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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.