, including playlist education, can be intentionally or unintentionally curated to create feedback loops that lead people to certain ways of thinking. As I’ve processed my understanding of the intersections between impact investing and digital media over the past few days, I’ll admit to feeling more and more unsettled.


The media has always served as a mechanism of social control; see Noam Chomsky’s “10 Strategies of Manipulation.” Those at the upper echelons of empire understand the power of compelling stories, which is why they fund their own documentary film initiatives and pay for research on weaponized narrative. If media can be tied to outcomes-based funding streams, then content producers can be compelled to deliver “results” to private investors. So what will those results be? Who gets to decide? Whose interests are advanced? Do they seek behavior change? Political action? Cultural shifts? Are we looking at a future where we have propaganda not only as an end in itself, but also as a “social impact” profit center? Source for image below here.USC Media Impact Project

I came to write this post because of an invitation I received to attend “Media, Movements, and The City” on September 28, 2018. I was a guest of Cheri Honkala, founder of the Poor People’s Economic and Human Rights Campaign and one of the most vocal advocates for the un-housed in our city. Listen to her brief message; it distills our next steps pretty clearly.

Attendees came from a variety of media outlets and academic, philanthropic, and cultural institutions. There was also at least one company represented, whose focus is open data with a bit of predictive policing software on the side. The event was not open to the general public and was not a gathering of “the people” so much as a gathering of people who see their role as sharing stories of “the people.” It was sponsored by Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Jefferson University, and Rutgers University.

See map below-the large purple dots are sponsors. Click here for interactive version.

Media Movement and the City Sponsors

Agenda (note the wifi signal above the fist, it’s always about the data): IMG_2368


When I was preparing the event sponsor relationship map, I saw a number of the facilitators were connected with the Media, Inequality and Change Center, a program of Penn’s Annenberg School and the School of Communications and Information at Rutgers University. In addition to sponsoring the September 28 event for the “non-profit media,” the program is also working on a very different event, “The Media Future Summit,” scheduled for November 8, 2018. That exclusive one-day gathering convened by Bob Garfield, a fellow in the Wharton Future of Advertising Program, is by non-transferable invitation and comes with a hefty price tag of $3,000. Attendees get access to C-Suite decision makers shaping the future of corporate media not only for the day, but it grants access to their exclusive club. This summit is intended to be a day of common cause that can be “marshaled only at the highest levels of ownership and management.”Media Future Summit

A tale of two conferences: in the first, regular folks enjoy collegial conversations over coffee and construction paper charrettes (see my activism memory below). There are discussions about creating a collaborative “ecology” around activism and generalized next steps. No mention of tough topics like planned change management, impact metrics or data analytics, or philanthro-capitalism. No, it’s all pretty superficial stuff. Now picture a second conference, one where executives in expensive suits are seated around banquet tables engaged in high-powered discussions around Blockchain micro-payments and monetizing the attention economy. Two sides of the same coin-or perhaps crypto-token. We both have power, but the nature of our power is very different.


My collage activism memory blogged here.

I discovered this other conference when I was creating the relationship map of the event sponsors, which leads me to wonder if it was on the radar of other attendees? It would be interesting to know how non-profit media factors into the program of the “Media Future Summit.” It seems likely it would merit at least some mention given recent developments around the Lenfest/Knight initiative.

Do these executives view non-profit activists as pawns in their games of message manipulation and social impact schemes? The Media, Inequality and Change Center states they’re “committed to studying the political economy of social problems, media and democracy, while engaging local activist projects and drawing connections with national and international social movements.” But it doesn’t clearly state whose interests are being advanced. Perhaps Annenberg is trying to play both sides (non-profits and corporate) in the hopes no one notices or draws attention to the dissonance conjured up by the screenshot below.

MIC Future of Media

It felt incongruent to be talking about movement building in an expansive oak-paneled reception hall of leaded glass windows, waxed flagstone floors, and limestone fireplaces. The last time I’d been in that space was under very different circumstances with North Philadelphia activists Jackie Wiggins and Ruth Birchett as they led Stadium Stompers in a vigorous challenge to the plans of Temple’s trustees to construct a football stadium in their community.

I went into the September 28 gathering as an independent researcher and blogger who has taken up the cause of tracking down and exposing the impact investment machine in Philadelphia (see the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s 2016 whitepaper on growing our “impact economy”). I take no money, seek no rewards, and don’t join groups. It’s not that I want to be a loner, but at this time we need independent people who can show up and ask the provocative questions those angling for their next grant or seat at the table cannot.

I came with handouts and an invitation for people interested in doing research and creating media about poverty in Philadelphia that is unplugged from philanthropic and corporate influence to join me at Bartram’s Garden on November 10 from 11am-1pm to brainstorm possibilities. I consider myself a strong addition to the research arm of this initiative, but it is imperative we link research to on-the-ground struggles that uplift the perspectives of those targeted by impact predators. We need to create offline spaces where we can nurture strategies to confront this technocratic force. I hope this can be a step in that direction.


We are living through a time when humanity is under dire threat. The bio-capitalist machine that is Blockchain identity impact investing is almost ready for prime time. People in the room on the 28th are aware of such plans. This is not some distant threat. Our situation will not be meaningfully improved through incremental change, tweaked around the edges. Massive mobilizations and coordinated offline strategies are required to mount a credible challenge. Fin-tech wants to turn our lives into data for dangerous speculation, and we need our nimble activist media to stay out of the impact investment net. Winning efforts will not emerge from sanctioned gatherings in spaces like Mitten Hall. Academia has too much to lose, so it is not surprising that those interests prefer to get out in front, take the reins and attempt to establish terms of engagement.

The change we need won’t happen there. The true resistance will rise up in spaces like the one below, where the linoleum tile and the visage of Dr. King set the tone. Our imagination and belief in truth and justice will take us beyond the limiting confines of monopoly capital. I believe in the capacity of Philadelphians to rise to meet this challenge, tell our stories, and devise solutions the people deserve. Join us November 10th, and email your RSVP so I can be sure to have enough sandwiches on hand. If you can make it drop a line by November 6 to


Saying No To Naviance: Active Non-Cooperation Is The Best Form of Resistance

John Trudell espoused a policy of non-cooperation. To his way of thinking, when confronted by oppression, it is our responsibility look for ways to gum up the system. This week my wrench-throwing target was Naviance, a subsidiary of Hobsons, a company that promotes itself as a college and career readiness solution.

The Philadelphia School District entered into a five-year, $1.5 million contract with Naviance in 2015. The William Penn Foundation and the Philadelphia School Partnership, both proponents of school privatization, pitched in with $750,000 to cover half the cost. An article from Inside Philanthropy stated the software is “essentially, a high school guidance counselor in a website form.”

It is a program that seeks to replace human interaction with digital ones, which is bad enough, but the company also builds its bottom line collecting data mined from students’ tender, just-forming identities starting as early as middle school. The software deploys intrusive surveys and “strengths assessments” to develop robust profiles used to track kids into career pathways.

Naviance Strengths

I would have fared poorly in such a system. I was a humanities-loving art history student, who took up a graduate degree in historic preservation with a focus on cultural landscapes. Over time, and with the guidance of friends who helped me open my eyes and look hard at the world, I developed an analysis that led me to become a radical researcher intent on exposing purveyors of predatory digital disruption.

Of course the point of Naviance is to preemptively erase people like me. It won’t do for scrappy, critically thinking, non-cooperators to remain on the board when gameplay begins. The “college and career readiness” enforcers expect everyone to passively accept their assigned slot; to be grateful to even have a slot; so grateful they won’t risk imagining another future or challenging the status quo to create an alternate reality. Which is exactly why our family refused to allow our high-school daughter to create a Naviance account two years ago. Parents in other states are doing the same.

But now, as a senior, she had to figure out how to get transcripts to apply to college. In a growing number of school districts Naviance holds families hostage. If they refuse to set up an account and complete all the surveys their children cannot graduate, request letters of recommendation, or have transcripts sent. Naviance, a private company whose profits are manufactured from the student data they collect, is becoming a gatekeeper to college admission. Plus, our district paid them $750,000 (plus the $750,000) for the privilege! Below is a comment on a recent blog post to that effect.

Naviance Threat

After several email exchanges with school district officials and a productive meeting with our daughter’s lovely human (not web-form) guidance counselor, we came up with a plan to do the application process sans-Naviance. We’d do it the old-fashioned way with embossed seals, paper copies, signatures across envelopes and snail-mail postage. Sure, she’ll have to pull her submissions together a bit sooner to give us a buffer in case something gets lost along the way, but in exchange we’ll enjoy the peace of mind knowing her “strengths” remain beyond the reach of Hobson’s predictive analytics.

Below are two emails I sent to the Chief Information Officer of our district with Superintendent Hite copied, as well as the Head of Student Support Services. It explains our thinking and affirms the stance we took was not just for ourselves, but to keep the door open for others who desire to pursue the same course.

If you can opt out of Naviance at Masterman, you should be able to opt out of Naviance anywhere in the School District of Philadelphia and be supported in your decision to do so. Support your school’s guidance counselor. Opt out and demand funds used to pay these data-mining companies instead be used to reduce counselors’ caseloads and free them up to spend more quality time with their students.

Naviance William Penn Foundation

Our Concerns About Naviance

Email dated September 20, 2018

Dear XXXX,

I think you were looped in later, so I wanted to make it clear to all involved that our desire to opt out of the Naviance platform is grounded in concern over:

1) use of student data to create profit streams for private companies

2) use of data to generate profiles of students that may in fact cause them harm, especially given its use of surveys and strengths assessments

3) outsourcing student services to private companies when public funds would be better spent expanding access to HUMAN counselors in our schools

4) Naviance, a private company, becoming a de facto gatekeeper for access to post-secondary opportunities

See the excerpt from a market report for Hobson from 2013.

“Hobson is also developing a third business line – data and analytics – which focuses on this data, much of it proprietary, that flows through its solutions at both K-12 and HE (higher education). The recent acquisition of National Transcript Center (NTC) from Pearson enables Hobson to capture data along the student lifecycle by facilitating e-transcript exchanges…The company’s acquisition of Beat the GMAT in October 2012, together with its College Confidential business, also supports Hobson’s strategy in creating communities with strong underlying data, which has a value to HE institutions and CAN BE MONETIZED.”

Most people don’t take the time to dig into the corporate underpinnings of the online platforms their children are supposed to use, but in this case it does merit serious consideration. Naviance is owned by Hobson, a division of the Daily Mail and General Trust in the UK. Lord Rothermere, former owner of the Daily Mail, consistently gave positive press to Hitler throughout the 1930s link.

Hobson is also based in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is quite interesting in that that is also the corporate headquarters of Knowledgeworks, one of the primary advocates for a shift to a learning ecosystem model. This model seeks to replace schools with drop-in centers, badged credentials, and a combination of digital and out of school time learning opportunities. I have seen the data fields for Naviance, and it appears this platform is aligned to such a model. As a person who values the importance of neighborhood schools as physical places, this worries me greatly.

Among the primary responsibilities of public school districts is the management of student records and support of students in accessing those records. I feel strongly this is a responsibility that should not be delegated to a for-profit, third party company that has a stated interest in expanding their market share through data-mining children. While some families may find this “service” a convenience, we do not.

Our daughter has two institutions to which she intends to apply early action. Those deadlines are the first of November. She is in the process of finalizing her materials now, but we need to know how we can transmit official copies of her transcript and her letters of recommendation to the institutions to which she is applying outside of Naviance. We need to have this information by the end of September.

I very much appreciate the School District leadership’s assistance in helping us with this matter.


Alison McDowell

Post-Meeting Follow Up Email

September 20, 2018

Hello everyone,

I just wanted to share an update. XXX and I had a very productive meeting with XXX this morning. There is indeed an embossing stamp of approval for printed transcripts and provisions to obtain paper copies of letters of recommendation in sealed envelopes. I very much appreciate the school’s flexibility in accommodating our desire to pursue the college application process outside this platform, and we have a plan over the next month to pull everything together for her early action forms.

That said I want to re-emphasize that the School District of Philadelphia would do well to revisit its contractual agreements with Naviance, given the fact that their business model is fueled by student data. The amount of data being poured into this company, including sensitive behavioral data, is extremely troubling given its historic origins. It is imperative that adults do all they can to protect the children in their care from being harmed or used as a profit center. Many families do not have access to the background information I do and may not be aware that they have the option to apply to colleges outside of this third-party platform. I hope the district would extend the same level of support to other families that choose to opt out of Naviance.

As a parent and taxpayer I would prefer to see public funds used to reduce caseloads for school counselors so they have more time to spend with students. XXX has been great to work with over the years.

Once again XXX, thanks for your time today and your knowledgeable input.  We look forward to coordinating with you as we plan XXX’s next steps.


Alison McDowell

Examples Of Naviance Gatekeeping

Required to receive cap and gown. Link to source below, here.

Senior Survey Naviance 1

Required to apply for honors / AP courses. Link to source below, here.Naviance AP

Required senior exit survey. Link to source below, here.

Senior Exit Naviance

And here.

Naviance Senior Survey 2

And here, etc.naviance final transcript.jpg

Sir Ronald Cohen Discusses the Holy Grail of Impact Investing at the Vatican and Harvard

As the documentary, The Invisible Heart, begins its Canadian tour, I felt it an appropriate time to revisit a couple of talks given by Sir Ronald Cohen. Cohen, an important figure in UK venture capital, put together the first social impact bond deal. I’d like to thank BubbleBlower / @DoubleDutch31 in the Netherlands for the link to the Vatican talk, which I had not seen before. While I profess to being a digital skeptic, it is nice having allies afar who are generous sharing leads.

I woke up early, and since I couldn’t get back to sleep, I decided to start transcribing text from two of these presentations. Slowing down and listening closely helped me process the content. What follows includes: an overview, key dates highlighting US legislative developments since 2014, excerpts from Cohen’s talks and links to videos of the presentations made at Harvard and the Vatican.

After the Bezos preschool announcement, too many people simply wrote it off as a “stupid” idea. What I want to convey is that what is happening cannot be characterized as “stupid” if you recognize that the ruthless individuals pursuing these programs are solely about profit, not providing humane services. These impact investors are in the final stages of building a vast infrastructure they hope will sustain a massive expansion of bio-capitalism. While understanding this is no cakewalk, it’s really important we try. Hang in there.


Over the past decade, global finance has built an impact investment “safe haven” within our hollowed-out public sphere. There they plan to stash private assets in advance of market collapse. The drumbeat of “what works,” outcomes-based contracting policies is ramping up as foundations, pension funds, and corporations are promised baseline 6-10% annual rates of return on a variety of social impact interventions. Pitchmen like billionaire, JB Pritzker, and economist, Jim Heckman, have been lining up the money, while well-connected firms like Ridge Lane, LP are waiting in the wings to package the deals. Because the returns on outcomes-based contracts are uncorrelated to the stock market, Sir Ronald Cohen once confided to Vatican representatives, he considers them the “holy grail.”

Of course consistent returns presume continuous global poverty, since managing the data of dispossessed people through impact dashboards is central to their profit-taking enterprise. Once clients are “fixed” according to the metrics, another batch of broken individuals must flow into the pool to keep the scheme going. There is no incentive to address structural oppression. In fact, to do so would kill the chicken that lays this proverbial, yet rotten, “golden egg.”

Supportive housing, incarceration, addiction treatment, foster care, early literacy, preschool, ed-tech, and workforce training services will be carefully choreographed, rendering a stream of human capital that can be cheaply “serviced” using “evidence-based,” surveillance “solutions.” Predictive analytics will manage the supply side of the machine’s Orwellian sourcing system.

In this new world of imposed “digital labor,” the poor will be harnessed to devices. The digital divide, once bridged, will be transformed effortlessly into digital shackles. And if the metrics aren’t up to snuff? Or the “raw material” refuses its prescribed fate? If the devices remain off, the data uncollected? If “success” cannot be “proven?” Well, insurance policies will have been taken out, just in case (see QBE’s recent activities and George Overholser’s pitch for Social Impact Guarantees).

Before this machine can really get going, though, impact investors must finalize redesign of the development aid, philanthropy, and non-profit sectors. This new version will accommodate massive flows of capital and Blockchain “web of trust” systems. Hewlett Packard has been working behind the scenes on this for some time now (click the link and from the initiatives link on the left side choose “effective philanthropy”), and Palantir, a deal evaluator, has gotten into the game with their “Philanthropy Engineering” initiative.


In this scenario, “mom-and-pop” non-profits won’t suit their needs. Fin-tech will demand they be integrated into the global system. Large, national entities will become umbrella organizations charged with managing investment flows and providing “impact” data infrastructure and analysis. The little guys will close or become subsidiaries of the umbrella groups. Picture what has been happening to community hospitals, but expand that to include every public service organization and supporting advocacy groups. They also need a bit more time to groom/coerce service providers to get them in the proper mindset to carry out this plan.

Money will come from a variety sources, incentivized through generous tax breaks and legislated provisions that even allow pensions to be hijacked, feeding a system that will actually fuel the automation of the very jobs held by those paying into them. During the Q&A for his presentation at the Vatican in 2014 audience members asked Cohen if countries beyond the UK were considering similar incentives. He responded:

“We are finding across the world that there are GROUPS OF PEOPLE LIKE US IN INFLUENTIAL POSITIONS in their communities who are saying to their governments, “YOU HAVE NO CHOICE. YOU HAVE TO DO THIS. The cohesion of our society is going to be threatened in a major way. This is a way for you to set new benchmarks on how to achieve the best, somebody had it up earlier, cost per successful intervention, if you want it in technical terms.”

Each G8 (now G7 with exclusion of Russia) country has a national advisory board of 20-30 well-connected individuals positioned to lobby for this transformation. At the time of Cohen’s talks, Matt Bannick, managing partner and board member for the Omidyar Network was the chair of the US Task Force. Omidyar Network is a backer of a new “Pay for Success” finance tool call an “impact security.” Some hope these innovative “securities” will be more easily scalable than cumbersome social impact bonds. The goal of this product is “Survival of the Fittest: Apply free-market principles to drive unprecedented efficiency in the multi-billion dollar non profit industry.” The idea is to link impacts to returns and create a product open to Program and Mission Related Investments that is standardized to increase transaction speed and transferability.

NPX Impact Security

The tool was developed by NPX, a bay-area finance consultancy founded by Wharton alumna Lindsay Beck and buildOn executive Catarina Schwab. The two were listed among Goldman Sachs’s 100 Entrepreneurs of 2017. A pilot project, the Last Mile, is underway in San Quentin with Omidyar financing. The people who are incarcerated have been forced into today’s sweatshop labor, computer coding. Omidyar’s $900,000 investor payout comes when the “success” goal of 18,000 hours worked is reached. And this newest version of the predatory profit machine is precisely why the United States has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. I suspect if we ever decide to seriously scale back prisons, the state will end up sending people home with a chip in their hand and an enforced labor contract.

Whether they be millenials at Powder Mountain resort in Utah, aspirational non-profit directors and policy wonks at the Dirksen Senate Building, or caviar-pizza-eating billionaires in the Hamptons, it is clear all those in impact investing’s inner circles are anxious for the game to get underway.

Legislative Developments Since 2014

July 2014: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed with embedded “Pay for Success” provisions.

September 2015: The IRS issues guidance stating there will be no penalties to foundations that use funds from their endowment (MRIs) for impact investing projects, even if those investments don’t yield the highest rate of return.

October 2015: ERISA (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) Guidance offered allowing pension funds to factor social impact metrics into determining investment choices.

December 2015: Every Student Succeeds Act passed with embedded “Pay for Success” provisions.

March 2016: Bipartisan Commission on Evidence Based Policy Making established.

September 2017: Final Report of the Commission on Evidence Based Policy Making issued.

February 2018: Social Impact Partnerships to Pay for Results Act passed in Federal Budget providing $100 million seed funding for “Pay for Success” projects. My write-up here.

February 2018: Investing in Opportunities Act passes in Federal Budget carving out 25% of low-income census tracks nationally for federal tax incentives for real estate and business development in those areas. Funds can be used for charter schools and for-profit training programs. I suspect they will also be used for pre-school franchises and will probably overlap with SIPPRA projects.


“The Future of Impact Investing Keynote Address with Sir Ronald Cohen”

Harvard Business School

November 3, 2014

Cohen: The welfare states were throwing their hands up and saying, “We can’t cope. We can’t cope with social issues. We don’t have the resources. We may not even be the best people to cope with them.” And as I analyzed how our system works, I realized that the only part of the system that was there to help those who were left behind was the philanthropic sector; used to be called the “third sector.” I hated that name and we banished it so you’ll hear about the “social sector” not the “third sector.” How can anyone be proud to be third, right? Especially in a room with people like you.

And the social sector had one characteristic, and now I give you the advantage of hindsight of fourteen years of working on this, had the characteristic, the common characteristic everywhere in the world of having no money and no scale. So, if you look at how many businesses in the United States over the past thirty years made it through $50 million of sales, the answer is 50,000. How many non-profits made it through $50 million of revenues? Anybody know? 144

Now why was that? I asked myself? I didn’t know that figure then, but I could certainly see that there was no scale and no money anywhere. Any why was that? The answer was very simple, philanthropy. Wealthy philanthropists had given money to these organizations and said to them we’ll give you money for a year or two and then after that, as a sanity check, please go raise money from somebody else and don’t spend any money on your overheads.

And that was the way that philanthropy had operated. And now with the benefit of hindsight, we realized that it was the case that nobody was measuring anything. You couldn’t tell who was doing a good job at delivering a social return, and so I’d asked myself in 2000, and today I can give the answer to it. How can we give social entrepreneurs, those who don’t just want to make money, but want to devote their lives to helping others? How do we give them the same means to achieve their objectives as we do business entrepreneurs?

And fast forwarding, in 2010 Social Finance, which has started in the basement of my office in the UK had gone from one to eighteen people, and the young people of social finance came to see me one day, and they said “Look, we think we may have an answer to how we tackle some social issues.” I said, “What’s that?” “We met a chap in Birmingham, who told us to look at recidivism, prisoner re-offending, you probably know that across the world, two-thirds of young prisoners go back to jail within eighteen months, and we think we can link an improvement in that rate of reoffending, a reduction, to a financial return. What do you think of that?” For me it was a light bulb moment like the General Daurio comment.

For me, it was the key to the capital markets.

When you begin to MEASURE social return or social improvement, and you connect it to a FINANCIAL RETURN, you can allocate capital to those who can deliver the highest social return. And those who have the ability to scale up can raise the capital they need in the same way as a business entrepreneur can.

“Future Potential”

Sir Ronald Cohen, Chair of the G8 Social Impact Investment Taskforce

June 16-17, 2014

Investing for the Poor: How Impact Investing Can Serve the Common Good in the Light of Evangii Gaudium

Rome Italy

Hosted by Catholic Relief Services, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business

Timestamp 20:15

Cohen: Well, if you look at it from an investor’s point of view, this could really be the Holy Grail. Why? Because, there is no correlation between the results that you get from a recidivism bond, or from a literacy bond, and the stock market.

If the stock market goes up or down, that’s not going to affect the ability of leaders such as those in this room, and those they support, to improve literacy levels. For those who come from the investment world, if we can deliver 7-10% uncorrelated returns within the absolute return part of a portfolio through social impact bonds and development impact bonds, what percent of portfolios of the $200 trillion across the world should be in there? Well, the answer is several percent.

How much should be in impact venture capital, which measures social outcomes such as the organizations we’ve just heard?

How much should be in impact private equity? When in Australia they’ve bought an $800 million sales business, which was dealing with preschool care, and turned it into a not-for-profit and repaid the debt that they used to fund it three years earlier.

How much could be in impact real estate? Taking and rehabilitating and refurbishing buildings in poor areas?

The answer is, a colossal amount.

So, where should the church play a role in all of this? Now many of you don’t know me. I’m not an expert on the church, right? But many of you don’t know I spent the first eleven years of my life in Egypt and my schooling was of the schools of St. John the Baptist. So, I was educated in Catholic schools. And an excellent education it turned out to be when I arrived in the UK, I must say.

What could the role of the church be? Well, I benefitted from a conversation over lunch with one of you who said, you know what in a way it’s an evolution in the concept of Caritas. In my own words, it’s shifting charity from a focus on the act of giving to focus on achieving social outcomes.

Timestamp 25:48

Audience Member: I was very interested in hearing about the tax incentives. Can you say a little bit more, because I think I heard an, ooh?

Cohen: Yes, so the British government accepted the argument that the incentives, which exist for investment in small businesses and medium-sized businesses, should be extended to not-for-profit organizations. So, when you invest in a social impact bond issue or when you provide a loan with no collateral to a not-for-profit, or if you put in something that looks like equity for a not-for-profit, so a high-risk security, you can set off thirty percent of the investment against tax. And if you lose your investment, you can set off the loss against capital gains or income tax, which effectively means that you’re taking a risk on half of your money. Which is pretty well the same as a philanthropic donation.

Audience Member: Have you found other nations willing to consider that policy?

Cohen: We are finding, I should explain, I’ll answer your question and explain why instead. We are finding across the world that there are groups of people like us in influential positions in their communities who are saying to their governments, “YOU HAVE NO CHOICE. YOU HAVE TO DO THIS. The cohesion of our society is going to be threatened in a major way. This is a way for you to set new benchmarks on how to achieve the best, somebody had it up earlier, cost per successful intervention if you want it in technical terms.

So, I think different countries will interpret it in different ways. But I hope that we will see certainly the countries that have been involved in the G8 effort, which don’t include Russia unfortunately. I hope we will see those countries certainly move in that direction, because in the United States there already all sorts of incentives through the New Markets Tax Credits and CRA legislation, and so on and so on. But I would hope that we see tax advantaged flows of capital increase significantly.

Audience Member: Is there a variant of the social impact bond, which works in markets where the government does not spend the money already?

Cohen: Yes, so there are two different answers to your question. In the case of Africa, there are many outcomes funders coming forward in the forms of the official aid arms of the different governments. So, DFID, which is the UK’s international development arm, said it is prepared to be an outcomes funder, as well as an investor in social development bonds. Often people try to give the local government a stake in success so they require the governments, the local governments to pay a small amount. And in some cases we are seeing corporates, big corporations, interested in acting as outcomes funders on social issues that concern their business. But there’s a second category of issue where the market can pay back the investor, if you like. Development impact bonds become a cheap form of equity to implement a model to sell product at low prices, and in that case the market is the outcomes funder.

Audience Member: Have you made that sort of, the opportunity of, pension deficits that exist, if by having the pensions indexed to the impact bonds, so as to not only earn more consistent returns, but also to reduce the load on the sponsor (?) government to meet that pension obligation?

Cohen: Well we would love you to develop the idea. (laughter in audience)

What I think is happening, truthfully what is happening across the world, is that people are innovating all the time, and pension fund money possesses a particular challenge. Because in the case of a foundation, which is in existence to achieve a social purpose, you can see the trustees accepting a lower return on their endowment; hopefully, one day a lower return in return for a high social return.

But with a pension fund, the fiduciary responsibility suggests that people will want a minimum rate of return. So, there is an attempt in the United States, and Matt Bannick, who will be speaking tomorrow, leads the national advisory board in the United States of the Task Force. There’s a national advisory board of twenty to thirty people in every country. And one of the recommendations, which I hope he’ll talk about tomorrow, is to change the ERISA legislation, which regulates the obligations of pension fund trustees.

What we’ve seen in the UK is that the group of pension funds from local authorities who are the main providers of social services, social services are generally provided at the local level so it’s the states and federal systems, local authorities in the case of unitary governments like in the UK. They got together than they put 250 million pounds into a pool, and they said as long as we can achieve a social return on top of a six percent financial return, we think it’s worth doing. And I think people will be surprised by the rates of return that can be achieved.





The FBI’s Educational Technology PSA Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

On September 13, 2018, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation released a public service announcement outlining risks associated with the collection of sensitive student data through educational technologies. Many applaud the FBI’s actions. I do not. I believe it to be yet another calculated move in a long range campaign to misdirect the public and goad us into accepting the inevitability of cloud-based computing as the primary method of delivering educational content in our nation’s public schools.

It is a diffuse campaign carried out across many platforms by a range of interest groups, each gently but insistently nudging us towards a box canyon where the fin-tech elite anticipate we’ll eventually give in and accept the constraints of algorithmic data-driven learning. There will be, of course, a tacit, mutual agreement that data will be “secured” (though I suspect that won’t preclude it from being searchable with a FISA court order).

This “security” will exact a terribly high price. Submitting to the bullying behavior of Silicon Valley will erode children’s rights to humane, face-to-face instruction and siphon critical funds away from offline-activities like art, recess, music, libraries, and sports. The precious, small pots of education funding we have left will be directed into vast, impenetrable sinkholes of cyber-security.

The FBI’s alert discusses examples of data stored online, the ways data breaches and hacking have harmed students, and recommendations to parents about what they should be doing. One suggestion was to purchase identity theft monitoring services for children. How did this become the new normal?

While the FBI wants to foster the appearance they’re concerned about student wellbeing, the Bureau is not about to go out on a limb and state the obvious. The most effective way to protect children’s personal data is to not collect it or store it in the cloud in the first place. Rather than signing up for a Life Lock subscription, families would be better served by demanding schools stop using digital devices as a primary mode of education delivery.

The third sentence of the FBI’s PSA offers a not-so-subtle pitch touting the benefits of online education: “EdTech can provide services for adaptive, personalized learning experiences, and unique opportunities for student collaboration.” What is the business of the FBI? Surveillance. Do we think the Bureau would be inclined to recommend dialing back one of the most expansive flows of information ever? No. Consider the data lakes of personally identifiable information pouring out of our nation’s schools. The FBI doesn’t want to turn off that tap. They want us to ask them to protect us, to make the collection “safe” and “secure” from child predators and the Dark Web. It is an approach that will conveniently permit a steady stream of information to be channeled into Bluffdale’s server farms waiting out there in the Utah foothills. It’s a facility that has the capacity to hold a century’s worth of digital data on every citizen.

More on the NSA Data Center here.


Many in the education activist community felt validated by the fact that the FBI officially recognized the severity of this threat. But pause for a moment and look at what just happened. The education reform community keeps winning because they are strategic and disciplined and get out and frame the discussion to their advantage.

What the widespread sharing and support of the FBI’s PSA did, in my opinion, was further entrench the perceived inevitability of data-driven online education, even if it is horrible for children, for teachers, and for the future of our economic system. It also painted the FBI as the good guy, while glossing over the Bureau’s abhorrent history of infiltrating, threatening and even murdering political dissidents. We must view this “alert” within the context of state surveillance, Cointelpro, threats to Dr. King, and the murder of Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. It is a pattern of behavior not limited to some distant past, but one that continues in the present as demonstrated by the set up of activists like Red Fawn Fallis, a water protector at Standing Rock. The FBI wants to keep this educational data “safe” for themselves. They are looking out for their own interests, not those of our children.

Lest we forget, the first well-known incident of online spying through school-issued devices was carried out, in fact, by the Lower Merion School District in 2010. You can read the Robbins vs. Lower Merion court case in its entirety here. Students in this affluent Pennsylvania community were spied on in their homes through the webcams of the laptops given to them as part of an early one-to-one device program. While the FBI was among the parties that investigated the district’s reprehensible behavior, they eventually closed the case finding no criminal wrongdoing. The families filed a federal class action lawsuit and were awarded $610,000 in compensatory damages. One of the defendants, former Lower Merion Superintendent Chris McGinley, now serves on the School Board for the City of Philadelphia. How does one reconcile this history with last week’s “alert?” It would make a good high school civics essay, don’t you think?

For all intents and purposes, online learning is monitored learning. There will be grave consequences if we acquiesce and accept that all the content our children encounter in school, and their reactions to it, will be captured and analyzed, fodder for big data and machine learning. Even if it is secured on Blockchain or some other system, we don’t want children’s knowledge, behaviors, and biometrics used to fuel social impact investment markets. This predatory machine is even more sinister than the Dark Web. It seeks to profile, gamble, and profit from predictive analytics that devalue humanity itself. To shadowy financiers, children are merely the sum of their aggregated data, inputs in a ruthless a human capital equation.

Of course if masses of parents decided to defiantly unplug their children from the educational data pipeline; it would certainly put a crimp in any Orwellian plans that might be out on the horizon. The FBI’s reformist alerts, therefore, aim to subdue thoughts of outright rebellion against this system and keep us busy asking for refinements that won’t actually stop the operation of the machine. We’ve known cloud-based, “personalized” learning is a hollow substitute for authentic learning for quite a few years. We didn’t need the FBI to tell us we should be concerned.

The Bureau is not here to save our children. We have to do that ourselves.

For more on Bluffdale and surveillance watch this 12-minute interview with former cryptographer and whistleblower Bill Binney. It was done by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in 2012, the year before Edward Snowden revealed documents to her regarding extensive domestic spying programs being carried out by the NSA.

Robbins vs Lower Merion - 1

Robbins VS Lower Merion -2



Jeff Bezos’s “Montessori, Inc.” Sets Up the Ed-Tech Takeover of Pre-K

This week Jeff Bezos of Amazon announced plans to direct $2 billion, in part, to the creation of a “Day 1 Academies Fund,” which would underwrite the costs of full-scholarship “tier one” Montessori model preschools in low-income communities. Within moments of hearing the announcement I began poking around to see where the connections were. What immediately came up was that Jeff’s mother Jackie, who helps manage the Bezos Family Foundation, presented on the topic of preschool human capital investing with James Heckman at the Aspen Institute Festival in June 2017. The title of their talk was “The ROI (Return on Investment) That Matters.”

I spent much of this past summer researching the construction of a speculative social impact investment market dealing in pre-school children’s human capital data (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Major players including University of Chicago economist James Heckman; hedge fund manager Robert Dugger; former Minneapolis Federal Reserve economist Arthur Rolnick; billionaire politician JB Pritzker; and Utah tech entrepreneur Jim Sorenson carried out this work quietly, diligently, steadily over the past decade.

The machine they’ve built is vast with tentacles reaching into influential foundations, institutions of higher education, venture capital firms, global banks, bipartisan political circles, and NGOs. It’s the puppet master behind all the Smart Start, Early Literacy, Grow Up Great, Grade Level Reading campaigns you see posted on buses and billboards in your town.

They use cute baby pictures in the advertising, but we need to recognize these efforts for what they truly are. This is about power, using digital technologies and predictive analytics, to mine rising global poverty rates for profit. Ever more vicious forms of innovative finance, like Social Impact Bonds and now impact securities, seek to transform human life into fictitious capital the elite can manipulate to enrich themselves. In this end game of late-stage capitalism, the data of vulnerable children will be collected and used as a source of profit extraction. Make no mistake. The Amazon “academies” will be data centers first and foremost.

The Bezos announcement indicates that perhaps this infrastructure is ready for prime time. Heckman and Pritzker have been doing road shows to sell it for years. I’m sure they’re anxious to see how the motor runs.

Heckman Bezos

People are increasingly concerned about the degree to which power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the tech sector, Amazon in particular. They hear the stories about the terrible working conditions, the surveillance of labor via wearable technologies, that workers can’t afford shelter. The solution offered is a roving RV work model. While some have embraced Alexa as a virtual assistant, many others see it for the intrusive data-gathering device that it is. Now Amazon and its dynamic pricing model is moving into bricks and mortar retail through the purchase of Whole Foods. There is a growing sense we are being watched; that our value is data tied to where we go and what we buy; that our options for meaningful work are shrinking; and Bezos sees us as pawns to be managed for his benefit. Plus, those AWS (Amazon Web Server) data lakes!

My hope is people will realize this announcement isn’t just about Bezos or Amazon. It’s a sign the impact-investing, early childhood education machine is getting ready to roll. It is a mammoth, mammoth machine. Many will be scooped up in its net. Bezos is a great one to put out front. Many are already angry with him, so they throw up tweets expressing their dismay but they don’t look deeper. Some get that there is an aspect of data profiling, that it might also involve ed-tech promotion, but they are NOT talking about speculative global finance. Impact investing is not on anyone’s radar, but it should be. If you haven’t seen my videos on Social Impact Bonds or Blockchain Identity, check out the links here and here.

I’ve read widely and gotten pretty good at registering the signals of where things are headed. No one has shown me the plans for these Academies, but I can start to guess what they might look like. Join me for a tour of a fictional pre-school I’ll call “Montessori, Inc.” In the scenario that follows I lay out elements of a preschool model designed to serve the social impact investment market that Heckman and his partners have built. It includes links to examples already in operation in the real world. Will Bezos’s Academies follow such a model? Only time will tell.

Surveillance play tables are real. This is the world we live in now.

 Hatch Education

Join us on the tour:

“A Company” is the venture partner backing “Montessori, Inc.”

“Montessori, Inc.’s” centers are found in the nation’s poorest communities, often in past-their-prime strip shopping centers near the highway. Picture the pop-up charter schools all over Florida. Link

“A Company” cultivates women of color to become franchise operators of “Montessori, Inc.” and touts its status as a MBE, WBE enterprise. Link and Link

Once on board, franchise managers are expected to toe “Montessori, Inc.’s” line (which is actually “A Company’s” line) and follow all company procedures, especially regarding expansive data collection and family compliance policies.

The teaching staff is low income. Most juggle several gigs to get by.

They are expected to keep up with the latest micro-credentials and take online training classes they can’t afford to stay eligible to teach. Link

Fees are automatically docked from their meager salary. Link

Each staff member’s engagement with online coursework is tracked biometrically, the data uploaded to their employee profile. Link

“Montessori, Inc.” maintains extended hours of operation, but algorithms set irregular shifts ensuring most workers don’t get enough hours to access benefits. Link

While a “Montessori, Inc.” preschool education is offered free of charge, not everyone who is eligible will be able to enroll. “A Company” outsources their review process to “Progress Pathways” to make sure each family is a “good fit” for the program. Link

Preschool operations are funded using innovative finance mechanisms structured around outcomes-based contracts. For schools to meet their agreed-upon “success” target, franchise operators must carefully curate whom they admit into the program. Because “Montessori, Inc.” is not a public preschool, they can do that. Link

One part of the evaluation is the LENA screening. Each child must wear a vest with a recording device for a full day. Data is analyzed to predict if the child is likely to fall into a “word gap,” meaning they are not spoken to enough at home, which could impact their literacy levels. A low LENA score can be a disqualifier. Link

If accepted, parents must then agree to give “A Company” ownership of all the data collected on their child and the family through school-affiliated apps while the child is enrolled in the program. Data collected informs dynamic pricing for goods and services purchased at any of “A Company’s” affiliates. Of course the goal of the company is to help families make “good decisions.” Nudge pricing is part of that strategy. Link

Each student enrolled at “Montessori, Inc.” is assigned a digital identity on Blockchain. All of their data and credit goes into the e-wallet. Link and Link

If a family relocates, they take their child’s accumulated data with them to another center. “A Company” promotes this as a means by which poor children “build social capital” from an early age. Link

Parents are expected to volunteer twice a week, and participation is tracked on an app. Their time, valued at less that $5 per hour, is compensated not in cash but in points redeemable in “A Company” credit. Link

They’re also expected to participate in “Montessori, Inc.’s” “smart family tips” text-messaging platforms. If they don’t document that they completed the required number of suggested educational home-based activities or respond promptly to text messages, their children can be bumped from the program. Link and Link

Upon enrollment, each family is issued a device programmed with behavior-tracking games geared to early literacy development and executive function training. Toddlers need to continue to level up on their custom development trajectory or risk be bumped from the program. Link and Link

Families must keep their child’s device charged and in working condition and send it to school each day. This “Montessori Minder” device is a key element of the self-directed curriculum offered by the school. Each child is given a personalized playlist of activities for the day, which they work through at their own pace. They submit evidence of tasks completed to the online student portfolio platform. Link and Link

Access to each center is authorized through biometric scans at the front door. Link

Attendance is generally used as one of the impact investing metrics, so that is taken on an app to ensure that data is high quality. Link

The “smart” classrooms are minimally furnished. All furniture and physical items come with embedded beacons that track students throughout the day. Link

All the children and staff wear slippers with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors embedded in the soles that track their interactions with one another and with physical objects in the space. Link

The centerpiece of each pre-school is their WePlaySuperSmart table. While toddlers interact collaboratively with screen-based activities on the digital table, a video camera captures their interactions. AI is then use to analyze the video and complete behavioral rubrics in a dashboard outlining where they are within the “Big Five” traits OCEAN (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). Link and Link

Other activities during the day measure behavioral elements like grit, resilience and executive function. Some sites are piloting EEG brainwave headbands. Link and Link

With the play tracker app, each child gets a haptic buzz when it’s time to go outdoors and play on the smart equipment. The app tracks their fitness goals against online games tied to literacy progression and non-cognitive skill development. The program investors love that Play Tracker keep every child moving on their development pathway. Link and Link

For schools with limited access to outdoor space “A Company” provides access to indoor augmented reality play systems (that have the added advantage of increased data capture). Link and Link

Parents can monitor classes via remote cameras, and real time data is uploaded to each student’s dashboard throughout the day.

Students are expected to be goal-oriented, motivated, and self-reflective while at school. Student agency is highly valued by “A Company” and the games on “Montessori Minder” are calibrated to push each child towards that goal. Link

By the end of their time at “Montessori, Inc.” each student will have a high-resolution picture in data of where they fit into the human capital pipeline of the gig economy.

“’A Company” is proud to be able to make that happen and ensure no toddler is left behind.

Wildflower IoT Slippers

Our Future As Social Machines?

This spring I visited Boston for an education conference, and while there I spent an afternoon exploring MIT and Harvard with a friend. I wanted to see with my own eyes the spaces where these destructive policies of social impact investing (Harvard) and digital economics and Human-Computer Interaction (MIT) are being incubated. In many respects it truly embodied the banality of evil. One of my strongest memories was standing in front of the digital program board in the lobby of the MIT media lab (featured image).

As we scrolled through the list of initiatives, the weight of it hit me. Those technologists fully intend for our lives to meld with devices, and they are mining our data to shape future relationships with robots and virtual agents. They are also designing crypto economic and surveillance systems to constrain our lives in countless ways while the wonks at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government devise the policies needed to affect this transformation.

Their aim? To eventually turn us into social machines; literally, machines that can be monitored, nudged, and adjusted to conform to the expectations of the market or be discarded if we refuse. They want our relationships to be mediated through technology so they can maintain power over the masses at this increasingly unstable time. To be an offline human connecting with other offline humans risks toppling plans they’ve so carefully laid. To disconnect is a radical act.

Global finance is in the process of setting up social impact initiatives linked to “evidence-based” SEL interventions. It will require monitoring children receiving services indefinitely as financiers wager on who will become addicted, incarcerated, or the victim of a crime. It is a sinister business model that has no place in our schools. They need devices to capture the data; non-cognitive data; data that paints a picture of who you are now and who you are likely to become. It’s all about predictive analytics and the odds.

ESSA shifted the narrative to include “multiple measures” and “innovative assessments.” Now they have carte blanche to track everything related to school climate AND behaviors. SEL program consultancies and deal evaluators are bursting with excitement. Resources will pour into metrics to structure the financial deals, but probably not into actually fixing the problems that caused trauma in the first place.

So, when they pitch you on more recess and play, ask them if there is a catch. Ask if there are rubrics or devices or data capture? Chances are there will be, if not yet, soon.

Below are ten images I hope will shock people into action. When you hear social-emotional learning (SEL) and whole child education, peek behind the curtain, and this is what you will find.

1. Surveillance Play Tables

Hatch Education’s WePlaySmart surveillance pre-school play tables capture real time audio and video on the social interactions of children “playing” screen-based games. The recording device is located in the hole in the table top behind the girl on the left. Background here.

2. Digital Brain Engineering

The National Science Foundation awarded a three year grant to Melina Uncapher at the University of California San Francisco’s Neuroscape lab to map and tweak the executive function of 1,000 early elementary school students in Santa Clara County, CA using custom-designed video games.  Neuroscape has spun-out a for-profit company, Akili, that develops digital medical treatments and recently completed clinical trials on the world’s first prescription pediatric video game treatment for ADHD. Background here.UCSF Video Games

3. Mapping Social Relations Via Sensors In Student Slippers

The Boston-based private Wildflower Montessori School franchise values social relations so much they insist on mapping them in real time using Internet of Things sensors placed in each child’s slipper, on the teacher, and around the classroom. One of the parents works at the MIT Media Lab, Social Computing unit.

Wildflower IoT Slippers

4. Virtual Reality Empathy Training

Project Empathy deploys virtual reality systems to promote “empathy” but also captures information, such as eye-tracking data, on users to ascertain engagement. It is being framed as a social impact investment vehicle where the metrics involved are the extent to which the experience changes people’s attitudes and behaviors.

VR Empathy Machine

5. Gamified Reward and Tracking Systems Linked to Digital Currency

With Red Critter teachers assign digital awards to students demonstrating desired behaviors.  Teachers can zing points to students wearing wrist bands or they issue rewards by voice command using Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual classroom assistant.Red Critter Band

6. HERO: Integrated School Climate System

Now we know why ESSA expanded school evaluation to include “other measures.” It was to expand the market for campus-wide software systems that aggregate student behaviors like tardiness. The company states that its child-as-barcode platform integrates well with SEL programs like: PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports), RTI (Response to Intervention), and MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports).


7. Soft Skills Competency Transcripts

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is a group of mostly elite private schools that are developing an alternative transcript rooted in competency based education. In this model, “soft skills” are as important as academic knowledge areas. The consortium’s advisory board includes many leaders in Ed Reform 2.0 and has been funded through a large grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, which has ties to IBM. In the sample transcript below all of the featured credits pertain to Joseph Smith’s habits of mind.

Mastery Transcript

8. Recess Assessment Rubrics

The business model of Playworks, a recess management non-profit whose largest funder is the Bechtel Foundation (a major defense contractor), is that play shouldn’t be left in the hands of amateurs like children. As schools have been stripped of support staff, many have a hard time finding adults to oversee recess. This paved the way for Playworks to insert itself into 7,000 schools nationwide. They’ve now developed a “Great Recess Framework” to measure and assess “safe and healthy play.” Should children have access to safe spaces for free play? Definitely. Do we need a national organization partnered with data harvesters like Salesforce to make that happen? No, we don’t.

Assessing Recess Brookings

9. Brain Monitoring Wearable

Brainco, spun out of Harvard’s Innovation lab in 2015, developed a wearable headband to track student engagement via brain wave monitoring. FocusOne gathers data on individual students to encourage self-reflection. It also aggregates class-level data for teachers to assess the effectiveness of instruction and identify who is and is not participating in small group discussions or projects. Data collected via the devices is compiled in a massive brainwave database Brainco uses to refine their algorithms.

10. Daniel Tiger Knows If Your Toddler Shares

The PBS Kids app has been downloaded over 45 million times. They are a leading content provider to children ages 2 to 8 years old. They have been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars by the US Department of Education to develop behavior tracking games in coordination with evaluators like UCLA CRESST, which also does defense contracting. In the Daniel Tiger game a child hosts a tea party with avatar “friends.” Game play is monitored, and if Daniel does not socialize appropriately, say distribute the cookies equally, he is corrected. All of the child’s interactions are monitored for evaluation. Parents are encouraged to download an app that lets them see the dashboard of this activity. Background here.

Tea Party PBS Kids.jpg

Mindful Compliance or Non-Cooperation?

Classrooms have always been sites of struggle. We find ourselves in the midst of a battle pitting human agency and relationships against technologized surveillance and predictive profiling. Can schools evolve into places of community where new ways of being in the world, ways that begin to address past harms against oppressed people and the earth, can be imagined and tested? Or will educational spaces become even more authoritarian? With each passing day we see students distanced from one another as algorithms, artificial intelligence, and online games mold their minds in “personalized learning” bubbles.

The lean-production, dystopian economy the Davos crowd envisions will offer few stable living-wage jobs. Their model will force most people to adopt a practice of unrelenting “lifelong learning,” continual reinvention that might allow them to piece together a patchwork of precarious, soulless jobs. It is a process that will demand the acquisition of just-in-time skills, but perhaps more importantly it will demand the proper mindset. In this future, the most desirable trait for hires won’t be the level of knowledge they possess. Far more attractive will be their demonstrated ability to adapt to and thrive on instability. That is where grit, self-regulation, resilience, and executive function come in. That is why these words are becoming so prominent in professional development, new “evidence-based” curricula, and educational literature. We are being groomed.

There will be limited opportunities for creative thinking in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Knowledge will be controlled among the general populace. In fact knowing enough to question or disrupt the status quo will likely land a job candidate in the algorithmic rubbish bin. The current system works fine for the elite. They won’t onboard anyone who might organize with others to actually fix the system and make it more humane. For those at the top, the best employee is an independent operator who thrives in dystopia and shames others into doing the same by example.

Neoliberal interests have secured esteemed social scientists and branding consultants to sell the unsuspecting public on their poisonous program of human capital engineering. It is being packaged as “whole child education” and “social emotional learning (SEL).” Legions of parents and teachers are embracing top-down programs of mindfulness training, structured recess, and gamified behavior management systems. Shell-shocked from years of test and punish, their defenses are understandably weakened. When they hear “play” and “soft skills,” most just sigh and cross their fingers hoping the worst of it is over. The privatizers know exactly how to push people’s buttons.

Efficient markets require a robust pipeline of interchangeable, cheaply paid employees who will labor with minimal complaint under intolerable conditions. Everything today is about return on investment. The logic of the market dictates it’s never too early to triage who is worth an investment of public resources and who is not. Schools have always been sorting mechanisms, but with digital surveillance education, the sorting systems are becoming ever more vicious.

Lest we be lulled into a trance by the zen masters of corporate mindfulness, we must recognize that the push to monitor, track, and cultivate an appropriate learner mindset, is not emerging from an authentic grassroots concern for the well being of children. It is an intentional campaign launched by philanthro-capitalists to expand the metrics of student measurement into the non-cognitive sphere.

These metrics will be used to profile children and double the size of educational impact investment markets. Why limit yourself to gambling on children’s academic proficiencies when you can do the same thing on their behavioral proficiencies, too? Believe me, the folks in this game are not ones to leave money on the table.

Who are you?

What kind of person do we predict you will become based on your data profile?

How do you score in the Big Five traits? OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism

Will you obey?

Will you work hard?

Are you a team player?

Are you a leader?

Are you a follower?

Are you broken beyond what we’re willing to invest to repair you?

THAT is what social-emotional learning is really about. They will put resources into creating the metrics, the rubrics, and the monitoring systems to ensure fidelity. It is the metrics that drive the social impact investment markets. It’s about moving data on dashboards, not caring for children.

So, before you do another thing in the classroom with respect to student behavior or social emotional learning, take a look around and recognize we ARE living the Hunger Games. Stop and think about where the intervention you are using came from. Whose interests does it advance? What data are YOU collecting on the children in your care? Where is it stored? Do you know what behavioral information the devices in your classroom may be capturing on your children? Do you know how that is being used? Do you know who is funding the new SEL curriculum in your school? Do you know who is funding that “nice” non-profit that wants to manage your recess program? Could it be a defense contractor (Playworks / Bechtel)?

Are you teaching children to be good players in the Hunger Games or are you teaching them what they need to know to upend the game? And if you are doing the latter, keep it offline. Don’t give the elite any power over the children who depend on you. Adopt a policy of non-cooperation. Find your way to resist the corporate SEL agenda and do it.

Much respect to John Trudell.

Welcome to Your Permanent Record

I realize my Blockchain video presents an abundance of information that may be difficult to absorb all at once. For that reason, I’ve pulled together images from the video and accompanying text into a slideshare that people can review at their own pace.

Access the slideshare here.

Access a PDF of the script here.

I hope the scenario below provides a compelling enough reason why regular folks need to get up to speed on Blockchain, decentralized (digital) identity, tokenized behavior, and smart contracts. You can be sure the Davos crowd is well aware, and we really do have to start catching up if we want to save humanity.

Picture this:

A possible future, perhaps fifteen years from now.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is well underway.

Wages and conditions for jobs involving physical labor and direct service are forced below subsistence levels.

Austerity continues.

Debt is omnipresent.

“Smart” devices, facial recognition software, and drone surveillance ensure the public and private spheres are constantly monitored.

People’s lives have become ever more precarious.

The working class has few resources left and cannot serve as a market for goods and services.

There is limited currency in circulation.

Instead, alternative exchanges of value are logged in Blockchain ledgers.

People are increasingly managed as commodities to keep capital circulating.

Economic activity, such as it is, revolves around data.

That data is stored on Blockchain, your permanent record.

Data are used to prove compliance and demonstrate the successful “impact” of poverty management systems.

Public services, like education and healthcare, have been outsourced to private entities funded by speculative investors.

Predictive analytics dominate the lives of all but the most powerful.

Big Brother lives in the cloud.

Each person carries a minder, a smartphone or a chip inserted in the hand.

Finance and technology interests anticipate managing humanity as an extractive industry. 

It is a future that hinges on bringing self-sovereign identity and Blockchain to scale.

So, will it scale?

Will people recognize the peril?

And will they refuse to cooperate?

For more information:

Smart Cities: Link

Internet of Things: Link

Blockchain: Link

Smart Contracts: Link

Self Sovereign Identity: Link

Alternative Currencies: Link

Behavioral Economics / Nudge: Link

Watch the video again:


Looking For A Plan B

I should have anticipated the response to my Blockchain video would be muted. Digital wallets for e-vouchers and lifelong learning badges probably seem like a distant threat to most people. And yet as we begin a new school year I can’t help but reflect on the fact that more than a handful of people I know have felt sufficiently harmed by current public education policies to put their children into private schools, leave town, or in some cases move to a whole other state only to find the situation there just as bad or worse than it was back where they started.

Many students are spending their first weeks of school being issued devices, having logins set up, creating accounts for various “personalized learning” programs, and taking surveys to identify their workforce pathway options. Meanwhile, parents lie awake in the middle of the night nervously calculating the ages of their children against how fast they anticipate badging and apprenticeship programs will come online. We’ve hit a moment of fight or flight. The stress is palpable. It’s nothing a mindfulness session can ease away. The dread is growing.

So which is it? Fight or flight? Though I am fortunate in that my child graduates next spring, I keep wracking my brain for a “Plan B.” For years I have fought to save authentic, human-based learning in neighborhood schools; first on the standardized testing front and lately on the tech front. But the odds feel so very long and progress slow and people are in deep, deep denial about the scope of the problem. In those moments I think perhaps flight is warranted. If the adults in schools don’t want saving, perhaps it is best to walk away and find people who want to build something else.

Nationally, there are groups calling for the wholesale withdrawal of children from public education systems that have been commandeered by ed-tech interests with the apparent blessing of both major political parties. Pennsylvania has many, many families that enroll in cyber-school. This of course is not an answer to the ed-tech conundrum, because while conducted “at home,” it is a corporate franchise charter school education carried out on a surveillance device. In Philadelphia, there are also sizeable home school and un-schooling communities. This model is more traditional in approach, often drawing on local cultural offerings to supplement a home-based curriculum. It’s labor intensive and not something many families have the time or income to sustain over the long haul.

As Education Savings Account programs gain momentum, I feel I must point out that flight is not going to be a workable option either, even if a family goes the traditional home school route. You see ESAs are early stage e-wallets. Social impact investment markets will demand education impact data in exchange for “equitable” funding. No question. The reformers see the e-wallet concept as an elegant solution, well suited to the needs of investors. Digital money can be programmed by the authorities and spread around “out of school” and online education providers using Blockchain micro-payments. Student data, lots of it, will in turn flow in. There will be synergy between digital payments and digital data. The child is transformed into a vehicle through which the capital of the neoliberal financialized education system can flow.

So, if you are a parent who decides to go the low-tech, traditional home school route, what happens when all the civic and cultural spaces in your community sign on to the learning ecosystem program and start taking ESAs? Well, at that point they’ll be pulled into the system of payment / data exchange. The programs on offer will have to be redesigned for check-the-box impact demonstration. They will likely move towards more tech-integration. They’ll need it to capture the quantity of data required by the social impact dashboard systems.

The e-wallet transformation, once fully implemented, will hijack recreation centers, art spaces, theater groups, science meet-ups, sports leagues, outdoor programs, even public libraries, turning them into badge-issuing nodes of the learning ecosystem. They will be expected to monitor the behavior and emotional regulation of students and report back. At that point there will be no place to flee, unless we organize parallel community spaces that refuse all public funds and the strings of data harvest that will come along with them.

So I sit here on a rainy Friday night seeing storm clouds on the horizon, wanting to fight but not sure who is fighting with me. I’m still looking for a viable Plan B. Got any ideas?



Could Weighted Education Funding Campaigns Be Advancing An ALEC-Backed Agenda?

Campaigns have been launched across the nation to document and address chronic deficits in state-level education funding. Undoubtedly, the intentional underfunding of our public schools is a serious concern. One such campaign was recently announced in my home state, PA Schools Work. According to their website, the coalition, which includes a number of union and child and education advocacy groups, builds upon previous work done around Pennsylvania’s 2016 Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

What immediately jumped out at me when I received the August 8 email inviting me to join was the use the word “Work” in the campaign name. What I’ve come to realize is that the ed-reform landscape can often be deciphered if you understand the language they’re using. Once you unravel that code, you can figure out where things are headed.

PA Schools Work

There is tremendous pressure now to align curriculum to the needs of industry, and the research I have been conducting around outcomes-based contracting indicates that “Work” often equates to data-driven metrics tied to outsourced public services. See Bloomberg Philanthropies’ “What Works Cities” for example. In education this is increasingly manifested in the adoption of ed-tech “solutions.” So, for me at least, “Work” in this context becomes an extremely loaded term. As a parent, I can think of many other words I’d prefer to see used to describe an optimally funded K12 education. Pennsylvania schools could just as easily empower, nurture, sustain, excite, imagine, or create. Work? There’s plenty of time in post-secondary education, once children are old enough to make informed decisions about their futures, before that word needs to take center stage.

It’s also important to note that since last fall Pennsylvania has been battling legislation aimed at creating Education Savings Accounts. Senate Bill 2, not yet passed, would establish a program run through Pennsylvania’s Department of the Treasury that would award quarterly payments to families of children enrolled in (or in the catchment of if a kindergarten student or first grader) schools documented as “low-achieving.” Schools that score in the bottom 15% on annual achievement tests fall into this category.

If passed, families that chose to participate in the program could use state funds to purchase “qualified” educational services like private school tuition, tutoring or “teaching services,” curriculum, books, uniforms, testing fees, and a big loophole “other valid educational expenses approved by the department (of the Treasury).” This would be in lieu of enrolling their child in a local public school or participating in the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (voucher lite) program. Thus far the legislation has not progressed, but continued vigilance is required.

When I received the email about the campaign, I inquired if organized opposition to ESAs and voucher programs would be part of the PA Schools Work action plan. I was told that it would not and that the focus was exclusively on securing funding. Given the direction things are headed, I find this to be of grave concern.

Many statewide campaign programs are pushing “student-centered” funding, which hews closely to the concept of “weighted-funding,” which Pennsylvania adopted in 2016. The latter is a program whereby students that meet certain criteria receive additional education funding. This makes sense. Students who live in poverty, for whom English is not their first language, or who have special learning needs will require additional resources if the goal is an equitable funding stream that allows each child to reach their full potential. I support that premise wholeheartedly.

But here is an interesting wrinkle. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-corporate bill mill, ALSO supports “student-centered” and “weighted” education funding. In fact, they developed model legislation for it way back in 2010: The Student-Centered Funding Act. Jeb Bush’s reform entity Excelined funded by Gates, Walton and Bloomberg (all impact investing backers) put out a policy brief in June 2017 on Student Centered funding, too.

Additionally, the Nellie Mae Foundation has been issuing grants to New England states to investigate education finance models that would support “student-centered learning,” in other words Ed Reform 2.0. They are using their considerable financial resources to push systems change that will preference competency based education over traditional seat-time models. They aim to normalize “innovative” learning that takes place “anytime, anywhere,” NOT in a school. For this model to work, state funding must follow the student (as with a voucher or ESA) rather than the school or district. The images below are two grants funded by Nellie Mae that indicate their intent to shift existing narratives around public education.

Nellie Mae New Narrative Grant

CT Education Policy Changes

These three images feature grants made to entities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont to explore new models of education finance that would support such a shift.

CT Education Funding

VT Education Funding

MA Budget

At first glance it might seen somewhat contradictory for ALEC, Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, Nellie Mae and their partners in crime to be promoting student-centered, weighted education funding. But I invite you to take a step back and consider that the future of public education that ALEC members and philanthro-capitalists envision is a free market, “hackable” network where there are no more neighborhood school buildings with age-based grade cohorts and report cards. That “old” system would be supplanted by an open ecosystem of educational “opportunities” offered online and via complicit non-profit partners who will accept digital Education Savings Account payments.

They need to create a system that ultimately funds students NOT school districts or schools in order to operationalize the model. They need for each child to be linked to their own “personalized” pot of money for a Pay for Success, human capital ROI directed model to emerge. An interim step will be to have weighted student funding flow to districts. That will ease the transition and allow people to gradually adjust their mental framework. Meanwhile hybrid learning, badging, out of school time learning and other aspects of Ed Reform 2.0 will move forward, slowly becoming routine and expected.

The screenshots below are footnotes from the ALEC “Student-Centered Funding” model legislation. They clearly show ALEC sees “student-centered funding” as a tool advancing school “choice” where funding “portability” is a key feature.

Student-Centered Funding

Student Centered Funding Portability

Within a decade, students may be issued digital identities tied to e-wallets (perhaps on Blockchain if they are able to bring it to scale) that would hold BOTH virtual education currency AND demonstrated credentials or competencies. In December 2017 the Heritage Foundation issued a report (viewable as a PDF here) that examines the state of fin-tech digital payment systems in education. The screenshot below describes Class Wallet, a programmable digital payment service offered to teachers and students as a means of purchasing a limited number of classroom supplies and as a behavior management reward system. The last line references Class Wallet’s entry into the Education Savings Account arena.

Heritage Fin-Tech Wallet

Through analysis of such e-wallets, returns on human capital investments could be more readily tracked, comparing public and private expenditures to student “results” as identified by industry expectations. Within a social impact investing context, students who demonstrate extra need will also present more room to demonstrate “growth.” The greater the potential of a student to move the numbers on the data dashboards, the more profit impact investors could make. Therefore motivated, high-need students will become attractive portfolio additions IF they have the proper mindset are agreeable to being molded to the vision of “success” industry demands.

I suspect most participants in these statewide funding campaigns are not looking the ten steps ahead required to understand how weighted funding programs will groom vulnerable students to be pawns in a predatory impact investing game. This is unfortunate, because I would really like to fight for fair funding while ALSO putting up guardrails to prevent any victories from inadvertently advancing the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda. I welcome advice from the PA Schools Work folks on how to go about that. Public school advocates and ALEC are not on the same side. We cannot simply ignore the fact that a campaign like PA Schools Work, if the above factors are not taken into account, could ultimately advance a terribly destructive privatization agenda.