What Jamal Khashoggi’s Death Means For All of Us: Will It Buy Us Time to Stop the Saudi “Blueprint for the Twenty-Second Century?”

Note: It appears the Futures Investment Initiative website was hacked at some point on October 22. 2018 and taken offline, so some of the embedded links below may not work. In the meantime, you can access information about the event via an archived Wayback Machine link here. Advisors list for the event here.

Against the backdrop of a dismembered journalist in addition to atrocities and war crimes in Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had planned to welcome “visionary and influential” leaders in “business, government, and civil society” to Riyadh this week for his second Future Investment Initiative (FII), a three-day conference on global economic development scheduled for October 23-25 2018 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Through private meetings, networking, curated roundtables and “deep engagement with global media” a group of elite invitees (non-transferable invitations require a passport and photo to register) proposed to outline a blueprint for the future of work in environmentally compromised yet technologically sophisticated (surveilled) smart cities operated under the purview of public-private partnerships.

Well-connected firms such as the Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, McKinsey, Bain, Strategy&, and Ernst and Young had reserved seats at MBS’s table and are listed as summit partners on the FII website.  Each of these firms is actively involved in social impact investing: hereherehereherehere, and here.

I created a relationship map of the partners associated with this event. Access an interactive version of the map here.

FII Partners

Below is a detail of Bridgespan’s associations. Bridgespan, a Boston-based non-profit, emerged out of Bain and Company’s pro bono work during the mid 1990s.  Bridgespan and Bain maintain a “deep strategic partnership,” collaborating on projects across public service sectors, including education. Many of Bridgespan’s clients are prominent players in the privatization movement. Consider the role of consulting firms like Bain in offering guidance on social impact investment opportunities to interests like the Crown Prince and you can see how Saudi Arabian capital could easily be directed to flow into US education markets via charters and “evidence-based” ed-tech “solutions.” In 2015, Bain enlisted former MA governor Deval Patrick to head the firm’s social impact investment fund. Patrick played an instrumental role developing pay for success contracts in the Commonwealth, notably the ROCA initiative. Access an interactive version of the map here.

FII Bridgespan

Saudi ties to the grisly murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey earlier this month introduced unanticipated wrinkles into the prince’s planned agenda, leading a large and growing number of high-profile participants, including Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone, and Diane Greene of Google, to withdraw from the event. Attendance at “Davos in the Desert” will be a fraction of last year’s 3800+ as officials, asset managers, lobbyists, and executives and government representatives scramble to find a way forward that enables them to retain access to the kingdom’s coffers and influence without drawing inordinate public ire.

The official sponsor of the Future Investment Initiative is the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF). Established in 1971, governance of PIF was reconstituted and transferred to the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, chaired by MBS, in March 2015. A substantial infusion of capital into the fund is anticipated in the near term from the public sale of up to five percent of Aramco, the Saudi national petroleum and natural gas company. Through implementation of Vision 2030, the Crown Prince aims to diversify the economy of the Saudi Kingdom beyond the energy sector.

Key to this plan is transforming PIF into one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world. The vision statement for the document Public Investment Fund Program 2018-2020, which supports Vision 2030, states PIF is to be a “global investment powerhouse and the world’s most impactful investor, enabling the creation of new sectors and opportunities that will shape the future global economy, while driving the economic transformation of Saudi Arabia. So the question is what new sectors of investment will they open and what type of impact do they seek? The Saudi government has retained numerous lobbying firms in the United States to advance their global investment goals for PIF, though the situation with Khashoggi’s murder led many to cancel their agreements in recent weeks.

The full conference program for FII is available online and describes plenaries on business and governments developing a “collective vision,” the ethical implications of a digital economy, and anticipated exponential growth of the fin-tech sector. Also on tap are discussions of the evolution of global capital markets including challenges for sovereign wealth and pension funds, mega investments in “frontier technologies” like SoftBank’s Vision Fund, and “which economic model for privatization will prevail?” Privatization is, evidently, presumed inevitable in such circles.

Screenshots of select sessions below:

PII Digital Currency

FII Global Capital Markets.jpg

FII Privatization

FII Tech Vision Fund

I created a relationship map of advisors for FII 2018. Taken together it shows the degree to which ubiquitous computing, digital payment systems, Blockchain, Big Data, real estate development, hedge fund management, and public private partnerships may shape our lives in the decades to come if we don’t organize to counteract prevailing trends. Access an interactive version of the map here.

Advisors: Future Investment Initiative 2018

FII Advisors

Mohamed Alabbar, Emaar Properties: Luxury real estate development and management including cutting edge technology implementation (smart cities).

Ajay Banga, Mastercard: Mastercard has patented Blockchain identity verification, is now offering payment services on Philadelphia regional transit cards, and has explored using loyalty rewards payments to nudge people into medical protocol compliance (digital economy, Blockchain).

Victor Chu, First Eastern Investment Group: Venture capital fund focused on Asia and heavily invested in digital payment systems Alipay and WeChat pay (digital economy).

Joe Kaeser, Siemens: German company developing smart city technologies and data analytics tools for managing urban environments (smart cities).

Lubna Olayan, Olayan Group: investment capital, Cornell trustee, WEF and Council on Foreign Relations connected (fin-tech).

Masayoshi Son, SoftBank: launch of the Vision Fund with forty-five billion dollars through PIF investing in emerging technologies. Many Silicon Valley start-ups have obtained significant capital from SoftBank.

Tidjane Thiam, Credit Suisse: investment capital, ties to NYC and Chicago strategic public-private partnerships, innovator in Blockchain securities transfers (digital economy, Blockchain, public-private partnerships).

Peter Thiel, Paypal and Palantir: big data analytics, ties to US state security infrastructure, involved in Pay for Success deal evaluation via their “Philanthropy Engineering” initiative delivering pro bono services (impact investing, Big Data, surveillance).

Withdrew Partnership Status After Khashoggi’s Death

Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone Group: investment capital, distressed real estate, donations to AI and STEM education, promoting private investment in public education, donor to NYC library, economic advisor to Trump (fin-tech, AI, education reform).

Mellody Hobson, Ariel Investments: investment capital based in Chicago, wife of George Lucas, ties to education reform via After School Matters and the Chicago Public Education Fund, recently added to board of the Rockefeller Foundation (impact investing, education reform).

Arianna Huffington, Thrive Global: founder of Huffington Post, now promoter of well-being enterprise linked to better uses of technology (impact journalism, tech).

Jamal Khashoggi’s death punctuates a legacy of devastation wrought by the powerful Saudi royal family over many years. While US-manufactured bombs slaughter Yemeni civilians with limited media outcry, the death of a journalist who once occupied the inner circles of power has now drawn serious attention to Mohammed bin Salman and the transitions underway in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s planned move away from an energy-based economy means considerable capital must find its way into new global markets, including the finance and tech sectors.

The west has created new vehicles to manage such capital flows, namely Pay for Success social impact investment markets. There have been proofs of concept but thus far the machine has not achieved full functionality. To operate as intended will require: 1) the wholesale privatization of public services through public-private partnerships; 2) non-profits be scaled up significantly to accept massive infusions of capital and manage vast quantities of data for deal evaluation; 3) technologies capable of digitizing and platforming the delivery of social services, including education, to prove the “impacts” that will permit those at the top of the pyramid to take their profit from the essence of our lives.

While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may sell FII attendees on cutting-edge giga-projects like Neom, the reality of urban living in the coming century will be far grimmer unless the masses can organize to resist the impact agenda and chart a different course.


Purpose-built “smart” environments, designed for “impact,” will be set up to contain economically precarious workers compelled to navigate increasingly automated labor markets. In a future where concentrated wealth of the type embodied by Saudi assets, reigns supreme, poverty will evolve to be managed for profit through predatory public-private partnerships operating at the behest of social impact investors. Such a blueprint will, through new digital economic structures, allow concentrated global capital to flow unimpeded, thereby continuing to enrich those at the top of the economic pyramid. By deploying innovative tools like self-sovereign identity systems and Blockchain public benefit payments, impact poverty management will allow the oppressive biocapitalist agenda to flourish even as the purchasing power of the masses becomes almost negligible.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is our wake up call. US consultants will sit at Mohammed bin Salman’s table this week describing the impact-investing machine they have built, a machine designed to funnel capital through a wasteland of intentional poverty. Can we take this opportunity to put sugar in the gas tank? Khashoggi has given us the gift of time. How will we use it?

Jobs for the future, who decides?

This is the sixth of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatising Schools: Question Six

Daisy Christodoulou, a businesswoman who has been a significant influence on English education policy, has said that ‘the goal of education is work readiness.’ Could you comment?

My Response:

Industry has attempted to align our nation’s public education system to its human capital requirements for decades. Most education activists in the United States are familiar with Marc Tucker’s 1992 “Dear Hillary Letter” in which he laid out the National Center on Education and the Economy’s proposal for a “seamless system of unending skill development that begins in the home with the very young and continues through school, post-secondary education, and the workplace.” Tucker’s letter to the Clintons outlined a plan that included national education standards and one year of free college leading to a sub-baccalaureate degree.

Tucker felt the American public would more readily accept this branding than they would a European apprenticeship model. His idea was to have a system of modular professional standards, a computerized employment service, and a system of regional labor market boards to coordinate activities. Today we see these systems coming together in the form of career pathways. Twenty-five years after Tucker’s initial proposal, states including Colorado and Washington are adopting a Swiss training model that aims to direct 2/3 of high school students into “middle skills” certification programs rather than traditional four-year college degrees. These folks play a very long game.

Developments around cloud-based computing, educational technology, an online alternative credentialing paved the way for a new approach to human resource management. Now Blockchain transcripts and digital badging (see Credly in the UK) systems are poised to take things to a whole other level. Schools are being redesigned to maximize flexibility, preference social-emotional skills over academic knowledge, and push the inevitability of “lifelong learning” (reskilling). In 2014, the year before ESSA was passed, President Obama signed the Workforce Opportunities and Innovation Act (WIOA) and put many elements of Tucker’s plan in motion. WIOA and ESSA are complementary pieces of legislation.

Behind the scenes, non-profits like Jobs for the Future (JFF) have spearheaded the adoption of policies intended to integrate public education into workforce training. The Gates Foundation has poured over $100 million into JFF since 2009. Workforce development is also being positioned as a market for “pay for success” social impact finance. America Forward, a coalition of 70 social innovation organizations, strongly advocated for the incorporation of Pay for Success provisions into ESSA. Not surprisingly, one the first two PFS contracts issued after its adoption was for CTE training of high-need youth.

Academic standards around career and work have been incorporated into curriculum at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. In cities like San Diego, corporate influencers through the United Way are advancing consortia whose goal is direct students into “high-demand industries” like advanced manufacturing, clean energy and information and communication technology. Pressure to decide on a career pathway ramps up for students in middle school when they are subjected to a barrage of surveys and strengths assessments, often run by third party, data-mining software companies like Naviance, a subsidiary of Hobson which is owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust in the UK.

We hear the mantra of “College and Career Ready” readiness constantly. Renewed interest in careers has been driven by skyrocketing tuition costs and increasingly bleak economic prospects for many Americans. People are looking for stability for their children, and they have been made to feel that pre-professional training in K12 settings is the best way to achieve that. Emphasis on academic rigor under NCLB, to the point where half the students in some states were not meeting the requirements of newly imposed high school exit exams, created significant backlash and fueled renewed interest in career and vocational training (CTE).

Unfortunately, many parents and teachers do not realize that CTE education within the Ed Reform 2.0 context is not intended be carried out in public school settings, but rather through outsourced placements. Instead of students being taught by qualified educators trained in pedagogy and child development, they will be sent off to work assignments of uncertain quality and safety.

Big Picture Learning is a school management organization based in Rhode Island that is backed by prominent reformers like Ted Dintersmith and has expanded across the United States and internationally. Their model has students participating in Learning Through Internship (LTI) placements two days per week, though some placements never materialize and students are left languishing in sad computer labs. Big Picture has created an internship app with the software company Salesforce that tracks students during their placements and captures data about the competencies, including social-emotional ones, they demonstrate outside school. Eventually these competencies will be collected at badges on Blockchain. Given that up to 40% of Big Picture’s instruction takes place off-site, the model is aligned to austerity funding policies that continue to strip resources from neighborhood schools under the guise of school reinvention.

Many states now have designated priority career clusters and programs directing students into “in-demand jobs.” However I question if these interventions are actually intended to serve the interests of the next generation. I don’t think they are. Is it fair to place students on pathways to careers that may not exist in a decade? Is it ethical for companies to expect schools to redesign curriculum to meet industry standards? How likely is it that private interests seek to control human capital in ways that leads to an oversupply of applicants and depressed wages?

I think a far better model would be to fully fund K12 education, offering a rich liberal arts education with a wide range of elective and extracurricular activities. THEN offer free or low cost CTE training after students reach the age of 18 and better understand their capabilities and desires. The idea that a thirteen year old would be in any position to make major life and career decisions, especially given doomsday scenarios of a future of automated labor floating around, seems ludicrous at best.

Part One: Talking Across the Pond Here

Part Two: Virtual Reality and Globalized Workforce Here

Part Three: “Personalized Learning” Driven By Data Here

Part Four: We Haven’t Won, We’re Testing All The Time Here

Part Five: Focus on Pedagogy First Here

Focus on Pedagogy, Not Just Privacy

This is the fifth of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatising Schools: Question Five

Is fixing data security / privacy the answer?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a reminder that the business model of the big tech firms is based on extracting and exploiting our personal data. Here in the UK, Ben Williamson has made the link between Cambridge Analytica and the tracking, profiling, and ‘data mining’ of children which education technology makes possible (see here). One of the strengths of your work, I think, is your very clear view that the problems with tech-driven schooling – what we might call the platform model of education – go beyond issues of privacy and data security. It seems that, in this model, human relationships – between teachers and students, or amongst students – are far less important than in more traditional kinds of education. In an interview last year, you warned about the possible ‘feedback loops’ created by tech-driven schooling. Could you say more?

My Response

Does the technology used in your child’s public school empower students to share their own insights and creativity with the larger world, or does it transform them into consumers of corporate content through algorithmic profiling? If a computer program requires a login from a child and cannot function without having access to their previous interactions with said program I have serious reservations about it, even if they promise the data is secure.

Some reformers envision a time within the next two decades when Artificial Intelligence (AI) learning assistants largely supplant human teachers. These futurists imagine AI “guides on the side” functioning as child minders delivering “just-in-time” content for in-demand workforce placements. This dystopian vision includes students outfitted with biometric wearable devices that extract real time data to guide the delivery of online content. Harvard Innovation Lab’s Brainco has already developed a brain wave monitoring device for classroom use and is now selling it to Chinese markets.

The information fed to students will, of course, be determined by profiles tracked on data dashboards, reinforcing the position each child is expected to occupy in society. God forbid a student stumbles learning their multiplication tables in third grade and is shunted over to the prison labor track. In this model AI, and the racially biased training data that often underpins it, becomes a de facto gatekeeper to knowledge. Information restricted; made available only on a need-to-know basis. Your profile says you’ll never need physics. Your data says you have no talent for languages. The dashboard says you’re behaviorally non-compliant, which is too bad given your high intelligence. Education systems have always profiled students as a means of social control, but developments in Big Data, machine learning, and predictive analytics have the potential to make existing systems considerably more oppressive.

The “personalized learning” model conditions students to view themselves as independent operators, free agents attempting to navigate a precarious gig economy alone. Screen-based isolation and an emphasis on data-driven metrics steadily erode children’s innate tendencies to creative cooperation. Which is ultimately better for society, an algorithm that learns each student in a classroom and delivers a pre-determined reading selection that they review and are quizzed on online, or a human teacher who selects an all class reading in which there is lively debate? The first scenario forecloses creative thought in service of data generation and reinforces there is but one correct answer. The second opens up chances for students to gain new insights while limiting opportunities for digital surveillance.

As a parent, I place my trust in teachers and want them to have the resources and support they need to really know the children in their care and guide them on their educational journeys. Learning is not a linear process, but an organic one with occasional doldrums sometimes followed by great leaps of understanding. A human teacher does not view their students as data points subject to precision engineering; they see them as contributing members of a classroom community each with unique talents, strengths, and weaknesses. A good teacher deftly navigates the waters of collective learning, and their students are better prepared to face the world having had the experience of co-created knowledge.

I am fortunate that my child attends a magnet school where they haven’t embraced online adaptive learning programs. The students use technology to write papers, create presentations, and coordinate group projects. They enjoy freedom in their learning and have a great deal of human contact even though their class sizes are quite large. They still undertake projects and skits and non-digital art, which is something that cannot be taken for granted these days. I am glad for it, but it saddens me immensely that children in schools with low test scores, children who have been subjected to the “turnaround” process, are often compelled to use online learning systems for in-school and at-home instruction. The children with the greatest need don’t have access to non-surveilled education as my child does, which is a travesty. The children who most require personal connection are denied that right; instead data-driven “fixes” are substituted for human care.

While student data privacy is important, I caution activists that we don’t want to “win” on privacy but end up with “secure” algorithmic learning. I’ve been led down the wrong path before. We thought opt-out would be an effective tool against privatization, but instead it ended up reinforcing reform arguments for all-the-time testing. We did not realize that until it was too late. I have concerns that student data privacy may be leading us down a similar road. We must not be fooled twice. Many reformers are excited to talk about privacy and appropriate use of data. Let us not allow them frame the discussion in this way. We must ground ourselves in the importance of good pedagogy, one that respects the humanity and personal agency of both student and teacher. Privacy concerns can play a role in educating the public, but to win this war we have to ground our strategy in the rights of parents and teachers to unplug students from adaptive learning systems altogether, not simply to secure the data in those systems of oppression.

Part One: Talking Across the Pond Here

Part Two: Virtual Reality and Globalized Workforce Here

Part Three: “Personalized Learning” Driven By Data Here

Part Four: We Haven’t Won, We’re Testing All The Time Here

We haven’t won. We’re testing all the time.

This is the fourth of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatising Schools: Question Four

Why are reformers questioning the tests?

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, the head of England’s school inspection agency, said last year that ‘there is more to a good education than league tables’. Students are being made to ‘jump through accountability hoops’; there is too much teaching to the test; schools have become ‘exam factories’, etc., etc. The Chief Inspector has even taken to lecturing her audiences about Campbell’s Law. Which is all very strange, given that the organisation she leads is, and has always been, a key driver of the system.

Does any of this seem familiar? I have a feeling that we’re following in the footsteps of the USA here, but that we’re a few paces behind.

My Response

Often the powers controlling the education reform agenda implement punitive measures intended to remain in place long enough to inflict discomfort, destabilize the system, and set the stage for their actual desired outcome. We experienced this under our national education legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which cemented the primacy of high-stakes standardized testing and remained in place between 2002 and 2015. This law caused grave harm, driving untold numbers of teachers out of the profession, galvanizing the test-preparation industry, and normalizing the idea that the education of human beings is something that demands massive amounts of data collection. NCLB imposed accountability, but that accountability was borne by those on the front lines in classrooms and never extended to the people in power who embraced austerity and policies that favored school “choice” at the expense of neighborhood schools.

Federal education legislation signed into law at the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was lauded in some circles because it broadened accountability measures beyond the confines of reading and math scores. Now instead of measuring two subject areas, schools are expected to track graduation rates, proficiency for English language learners, student growth, and a fifth measure of school quality such as social-emotional learning, school climate, college or workforce preparedness, or parent engagement. This shift to “multiple measures” means the amount of data being tracked under ESSA has increased exponentially. There is also an emphasis on formative assessments, which has led to the implementation of off-the-shelf, data-driven benchmarking “solutions” like iReady. Some schools are even adopting rubrics for recess and play. Accountability has not lessened at all. The data-driven mentality now extends into every aspect of the educational experience. We are literally testing all the time.

Since public education is in the process of being remade as a profit center for social impact investment, policymakers can ill afford to stop the data collection game. Data is what fuels the machine. It appears they intend to avoid the corrupting influence of Campbell’s Law not by forsaking data collection but rather by measuring everything.

Part One: Talking Across the Pond Here

Part Two: Virtual Reality and Globalized Workforce Here

Part Three: “Personalized Learning” Driven By Data Here

“Personalized” Learning: Driven By Data, Surveilled By Algorithms

This is the third of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website. Read the introduction and question one, Talking Across the Pond, here and question two about virtual reality field trips here.

Privatizing Schools: Question 3 on Blended Learning

An English school chain set up by a group of hedge fund managers, Ark Schools, is planning a ‘blended learning academy’, on the model of the California-based Rocketship charter schools (see here). Other academy chains are experimenting with computer-based instruction and ‘one-to-one device programmes’. Could you say something about blended learning – or ‘personalised learning’, as it is becoming known?

My Response

During the 2013-14 school year over 1.7 million students in the state of Pennsylvania attended one of 16 online virtual schools, a number of which are steeped in corruption. Often parents felt compelled to remove students from bricks and mortar schools that were not meeting their children’s needs due to intentional underfunding, chronic mismanagement, refusal to meet terms of individual education plans, and health or safety concerns. The shift of public funds into virtual charters has been financially destabilizing to school districts across our state, and studies continue to show most students are not well served by the online model.

Besides charter operators offering home-based, 100% online learning, a growing number of traditional classrooms in the United States are experiencing a shift to digital education via learning management systems, the “personalized learning” you reference. These systems deploy unique log-ins, machine learning, and algorithms, serving up online content to students as young as five years old. The youngest children cannot remember their usernames and passwords, so they are issued QR code badges that are scanned with the device camera. These “Clever” badges are widely used in Rocketship Academy charter schools.

As the price point for tablets and Chrome books has dropped, it has become increasingly common for students, even in low-income districts, to be issued their own device through 1:1 initiatives. Parents are required to sign-off and take responsibility for devices and sometimes pay insurance fees. All device-based activity is subject to monitoring, and many districts contract with software companies like Go Guardian for remote viewing, screen capture, and content control. Parents are finding that schools no longer provide print textbooks. Instead, students must access content via screens, which has spurred growing concern around vision problems and reduced reading comprehension and retention. The state of Maryland recently passed a law requiring research into best practices for screen-time for children, including device use in school settings to address these concerns.

The blended-hybrid learning model has been widely promoted by the online learning industry over the past decade. Though it can take a number of forms, it is generally understood to be supervised learning away from home that is carried out at least partially online with the student having input over the pace of their learning. While described as “personalized” learning, the reality is that many programs are just digital worksheets or playlists of videos, sometimes known open education resources (OER), and reading selections with associated online quizzes. Those pushing “playlist” “personalized learning” include Silicon Valley moguls like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook / Summit Basecamp) and Reed Hastings (Netflix / Dreambox). Hastings, a charter school supporter and investor in Rocketship, has made it clear his goal is to undermine local control of schools, by eliminating elected school boards, which he views as inefficient.

iNACOL, the International Association of K12 Online Learning, has been a major force behind the promotion of expanded digital education in our country. See their report on blended learning with an assessment of models from 2008-2015 here. iNACOL’s board is comprised of individuals representing social impact investing, competency-based education, learning ecosystems (as a substitute for neighborhood schools), and data-driven innovation. Mickey Revenaugh, a director of new school models (online virtual schools / Connections Academy) for Pearson, serves as vice-chair.

Another player in this arena is Clayton Christensen’s Innosight Institute. Christensen is a venture capitalist and professor at the Harvard Business School known for his work on disruptive innovation in the fields of education and healthcare. In 2011, Innosight collaborated with the Charter School Growth Fund to develop an overview of various “personalized” learning models underway in the United States. That report, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” can be accessed here.

Online learning is a means by which schools may reduce staffing costs, pushing up class sizes and hiring non-certified assistants to monitor students while online. Many schools start out with a rotational model in which the day is divided into thirds. Students spend part of their day pursuing online learning individually, part of their day collaborating online with peers, and part of the day in small group instruction with a human teacher. Education Elements is a consulting firm and mouthpiece for the industry that works closely with the Christensen Institute to promote the rotational online learning model. They’ve facilitated adoption of “personalized learning” in over 100 districts across the country. If you’d like to know more, I’ve written other pieces on “personalized” learning here, here, here, and here.

Virtual Reality and the Globalized Workforce: Talking Across the Pond, Part 2

This is the second of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. Read the introduction and first installment here. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatizing Schools: Question 2

Anthony Seldon, a former headteacher who is an influential voice in education debate in England, has published a book called The Fourth Education Revolution. He claims that robots – ‘adaptive’ learning systems or ‘AI personal tutors’ – will replace teachers within 10 years.

Echoing Selden, our current secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, recently called on the tech industry – ‘both the UK’s burgeoning tech sector and Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Microsoft’ – to ‘launch an education revolution’. To quote at slightly more length:

In some schools, state-of-the-art technology is bringing education to life by helping children take virtual trips through the Amazon and control robots, while also slashing the time their teachers are spending on burdensome administrative tasks.

Would you like to comment?

My Response

It seems Mr. Seldon’s book may be referencing the shift to what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a concept advanced by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In the spring of 2017, WEF opened a Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the Presidio in San Francisco, California. The focus of the Center is to develop policies around the future of work, automation, artificial intelligence, cross-border data flows, the Internet of Things, and technologies like drones and autonomous vehicles.

To make sense of what is happening in schools today we must place ourselves in the position of the global elite. They anticipate a future where stable careers that pay a living wage will become increasingly scarce as automation and virtual agents creep into service sector jobs like teaching, medical treatment, therapy, and elder care. They anticipate a future where human-robot cooperation is normalized in advanced manufacturing settings. For a sense of research underway see the publication list from the Tufts Human Robot Interaction Laboratory here. As digital economic systems take hold through widespread adoption of crypto-currencies and Blockchain smart contracts, global supply chains will continue to evolve. Corporate interests will be operating from a globalist perspective. The real world and virtual worlds will meld in ways that disrupt current conceptions of human capital and supply chain management.

A malleable workforce with the proper mindset will best serve the interests of the elite. That is why we are seeing growing emphasis on capturing data on students’ non-cognitive skills. People must be acclimated to the premise of “lifelong learning” in which they will be constantly reskilled to effectively interface with cutting-edge automated systems. Having a population of independent thinkers will not benefit those at the top of the economic pyramid. In fact, independent thinking of the type encouraged by self-selected reading over algorithmic online education modules could be perceived as a threat. There will always be a small group at the top who will have access to humane instruction, but the masses must be conditioned towards dutiful acceptance of their fate, placated with digital entertainment and monitored through deployment of ubiquitous surveillance being incorporated into “smart” city design.

Those in positions of authority have long-range plans with aligned communications strategies geared to incrementally move us towards acceptance of these “innovative” practices. If they move at a gradual, yet steady pace it is likely people won’t catch on and instead will accept this future as if there were no alternative. Adoption of virtual field trips as a mode of educational training is one example of how tele-presence is being normalized, despite serious health concerns over VR use in children. If the goal in fifteen years is to make it acceptable for poor people to carry out manufacturing activities via virtual reality simulators for affluent factory operators in distant, secured locations, they have to get people conditioned to operating in virtual worlds now. But it should seem like fun, not work. It should be presented as a special opportunity, not drudgery.

In closing, I will add that virtual reality systems enable the capture of vast amounts of biometric data. Most people do not realize when they put on a headset and hand pieces, they create as much data as they consume. In addition to eye tracking and body positions, systems can also capture heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, and emotional states. See more information here, here, and here. Many companies are also looking to position virtual and augmented reality simulators as impact investments, due to their capacity to change attitudes and opinions around social issues. This aligns with research I recently undertook around “solutions” journalism and impact markets in media. In any event, don’t listen to Mr. Seldon; beware VR empathy machines.

Talking Across The Pond About Ed Reform 2.0

One of the nice things about working in digital spaces is that you’re able to connect with people across distances and find you have a lot in common. You can help one another and learn new things in the process. The blogger at Privatising Schools based in the UK reached out to me with a proposal that we collaborate on a project that might help British readers get up to speed with the evolving landscape of privatization, since they are a few years behind us. I thought it sounded like a great plan. What follows is the first in a series of ten questions posed by Privatising Schools and my responses. For regular readers, much of this will be familiar ground, but I think it worthwhile to see how developments in the UK and US overlap, and they do in some unexpected ways. Privatising Schools has woven together a somewhat more condensed version with answers to our first round of questions. Check it out here to get more of the UK perspective.

Question 1

First of all, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I know that your work is closely tied to your experiences as a parent with a child in the public school system in Philadelphia; the subtitle of your blog is ‘A Sceptical Parent’s Thoughts on Digital Curriculum’. But many people don’t appreciate how hard tech-based schooling – cyber-schools, ‘blended learning’, ‘adaptive’ learning systems using AI, and all the rest – is being pushed, both in the US and here in England. Could you say more about the experiences which led you to start your blog? Is there something about the Philadelphia school district which brought the issues into focus for you?


Our daughter attends public schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is a large, under-funded, urban school district that serves a majority black and brown student body. A significant percentage of our families live in poverty. For sixteen years, until this one when we transitioned back to a school board appointed by the mayor, the School Reform Commission managed the operations of our district. The state controlled a majority of seats on that body, and Philadelphians had no say over what happened in our schools. Throughout that time, and presently, our district superintendents had all been trained by or affiliated with the Broad Academy, a venture philanthropic entity that places high-level administrators throughout the country to act as change agents in fostering the privatization agenda.

It took me years to realize our schools were being broken on purpose in order to open the public education sector up to corporate raiding via charter schools and technology and data-mining initiatives. Throughout my daughter’s elementary years I was active at the school level, volunteering and fundraising. I occasionally testified at public meetings, but mostly stayed in my lane.

The nature of my involvement, however, changed in 2013 when the School Reform Commission, on the recommendation of a corporate consultancy funded by the largest foundation in the city, decided to close 23 schools and lay off over 3,000 teachers. This action destabilized the entire district at which time it was decided to implement a punitive school report card program, an initiative underwritten by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (Dell being a company that sells computers and contracts with the National Security Agency). After a contentious meeting, future public input sessions were scuttled. Clearly something was afoot.

Scores from end-of-year standardized tests were being used to justify closures and turnover of operations at “underperforming” schools. A number of parents and teachers banded together to launch a campaign around opting out of these harmful tests. There was a national push around opt out for several years leading up to the passage of the new national education law at the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act. During that time I was part of a network of loosely affiliated chapters under the umbrella of United Opt Out. We shared information, coordinated actions, and held several conferences.

We thought that if we could encourage enough parents to withhold their children’s data, it would make it harder for officials to use standardized test scores as weapons against schools and teachers. These tests redirect public funds into the pockets of companies like Pearson and reduce curriculum to deadening test-prep for months at a time. They’re also harmful to students whose first language is not English and students with learning differences. The Philadelphia school district has substantial populations of children in each of these categories.

In Pennsylvania we have a legal right to opt out on religious grounds. Nevertheless, it surprised me when in the winter of 2015; officials agreed to my request to translate state-provided literature about opt out, so that all of the families in the district would know their rights. District leadership had a reputation for putting up roadblocks in the face of even basic requests. So why would they readily cooperate on an action that would weaken their position with regards to testing?

As 2015 progressed and we became aware of provisions embedded within the Every Student Succeeds Act, it dawned on some of us that a transition was underway. Over time authorities would begin to de-emphasize end-of-year tests in favor of constant online “benchmark” testing. This would exponentially increase the data stream and improve prospects for speculative investments in ed-tech curriculum.

We called this new phase Ed Reform 2.0. Ed Reform 1.0 was characterized by: school closures, charter school expansion, deprofessionalization of teachers via alternative certification programs, a push towards vouchers that parents could use to redirect public funds into private schools, and high-stakes end of year testing. Ed Reform 2.0 would embrace turnaround models where school management was outsourced rather than schools being closed altogether, all-the-time testing would roll out via “personalized” online learning playlists, data would be collected across all subject areas rather than just literacy and math, non-cognitive data would be gathered via classroom management software systems, letter grades would be replaced by “mastery” rubrics, gradually there would be a shift to supervision of students on devices by support staff rather than certified teachers, and there would be an emphasis on “out-of-school time,” project-based learning with community and work-based “partners.” I’ve pulled together resources on this new phase here.

For a time, we were posting all over social media threads trying to explain what was happening. We tried to convey to people that just because those in positions of authority were finally relenting on opt out didn’t mean we’d won. Instead, the battle had moved into a new phase. It was very hard for people to hear, because those engaged in this struggle do so often at great emotional cost. It is grueling. Everyone wanted to think we’d won; but we hadn’t won. The terms of engagement had simply changed.

Another problem was that language, concepts, and terms that sounded humane, had already been co-opted by the other side. Reform interests were leveraging real trauma and harm experienced by our city’s poor communities to create an environment suitable for the implementation of predatory data-mined service delivery linked to social impact investing. Even concepts as seemingly innocuous as “community schools” were fraught with peril, as I testified before the School Reform Commission in the fall of 2015.

In September 2016, I wrote one of my first blog pieces for Wrench in the Gears. I titled it “Stop! Don’t opt out. Read this first.” Some took offense at the title, but the goal was to get people’s attention. I needed them to stop and think. Since that time it has been viewed over 7,500 times. The post was accompanied by similar ones written by six other bloggers with whom I had come to work over the years. It was meant to emphasize the need for a shift in strategy, one that would confront all-the-time embedded assessment in online curriculum and “playlist” consumable education that is being pitched under the euphemism “personalized learning.”

In many respects, Philadelphia is not nearly as far down the road with ed-tech adoption as other districts. See this blog from Baltimore County, Maryland parents here. We don’t have a district-wide 1:1 device adoption program, an initiative where students are issued inexpensive Chromebooks on which most of their lessons are delivered. But our district HAS opted to put tens of millions of dollars in recent years into online education and data-management. This is being done despite the preference of parents and teachers to direct resources into reducing class sizes, restoring electives and extracurricular activities, ensuring all schools have a functioning library with a certified librarian, and addressing unsafe building conditions. Philadelphia’s football team, the Eagles, won the Superbowl in January and during the celebratory parade, which is near where I live, I set up a station to ask people in the crowd how they wanted public funds spent on schools. They don’t want tech and data; they want teachers and face-to-face learning. I created a video from these interviews and blogged it here.

What I’ve come to realize over the past five years of in depth research is that what is happening to schools is a global concern. I spend a lot of time tracking money and mapping it using the crowd-sourcing software Little Sis. You can see an example of my research on the takeover of North Dakota’s schools here. This transition is not something specific to my city or to the United States. Our schools are viewed by global finance as profit centers and data factories. If you really want to explore a deep rabbit hole look up the Global Education Futures agenda here.

The damaging policies being incorporated into educational systems seem illogical until you grasp the fact that we are experiencing a period of profound struggle around who will control access to information and learning. Will education systems be allowed to empower communities or will they be taken hostage to generate profit for private interests?

Be on your best behavior! Impact investors target laundromats and barbershops in poor communities.

Today, partners in Philadelphia’s Read by 4th Campaign meet to discuss outcomes of the national Grade Level Reading Week held at the Logan Hotel July 23-27, 2018. As we know from previous comments by economist James Heckman and billionaire political candidate JB Pritzker (here), the sweet spot for early childhood impact investing is believed to be in character training ages 0-3. The Heckman Equation toolkit promises a 7-10% annual rate of return on such investments, which can be boosted to 13% when metrics are expanded to include health outcomes.

Consequently, emphasis on behavior change and links between poverty, health, and literacy referenced in the email below are closely aligned to the Heckman / ReadyNation investment plan. The one element that is somewhat surprising is the targeting of laundromats and barbershops for interventions. It will be interesting to see how these “learning landscapes” manifest and what form the “impact” data capture takes. Providing print (non-app, non-Internet of Things-enabled) books in these spaces won’t service global finance capital, though such a move would be nice for kids. I could use some eyes on the street; if you see this rolling out in your community be sure to drop me a line. I would not be surprised if the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government is involved, as they are a supporter of the Barbershop Books initiative (featured image).

Read By Fourth Meeting

The July Grade Level Reading (GLR) conference was convened to coordinate activities among a growing network of 360+ communities working around closing early literacy gaps (i.e. refining speculative impact investment markets). If you need background on the political economy of early childhood education and literacy impact investing see links here, here, here, and here. The screen shot below is from Melissa Sanchez’s May 2016 article for the Chicago Reporter, Investors earn max initial payment from Chicago’s ‘social impact bond.’ The table, derived from contract documents, shows three separate metrics that inform investment pay outs. Article here.

Chicago Early Childhood MetricsEleven videos of the GLR conference are available for viewing here, including: Using Data and Learning Science to Drive Impact; National Partners are Using Technology and Data Visualization; and the Funder Huddle Open Plenary with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. The emphasis on learning science, data visualization, technology and impact is about transforming early learning spaces into locations of data extraction that will serve up poor children as data points, not just once, but multiple times (pre-k, kindergarten, third grade), in order to maximize opportunities for venture philanthropy profit taking.

Attendees signing up for the “Funder Huddle” were invited to arrive a day early for briefings on actionable “success” tools designed for replication across the network. The other two tracks were “Community and State Leads Convening” where the focus was “bigger outcomes” and “game-changing impact” at scale, and “Institutes” charged with looking at using trauma-informed practice and character education to impact children’s health and literacy.

The William Penn Foundation was the underwriting sponsor of the GLR conference. The foundation has been a major supporter of school privatization efforts and is an influential partner in the growth of out-of-school time learning and Rebuild, the city’s program to promote healthy lifestyles and workforce development through data-driven investments in libraries and recreation centers (cue up learning ecosystems and ESAs). Other event sponsors included ReadyNation, the Bezos Family Foundation (see my post on Bezos’s Montessori Pre-K program here), Comcast, and numerous finance and banking interests. Also notable given my last post on the hijacking of non-profit media by impact investors is the presence of the Knight Foundation.

GLR Sponsors

So, with all of this money and influence behind the GLR conference, how it is that there is no hew and cry to make sure Philadelphia’s schools have libraries and librarians? How is it that no one is advocating for reduced class sizes to improve classroom environments and increase time for face-to-face instruction?  How it is that band-aids are offered up in the form of technological interventions and volunteer reading coaches? How is it that corporations aren’t offering to pay more taxes to support our schools rather than scuttling funds into foundations they can use to influence policy and seed impact investment markets?

Austerity and misery create markets for impact investment profit-taking. Once we transform early childhood education and early literacy into profit-taking opportunities, there will never be any reason to address the structural nature of the problem. Global capital is not about to eliminate a profit center. What is happening with these grade level reading campaigns is wrong. Children should be encouraged to read books of their choosing. They should have access to text-rich environments. They deserve professional teachers to support them in their literacy journey. They deserve to develop these skills in ways that are not surveilled or micro-managed through technologies, that do not transform them into speculative piles of human capital in service of banks and community foundations.

Fund our schools, and ensure administrators and school boards are accountable to communities. Make corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and eliminate philanthropic hijacking of the social sector. Enough with the cute babies on billboards. We know the games you are playing with our children. Stop it!