Digital curriculum, an answer to equity? An Open Letter to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

I was prompted to write this after watching the closing keynote address Dr. Ibram X. Kendi gave at UnboundEd’s July 2019 Standards Institute conference. A video of his lecture, “An Argument Between Racist and Anti-Racist Ideas, can be viewed here. Dr. Kendi is a professor of history and international relations at American University. He received the National Book Award for Stamped From the Beginning and considerable acclaim for his new book, How To Be An Anti-Racist.

Kendi Unbounded

UnboundEd is a Brooklyn-based non-profit founded in 2016 that promotes standards-aligned (Common Core) educational content based on EngageNY curriculum modules. The organization hosts two conferences annually, Standards Institutes, that attract over 1,000 educators.

UnboundEd EngageNY

Its primary funders are the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The latter has been a primary force advancing Open Educational Resources (OER, mostly digital) and has used its considerable philanthropic assets to catalyze the field of human capital impact investing (more on that here). The Gates Foundation has made $11 million in contributions to UnboundEd since 2015. The address provided for the organization on a 2015 Gates Foundation 990 was a WeWork co-working space located at 81 Prospect Street in Brooklyn.

UnboundEd Gates Grants

Unbounded Gates 2015 Grant

Interactive version of the  map below here.

UnboundEd Learning Funders

Current members of the UnboundEd board include:

Doug Borchard, COO of New Profit, ed-tech and human capital impact investing

Peter Cunningham, ed reform operative with ties to Arne Duncan, founder of Education Post, aka Results in Education Foundation

Jeff Livingston, former derivatives trader turned educational technology salesman who now runs a consulting firm promoting scalable innovation for “at risk” youth

Shaun Neems, career educator in Rochester City Schools, home to Marc Tucker’s National Center on Education and the Economy

Arun Ramanathan, former San Diego Unified School District administrator and “opportunity gap” non-profit director, now CEO of Pivot Learning, a turnaround consulting firm

Judy Wurtzel, former director of the Learning First Alliance with ties to Aspen Insitute, now Executive Director of the Schusterman Family Foundation, a lead investor in Blue Meridian Partners

Jason Zimba, lead writer of the Common Core math standards and close friend of David Coleman

Interactive version of the map below here.

UnboundEd Board

UnboundEd’s founding director, Laura Smith, worked as special assistant to New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, later joining him at Amplify Education, a data-driven, tablet-based digital learning platform that evolved from News Corp’s (Rupert Murdoch) Wireless Generation.

Smith’s prior association with Amplify is of importance to this conversation, because in May 2019, the Seattle Public Schools adopted Amplify as the district’s new elementary and middle school science curriculum.

The contracting process became highly contentious, after concerns over potential conflicts of interest surfaced. An anonymous donor had covered the fees associated with use of the Amplify curriculum by 20 schools in 2017 without the knowledge of the school board.

Amplify is an online curriculum critics say requires too much screen time, especially for young children. Proponents counter it’s really just a fun, interactive textbook and helps address the digital divide. The latter group framed access to technology based learning as equity issue. As heated discussions continued from spring into summer, it was not uncommon for those who questioned the adoption of Amplify to be told they were racist.

Amplify Equity Seattle

I have to wonder if those advocating for adoption of digital textbooks fully comprehend the amount of data that is captured on the students and how it is used? If it’s an “equity” issue, are we actually talking about equal access to online surveillance? Is that what we want for Black and Brown children? Is that liberation, or is that commodification and control?

A response made by Amplify representatives to a 2014 request for information regarding “pull mechanisms” for “High Impact Learning Technologies” sheds light on the true nature of the technology and the level of monitoring it imposes. The whitepaper submitted to Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy states: “At Amplify we believe that education will become a primarily digital endeavor in five years. Devices are becoming less expensive, connectivity investments are increasing, and a generation of educational breakthrough software is in development.”

Amplify High Impact Learning Technologies

As shown above, their submission notes numerous ways digital devices track online activity. That data is then used to evaluate “learning outcomes” and “impact.” The data/outcomes piece is important, because ed-tech has been set up as a conduit for global social impact capital tied to UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, which preferences ICT education.

The Amplify paper specifically mentions interest in using social impact bonds to fund implementation, though they note they have not worked out how to integrate SIBs into the current education finance landscape or “control for implementation in measuring success.”

Amplify Social Impact Bonds

Amplify software captures pages read, time spent on devices at school and at home, “collaboration metrics” mapping student-to-student and student-to-teacher online interactions, parent portal log-ins, and email click throughs. For historically oppressed communities closing the digital divide could very well end up feeling like being put in digital jail.

I’m sure the children feel it and the parents. They know they are being tracked, which is incredibly stressful. What happens once “textbooks” become digital minders? When analytics claim to know students better than they know themselves? When data create unassailable profiles in the cloud that cannot be contested? When one’s pre-k performance determines one’s career pathway?

Does data become destiny?

In the future will offline, human-to-human learning become a fugitive practice?

Is that what “education transformation” in an age of global connectively really means?

Kendi’s keynote draws on personal experience to convey how a Black child’s ability to survive and thrive in a racist society is tied to finding adults and peers who affirm them and let them know they do not need to be “fixed” within a broken system, a system that is broken on purpose to concentrate power in white hands. What challenged him to invest himself in learning and pursue his life’s work wasn’t a compelling Online Education Resource, it was his fourth grade teacher, his high school friend, his school counselor.

Structural racism is not going to be undone with information Black children get from a “personalized” learning playlist. I doubt gamified behavior charts will award badges or token scrip to those intent on upending oppressive systems. Are rigorous standards developed by Ivy League academics tasked with creating revenue streams for their MBA counterparts the answer if they are implemented with fidelity? Will freedom to think outside the boxes imposed by whiteness emerge from a WeWork cubicle situated in the tech corridor of Brooklyn?

If the tech oligarchs and those fronting for them say digital curriculum is the answer to equity and start funding anti-racism rubrics, should we co-sign? Maybe not.

Dear Dr. Kendi,

Acknowledging and beginning to meaningfully address the structural racism upon which the United States was founded is crucial, especially in this 400th year since abducted Africans were first brought to Jamestown and sold as slaves. I am grateful for your writing and the commitment you’ve made to bring this message to audiences across the nation and around the world.

As society advances towards digitized dispossession we have precious little time left to come to terms with our nation’s brutal history. New worlds are being constructed in computer code. Capitalism and settler colonialism have jumped through the screen, sucking us into a netherworld where behaviors can be engineered through gamified nudges. Education transformed into “personalized” feedback loops of corporate content calibrated to reinforce the system’s expectations of you, to “fix” you to whiteness. Hybrid worlds of flickering ones and zeros contained on server-farms, largely controlled by powerful men and the algorithms they deploy.

Their hired guns, the programmers, are tasked with encoding whiteness into the foundations of this shadow world, one where struggles against racism will continue even as social systems are increasingly mediated by AI (artificial intelligence). In a panopticon where devices have evolved to analyze emotion, assess risk, and predict behavior, new strategies of resistance will be required.

I’m taking time to write, because you’ve made a point of saying each of us needs to decide who we are striving to be and act on it. That we must have hope, because losing hope guarantees racism will continue unabated; that while policies are the structural elements that enable racism, individuals can make choices to disrupt the status quo. You’ve also stated that racist attitudes emerge from a place of denial, while anti-racism comes from a place of confession.

Therefore, I will open by sharing that I am a white, middle-aged mom, graying hair, kid just off to college. I grew up in a corporate suburb in the south. I excelled at whiteness, though I didn’t understand it as that at the time. I am a late-blooming activist who initially worked on issues of public education and opting out of standardized testing.

My scope widened to encompass an analysis of institutionalized poverty management and social impact investing as mechanisms of social control (background here). I am endeavoring to reflect on my life choices and how they uphold or disrupt structural racism. I try to disrupt as much as possible, but managing the disease of whiteness requires ongoing attention. My success, admittedly, is inconsistent. I am trying to do better.

Through my activism I’ve developed relationships with people who come from different life experiences than my own, people forced to navigate racism on a daily basis for their survival. Friendship opened my eyes to the machine of structural racism, and I undertook to learn its operations. So, for the past three years, I’ve been untangling the knotty threads of global finance, militarized policing, machine learning, educational technology, digital surveillance, human capital speculation, and risk profiling of vulnerable communities.

I’m pretty good at it. It frightens me that I can so easily get into the headspace of these awful people, piece together clues from whitepapers and LinkedIn profiles, anticipating the next phase of their plan. Maybe that is my gift, or my curse, a curse of whiteness.

The tangled, macabre net of next-gen racial capitalism they have woven poses a dire threat to people I care about, to my fellow Philadelphians. Philadelphia is a city of deep poverty, making it an attractive target for social impact predators. More on that here.

However, it is also a city of Black resistance, of DuBois and Coltrane and MOVE. This gives me hope. I believe the way out of this morass, a direct extension of the Doctrine of Discovery carried out over centuries through land theft, genocide, and enslavement, will come from the combined power of the Black radical tradition and Indigenous sovereignty movements. As I wait for things to coalesce, I try to use my privilege to follow the money, ask questions, and share information.

We know the revolution is not going to be funded. An establishment managerial class will instead proffer superficial interventions, remedies designed to placate while distilling profit from misery. Black children in under-funded schools, unhoused people, chronically ill patients reduced to data and managed as metrics on dashboards while exhortations to secure “equity” and close “gaps” perfunctorily scroll by on power point presentations.

Consultants get paid; data is gathered; people are labeled and managed, but things rarely get better, which is exactly how those in power want it. This is part of the assimilationist strategy you lay out so clearly in the opening of Stamped From The Beginning. Data-driven “equity,” a false sense of “progress” that allows systems of racism to continue unimpeded.

With resistance, the machine evolves. In schools end-of-year tests are replaced with 1:1 devices, benchmark assessments, and data analytics demonstrating the amount of time students spend “on task.” In the end they still intend for Black and Brown kids to be put on pathways to the gig economy, or the military, or prison. Tech and finance interests, intent on turning public education into a global market, continually refine new ways of selling hardware, software, cloud storage, data, and futures-children’s futures.

In such an environment, racism can become automated under the false pretense that the data are neutral, that turning schools into data factories is ok. Digital feedback loops promise improved outcomes if programs are implemented “with fidelity,” but that processing is incredibly dehumanizing. There are few people in the “personalization” products blended learning peddlers sell; it’s mostly algorithms and profiling and surveillance.

As you have noted, it’s not that those in power don’t know better. They know exactly what they are doing. Racism is systemic. It is a power structure that we must either accept or resist. Policies of violence were encoded into the founding documents of the United States. Dr. Tim Scott notes in his analysis The Duplicitous US Constitution, “…the white supremacist and patriarchal ideologies of the wealthy, slave-owning Christian men who founded the nation were fused with free market ideology, the engine for the emerging interests of industrial capitalism.”

And now they are coming at us with a Fourth Industrial Revolution of automated labor where people are dying of trauma and self-medication, where telecom and tech giants have teamed up with the state to watch us through our doorbells or digital assistants or “smart” home conveniences-for those who still have homes. Our schools are filled with Orwell’s telescreens; only they come on laptop carts, having been sold to us as liberation, a way to close the digital divide. The oligarchs have thirty-year plans, and we are always behind, in crisis mode, reactive.

Those in power want oppressed communities to resign themselves to living their lives as a high-stakes game in which they are tracked in real time on leaderboards, where they must unlock rights and privileges through good behavior, and fin-tech makes all the rules. But we don’t have to go along. We can question. We can dialogue. People can build something outside institutionalized power’s framework of false accountability.

We must, however, be able to have authentic, frank conversations about our nation’s racist history, and we must not allow those in power to camouflage their nefarious plans with a veneer of anti-racism. That sows confusion when what we most need is clarity. The powerful, especially the tech oligarchs, must not be allowed to control the conversation or set the terms of engagement.

Gates Foundation SEL Competencies

Bill Gates is extremely interested in evaluating the social emotional competencies (SEL) of children, Mark Zuckerberg and the Bechtel Foundation, too (defense contracting and toxic FEMA trailers). As the world falls apart, “character education” has become a key concern of the corporate-state. That’s what is driving Council for a Strong America, a vehicle for impact investors designed to groom children to conform to the expectations of the military, police, workforce boards, evangelical religious groups, and athletics. Those in power need to keep the lid on lest things begin to boil over.

Council for A Strong America

Controlling mindset is important, and profitable with the Heckman equation in full swing. Now with advancements in digital technologies, neuroscience, and brain training these apparently mad scientists seem pretty confident they’re going to be able to do it (check out Jonathan Moreno’s book Mind Wars). Children have been set up as lab rats to test executive function video games, building new markets in digital pharmaceuticals, leveraging public funds to fuel private profit taking. More here.

Akili Time To Play.jpg

They must know people would totally rebel if they were to admit this straight up; so instead, the powers that be will probably lead with SEL competencies that are hard to push back on. If I had had to guess (and my record is pretty good) I imagine anti-racism could easily be shortlisted as a desirable pilot SEL competency. Very hard to question, because most educators would be wary of putting themselves in a position where they might be called out as a racist.

So let’s let this scenario play out. Imagine Gates and his collaborators have underwritten the development of anti-racism standards along with attendant rubrics and assessments and data collection schemes. It’s not unthinkable, a perfect way to establish boundaries that allow a certain amount of social justice activism, but not too much. As long as people play by the establishment rules, nothing is going tip the apple cart. Those who participate in the endorsed program get to be part of the club, the good guys, deputized to police those not inclined to go along with the pre-authorized, standards-aligned “solution.”

VR Empathy Machine

These imagined SEL assessments could even employ empathy-invoking virtual reality scenarios with biometric data capture-you can get a lot of physical, emotional, and behavioral data via haptic systems. These anti-racism interventions would be a great candidate for pay for success finance. Paid behavior change! Would we be ok with that? I’m sure the gaming and entertainment industries would welcome such an approach.

Would such systems be used to ameliorate power asymmetries or entrench them?

Whose interests would ultimately be served?

Is digital programming a short cut to the elimination of racism?

Or, more likely, a means to commodify and constrain the real human work needed to enact permanent change.

Does anyone believe Gates and the many backers of CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) would cede power, support grassroots organizing, and redistribute resources to eliminate structural racism?

Hmm… it is far more likely the financiers, foundations, and non-profits intend to incorporate anti-racism training into burgeoning portfolios of “impactful” solutions for the purposes of speculative human capital investment, allowing hedge funds to gamble on behavioral “growth” and ensuring people remain monitored and isolated. See my writings on the Heckman Equation and his work with Angela Duckworth that veers eerily into eugenics territory. When the SEL rubrics come along there will probably be ones for grit and resilience, too, racist bootstrap constructs that they are.

SEL engineering through digital technologies is not being developed out of ignorance. People know full well the intent of this larger program-social reproduction, meritocracy, and compliance. The reality of anti-racism SEL standards is on the horizon; technologically feasible, though not quite yet socially acceptable.

So the question is if/when they arrive will we buy into it?

Will we agree that the answer is plugging into top-down standards, following the script, and stifling our humanity for fear of doing it wrong? Or will we disconnect and refuse standardized SEL metrics as we have done with end of year standardized testing?

Will we refuse to upload data about the mental states of our children, about their behaviors?

Will we set ourselves to the challenging, messy, face-to-face work required to undo centuries of toxic American myth making?

Will we commit to holding one another accountable, outside pre-approved “evidence-based” solutions?

Where will we find support outside the NGO construct, which is by its very nature, is held hostage to their funders’ agendas?

Because the work has to be done; the path out of technocracy demands we nurture anti-racist activity beyond the clutches of Gates, Zuckerberg, and Bechtel.

We have to figure it out.

In a recent talk you related a childhood experience, where you were punished for speaking up against an injustice at school. Your mother told you she wouldn’t discourage you from protesting, but you had to be prepared to accept the consequences. Some have expressed to me that white people should not participate in conversations about racism; that it is our place to listen. Yet, I feel in some things I cannot remain silent, because silence means withholding information that could fundamentally reframe the conversation, the tactics, and the nature of struggle.

Thus, I hope you will take this post in the spirit in which it was intended, an open dialogue that provides information affected communities might use to inform strategies of resistance.

I hope you will think of Mrs. Miles. Imagine her in a public school classroom today, perhaps a school targeted for “turnaround.” Based on how you described her, I imagine she would probably recognize the digital disconnection and profiling being ushered in by chromebooks. She would see that as a threat to her professional training  and a threat to the children in her care. I hope lots more people can tap into their inner Mrs. Miles, speak out at school board meetings, and pursue policies of non-cooperation.

You raised this question in your talk, “How will historians write about this time?” Well, this is a time in which incredibly powerful people are building an “Internet of Humans” to be run by AI (artificial intelligence) and monitored by Internet of Things sensors. It is an era of biocapitalism, racial capitalism. While some may believe automation and robotic or avatar learning companions could offer some measure of protection to Black children from structural racism, I personally believe it is codifying whiteness. I don’t know how historians will write this, but I am doing my best to raise questions and provoke conversation. I would very much welcome your thoughts in response.

Sincerely,

Alison McDowell

Mapper of Money and Power

Question Asker

Wrench

These screen shots are of select grants given to UnboundEd over the past three years.

HP Unbounded Learning 2019

UnboundEd Chan Zuckerberg

Unbounded Learning Bloomberg 2015

Unbounded Carnegie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Digital curriculum, an answer to equity? An Open Letter to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi”

  1. Alison, This is one of your most powerful posts.
    It comes to me in the middle of mulling over the New York Times 1619 Project and the fact that this effort to discuss the founding role of slavery in the formation of the nation, including Native Americans, comes complee with links to the Common Core. I kid you not.
    More than anyone I know, you have diligently mapped the plans in place and envisioned for “managing” the beliefs and conduct of this generation of students. Thank you for this work. I hope you receive a reply to your candid and well-documented letter.

    Like

    1. Thanks Laura. Of course the NY Times was the founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. Such mind games, terrible mind games. I think I will print out a copy and put it in the mail. Not that I’m holding my breath awaiting a response. Does he REALLY think Bill Gates is anti-racist? Very notable that assimilation, which is such a big deal in the introduction to Stamped from the Beginning wasn’t part of the talk at all. I find that telling.

      Like

  2. Alison,

    Powerful letter to Ibram Kendi.

    Good grief has it been 3 and 2/3 years since we had that rich community meeting (Thursday before the UOO Conf.) in a Philadelphia church basement? Wow!

    I have a long path of interest in technology in education, beginning with a 1959 (my first year of teaching high school math in Inglewood, CA) school district field trip to the Rand Corporation. They ran NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) with a roomful of refrigerator sized computers. They awed us by having an electric typewriter (a new phenom at the time) type out a response to some sort of question we asked. Wow! High Tech!

    I am planning on attending the March 28-29 NPE Conference in Philadelphia and plan to spend a few extra days with some Philly friends. If you are available for lunch (or breakfast, brunch, dunch, tea or dinner – my present state of being precludes midnight snacks), before or after the conference, I would enjoy catching up on your work (and to bore you with my interaction with technology over the last 60 years – including being the 80’s tech coordinator at the UCLA Lab School).

    Maybe I’ll see you in the spring in Philly,

    Larry Lawrence

    >

    Like

  3. As Gates said, back when the CCSS committees were just getting started, “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.”

    Like

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