Big Picture Learning Off Limits

The introduction to this piece including a discussion of ImBlaze can be found here.

Big Picture Learning students spend two days a week outside of school pursuing their “passions.” Although I’ve heard off the record that not all student end up with placements and instead languish in front of computer screens killing time. I imagine budget-conscious reformers must be salivating at the prospect of scaling a “school” model where you could outsource 40% of a student’s instruction to community partners. Imagine the cost savings! You don’t have to feed students on those days. You could reduce teaching staff. You could cram more students into the building staggering the classes. Put aside those pesky child labor considerations for a few moments and contemplate the possibilities. It’s would also be a way to begin to normalize the learning ecosystem “anytime, anywhere” model learning by app and competency-based badges. You might think there would be more to the process than getting the kids a log in for what is essentially a Yelp for education; a counselor perhaps? Of course the real imperative behind this digital solution is about data collection. In Future Ready schools students are defined by their data. As the article states “Data Tells the Story for Big Picture Learning.”

In December 2016, the School District of Philadelphia signed onto a $23 million contract with Big Picture schools. The organization, based out of Rhode Island (on track to become the first “personalized” learning state) presently operates in 24 states. The size of the Philadelphia contract indicates a major expansion of Big Picture is on the horizon here. The organization is going to occupy Vaux, which was shuttered during a wave of devastating closures that took place in 2013.

The community of Sharswood in which it is located is being “redeveloped” in using incredibly heavy-handed, predatory, 1960s urban renewal tactics. The ribbon cutting for the new Vaux Big Picture School took place today. The community members and education activists who tried to attend and voice their concerns were kept behind barriers far from the ceremony. Apparently no one was allowed within a two-block radius of the school without “necessary credentials.” Protesters included representatives from the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, ADAPT and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. Barbara McDowell Dowdall, a retired English teacher and former yearbook advisor who had worked at Vaux from 1974 to 1981 brought a yearbook along and shared fond memories of the school, reflecting on how much has been taken from the community in the intervening years. The event was monitored by a number of squad cars, bike patrol police and members of the civil affairs unit.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

I am writing this feeling somewhat like a David facing off against a Goliath. It certainly won’t make me popular. There are many of us who keep weighing the evidence. Is Diane Ravitch incredibly wiley or incredibly obtuse? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It IS clear that there are parts of her narrative that don’t add up. My first sense that something wasn’t right came last February. Then in August, concerns I expressed in comments about the Clinton family’s involvement in the development of digital learning and Joe Ravitch’s venture capital company, Raine Group, were suppressed. You can read about it here and here. The Raine Group information, with its ties to Ari Emmanuel and Parchment, has gotten increasingly interesting as I’ve seen the convergence of education, virtual reality, entertainment, online credentialing and blockchain. Now my comments on her posts are always moderated. Some make it out. Some don’t. These from this afternoon haven’t as of posting time. I didn’t think they would.

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I know I risk becoming a target for saying what comes next. Nevertheless, it needs to be said so here goes. In the spirit of my inspiration David F. Noble I will just leap out there and do it (thanks Kay).

Just over a year ago Ravitch plugged Salesforce on her blog. No real news warranted her enthusiastic announcement “Big News Discovery of One Funder That Supports Public Schools,” yet there it was. It didn’t take much digging to discover Salesforce many not actually be a knight in shining armor. Sure, Teach for America is one of their clients. More troubling to those who understand the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda, however, is their involvement with Big Picture Learning, a member of the Education Reimagined initiative supported by both the NEA and AFT. Salesforce developed an app for Big Picture Learning called ImBlaze. Its purpose was to help students locate work-based learning placements, a key feature of the school’s competency-based learning model. It also had the capacity to track and log competencies acquired through those placements, both academic and social-emotional. Read more about Big Picture and recent developments in Philadelphia here.

So today I had a flashback when a friend forwarded me Ravitch’s testimonial on the wonders of the MacArthur Foundation “This is What Philanthropy Looks Like.”

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My head spun. It was like Salesforce all over again. Evidently Ravitch had served as a judge helping to narrow down the many submissions for the huge cash prize to four finalists for MacArthur’s $100 million and Change initiative. The contest first popped up on my radar last summer when I attended a keynote lecture by Angela Duckworth on “Being and Learning in a Digital Age” held at the University of Pennsylvania where Duckworth runs her Characterlab and promotes “grit.” Her submission, “Making Behavior Stick,” which I found terrifying in its use of technology to compel us to make “good” decisions, involved partnerships with both the Philadelphia and New York City Public Schools. The proposal did not make it to the final round but her 90-second video is definitely worth watching if you want to grasp where we are headed in terms of behavioral economics, technology, profiling and the art of the “nudge.” All of course are being embedded into the hybrid-blended learning programs that are actively colonizing our schools.

In her post, Ravitch lauds the MacArthur Foundation’s approach to philanthropy as far superior to that of foundations like Gates, Broad and Walton. This is fascinating to those of us following the transition to Ed Reform 2.0, namely a digital education model with some badges and skills-aligned learning projects that have been outsourced to community partners thrown in.  We know that MacArthur IS, in fact, one of the major forces driving that shift together with allies at the MIT Media Lab and American Youth Policy Forum.

For the past month I’ve been working on an online tool kit to educate the public and share resistance efforts to the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda. It’s under development and not quite ready for prime time. One of the categories I plan to develop is a list of players, and MacArthur tops the list, well maybe after Nellie Mae and Carnegie. There is a great deal to say about MacArthur, and it will take time to pull all the strings together. Consider the following a teaser for what is to come.

The MacArthur Foundation is NOT on the side of neighborhood schools. In fact they are a force working actively to dismantle public schools and digitize the educational experience so that it can be mined for profit by the ed-tech and global finance sectors. Read the items below. Check out the links. Ask yourself WHY is Diane Ravitch promoting this foundation?

10 Reasons You Should NOT Trust the MacArthur Foundation

  1. It awarded over $500,000 to Frameworks to conduct social science research promoting public acceptance of digital education.
  2. Is a member AND funder of the Global Impact Investing Network. If you don’t understand why that matters STOP and read Tim Scott’s important work on impact investing here and here. Take your time with them. Together they provide a critical foundation for understanding the dynamics at work in the impact investing sector.
  3. Is a major funder of Out of School Time (OST) Learning, which is the icing on the sh*t cake that is “personalized” online learning. MacArthur is hoping a few cool projects in community settings will distract us from the horrors of digital curriculum and predictive educational profiling. See this description of their 2012 paper “Learning at Not School: A Review of Study, Theory, and Advocacy for Education in Non-School Settings.”
  4. It sponsored “Research Network on Connected Learning” that advocated for, among other things, online game-like learning.
  5. And partnered with the Gates Foundation to create Glasslab, a R&D outfit charged with creating online educational games and game-based assessments.
  6. Worked closely with Mozilla to create systems of badges that will allow education to happen outside schools and beyond the reach of credentialed teachers. The badges are set up to be stored in e-portfolios for “lifelong” learning in the neoliberal gig economy.
  7. Jumpstarted the Cities of LRNG, a decentralized-badge based approach to learning, that began in Chicago and is now being piloted in numerous other cities, including Philadelphia.
  8. Funded the for-profit company Edovo (formerly Jail Education Solutions) to run a pilot program of tablet-based online education and behavioral therapy in Philadelphia’s prisons in 2014. The founder of the company did social impact bond research while in law school in Chicago where the MacArthur Foundation is based. It is pitched as an impact investment program.
  9. Collaborated with Google, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (Sesame Workshop) and Common Sense Media in 2010 on a forum to “Explore the Future of Digital Technology in Education.” Reed Hastings and Joel Klein were featured speakers.
  10. Played a key role with Pew Charitable Trusts in promoting evidence-based policy making through the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative. This is laying the foundation for Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds.

Of the four $100 and Change finalists, one is geared toward education and behavioral interventions for Syrian refugee children. It’s called “Sesame Seeds.” There is some bitter irony there. The field of social impact investing has burgeoned over the past decade. In an era of austerity and expansive global crises, public funds have been strategically withheld to create markets for venture capital that claim to be profiting off of “doing good.” Private interests underwrite select “solutions” to problems of the public sphere, problems they themselves have often had a hand in creating and exacerbating. Government officials are drawn in by language like “pay for success” or “evidence-based” programs, convinced that their best option is to defer to the private sector to deliver “results.” The problem is the “results” demanded are determined by metrics that are increasingly extracted through intrusive and dehumanizing digital platforms that deliver the data seamlessly and with fidelity.  I write about it within the context of Smart Cities here. With more detail in these two slide shares: How Austerity Generates Data and Reinventing Education for Impact Investing.

This single-minded focus on “success” metrics and assessing “impact” compromises the services themselves and leads to a heightened level of surveillance of those who must access such programs whether they be at-risk preschoolers, the homeless, the incarcerated, the addicted, the mentally ill, veterans or in this case refugee children. This entire enterprise is seeded by infusions of philanthropic dollars directed through program and mission related investments run by these same corporate raiders. By sitting on their panel and assessing these programs I feel Diane Ravitch is adding legitimacy to the toxic enterprise of impact investing.

There are many references in the language and messaging surrounding this proposal to “evidence,” “impact,” “return on investment,” and what counts as “success.” They talk about muppets being a secret weapon, which is interesting given Sesame Workshop’s partnership with IBM Watson’s Artificial Intelligence program. They talk about providing television programs, online learning materials and computer based support so these children can become productive citizens. In fact, the plan is to use these children as guinea pigs to refine digital learning and social-emotional training products. Thank goodness there is increasing attention being paid to the pernicious influence that technology interests are having over the delivery of educational programs to refugee populations. As Tim Scott details in “Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy’s Role in Sowing the Seeds of Financial Opportunity:”

“The world economic pyramid and its BoP model is becoming even more relevant as social impact investment markets flourish, because as the Financial Times simply points out, BoP “theory suggests that new business opportunities lie in designing and distributing goods and services for poor communities.” Inherently, the dehumanizing narrative attached to BoP frames the most dispossessed people as being untapped profit generators to be further exploited by the same opulent minority whose wealth and power was built – and depends – on their ongoing subjugation.”

This is not generosity. This is about managing a market for impact investment. These are people are looking for a rate of return based upon the misery of traumatized children. This is not a model of philanthropy to be emulated, but rather an amoral attempt to cloak greed and power in the language of social justice.

Impactful MacArthur

Wiley? Obtuse? Some other explanation? I may never know.

What I am certain of is what David F. Noble knew. Now is time for us to educate ourselves, own the truth and act. We cannot rely on some hero, any hero, to chart our course. We must take that responsibility into our heart and carry forward to the best of our ability. It’s up to each and every one of us to do what we can, in ways big and small. If we do that, I have confidence that in the end it will be enough.

But if we step back, remain tentative and allow others to steer, we may very well NOT end up where we need to go. So read fewer blogs, connect with more people. Be the change we need.

David Noble Rhodes

October 11: College Board Set to Frack Philadelphia’s Students

On September 13, 2017 I attended the Philadelphia School Reform Commission’s monthly meeting and testified to the fact that public education has become an extractive industry, one that uses children to generate profits for private interests including global finance. The poem I wrote equated student data-mining with fracking, a toxic industry that has caused great harm to the state of Pennsylvania. Student data, the foundation of impact investing markets, is being aggregated at an astonishing rate as digital devices supplant face-to-face, human instruction in today’s “Future Ready” classrooms.

A bonanza of student data extraction is set to take place October 11 in Philadelphia. It is the date our district has designated students take, en masse, College Board tests.

College Board Email

Their products now include not only the PSAT and the SAT, but also the PSAT 8/9 and the PSAT 10. Many states are considering adopting the SAT as an alternative to high school exit exams, PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and other locally developed end-of-year high-stakes tests. I’m sure this is welcome news for David Coleman, since the College Board’s reputation has taken a beating following numerous crises associated with his realignment of the tests to Common Core State Standards.

Widespread adoption of in-school College Board testing means that the organization benefits not only from a growing pool of registration fees, but also from data elicited from the many students who opt in to the Student Search Service. The College Board can sell that data for up to 43 cents per profile. In a very real sense our children’s identities are being handed over to a private entity for private profit; and it is being done with thoughtless disregard by those who follow district directives without stopping to consider the insidious ways our students are being turned into commodities.

When families sign up to have their child take a College Board test outside of the regular school day, they have some measure of control over the Student Search Service opt in and whether or not they choose to answer or release demographic questions covering topics like religion, family income, citizenship, interests, educational aspirations, and GPA.

This becomes MUCH trickier when exams are given IN SCHOOL without parents playing a role in the registration process. In this scenario, the burden is NOW placed on the STUDENT to make the decision about their level of participation. Most parents are not aware of the various options they have regarding data to be shared, so the student is on his or her own to make a snap judgment if those conversations have not happened IN ADVANCE of the testing day. That simply isn’t right. Additionally, proctors may not always be forthcoming (or may not even know) which aspects of data collection are optional; so many students simply opt in to everything. Parents often have no idea until they start receiving random, unsolicited mailings. For additional information on the College Board, student data, and the Student Selection Process see these informative Washington Post articles from 2016 and 2017.

In 2016 the College Board redesigned its brand and developed a suite of assessments that follow children from middle school through college applications, thus maximizing value and opportunities for data collection. Their pitch is that by taking preparatory College Board tests year after year and availing themselves of “free” “personalized” learning programs offered through Khan Academy, children will be better positioned to win a prestigious National Merit scholarship. The catch? The number of scholarships hasn’t increased. There are just more students trying for the same small number of brass rings. Competition has become even more intense, creating an arms race of online test-prep that in turn fuels MORE data extraction via their partner-in-crime, Khan Academy.

This year in Philadelphia, parents are not required to pay for any of the tests with the exception of juniors signing up for the PSAT who do not have an economic exemption. Given that the SAT remains one of the primary gatekeepers to higher education in this country, I support equal access for all who wish to participate in the process, flawed as it is. Participation should be made available to families regardless of their economic status. That is only fair.

Seniors and the SAT? Yes, if you choose.
Juniors and the PSAT? Yes, if you choose.
10th graders and the PSAT? You can make a case for it.
But 8th and 9th graders…?

I draw the line there. I simply do not buy into the narrative that grooming 13 year olds for National Merit Scholarship competitiveness makes sense. If that is what is required, then the problem is with the testing regime itself. What is THAT data being used for? To benefit Philadelphia’s poor black and brown children? David, “people don’t really give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think,” Coleman? Please, tell me another one.

And who is footing the bill for the 8/9 PSAT? Surely there is not an insubstantial amount of money involved in testing (data-mining) ALL the 13 and 14 year olds in a large urban district. Is it our tax money? In a district like ours, one that has suffered years of austerity and deprivation; how about we put those resources towards enhancing meaningful student learning rather than over-testing and lining the pockets of private interests?

Parents need to be aware that no child HAS to take College Board tests. There are many SAT-optional colleges and universities, and the list continues to grow. It is up to YOU to make a choice as to what is best for YOUR child and YOUR family. We don’t all have to make the same choice, but I think everyone deserves to have the facts they need to make an informed decision. Children are increasingly defined by their data, commodified by it, and that is unconscionable. The market recognizes this data for what it is, a valued commodity. If they can stealthily take it when no one is looking, they will. We must resist this predatory data collection. We must also recognize that the decision about what data, if any, should be shared is a PARENT’s decision. It is NOT choice to be foisted on an unsuspecting child on exam day, which in Philadelphia will be October 11.

I have emailed my child’s principal and counselor and explained that she will not be participating in the Student Selection Service. She is a junior this year and has not taken ANY College Board tests up until this time. But this is the world we live in; so she will take it this year. However she will not answer any of the optional demographic questions. I have asked that the testing proctor announce to the class that the Student Selection Service is optional and to announce which of the survey questions are optional as well, because I think you have to read the fine print to know. I think every student in the Philadelphia School district deserves to have the same treatment, not just my child’s class at Masterman.

If you are a Philadelphia parent whose child is in grades 8-12, I ask you to consider contacting your child’s principal as well as Fateama Fulmore, Executive Director Office of High School Supports, at ffulmore@philasd.org and ask the following:

  • Who is covering the associated fees for the tests, the 8/9 PSAT in particular?
  • What is that cost?
  • In what ways, if any, does the Philadelphia School District anticipate using the College Board data?
  • If College Board data is NOT being used, why are the students in grades 8 and 9 being tested at all?
  • Could a student’s scores limit their educational options down the line?
  • Will any students be remediated with Khan Academy lessons based on their scores?
  • State that parents must be notified at least a week prior to October 11 about the optional nature of the Student Selection Service and the optional demographic questions. This will give families the opportunity to discuss the issue and communicate their desires to their students in advance of the test.
  • State that proctors at ALL testing schools are to share this information DURING administration of the test so that students can complete the forms according to their family’s wishes.

Data is a commodity. The College Board knows this. They would probably prefer that you did NOT know this. Let’s work together to ensure that families in Philadelphia and elsewhere make an informed choice about how their student’s information is used. It has value and should not be released without careful consideration.

Education: America’s Next Extractive Industry

The following poem was presented as my 3-minute testimony at the Philadelphia School Reform Commission’s monthly meeting held September 14, 2017.

Our children, your profit centers.

Their data, digital toil,

your oil.

Not to sell…outright,

 

But to collect and package

for the gamblers of global finance.

Titles and social standing held out.

Such a terrible temptation to frack children for time behind the velvet rope.

 

Impact investors, “social” ones, cloak exploits in justice

starve schools

play a long game

nudge, nudge, nudge us in the direction they want us to go.

 

Towards the “Infinite Campus” and say

The city is your classroom!

Go out and learn anytime, anywhere.

It’s all good, Future-Ready, innovative, personalized!

No need for neighborhood schools.

Expensive

20th century

Human

And humans simply do not deliver data with fidelity.

 

So, tablets for the littles

Chrome books

Smart phones for “lifelong learning”

Algorithms, optimizing us for a dystopian economy.

Know what we do.

Where we go.

How we think.

How we feel.

How we RATE.

 

In a world of divide and conquer.

We are quantified, always.

A digital divide back-filled with surveillance.

“Smart” cities, Internet of Things, machineQ.

 

Community partners are standing by.

Mentors? By Americorps?

Deliver a solid ROI in the value chain

of securitized education data futures markets!

 

Readying kids for workforce pathways.

Laid out in refined rooms of tony clubs

behind velvet ropes.

For other people’s children.

 

Exhausted, many acquiesce to digital “solutions” engineered to harvest

proof of physical presence

knowledge

mindset

compliance

 

Measuring “growth,” proof of success.

Competencies generated and verified.

Payments issued, automated.

Life on the Blockchain ledger. Are we ready?

 

Social impact investing rests on a foundation of data.

Rockefeller, Third Sector, Federal Reserve

Know it’s coming, coming, coming

Though yet unseen, by most.

 

It rides the coat tails of the David Osbornes.

The Commission for Evidence-Based Policy Making

Mission Related Investments, strategically spent

To reinvent all things PUBLIC into private, profit.

 

Nothing personal, just the logic of the market.

State-finance nexus, what global capital demands.

Forests logged, air poisoned, oil pumped.

Digital data extraction IS the next logical frontier.

 

Can you afford to pay it no mind?

Choose your own reality?

Augmented, on-demand, iPhone enabled?

For a price, they DO make virtual an enticing option.

 

But not for me, which is why

I speak my truth, in chalk, on public walks

and wear jeans

to the Master’s House.

 

It kept me out of the room

but amplified my message, over a thousand times

despite the mantra of the bow tie crowd

that it would never be heard.

 

A scrappy parent takes on the bow tie man.

Or, how my day would have been very different had I worn khakis.

This is a story about access; who has it, and who doesn’t. This week my friend and fellow activist Tomika Anglin and I both pushed back against a system that attempted to marginalize us in order to more easily advance private interests over the public good. I hope our stories will inspire parents, teachers and students to take a page from the Ed Reform 2.0 handbook and start actively disrupting these systems that are trying to silence our voices. Showing up (and sometimes sitting down) raises awareness of critical issues and will catalyze the direct action we need to defend neighborhood schools against predatory venture capitalists and the so-called “community partners” who benefit from education austerity budgets. The latter, those non-profits NOT actively speaking out to secure public funds for public schools but rather accepting funds from private interests to fill the myriad gaps created in our schools through intentional defunding, are not acting in good faith and are not allies.

It was a busy morning. Before I hopped on my bike into Center City Philadelphia I double-checked my supplies. I had printed a paper copy of my Eventbrite ticket to “Educate Philly: Rethinking America’s Schools,” a reformy book launch and panel discussion over breakfast with David Osborne of the “radically pragmatic” Progressive Policy Institute. The event page noted “If you believe in the virtues of a public education AND are willing to be challenged – join us for breakfast this Friday, September 8th for a compelling conversation on public education.” If I had only known the level of “challenge” attending this breakfast was going to pose, I would have had my coffee before leaving the house. I had sidewalk chalk and a Ziploc bag with slips of paper of printed with sentiments that expressed my displeasure with the corporate plan to “reinvent” public education for the 21st century by creating impact investment opportunities predicated on the data-mining of students through ubiquitous online “personalized” learning programs.

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My ticket, which was torn when Union League staff tried to grab it out of my hands.

I wore jeans that morning. While some people are coordinated enough to wear a skirt while biking, the last time I did that the fabric got caught up in the wheel and wrecked my brakes. Lesson learned. Center City parking is expensive, and street parking hard to find. Biking is definitely the way to go. So in dress-down Friday mode, I left for the Union League in functional, yet presentable cycling attire: jeans and a lavender cotton sweater. I looked “nice.” My suburban, South Carolina mom bought the sweater for me. In fact it may have come from Talbot’s. It’s early fall, a lovely morning. I know it’s going to be a good day.

I had two goals. The sidewalk chalk was for a bit of thought-provoking disruption in the public sphere. I wanted my messaging to highlight issues of Pay for Success (PFS), social impact investing, and the public-private partnerships that are going to be playing bigger and bigger roles in education and Out of School Time Learning. People know about charters and expect Osborne’s union-bashing routine. I intended to introduce some new material to the conversation, information about education data and finance. The Union League, a private social club established in 1862 and touted as the #1 City Club in the country, takes up an entire city block a few blocks south of City Hall. It offered an expansive canvas of highly-visible public sidewalk for chalked messages. It was going to be perfect!

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My second goal was to attend the breakfast (I have a ticket, remember) and attempt to get Mr. Osborne and the other panelists, including our Broad Academy/Chiefs for Change superintendent William Hite, on the record about their positions on the above areas of concern. While I haven’t read it, it sounds from the reviews like Osborne’s 1992 book “Reinventing Government,” very much set the stage for Pay for Success with a focus on outcomes-based payments and governmental entrepreneurialism. That worries me a lot. It is increasingly clear that in Philadelphia, regional foundations, venture capital, and well-connected non-profits are slowly but surely building a data-driven Ed Reform 2.0 learning ecosystem while neighborhood schools are systematically starved of public funding, resources, and experienced educators.

The breakfast, co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Education Fund and the so-called Progressive Policy Institute, was definitely geared to corporate and civic stakeholders NOT parents, teachers or students. The fact that it was held on a Friday morning, and with it being the first week of school, even people who might have been available were settling into their new back-to-school routines. I didn’t expect a big crowd with signs, so sidewalk chalk messaging and slips of paper were going to be my communication tools of choice. As it turns out, I was the sole activist on the front lines that morning.

So I locked up my bike and got to work. You have to realize the Union League is vast, and has at least three entrances. It’s been awhile since I’d done any serious sidewalk chalking and as I squatted and scooted from message to message, my muscles were definitely reminding me of my age. I left my marks on 15th Street where I started with a big inscription at the base of the steps “No one asked you to reinvent our schools.” To one side I wrote, “Philanthrocapitalism can take a hike (heart) Philly.” On the other “Our kids are NOT your profit centers” and “Fund schools, don’t disrupt them.” On Sansom Street near the smaller side entrance I wrote, “David, No one asked if we wanted our schools reinvented. Can we say NO THANKS?” and “Budget for human teachers NOT AI ‘personalized’ learning systems.” Then I made my way around to Broad Street, the grand entrance where the sidewalks were even wider. I began to write. As I did an employee of the sheriff’s office ambled over, looked at my message and left. Shortly thereafter a few staff members of the Union League came out in a tizzy insisting that what I was doing was illegal, but after consulting with the sheriff employee it turned out it was NOT, in fact illegal, and so I continued on.

“Data is the new oil; hands off our kids.”
“Schools are a public trust, not a public-private partnership business opportunity.”
“Disruption empowers the elite; hurts students.”
“Tax $ 4 Schools; NOT Venture Capital. No Pay for Success”
“Non-profits that use austerity education budgets to expand community-based programs are NOT allies of schools. #OutOfSchoolTimeLearning”
“Data-driven education is a dead-end for curiosity and intellect.”

Foot traffic on the sidewalk began to pick up as minutes ticked by and rush hour started. Quite a few people paused to read the messages. At some point one of the staff members came out with a silver teapot full of water and poured it over the “Data is the New Oil” inscription. So I rewrote it. They were all very frustrated that they might have to wash up the sidewalks. Evidently there wasn’t a hose hook up nearby. They hauled out a luggage cart holding two large trashcans of water once it was clear the teapot alone wasn’t going to do the job.

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They were going to need a bigger teapot!

By that time the breakfast was about to begin. So I put away the chalk, took out my paper ticket, and went in the Sansom Street entrance. It was a narrow hall, plush carpet, and refined furniture. There was a check-in desk not unlike a hotel. I went in with my ticket and asked to be directed to the meeting location. After a moment the person told me that I couldn’t go any further, because I was wearing jeans and that was against the dress code. Meanwhile several women walked by in Lycra exercise gear, but evidently that was all right because they were members going to the gym. Um, ok. I explained that I had biked in, and that’s why I was wearing jeans. Too bad, they said. So I said I didn’t want to impose, if they could just direct me to the meeting room, I would go straight away to limit any negative impact on the Union League’s classy ambiance that might come from me walking around in mom jeans. The dress code for members is outlined here, but there is no mention of this being extended to the general public attending an event in the space. I was not provided a copy of the dress code by Union League staff despite a number of requests.

There had been no mention of a dress code on the Eventbrite OR the website promoting the event. I couldn’t imagine that a meeting that was promoted as free and open to the public would exclude a person based on the fact that they were wearing jeans. This was a meeting about public education for goodness sake. They were talking about “Rethinking America’s Schools” in a district where a majority of students live in poverty. What a huge disconnect. Why would the Philadelphia Education Fund choose THIS particular venue to host an important discussion about the future of public education? And why would our superintendent sanction it by sitting on the panel? The Union League is a space steeped in exclusivity. It only began allowing women to be members in 1986, and the 15th Street façade has a fortress-like character. Let’s just say it is not a very welcoming space if you are not a member of Philadelphia’s elite inner circle. If you drew a Venn diagram of Union League members and parents of Philadelphia public school students, I hazard a guess there would not be much overlap.

I expect it shows the extent of my privilege that it never occurred to me I would run into problems trying to get into this breakfast. I’d registered. I had a ticket. I was a parent. I had a direct, personal interest in the proceedings of this meeting. But there I was, standing in the hallway of the Union League, gradually being surrounded by seven or eight staff members who became increasingly agitated once they realized I was the person who had legally the chalked messages on the public sidewalk surrounding their building. One of the staff members went to grab for the Eventbrite print out I held in my hand and grasp my arm and in the process tore off a portion of the ticket, though I managed to hold onto the larger part of it. It all happened so fast, but I definitely felt physically threatened and intimidated in that moment.

At that point I sat down. I just sat down. Right there in the walkway on the plush blue and yellow carpet of the Union League. It seemed the only way to diffuse a situation that seemed slightly unhinged. All of this, because I was insisting on my right to attend a public education meeting for which I had a ticket? Or if I couldn’t do that, that I at least be able to speak to a representative of the Philadelphia Education Fund about why a key stakeholder, a parent of a Philadelphia public school student, was being excluded from the event and man-handled in the process? Throughout this experience I was called an “idiot,” told I “was doing it wrong” that “no one was going to pay attention to my message.” One staff member even told me she’d been told I had an arrest record, which was patently false. Had they run some type of search on my name while I was sitting there waiting for someone for the Philadelphia Education Fund to come down and talk to me?

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Me, sitting on the floor in the hallway.

There were harsh words meted out by Union League staff as I sat there. The worst came from a man in a bow tie who definitely seemed to enjoy lording over me. A few minutes after things were more on kilter they said they were going upstairs to ask someone to come down, would I sit in the chair off to the side, which I did…for a bit. But then I realized no one was going to come down, so I left my chair and went back and sat in the middle of the narrow hall. Not fully obstructing the passage, but situated to ensure those in suits coming to the meeting had to wind their way around me to get to their intended destination.

I explained my plight each time, but no one stopped or really registered my presence. Sadly it seems we’ve become numb to people sitting on the ground asking for help. Still, my presence in that particular space must have been at least somewhat jarring. People passed, singly and in a pairs. Eventually Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership entered. His non-profit has a very high profile as a funder of education reform initiatives in the city. He knows who I am. I stood up to him face to face in the hall, once again stating the situation that as a parent I was being kept out of the meeting for which I had registered, but he said nothing. I called out as he went up the stairs that silence is complicity. I sat down again.

By that time the breakfast was underway. Then Farah Jimenez swept in. Ms. Jimenez became President and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund in April 2016 AND currently serves as a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the appointed commission that has controlled city schools since the state takeover in 2001. Her husband’s firm does considerable legal work for charter schools of the type prominently featured in Mr. Osborne’s talk. I’m not sure what, if any, role she had in selecting the venue. However since the Philadelphia Education Fund was the co-sponsor of the event, I tried to approach her and explain the situation. I was physically blocked by a phalanx of Union League staff who shoved me and almost knocked my phone out of my hand. I got through my spiel as she paused on the stairs, her face obscured in shadow. Just like all the others she did not respond or speak, but merely continued up the steps to room where the future of public education would be mapped out beyond the reach of people like me who wear jeans and ride bikes and build community at the grassroots level rather than in exclusive membership clubs catering to the upper echelons of society.

It’s hard to tell exactly how much time had passed. I’m sure the security cameras recorded the whole thing, so the Union League can probably tell you. It felt like about a half an hour. After Jimenez left me stranded in the lobby, I decided the message I had come to convey had been issued. If the powers that be needed a wake up call that there are people willing to stand against their manufactured agenda to “reinvent” public education to serve the state-finance nexus, I think they now knew. After I left the building, a police officer arrived. The Union League staff insisted he write me up in an “incident report,” though I’m not sure under what pretext since I had done nothing illegal, I had exited their property and if anything security camera footage will clearly show I was the one being physically intimidated. I got back on my bike and by around 9am finally got my morning coffee. The event description online had said to be ready to be “challenged.” Well, that was an understatement.

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Please know that we will continue to show up, physically, in these contested spaces despite continued pressure to marginalize us. I was told repeatedly over the course of the morning that was I was doing didn’t matter, that no one would get the message, that it wouldn’t work. But you know what? I have gotten tremendous traffic on just my Facebook post. I got the final word, including information about impact investing, in this article about the event, and people are telling me they are inspired. Each of doesn’t have to do everything, but we can do something. We do it together. I am hopeful that all of those “somethings” will lead to positive change for our future, helping to build a people’s vision of liberatory public education.

Friend and fellow activist Tomika Anglin has been showing up for a long time.

She showed up at the Philadelphia Education Fund’s monthly “public” education policy meeting the day before this Union League event, too. According to Lisa Haver, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools and a veteran advocate for all things related to Philadelphia public education, the PEF meetings were once very open and welcoming of all who expressed an interested in Philadelphia’s schools. Now access to these meetings is becoming more restrictive. They are being held in private law offices like that of Dilworth Paxon. Pre-registration is now expected. An optional “donation” button has been added to the online RSVP page. However a number of people with whom I have spoken have had the experience of being put on the wait list if they left the donation box blank. Many who had attempted to register for the free event at the Union League had the same experience of being wait listed after leaving the PEF donation form blank. That is highly questionable.

I admire Tomika for coming to the Philadelphia Education Fund meeting this week without registering in advance. While she was welcomed at the check-in table and told to go on in, Ms. Jimenez passed Tomika on the way into the meeting room and said that Tomika had to wait outside. There might not be enough room, though in reality there were always empty seats at the meetings, and there were that day as well. We are looking at an incursion of private interests into the public sphere. What happened to Tomika Thursday and to me yesterday at the Union League were not isolated events, but rather an escalation of a pattern of marginalizing tactics employed by Philadelphia’s power elite. It has been going on for decades but it definitely IS escalating and becoming decidedly more brazen.

The Union League is Philadelphia’s Davos. Those without privilege, who don’t know the rules, who don’t know there is a dress code, who can’t leave their jobs on a Friday morning, who don’t have the “right” connections are systematically excluded from conversations that shape the policies that directly affect the quality of their life and their children’s lives. We can change that, together. Everyone, grab your chalk and let’s meet on the sidewalk. It’s time that Philadelphia public education’s TRUE stakeholders begin to build a better future for our city’s children. Let us get THAT message out. Let us work towards OUR goals, OUR vision. A vision that is supported by PUBLIC resources, not a corporatized public-private partnership model that turns children into surveilled, data-mined commodities. See you out there!

Dear Teachers Using Google Classroom,

I really need you to keep in mind that all the data run through those programs (your intellectual property, student work, correspondence, etc.) is being used to refine the AI systems destined to replace you. There is a price for this “free” convenience. The bill may come due after you leave the profession, but I beg you to consider the implications of your actions now.

If you don’t know about the NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, take 8 minutes and watch the video below.  The center, located in the Utah desert, has the capacity to store 100 years of global electronic communications. The NSA says they won’t “look” until such a time as you or a student fall under suspicion and trigger a FISA order.

Pushing education into the cloud has consequences. Digital devices should be considered tools of surveillance and treated with great care. Those valuing freedom of expression in educational settings would do best to take a moment and consider Google’s relationship to the state, their profit motives, and the power they wield globally. Remember, if it’s “free,” YOU’RE the product.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Parent Who Values HUMAN Teachers
 
PS: Some of us are exercising our legal right to opt our children out of Google Classroom, so please have non-burdensome options for them to get homework information, class communications, and turn in assignments outside this corporate platform, ok?

Will “smart” cities lead to surveilled education and social control?

“What is a Smart City?” is the third entry in my slide presentation series “Education in the Cloud.” If you haven’t yet seen them, prior posts include an introductory essay and “Digital Classrooms as Data Factories.”

Part 3 of Education in the Cloud: What is a “Smart” City

A growing number of metropolitan areas are being shaped by “Smart” City policies. Bloomberg Philanthropy’s “What Works Cities” aims to bring these programs to mid-size cities as well. Even in communities without explicit “smart” initiatives, “innovation” or “empowerment” zones are being proposed, often around school districts, enabling outside interests to sidestep existing legal and contractual protections under the guise of “autonomy” and “flexibility.” I hope the information I’ve pulled together will reveal how “smart city” and “learning ecosystem” interests often intersect and encourage others to think critically about similar programs in their communities. It is important to consider digital classrooms as nodes of smart cities. Classrooms touch the lives of many, and thus are logical places to begin normalizing the idea that as citizens it is our duty to generate and hand over massive quantities of personal data that will supposedly shape policy for the “public good” and manage our economy.

Smart Cities are defined by their reliance on digital technology across government functions and the use of sensor-transmitted data to regulate provision of public services. The high cost of installing such networks, monitoring data, and maintaining the systems, especially in our current climate of austerity, means municipalities will increasingly look to partner with private companies and outside investors to provide basic public services. I anticipate “smart city” policies will fuel social impact investing. There is a belief that investments in “efficient” technologies will yield future cost savings, and therefore such infrastructure projects could become significant profit centers for venture capital.

Cisco Financiers

This video from Cisco discusses the role financiers are anticipated to play in the development of “Smart+Connected” cities. Social Impact Bonds are also mentioned on pages 94-97 of the “Handbook of Urban Infrastructure Finance” put out by the New Cities Foundation. In November 2015, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve hosted an all-day conference on “Capital for Communities” where Pay for Success Finance and social impact bonds were discussed with representatives of Bloomberg Philanthropies, Goldman Sachs, and the White House Office of Social Innovation. After his term ended, Nutter joined the Economic and Community Advisory Council of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve.

Philadelphia has been on the Smart Cities’ bandwagon since 2011 when it teamed up with IBM to develop Digital On Ramps, a supposedly “ground breaking” human capital management program. As part of this initiative Philadelphia Academies, led at the time by Lisa Nutter (wife of Democrats for Education Reform former mayor Michael Nutter), developed a system of badges for youth that promoted workforce-aligned “anywhere, any time learning.” You can view a 2012 HASTAC conference presentation on the program starting at timestamp 50:00 of this video.  Lisa Nutter now works as an advisor to Sidecar Social Finance, an impact investment firm, and Michael Nutter is, among other things, a senior fellow with Bloomberg’s What Works Cities. This relationship map shows some of the interests surrounding the Digital On Ramps program. Use this link for an interactive version.

Digital On Ramps

Digital On Ramps has since combined with Collective Shift’s initiative City of LRNG operating with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Besides Philadelphia, ten other Cities of LRNG are spread across the country: Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Kansas City, Orlando, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, Washington, DC and Springfield, OH. The premise is the “city is your classroom” where students “learn” through playlists of curated activities that are monitored via phone-based apps. Many of these cities are also “smart” cities. The Philadelphia program is presently housed at Drexel University, an institution that is involved in education technology research and development, that is a partner in Philadelphia’s Promise Zone initiative (education is a major component), and whose president John Fry served a term on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the city’s ed-reform engine. Drexel’s graduate school of education is currently the lead on an unrelated NSF-funded STEM educational app and badging program being piloted with Philadelphia teachers in the Mantua neighborhood within the Promise Zone. It is touted as “an immersive, mentor-guided biodiversity field experience and career awareness program.” In April 2017, Drexel’s School of Education hosted a lecture by DePaul University’s Dr. Nichole Pinkard entitled “Educational Technologies in a Time of Change in Urban Communities,” in which the MacArthur-funded 2013 Chicago Summer of Learning pilot was discussed. In this clip from the Q&A that followed the lecture, an audience member raised concerns about credit-bearing out-of-school time learning in the ecosystem model.

The 2011 IBM summary report for Digital On Ramps noted that among the four top priority recommendations was the creation of a “federated” view of the citizen in the cloud.” Of course, 2011 predates developments like Sesame Credit, but looking at it now I can’t help but conjure up an image of the “federated citizen in the cloud” as portrayed in Black Mirror’s dystopian Nosedive episode. Digital On-Ramps appears to be a prototype for a career pathway, decentralized learning ecosystem model for public education. As the task-rabbit, gig economy becomes more entrenched with freelancers competing for the chance to provide precarious work at the lowest rate (see this short clip from Institute for the Future’s video about Education and Blockchain), what will it mean to reduce education to a series of ephemeral micro-credentials? And what dangers are there in adding behavioral competencies from predictive HR gaming platforms like Knack into the mix? Tech and human capital management interests are counting on the fact that people are intrigued by new apps. We’re predisposed to seek out pleasurable entertainment. Gamification is both appealing and distracting, consequently few people contemplate the downside right away, if ever.

Knack

I would argue that the LRNG approach to “appifying” education is something we should resist at all costs. Take for example the XPrize adult literacy apps being piloted in Philadelphia right now with support from the Barbara Bush Foundation. Certainly adult literacy is an issue of great importance, but do ICT interactions provide a way to meaningfully support adult learners in developing reading skills? Or are they an inexpensive means by which to compile data on individuals, one that could perhaps be used to establish baselines for future Pay for Success investments? Education should be a human-to-human activity, free of intrusive data-mining and tracking. Embracing micro-credentials, badges, and educational apps will hasten the transition to an era in which we, and our children and grandchildren, will be pushed into cut-throat competition with one another as we quantify ourselves and work to maintain up-to-date, online portfolios of skills supplemented by socially-acceptable “reputation scores.”

This April Philadelphia joined a group of six cities chosen to explore use of connected everyday devices (Internet of Things) as part of a Knight Foundation grant. Two other programs related to the grant include the MetroLab Network and NetGain, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla, both of whom are interested in decentralized, badge-based learning. Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, whose graduate school of education is designated a “Future Ready Schools Partner,” are coordinating with Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology as part of the MetroLab Network. The office, which manages the information and communications technology programs for the city, was established the same year as the IBM grant by executive order of Mayor Nutter. In a future post I will discuss the ways in which xAPI protocol will be used to track learning experiences outside of school settings. For the moment, however, simply note that IoT infrastructure is key to widespread adoption of “anywhere” learning.

In June, representatives of hundreds of “smart” city projects descended on Philadelphia for the annual “Smart Cities Summit,” preceded by the LoRa Alliance Open House and Marketplace. The LoRa Alliance is a member-based non-profit established to promote adoption of the LoRa Protocol “as the open global standard for secure, carrier-grade IoT (Internet of Things).” James Kenney, our current mayor, addressed attendees of the Summit noting that the city’s “ReBuild” program, funded in part by a newly approved soda tax, would endeavor to incorporate technology into renovations of Philadelphia’s libraries and recreation centers. It should be noted that “Pay for Success” proponents John Arnold and Michael Bloomberg pitched in funds for an ad-campaign in support of the soda-tax last year. Philadelphia City Council recently approved ReBuild’s $500 million investment in libraries, recreation centers and parks. Also worth mentioning is that a $100 million for ReBuild is coming from the William Penn Foundation, the powerful regional philanthropy that hired Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia schools in 2013. In January, the foundation launched a new initiative in support of community-based “informal” learning. The focus? Why it’s early literacy, an area of particular interest to the social impact investing community. The Pritzkers and Goldman Sachs are funding a pre-k social impact bond with an early literacy component in Chicago right now. There has been considerable emphasis on grade-level reading programs in Philadelphia in recent years. I feel strongly that pay-for-success literacy pilots may be coming to Philadelphia very soon.

The William Penn Foundation also gave $25 million to the Free Library’s strategic plan “Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative.” The plan has a strong emphasis on “partnering” with local schools, which for the most part have no school libraries. The headline of a January 2017 Inquirer article describes Philadelphia school librarians as “a species nearly extinct.” Despite the direness of the situation, the Free Library system has remained silent with regards to the plight of school district libraries. Libraries are a key part of the learning ecosystem model, and the Free Library System was designated a teen learning lab pilot with support from IMLS in 2014. There is some overlap between cities that received funding for library learning lab pilots and Cities of LRNG: Dallas, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Kansas City. Certainly we all appreciate the need for up-to-date, safe public amenities, especially those serving our children. It will, however, be interesting to see what the technology infrastructure looks like, given that the goal of learning eco-systems is to gradually shift public education into out-of-school settings like libraries.

Comcast Smart Cities

Comcast, headquartered in Philadelphia, began to implement its new Internet of Things machineQ platform here in the fall of last year. Chicago, home of an IoT “array of things” program, and the Bay Area were also selected as early adopters. machineQ uses a system of LoRa (low range, low power radio frequency) chips to connect devices to the Internet of Things in Smart City applications. Comcast sponsored many events during the summit, including a hackathon. The second place winner of that competition was a team that developed a “noise sniffer” intended to be installed in parks and other public spaces. So it would seem we are on the threshold of an age where cointelpro meets invisible ubiquitous computing.

In the Smart City milieu there is pressure to aggregate data, automate processes, incentivize efficiencies, limit human oversight, and deliver metrics to justify the provision of meager public services or invite private-sector investment. It can be couched in the language of innovation and autonomy or flexibility and transparency, but ultimately it is about doing more with less and squeezing profit from public assets for private benefit. All aspects of society are affected, from water systems to the prison-industrial complex to public education. In some cases, like the predatory “Pay for Success”-ready, MacArthur-funded Edovo tablet-based online “education” and “behavioral therapy” program piloted in Philadelphia prisons in 2014, they actually overlap. As community leaders make decisions about software systems, sensor deployment and consulting contracts for “smart” services, we must hold them accountable. What does it mean to live within increasingly monitored environments that will become even more so as the Internet of Things takes hold? We owe it to our children to slow down and consider how the choices being made today will affect their futures and the future of both public education and employment.

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If digital classrooms evolve as extensions of “Smart Cities,” where big data rules and efficiency and control are prized, to what degree will students and educators be able to imagine, think and act independently? Will learning beyond the reach of devices and sensors be allowed? If a student learns something, and it isn’t uploaded to their Learning Record Store (LRS) will it “count”? What is the impact of digitally mediated feedback loops on developing minds? How is the concept of public education changing in the age of the quantified self? How will a student’s data define them? What if the data is wrong?

What does it mean for communities to outsource public education to cultural institutions and businesses offering “playlist” learning opportunities? What impact will credit flexibility have on school funding? Who funds the badge providers, and to whom are those providers accountable? Who would ultimately be responsible for the safety and well being of children navigating a brave new world of learning ecosystem education?

LRNG About

In a society that is increasingly unstable socially and economically, does it make sense to delegate public education to private entities working at the behest of global finance, telecommunications giants, Silicon Valley, Big Energy/Petro-Chemicals, Big Pharma, or the military industrial complex? Is it prudent to amass vast amounts of personally identifiable data on children and upload it to cloud-based servers that are vulnerable to hacking and ongoing surveillance? Will we have to train up future generations steeped in coding just to control the Internet of Things nightmare that our government and their corporate solutionist consultants are so busy creating? And if the world ends up revolving around code, will we remember all we have lost? Who will be left to write the novels and tell our stories?