Guest Post: Our Acton Academy Experience – Surveillance, Incentives, Behaviorism, Freedom Levels, and EdTech

The guest post that follows was written by a mother of children who were enrolled with Acton Academy. Below is a video of a site visit Jason and I filmed near The Slope School in Provo, Utah. The school, an Acton Academy affiliate, was founded by Matthew Clayton, who studied under the late Clayton “disruptive innovation” Christensen, worked as an analyst for Goldman Sachs, and was recruited to help build the Acton Academy brand. This is NOT the school discussed below, but I think my commentary provides useful context for this mother’s open letter. Hopefully both the video and her letter offer food for thought for parents who are struggling to navigate the world of “school choice” and do what’s best for ALL children of the world.

I have one more addition before we get to the heart of the matter. Over the winter, I put together an extensive map of individuals and organizations in Texas that are operating in ed-tech, social impact, bio-tech, and human capital finance spaces. Acton Academy and the Sandefers are featured in the screenshot below, but I encourage you to get acquainted with the overall landscape. As strange as it may seem, ed-tech, health-tech, and futures trading are all enmeshed in one another. While Dallas, Austin, and Houston are leaders in digital empire building, the playbook is the same wherever you go. Knowledge is power. Jeff Sandefer’s fortune came from oil drilling. He then moved into the education market (data-mining). After leaving the University of Texas Austin, Sandefer launched his own private business school, interestingly enough with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson as a partner. More here on the Peterson Fellowship at Acton Business School.

Acton Academy is in the lower right corner, and you can click here to explore the whole interactive map. It’s HUGE (like Texas).

Guest Blogger Mom – What We Were Looking For

My junior year of college I decided to try to actually learn. Typically I read a syllabus to look for the path of least resistance towards my A. I quickly realized I didn’t know how to learn. A fantastic GPA didn’t provide me with the skills for self-motivation, or curiosity, as I had been guided by getting the grades. After having kids of my own, I knew I wanted them to have the opportunity to experience learning in meaningful, practical ways that cultivated curiosity and self-efficacy.

Living in New York City, I visited all the schools who were offering a model that seemed to align. Just as the search was getting too overwhelming and hopeless, I saw an ad for a start-up school that said all the words; it was going to be as intimate as homeschooling but in a mixed-age classroom. They wanted to disrupt the old models and create small learning communities where children weren’t competing for the best grades, but were getting personalized attention, engaging in project-based learning, developing their character, studying in the field, and explaining their discoveries in exhibitions. The start-up was not just a school, but also an education technology company looking to create a personalized learning product to sell.

For the most part, the school was better than we could have expected. They attracted educators who were extremely gifted. My children were offered engaging learning opportunities and were supported through the learning process. The kids learned without even realizing it. And at the end of a learning cycle, my elementary aged kids could present what they learned in meaningful ways. They were happy and challenged and built valuable skills. It seemed like they were growing beyond ‘grade level’ effortlessly, because they were in a context designed for learning. But, the school folded. The ed-tech company closed all the schools after a few years and kept the tech product in creation. We decided to homeschool with the support of a self-directed learning community. The kids in this group would pick areas of interest, and experts or tutors were hired to support the child’s learning.

We moved from NYC and right before the school year started, we heard about Acton Academy. Acton’s website said all of the things we had loved before: self-directed, real world experiences, learner-driven, small classes, guides not teachers, etc.

We didn’t have much time, so we paid our deposit and jumped in.

Soon after, I started to learn about the agenda for “21st century education,” and I saw overlaps with what I was experiencing at our Acton school. I have an open letter I wrote asking Acton about their knowledge of or connection to the agenda.

(Alison McDowell) You can review the information provided to Jeff and Laura Sandefer by the guest blogger mom here. The PDF includes MANY linked resources that support further exploration of the issues raised.

Instead, this letter is to share what I have noticed at our Acton school, and describe the responses I have received from the founders of Acton and owners of our school, as I have asked about their intention, methodology, and safeguards. The general response I have received each time I reach out is that I should consider picking a different school, and that if I want to stay I should trust them. I am referencing communication that is documented in writing through email exchanges. You can email the founders, Jeff or Laura Sandefer, questions I reference below and see if they will disclose to you what they are doing with the data harvested from the use of the Acton Tracker, and why their framework is based on behavior theories designed to reward compliance through constant incentives.

Red Flags: Cameras, Peer ratings, Freedom levels, Bucks, Badges, and Tracking

Acton parents and students are asked to sign contracts before they begin, outlining the expectations of the school. These contracts include language about not ‘rescuing’ the kids, and instead allowing the kids to either succeed or fail based on their own motivation. There is also a contract giving permission for constant classroom video surveillance. This was my first red flag, and so I emailed the owners. I was told the cameras were a requirement of Acton schools, and they did make sure to turn off the Nest cam’s facial recognition feature.

The next big red flag was the 360 reviews that kids were asked to fill out at the end of every session on the Acton tracker. Acton says these reviews are meant to ‘normalize feedback’. Except, I do not know any professional who is allowed to offer feedback directed at an individual’s character. The 360 reviews ask students to anonymously rate everyone in their studio on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how ‘tough-minded’ and ‘warm-hearted’ they are. They are given a space to write a sentence of evidence for their rating, and then are given space to write ‘stars’ for things they like about the person, and ‘wishes’ for what they wish that person would change. After seeing this, I sent an email to the owners of our school with evidence I have accumulated from professors in my Master’s work which demonstrated feedback, especially personal feedback, does not have the desired positive outcomes, and induces shame responses. The owners of our school and founders of Acton told me normalizing feedback was valuable; and, if Acton was not a good fit, there are other schools for my kids.

The results of the 360 reviews were one of the metrics used to determine a student’s freedom level. Before Acton, the only time I had heard the term ‘freedom level’ was to describe a social credit system where those with higher credits get greater access-a program that has been piloted on a wide scale under the guise of ‘building trust’ with authoritarian governments. Inside each studio are 5 freedom levels. Freedom is earned or lost by meeting certain expectations, and in the middle and high school studios, higher freedom levels are not given to those with low peer 360 reviews. In upper elementary, a student on the highest freedom level can choose anywhere to sit during work time, and can even choose not to work. On the lowest level a student has to sit in an assigned seat, cannot snack, and must get a minimum amount of work done.

And, these 360 reviews are not written on paper or given any relational connection. They are written and published online, on Acton’s ‘tracker’. The tracker is a major anchor for many ‘personalized’ learning programs. It holds the student’s record, or ledger, of their work, their 360 reviews, their ‘SMART’ goals, their ‘badges’ for completing a certain amount of work, and their ‘buck’ balance (more on bucks below). This tracker allows you to look at the progress, bucks balance, 360 review scores, and badge earnings of everyone in the studio. It asks you how many minutes you worked on math or reading. It asks you to upload screenshots of proof, and answer questions about topics. One of the ways Acton keeps costs low is to utilize education technology for Math and English Language Arts, so that no expertise is needed by educators for what they call ‘core skills’ learning.

The tracker and the education technology learning platforms are forms of surveillance. These are ways data can be harvested and utilized. My open letter to Acton describes exactly how schools, institutions, and those set on 21st Century education reforms benefit from harvested data. I asked Acton how they are using the data from the tracker, how they are protecting the data harvested from my children on the tracker and the EdTech companies they promote. I was told that I could trust them or go to a new school, and that only I could protect my children.

I soon realized Acton’s framework is in strict contradiction to self-directed learning. Our experience with self-directed learning offered students agency to make choices and give feedback without punishment or reward. In essence, self-directed learning has long been discussed as an alternative to incentivized learning, and the two cannot co-exist. Even if the incentive is not as powerful as the intrinsic motivation-what is being taught by the incentive is the value of following the path that an authority said is right and good and not learning to experience intrinsic motivation and its inherent outcomes.

Acton students are told they have a minimum number of lessons to do online for math and ELA. If they succeed, they will earn a badge and will get paid bucks. If they do not, they will lose a buck each week for not completing the minimum. This rewards those who learn well online. Some kids can earn bucks at a much faster rate, and others can be highly stressed. Now, if a student runs out of bucks they must go to an isolated room and work on core skills all day, for as many days as it takes to earn another hero buck by completing a badge. To avoid this, my kids have a badge they leave 90% completed so that if it were to happen they could get a badge and get out ASAP.

Bucks are also taken if peers see you not following the classroom rules. Peers are supposed to offer a verbal warning, and then if the behavior persists the peer can go on to the Acton tracker and ask the person for a buck. Guides take bucks for not being on time and prepared and not being respectful. There is not a moment in the day when bucks are not in jeopardy. Which, by definition, means this is not a self-directed environment.

I made several attempts to discuss why their learning and behaviors are incentivized, as this is in opposition to research that has been published for 30 years stating incentivization has a net negative effect. I was told to trust them and that these systems were being used wisely.

Our Personal Experience After A Year

There has been a steep decline in our sons’ quality of work and engagement. One of my sons told me he finished ELA minimum requirements by guessing enough times to see all the possible answers and memorizing them-instead of actually learning. My other son’s teachers had previously said that other kids would get off track and go ask him for help because he was so engaged. This year, he was not engaged, did not want to do the assignments, though he made several attempts to self-advocate. Both kids focused on ways to easily get the bucks (which did not provide any new or challenging learning) and then would just do as little work they could get away with on everything else. Because at Acton, the focus is not on quality or engagement. Since there isn’t an external reward for quality, my sons’ focus mirrored the school’s focus-which is completion. When students are asked for their learning goals they are told the answer must be the number of lessons or minutes they will complete. My kids have started to ask me to reward them for things they used to do intrinsically. Some days they would rather lose a buck than do their schoolwork, and previously they did their work proudly.

As Acton repeated to me several times this year; there are many schools that would be a better fit if you do not want your kids to be under constant surveillance, incentivized for compliance to complete basic tasks or behaviors, or harvested for data. If, like me, you are interested in your children learning because it’s inherently interesting to learn, developing discernment or intuition, and knowing the skills to not be distracted from their values by rewards, then Acton may not be a good fit for you.


PS: This 17-minute video outlines the Cold War origins of the planned “Future of (No) Work.” We’re in the parking lot of a nondescript office building on the outskirts of Boulder, CO. It’s the mailing address for EduCause. Learn more by reading  a blog post I wrote in 2017 about the origins of educational technology in the US Defense Department’s Advanced Distributed Learning initiative. IMS Global was spun out of EduCause in 1999 and is playing a key role in standardizing competencies for Globalization 4.0, telepresence and remote robotic labor. The cognitive and social-emotional data gathered by education (surveillance) systems will be used by artificial intelligence to decide which workers have the chance to put their brain in a robot for a day. Free market economics and global competition among human avatars and AI will ensure the lowest possible wages are paid for gigs, generating robust profits for investors in human capital and owners of automated factories and robot-rental firms.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Our Acton Academy Experience – Surveillance, Incentives, Behaviorism, Freedom Levels, and EdTech

  1. Kalila says:

    The exact same system of learning is happening here in the M.E. Students only motivation are silly badges and stars for completion of online lessons. Instead of any learning taking place, students are simply focused on completion. This means just going to online forums to obtain the answers and complete the work. The only apparent consequences I have witnessed are demotivation and demoralisation towards any ‘lifelong learning’.

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