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.
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?