“Yes, I am an advisor for Ridge-Lane.” Superintendent Hite May 17, 2018

Hiate and SRC

Testimony to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission May 17, 2018

Read my previous post about Dr. Hite and Ridge-Lane, testimony given during Philadelphia City Council budget hearings on May 16, here.

“Ridge-Lane, Limited Partners is a merchant bank co-founded by former Governor Tom Ridge and R. Brad Lane. The firm “specializes in corporate strategy and venture development for private growth-stage technology companies.” Its website claims it is at the “apex of public and private sectors,” with over fifty well-connected advisors to broker corporate-government deals in information technology, sustainability, real estate, and education.

Ridge Lane has extensive ties to the military and to the Department of Homeland Security. Their team includes a dozen former governors, both Democrat and Republican. It includes thought leaders who seek to channel education into competency-based, workforce-aligned pipelines. There can be little doubt that Ridge Lane, and predatory firms of this type, aim to redesign government as a public-private partnership that serves the interest of social impact investors. In education this will happen through Pay for Success provisions embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Dr. Hite, I was dismayed to see you listed as a senior education advisor on Ridge Lane’s website. How can you in good conscience serve as an advisor to a consulting firm that views public education as vehicle for profit taking? Our system is far from perfect and was never intended to serve all children well, particularly black and brown children. But do you actually believe partnerships with defense interests and hedge fund managers will create authentic, empowering learning experiences for Philadelphia’s students?

Clearly your motives align with those of the elite. Should we not be suspicious of plans to create an energy pilot program at Strawberry Mansion High School when Ridge Lane has its hands in sustainability ventures? Shouldn’t Ridge Lane’s ties to real estate development give Strawberry Mansion residents pause? They have legitimate concerns that proposed school transformation could result in them eventually being gentrified out of their homes. If Information Technology ends up being proposed as a workforce-training program at the school, will parents have to second-guess if you’re prioritizing the interests of students or investors? Will the twenty-first century work-force programs you offer end up weaving their children’s futures into Tom Ridge’s war and security state machine?

As Philadelphia’s schools transfer to mayoral control, it is our obligation to ensure sure they are not being handed over as points of extraction for private profit. We demand public money for public schools that serve the will of the people—not the war machine, not private capital, and not Big Data.

Tonight I stand with W.E.B. Dubois on the side of peace and justice and truth. I wish to confirm if you are in fact serving as an education advisor to Ridge Lane. If the answer is yes, do we have a right to know what services you render, and how you are compensated?”

Video of the conclusion of my testimony showing Dr. Hite and district legal counsel Lynn Rosner Rauch. Thanks to my friend Ken Destine.

Hite responded that he was indeed serving as an advisor to Ridge Lane, LP. His commitment is to participate every other month in phone calls with other team members from the education sector, and he is not compensated for those services. He and the district’s legal counsel noted that Hite’s involvement with Ridge Lane had been vetted and approved by the School Reform Commission. The lawyer described Hite’s participation in this venture as “a learning opportunity for us.” I asked about submitting an open records request for the vetting information. At the conclusion of the meeting I attempted to discuss parameters for an open records request about the vetting process for the Ridge Lane advising arrangement that the district’s counsel had described. The district’s lawyer was not particularly forthcoming with information that might inform such a request and said that the documents would largely be protected by attorney-client privilege. To be continued.


Speaking Out Against Pay for Success, Predatory Public-Private Partnerships and Dr. Hite’s Ties to Ridge-Lane, LP

As the parent of a public school student and a citizen of Philadelphia, I arrived at Council Chambers today to convey my concern about Superintendent William Hite’s involvement with former Governor Tom Ridge’s merchant banking advisory firm Ridge-Lane, LP and to get it on the record.  Full list of team members viewable as a PDF here.

I have serious reservations about how the city plans to finance the operation of our district, especially given the substantial needs of our students and the disinvestment our schools have suffered for so many years. This important work must be done with PUBLIC funding. Our schools are not charities and should not be remade as investment opportunities for venture capital.

I was the third speaker to present testimony on the proposed budget as it pertains to public education. Official video available here. City Council members in attendance at the time I spoke included: Council President Darrell Clarke, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Jannie Blackwell, Bill Greenlee, Allan Domb, and Bobby Henon. We were limited to three minutes, so the testimony I prepared had to be condensed somewhat. The full piece, including important information about the Fels Policy Research Initiative, can be read below.

“Ridge-Lane, Limited Partners is a merchant bank founded by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge and R. Brad Lane, which “specializes in corporate strategy and venture development for private growth-stage technology companies.” Its website claims it is at the “apex of public and private sectors,” with over fifty well-connected advisors to broker corporate-government deals in information technology, sustainability, real estate, and education.

According to their website, Superintendent William Hite is one of Ridge-Lane’s senior education advisors. If Dr. Hite is setting public education policy while serving as an advisor to a powerful merchant bank, it is a serious conflict of interest and must be immediately addressed. It certainly makes interventions like the one taking place, against the will of the community, at Strawberry Mansion High School suspect.

Ridge Lane Education

It is a special concern that Ridge-Lane’s business model follows that of the social impact, “what works,” triple-bottom line venture capital machine.

  • It is a machine whose profit opportunities are fueled by austerity and public under-funding, allowing it to cloak financial speculation in social justice rhetoric.
  • It is a machine that breaks into public systems, so they can be remade for private profit.
  • It is a machine that views poverty management as a profitable and sustainable investment.

The business model Ridge Lane advances is a threat to community control of public education. If Philadelphia adopts a “Pay for Success,” approach to education finance:

  • digital devices will increasingly automate instruction;
  • online learning management systems will supplant face time with teachers and peers;
  • algorithms will track, discipline, and profile black and brown students; and
  • a majority of children will be callously managed as human capital for the gig economy.

Public-private partnerships may appear fiscally prudent, but laying out narrow metrics of “success” will limit educational offerings to those that service the needs of the contracts. This approach requires instruction be reverse engineered to generate the data needed to assess “impact.” In this way “Pay for Success” makes data-mining children a central focus-not relationships or care, not knowledge or humanity.

(Click here to watch “Gambling With Our Futures,” a 10-minute video that describes the origins of social impact finance with former UPenn president Judith Rodin and the Rockefeller Foundation and how data-mining is central to “innovative” finance.)

Does Mayor Kenney have PUBLIC funding to ensure ALL children have access to a healthy, safe school with adequate staff and supplies? Does City Council? No? Well, perhaps this is why our schools have been brought back under mayoral control. Do venture capitalists from Investors’ Circle, ImpactPHL and Social Capital Markets see dollar signs in our children’s trauma and crumbling buildings?


With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, predatory investors are poised to benefit from Pennsylvania’s systematic disinvestment in our school district. Merchant banks like Ridge Lane can package education-technology, social-emotional training, wrap-around services, and energy upgrades as social impact bonds. Voila! Private profit can be extracted from the public trust, from our children.

In the past few months I have attended workshops hosted by the Fels Policy Research Initiative.

  • There have been discussions about creating a new operating system for government.
  • There have been discussions about unlocking “value” from the public sector.
  • There have been discussions about philanthropies underwriting research on “innovative” school models; research the public is not allowed to know about.

New models of “Big Data” government are being pitched, models that will ultimately serve Ridge Lane’s clients, not the people. I am here to testify that the people say no to self-dealing and Pay for Success; to data-driven education and poverty mining; to using children as vehicles for financial speculation and to Third Way public-private partnerships.

Fund our schools with PUBLIC money, secure PILOTs, and restructure the property tax abatements. Ensure corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and investigate Dr. Hite’s relationship to Ridge-Lane Limited Partners.

Hite Ridge Lane Bio

Ridge Lane Partners Alpha by State

Badges Find Their Way to San Jose

Yesterday I watched a May 7, 2018 meeting held by the City Council of San Jose on education and digital literacy efforts related to the LRNG program, an initiative of the McCarthur Foundation-funded Collective Shift. Philadelphia is also a City of LRNG. Below is a five-minute clip in which they describe their digital badging program roll out.

Collecting an online portfolio of work-aligned skills is key to the planned transition to an apprenticeship “lifelong learning” model where children are viewed as human capital to be fed into an uncertain gig economy. Seattle Education’s recent post “Welcome to the machine” describes what is happening as Washington state follows the lead of Colorado and Arizona in pushing “career-connected” education.

Philadelphia’s LRNG program is called Digital On Ramps and is linked to WorkReady, the city’s youth summer jobs program. For the past several years children as young as fourteen have been encouraged to create online accounts and document their work experience using third party platforms. Opportunities to win gift cards and iPad minis have been used as incentives to complete the online activities. Within the past year the LRNG program has grown to include numerous badges related to creating and expanding online LinkedIn profiles. Microsoft bought Linked in for $26 billion in 2016. See screen shots below.

LRNG Contest

LRNG Contest 2

LRNG LinkedIn

Below are excerpts from two previous posts I wrote about badges and Digital On Ramps. Activity is ramping up around online playlist education and the collection of competencies/badges using digital devices. We need to be paying attention. The first is from “Trade you a backpack of badges for a caring teacher and a well-resourced school” posted October 2016.

“This is not limited to K12 or even P20, the powers that be envision this process of meeting standards and collecting badges to be something we will have to do our ENTIRE LIVES. If you haven’t yet seen the “Learning is Earning” video-stop now and watch it, because it makes this very clear. Badges are representations of standards that have been met, competencies that have been proven. Collections of badges could determine our future career opportunities. The beauty of badges from a reformer’s perspective is that they are linked to pre-determined standards and can be earned “anywhere.” You can earn them from an online program, from a community partner, even on the job. As long as you can demonstrate you have mastery of a standard, you can claim the badge and move on to the next bit of micro-educational content needed to move you along your personalized pathway to the workforce.

In this brave, new world education will no longer be defined as an organic, interdisciplinary process where children and educators collaborate in real-time, face-to-face, as a community of learners. Instead, 21st century education is about unbundling and tagging discrete skill sets that will be accumulated NOT with the goal of becoming a thoughtful, curious member of society, but rather for attaining a productive economic niche with as little time “wasted” on “extraneous” knowledge as possible. The problem, of course, is that we know our children’s futures will depend on flexibility, a broad base of knowledge, the ability to work with others, and creative, interdisciplinary thinking, none of which are rewarded in this new “personalized pathway/badging” approach to education.

The reformers needed to get data-driven, standards-based education firmly in place before spotlighting their K12 badge campaign. Low-key preparations have been in the works for some time. In 2011, Mozilla announced its intention to create an Open Badges standard that could be used to verify, issue, and display badges earned via online instructional sites. The MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) supported this effort. In 2013 a citywide badging pilot known as “The Summer of Learning” was launched in Chicago. 2013 was also the year that the Clinton Global Initiative joined the badge bandwagon. They have since agreed to incorporate badges into their operations and work to bring them to scale globally as part of the Reconnect Learning collaborative.

Other partners in the “Reconnect Learning” badging program include: The Afterschool Alliance, Badge Alliance, Blackboard, Digital Promise, EdX, ETS, Hive Learning Networks, Pearson, Professional Examination Service and Council for Aid to Education, and Workforce.IO.

The Chicago Summer of Learning program expanded nationally and has since evolved into LRNG Cities, a program of the MacArthur Foundation. According to their website: “LRNG Cities combine in-school, out-of-school, employer-based and online learning experiences into a seamless network that is open and inviting to all youth. LRNG Cities connect youth to learning opportunities in schools, museums, libraries, and businesses, as well as online.”

In some ways such a system may sound wonderful and exciting. But I think we need to ask ourselves if we shift K12 funding (public, philanthropic, or social impact investing) outside school buildings, and if we allow digital badges to replace age-based grade cohorts, report cards, and diplomas, what are we giving up? Is this shiny, new promise worth the trade off? Many schools are shadows of their former selves. They are on life support. It is very likely that expanding the role of community partners and cyber education platforms via badging will put the final nail in the coffin of neighborhood schools.” Read full post here.

The second is from “Will “Smart” Cities lead to surveilled education and social control?” posted July 2017.

“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 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 programbeing 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 Knackinto 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.” Read full post here.


Beware The “Learning Engineers”

I watched Nova’s “School of the Future” when it premiered in the fall of 2016. The vision of education it promotes, one steeped in rapid innovation and technology, was profoundly disturbing. Funded by the David H. Koch Science Fund and the Carnegie Corporation, a powerful advocate for digital education and competency-based learning, the episode tried to normalize the use of MRIs as a tool for evaluating learning. At the time, I found the producer’s repeated references to MRIs strange. Now, seeing how social emotional learning, ed-tech, gamification, brain science, impact investing, behavioral economics, and digital medicine are beginning to intersect, everything is starting to click.

Reformers hope to convince the public that education is a science that should be evaluated using quantitative measures. As they work on this front, they are also expanding cyber education nationally, not just 100% virtual schooling but also blended/hybrid “personalized learning” programs like Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit Basecamp. Such models demand hardware, software, telecommunications, and cloud-computing contracts that divert public funds from paid human staff into corporate accounts. It also creates favorable conditions for ed-tech and digital therapeutic “interventions” venture capitalists plan to use to gamble on early-childhood, literacy and workforce outcomes via Pay for Success contracts.

As anyone who has been following Cambridge Analytica knows, digital platforms generate extraordinarily rich data profiles on individuals. And it’s not just academic data that is captured. Industry is now demanding metrics on “soft skills” and “mindsets.” Adoption of biometric monitoring and video games with embedded psychometrics has vastly expanded the amount of data being aggregated on children. See this video promoting BrainCo’s brain wave monitoring classroom wearables created in 2015 by Harvard’s innovation lab.

Affectiva Personalized Education

Affectiva uses voice and facial recognition software to track real-time emotions of device users interacting with online content. That company spun out of the MIT Media lab and contracts with global brands to test advertising campaigns; but it is also used to gather data about student engagement with online education programs (see above screen shot). You can watch a short clip from Rosalind Picard’s presentation on the software from the 2017 Wharton Business School’s People Analytics conference here.

Affectiva at Wharton

And in this one-minute clip, also from Wharton’s People Analytics conference, Guy Halfteck of Knack, discusses that capacity of online gaming to unlock information about a job candidate’s personality. Watch it here. The Rockefeller Foundation, the initiator of the global impact investment movement, provided start up funding for Knack, software that combines gaming, neuroscience, machine learning and predictive analytics to assess the workforce competencies of players.


Wharton People Analytics Knack

In the clip, Halfteck describes online games as rich machines into which you can immerse people to evaluate their creativity, emotional intelligence, leadership qualities and resilience. The company claims Knack will be used to surface undiscovered talent in “opportunity youth.” However in a world where automation is making full-time employment an increasingly rare commodity, it seems far more likely that it will be used to negatively profile vulnerable young people rather than help them.

On January 30, 2018, Dr. Melina Uncapher of the University of California San Francisco came to Philadelphia to speak about learning engineering at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center. Her talk concluded the center’s annual “Learning Innovation” conversation series. You can watch it here.

Drexel Uncapher
Click here to watch.

She describes a growing movement where powerful interests are reimagining learning as an “applied science” where instruction can be administered in a clinical way, not unlike a medical treatment. She describes the creation of a new kind of career, a “learning engineer” to bridge the fields of learning science and classroom instruction. A learning engineer? I have so many questions:

Who is being subjected to this engineering?

Does it vary by race, class, and gender?

Engineered by whom?

Engineered with what technology?

Using whose standards?

To what end?


Uncapher’s talk emphasized the need for “evidence-based” education. Instruction must be measureable so they can “tell the leeches from the penicillin.” Of course this feeds the emerging narrative touting the importance of “efficacy” and “return on investment,” all of which is tied back into Pay for Success finance. In the clip below, Uncapher describes a research project she is carrying out with one thousand elementary school students in Santa Clara County, CA.

Santa Clara Neuroscape
Click here to watch.

Faculty from Stanford and UC Berkeley are participating in Uncapher’s three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation. A summary of the $750,000 award can be accessed here. The first two years involved extensive mapping of the executive function of the participating students using video games. Data on attention, memory, and goal management was captured via ACE (Adaptive Cognitive Evaluation), a platform that delivers 5-minute online assessments via adaptive algorithms. Video tutorials, graphics, and “motivating” feedback are built into the system. In this final year of the study, Uncapher will use digital interventions to attempt to “build” the executive function of these students.

Neuroscape ACE

Uncapher is also the director of the education program at the Neuroscape Lab, which began at UCSF in 2005 but was launched in its present form by Dr. Adam Gazzaley in 2016. The lab supports research into how video game technology can be incorporated into diagnostic and therapeutic digital products that “improve mind quality.”

Akili Interactive Labs is a for-profit enterprise that Gazzaley spun out of Neuroscape. Gazzaley is on its board and is its senior science advisor. Thus far the company has secured $72 million in venture capital from Canepa Healthcare, Jazz Venture Partners, PureTech Health, Amgen Ventures, and Merck Ventures.

AKL-T01 is a prescription pediatric ADHD digital video game treatment that completed clinical trials at Duke University last December. The company continues to advance their product through the regulatory process. It “looks and feels like a high-end video game, leveraging art, music, storytelling and reward cycles to keep patients engaged and immersed for the delivery of therapeutic activity with excellent compliance.” According to the website, they have many other digital treatments in the pipeline. If Akili attains FDA approval for their ADHD game and is able to get insurance companies to pay for it, an enormous new market for prescription digital therapies will open up.

Akili pipeline

I fear if we don’t start to speak up now, within the next five years it may become “normal” to deploy digital protocols to “fix” non-conforming children. Reduce face-to-face interaction and ramp up data-driven brain science. Picture data dashboard managers issuing personalized digital gaming scrips to “optimize” academic performance and mental health. Special needs students, English language learners, and those labeled “behavior problems” will be most at risk for remediation by systems designed to extract data and generate profit for investors.

We must challenge the National Science Foundation’s decision to fund a research program intended to “engineer” the executive function of Santa Clara County’s children. The data they are gathering on students in their public school will be used to build a base of research Neuroscape can hand over to Akili to refine and develop commercial products. Our children’s minds do not belong to the disruptors of Silicon Valley or the financial predators of Boston. Keep your MRIs, your immersive VR faux realities, and your human capital predictive analytics. Instead, let us come together as human beings and build a future that is neither financialized nor data-driven. Our children deserve nothing less.

Prescription Video Games


Don’t Give Us A Complex: Resisting the CBE Takeover of Strawberry Mansion High School

SRC Testimony in Support of Strawberry Mansion High School

As a resident of Philadelphia and a parent of a public school student, I believe it is vitally important that we stand with the residents of Strawberry Mansion and support their efforts to save their neighborhood comprehensive high school. Their demands are 1) no complex 2) give the school an incoming freshman class and 3) restore the resources and programs that have been taken from Strawberry Mansion. Numerous community members came out to last Thursday’s SRC meeting to oppose this plan. Read coverage from the Public School Notebook here or watch filmed testimony here. Below is a three-minute video of my testimony from the April meeting of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. You can read it here.

Unlocking Value at Public Expense

The School District of Philadelphia is attempting to “phase-out” Strawberry Mansion’s comprehensive high school in order to replace it with a “complex.” I suspect the intent is to use the facility as an incubator for competency-based education ventures designed to feed workforce development Pay for Success investment opportunities. Likely candidates include Big Picture, Youth Build, Outward Bound and spin-offs from the district’s CBE “innovation school” models. Competency-Based Education (also known at Proficiency or Mastery-Based education) is being actively fought in many communities in Maine, an early adopter state. As the deadline to implement proficiency-based diplomas there nears, many are speaking out about the tremendous problems with this so-called “innovative” educational model.

The same day as the SRC meeting, I attended the second annual “Break/Throughs: New Ideas for Policy” Conference co-hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s FELS Policy Research Initiative and the College of Arts and Sciences. The focus of the conference was how FELS could “unlock value” from partnerships with local government. One of the panels featured Clare Robertson-Kraft, founder and director of ImpactED. She stated that in June they would be presenting findings from a major research initiative funded by Pew Charitable Trust and Barra Foundation on the district’s innovation schools.


Robertson-Kraft said the event would draw a national audience, but when asked during Q&A if members of the public would be able to attend she deferred, saying that perhaps they could let some of the people attending the workshop know about it. While these “innovation” schools may technically be considered public schools, they are really test-beds for Ed Reform 2.0. Reformers don’t want the public in on this conversation until their “privatized-light” model is firmly established. I sense this June presentation will set the stage for an innovation love fest intended to kick-off a new round of school redesign that involves “public-private” innovation models taking over vulnerable schools like Strawberry Mansion, schools that have been starved of students and deprived of resources.

Workshop School Funders

The diagram above (click here for interactive version) shows some of the grants flowing into the Workshop School, a model being considered for the Strawberry Mansion “complex.” It also shows the funders of the Next Generation Learning Challenges Initiative, the source of the award that allowed the pilot two-year “Sustainability Workshop” to scale into a full four-year high school program. These small schools require significant private investment to operate, which makes them hard to keep going over the long term and likely to reflect the interests of their funders, many of whom push hybrid-blended learning. Digitally-platformed instruction is what the investors must have in place to scale automated evaluation of pay for success contracts down the line.

Priming the Pump for Impact Investing

During Q&A for another Break/Through panel, a member of the audience noted that four blocks away, at the Cira Center, a major social impact investment conference was taking place. “Total Impact,” co-sponsored by ImpactPHL and The Good Capital Project, an initiative of Social Capital Markets (SOCAP), featured national figures like Jim Sorenson. Local presenters included Jay Coen Gilbert, KIPP board member and founder of BLab; Sherryl Kuhlman of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative; and John Moore of Investor’s Circle and ImpactPHL. Impact investors are definitely on the move, positioning themselves to take advantage of provisions in the federal budget that earmarked $100 million to seed the pay for success market.

Susquehanna Foundation Profile 2013-2015

The above profile of the Susquehanna Foundation’s growth in assets shows how social impact capital is positioning itself since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Susquehanna Foundation is one of the funders of the Workshop School. This foundation is a vehicle for Jeffrey Yass’s firm Susquehanna International Group, a venture capital firm grounded in game theory. Jeffrey and Janine Yass are major funders of the Philadelphia School Partnership. Janine also served on the board of the Center for Education Reform, a catalyst for Ed Reform 1.0 and Ed Reform 2.0 initiatives.  Given the $130 million jump in endowment assets that happened between 2015 and 2016, I’m betting that Workshop School and other “innovative” education models will be well positioned to receive additional capital if they can demonstrate sufficient “impact” and generate solid rates of return. The pressure of market forces is why the district is making its moves on Strawberry Mansion now. They need space into which these investment programs can expand.

Merchant banking interests are also ramping up to take advantage of opportunities embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act. One of these is Ridge-Lane, Limited Partners, described on their website as an “advisory and merchant bank at the apex of public and private sectors.” The Ridge of Ridge-Lane is former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. He has assembled dozens of advisors to assist with his P3 (Public-Private-Partnership) plans to extract as much value as possible from the public sector. One of his team members is none other than Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite. Education is one of Ridge-Lane’s four focus areas, so it is not surprising that they have lined up a stable of privatization-minded, tech-friendly consultants like John Deasy, Jack Markell, and Michael Crow.

Ridge Lane Education

Ridge-Lane is targeting four areas for investment: information technology, sustainability, education, and real estate. In his closing remarks for the April SRC meeting, Superintendent Hite noted that Strawberry Mansion has been selected to become one of three energy pilot schools. The program involves making repairs to buildings that would result in improved energy efficiency. An article in the Public School Notebook stated the program would connect students in Career and Technical Education to the building trades, though it was unclear from the article if the intention was to actually employ student labor as part of the program.

Now imagine how a “Future Ready” Strawberry Mansion “complex” might fit into this business model as a Pay for Success venture. All that would need to be done is to set up some coding gyms or cyber-security training for the IT part. The energy pilot and training in trades would address sustainability and education/workforce development, and the real estate angle would come in as they gentrify the East Park area, further marginalizing black residents in this historically-black community.

I think we can safely assume this whole transformation will come with the blessing of the city’s elite. During the FELS Break/Through discussions John Kromer, housing policy analyst, saw the gentrification of the area surrounding Temple University as a positive (no mention of displacement), while Dirk Krueger, Interim Chair of Economics, spoke at length about the close relationship the university’s economics department and graduate students maintain with the research wing of the Federal Reserve. Remember, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve sponsored the Pay for Success “Capital for Communities” event with former Mayor Nutter in 2015.

Selling Innovation

During a recent community meeting at Strawberry Mansion High School, participants debriefed about a tour of the Workshop School that the district had set up to sell them on the idea. But they weren’t sold on it; they want to keep their comprehensive high school status.

The Workshop School started in 2011 when several teachers removed an award-winning Hybrid X automotive program from West Philadelphia High School. That program was then used as a centerpiece for The Sustainability Workshop, a two year program funded as part of a US Department of Energy grant linked to redevelopment of the Navy Yard. In the years following, the school has been sustained via substantial infusions from charter and privatization allied organizations including: the Philadelphia School Partnership, William Penn Foundation, and Lenfest Foundation.

The pilot program was brought to scale in 2013 when Simon Hauger and Matthew Riggins, co-founders, received a large award from the Next Generation Learning Challenges Initiative. Look back to the map and you’ll see all the expected ed-tech interests flowing into that program. Considerable grant funding for the school is run through a non-profit called Project Based Learning, Inc. A review of the 990 tax forms for the organization (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) raised some questions for me. Below is a table of select financial measures from when the nonprofit was founded through 2016, the latest 990 filing available through the Foundations Directory Online.

Project Based Learning Inc. 990 2010-2016

My questions are as follows:

  1. How much money can a “public school” accept from private sources before it is no longer a fully-public school? Note the annual budget in 2014.
  2. Why is the board list missing or incomplete (see below)? The 990s indicate that most years there are nine voting members governing the organization, but only six names were ever provided. In recent years Mr. Riggin is the only one listed.Workshop School Board List
  3. If a school operates as a public-private partnership, how are management decisions made and carried out? What is the role of the non-profit board? What is the role of school district staff and community members?
  4. The 990 forms indicate that in 2015 and 2016, eight people were paid by Project Based Learning, Inc. Are these people also employed by the School District? Are they private contractors? Are they working with students? Are there liability issues surrounding that?
  5. Why were the books of the nonprofit kept at the home of the school’s principal up until 2015?
  6. Is this nonprofit set up specifically to serve the Workshop School? There is nothing to indicate that. Instead, it seems like it could become a consultancy for any type of project-based learning initiative or related professional development program independent of a particular school.

Project Based Learning Summary 990

The School District is putting the hard sell on Strawberry Mansion to accept some form of project-based learning model and the “complex” format. It could be an expansion of the Workshop School or some other program or an assortment of small programs. But they don’t want that. They don’t. And even if they did there are serious questions we should be asking about expanding models of education that rely on private investment, particularly as we enter a moment when pressure will be building to adopt Pay for Success financing.

How we pay for our schools affects how education is delivered. Outcomes-based finance will drive adoption of more and more educational technology. This will generate data and isolate students, particularly the students who most need human contact. Please email or tweet Superintendent Hite and tell him “No Complex” on behalf of Strawberry Mansion (hite@philasd.org or @SDPHite). We want humane schools. We want publicly-funded schools. We want schools that encourage discussion, engagement, and thoughtful questioning rather than human capital compliance. Thanks in advance!

Navigating Whiteness: Could “Anywhere, Anytime” Learning Endanger Black and Brown Students?

This is a companion to a previous post I wrote about the implementation of the KiTE STEM challenge, a Google-sponsored digital learning contest being run in partnership with the Kirkland, WA park system this spring. Read part one here.

On April 12 Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested at a Starbucks coffee shop at 18th and Spruce Streets while waiting for a friend with whom they had a scheduled meeting. A bystander recorded the encounter, as the men had done nothing wrong and questioned the police as to why the arrests were made. Their experience has been widely discussed in national news. Today being a black or brown person in the public sphere is to be suspect and put at risk of arrest, deportation or even death.

I raise this within the context of appified learning ecosystems, because Philadelphia is a City of LRNG. Collective Shift has been promoting a system of “personalized” learning called Digital On Ramps where Philadelphia’s students, many of whom are students of color, would be sent out to navigate the city and earn skills-based badges.

The featured image for this post is from the article discussing Kirkland’s Kite STEM challenge. It shows hands holding a phone with a multiple choice question on the screen. They are young, black hands. Presumably this child is in a park using the app. In seeing those hands, I remember twelve-year old Tamir Rice, murdered by police at a Cleveland playground in 2014. We would like to think of parks as “safe” places to learn, but there are no guarantees for black children.

Tamir Rice Gazebo

Free-range device mediated education may seem like a great idea for privileged teens who can sit on the “weed-wall” in Rittenhouse Square and face no consequences. But what does that look like for young black men? Will they be afforded the same treatment? What will their “Hackable High School” look like? Will they have the right to pursue online instruction on a laptop undisturbed in local coffee shop?

I see Collective Shift’s image of “appified” education (above) and can’t help but think of Stephon Clark, murdered in his grandmother’s backyard by police as he held his phone. Will black and brown children be targeted pursuing informal learning on phones? Will they fear being shot as they collect competencies for their digital learning lockers?

I also think about the data being collected by the apps that enable anywhere learning: location data, emotion sensing data, and data about social interactions, all of it aggregated and used to develop predictive profiles. Are we bumping up against the moment when Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report is realized? When pre-crime interventions begin? Which brings to mind a panel discussion “Defining Public Safety: Visions for the Future of Policing” I attended last October during the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference.

During the Q&A at the end, former CIO of the City Charles Brennan, noted that the future of policing would be facial recognition cameras, predictive analytics software, and drone surveillance. Watch this clip from a 2014 lecture at MIT featuring whistleblower William Binney that describes facial recognition software developed by the military in Afghanistan as it was being deployed by local police in Springfield, MA.

Predictive Policing

How will it feel to “learn” exclusively in such an environment, an environment of ubiquitous surveillance and policing? And how will race play into assigned pathways for work-based learning? I have concerns about the quality of the experiences provided, as well the possibility of child labor issues. We know tremendous racial bias exists in US work places. What protections will be put in place to ensure black and brown children are not victimized? Who will be able to access which parts of the ecosystem? Will “Wharton-affiliated” ecosystem opportunities be restricted to students that meet specific criteria, while students of color get pushed into tracks for grounds maintenance, home healthcare, and basic coding?

US society suffers from a pervasive sickness that stems from our national origins in the theft of indigenous land and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Here in the city of “brotherly love,” myths portraying what we wish we were (independent, fair, just) are carefully tended. Yet, the brutality of our history (our present) cannot be denied. It emerges with regularity, at times on camera, in branded corporate settings like Starbucks, upending the lives of innocent people like Mr. Nelson and Mr. Robinson.

Our country’s education system was never meant to empower black and brown people. The current system is deeply flawed. Yet before advancing device-mediated, anywhere learning as a progressive “solution,” we must consider the implications that adopting a decentralized learning ecosystem model could have for children of color. Will they be forced to go out and navigate, on their own, a world of whiteness, fraught with danger in order to receive a public education? What will it mean to have their every move monitored via ICT technologies? Will earning educational badges vary depending on “where” they learn, as was the case with the Kirkland Park System program?

I have many reservations about “future ready” education, but the Starbucks incident makes clear the issue of race is paramount. This issue is not in any of the papers put out by Knowledgeworks. It is not addressed by MacArthur or Collective Shift. For all the black and brown people who have died or been subjected to physical or emotional violence for simply existing in spaces where white people felt they were a threat, we must talk about this.

“Anytime, anywhere” education could mean death or arrest or deportation for young black and brown people seeking to “learn” in spaces white society is loathe to share. A learning ecosystem governed by whiteness, particularly whiteness enshrined in technocratic digital platforms ruled by powerful white men = continued erasure.

Before hackable education models start to supplant bricks and mortar schools, there must be public conversations that critically examine what such a model would mean for black people, for brown people, and for undocumented immigrants. Their voices and opinions must be prioritized. The Kirkland KiTE STEM Challenge goes online this week. Will we start talking about this before it is too late? Lives hang in the balance.

Stephon Clark 2

Tracking Students: Google Rolls Out “Anytime, Anywhere” Learning in Kirkland, WA Parks This Spring

Fast forward fifteen years. Imagine that the vision advanced by Knowledgeworks, the futurists at the American Alliance of Museums, the MIT Media Lab, Institute for the Future, and ed-tech impact investors has been realized. Neighborhood schools no longer exist. Buildings in gentrifying communities have been transformed into investment condominiums with yoga studios and roof-top bars. Those in marginal neighborhoods exist as bare-bones virtual reality warehouses where the poor are managed for their data. If you want the narrative version, you can read it here.

A handful of designated structures have been retained as education drop-in centers, places where “lifelong learners” consult with mentors about their (bleak) prospects for acquiring “just-in-time” workforce skills. The global economy has gone digital. Everyone has a Blockchain identity and biometrically enabled payment account. Both are linked to a person’s permanent online record of academic and social-emotional competencies, the public services they’ve obtained, and determinations regarding the “impact” those services have had on their human capital. The social impact investors watch the data dashboards and take their profits.

Redefining Teacher Education
Source: Redefining Teacher Education for Digital Age Learners, 2009

“Future Ready” education has been gamified, decontextualized, and dehumanized. “Learning” repackaged into a product that can be dispensed, consumed, tracked, and evaluated via corporate apps. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) devices have largely supplanted human teachers, who had neither the capacity nor the inclination to gather learner data in the quantities demanded by Pay for Success contracts.

Austerity and technological advances gradually transitioned hybrid, “personalized” learning outside of classrooms and schools entirely. “Freed” of seat time requirements, teachers, grades, report cards, and diplomas, students pursue, in isolation, pathways to “career readiness.” What the concept of “career” means in a time of automated labor, precarious employment, and AI human resource management is open to debate.

See original here. Surveillance, profiling and policing will be central to the ecosystem model.

A friend shared an article with me this week that reveals early phase trials of digitally mediated learning ecosystems are here. I plan to do another post that goes into detail about the Internet of Things, iBeacons, online learning lockers, Education Savings Accounts, badges, and informal learning settings. For now, it’s enough to know that the Cities of LRNG model the MacArthur Foundation is advancing via their spin off “Collective Shift” involves students using the “city as their classroom.”

Devices monitor an individual’s movements via apps, and accomplishments are logged as students undertake “any time, anywhere” learning. Sometimes it happens in the real world. Other times it happens in virtual or augmented reality. Either way, Tin Can API is watching, logging data fed to IMS Global. Watch this video by Rustici Software LLC, developers of Tin Can API, it’s under two minutes and worth every second. Pay attention to all the layers of data being collected in this simple interface.

Tin Can API

In the case of Kirkland, WA, a Seattle suburb, education rewards are being offered to students who choose to participate in an informal STEM learning program in local parks between April 23 and May 13, 2018. A student downloads the app, and questions are delivered to them based on their age. This activity is targeted at children as young as kindergarten. Students can earn “entries,” chances to win personal prizes (museum admissions, IMAX tickets, and Google swag) as well as up to $34,500 in cash for Lake Washington District school PTSA organizations.

Attempting a question, even if incorrect, will win a student one entry, while a question correctly answered in a Kirkland park awards 15 entries. In order to qualify for bonus entries, a student must allow the app access to their real time location, which verifies by GPS if they answered the question while they were within the park system. I find it troubling that awards vary by the student’s location when answering. I can imagine, in some dystopian future, technologies like this being deployed to digitally redline education. It’s a chilling prospect, but not unthinkable.

The app also encourages students to allow the app to track “Motion and Fitness Activity.” Purportedly this is about “increasing battery efficiency;” however, knowing the prevalence of fitness tracking apps and how they are being incorporated into policies around health care (see Go360, the West Virginia teachers strike, and research being done at the Cornell-Tech Small Data Lab) I find this also very concerning. The amount of data being collected on students who download the app, if they follow the recommended settings, is significant.

According to the FAQ, Google is the financial sponsor of this challenge. Partners include the Kirkland Parks Foundation, the Lake District Schools Foundation, the City of Kirkland, the Pacific Science Center, Eastside Audubon, Brilliant.org (an online STEM network and talent scouting enterprise), and KiwiCo (age-based STEAM kit subscriptions). If you are a school administrator you can email them for a free action plan with tips to encourage students to upload the app, so their education can be monitored as part of Google’s pilot learning ecosystem experiment.

If you’re going to spend time in your local park, do you want your child glued to a device? Should they be looking at flora and fauna, or screens? Students, parents, teachers, and administrators need to start critically assessing the surveillance and data-gathering aspects of initiatives like the KiTE STEM challenge. As Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) says, data is the new oil. With each multiple choice answer (and the location and activity data associated with it) children are being mined for value. I’m not comfortable with that.

I wrote a companion to this post, Navigating Whiteness: Could “Anywhere, Anytime” Learning Endanger Black and Brown Students? I live in Philadelphia, and the arrests of two black men at a local Starbucks has me thinking a lot about how black and brown students could be placed at risk by the learning ecosystem model. Continue reading here.