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.


20th century


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





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.


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!


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

Digital Classrooms As Data Factories

Yesterday I shared an introductory essay to my series “Education in the Cloud,” which included the slide presentation “Big Data vs Teachers.” Today’s post features “Digital Classrooms As Data Factories.”

Slide Presentation: Digital Classrooms As Data Factories

My goal for this series is to make it clear that the “Future Ready” changes we’re seeing in today’s classrooms stem from the drive to create a speculative market in education data linked to social impact investing, Pay for Success, and Social Impact Bonds. These bonds are designed to be bundled as asset backed securities and traded on global markets. Did we learn nothing from the 2008 housing market crash? In addition, there are troubling elements of social control and surveillance embedded in the shift to online education as data dashboards and digital portfolios of “competencies,” academic AND behavioral, have begun to take precedence over authentic, offline learning experiences.

Recent “philanthropic” interest in universal pre-kindergarten, early literacy interventions and post-graduation plans (college, career, military or certifications) does not stem from some benevolent impulse. Rather it is about creating opportunities to embed digital frameworks into our education systems that reduce children’s lives to datasets. Once education is simplified as 1s and 0s, global finance will be well-positioned to speculate (gamble) on the future prospects of any given child, school, or district.

That is what accounts for intrusive preschool assessments like TS Gold and the pressure for middle school students to complete Naviance strengths assessments.  Impact investors need baseline data, growth data and “value added” data to assess ROI (return on investment). There are opportunities for profit all along this human-capital value chain. That is why end-of-year testing had to go in favor of constant, formative assessments. That is why they needed to implement VAM (Value Added Measures) and SLOs (Student Learning Objectives). These speculative markets will demand a constant influx of dynamic data. Where is this student, this class, this district compared with where they were projected to be? We need to know. Our bottom line depends on it.

We must recognize that beneath the propaganda of expanding opportunities for our most vulnerable populations, what is happening with “Future Ready” education is predatory and vile. It demeans education, turning it into a pipeline for human capital management at the very moment more and more experts are conveying grave concerns about the future of work in a world increasingly governed by artificial intelligence and automation.

The shift away from neighborhood schools to “learning ecosystems” of the type promoted by Knowledgeworks relies on the public accepting the premise that the future of education will involve tracking and aggregating demonstrations of student (and later, worker) competencies across multiple device platforms in many different locations. These demonstrations will be uploaded to our “lifelong learning lockers.”

The system for doing the tracking is already in place. It’s called xAPI or Tin Can API. This future of education, one underwritten by the Department of Defense, sees knowledge as something to be converted to a noun, verb and object. It’s suited to “just in time training,” and perfect for future workers expected to continually reinvent themselves in the gig economy. It’s simple, and trackable. They can track your learning, from whatever source, via multiple devices and platforms, your whole life. Watch the video. You may want to watch it more than once. Remember, “We can track it…” Consider the implications of that as education is being positioned as both a global investment opportunity and a mechanism for digitally-mediated social control.

Tin Can API-SCORM Could Do More
Rustici Software LLC Youtube Video 1:48 Minutes

Smart Cities & Social Impact Bonds: Public Education’s Hostile Takeover Part II

Ed Reform 2.0 is a different variety of privatization from the one to which we’ve become accustomed. End-of-year high-stakes testing, imposition of value-added measures, alignment to Common Core State Standards, and destabilization of districts through charter school expansion, closures, and turnarounds were actually setting the stage for the final act that is now on our doorstep. Educators and parents can see the harm being done by 1:1 devices, Big Data’s domination of classrooms and the relentless deprofessionalization of teaching, but may have difficulty making sense of it, because it takes deep background knowledge to put all the pieces together. Hoping to make it more accessible, I’ve prepared a series of slide presentations called “Education in the Cloud.”

My goal is to introduce concepts I believe people need to become more familiar with as we navigate the post-ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) landscape. It begins with an overview followed by six sets of slides, each telling a part of the story:

Big Data vs. Teachers: Slideshare Link

Digital Classrooms as Data Factories: Slideshare Link

What is a “Smart” City? Slideshare Link

Tracking Children Via the Internet of Things: Slideshare Link

Blockchain and “The Ledger”: Slideshare Link

How Austerity Generates Data: Slideshare Link

Reinventing Education for Impact Investing: Slideshare Link

I’ll post the introduction at the end of this piece, and share the rest sequentially over the next few days. There are links to the Slideshare uploads above, however, the links and the video in these uploads are not fully operational. I also have a visual timeline in the works that pulls content from the slides and includes links to additional resources for those who want to take a deeper dive. It’s not yet complete, but in the meantime you can take a look here. If there are items you think should be added, please leave your suggestions in the comments.

About two years ago, via Save Maine Schools, I fell into the Global Education Futures Forum agenda and never quite made it back out. So I found myself on July 4 trying to figure out the best way to explain the enormity of all this to you. We need to wrap our minds what it would mean for most of the people on the planet to be living life “on the ledger” and begin organizing effective resistance to a future defined by technocratic feudalism.

Be sure to watch the seven-minute  Learning is Earning video if you haven’t yet.

I’m a mom creeping towards the half-century mark with a daughter enrolled in a large urban school district that’s been under siege for years, which means education activism has been part of my life in some form or another for the better part of a decade. I first lent a hand with the parent association at her elementary school, then stepped up to school district policy and eventually concentrated on opting out of high stakes testing. Now, I’ve finally begun to understand in a more holistic way the complex structures of systemic oppression and racism that underlie the privatization and financialization of our public schools. It is far beyond what I ever imagined in those naïve early years when I started this journey. Along the way I’ve benefitted tremendously from the support and camaraderie of inspiring activists I’ve met in person and in the virtual worlds we’ve come to inhabit. People are incredibly generous with their time, and though the task before us is daunting, I continue to draw hope and strength from our collective power.

I never anticipated I’d willingly spend hours wading through white papers on Blockchain, impact investing and cognitive computing. My graduate work was in historic preservation, after a brief flirtation with art history, and I was trained to look at landscapes, not derivatives. By examining physical clues and the documentary record, I figured out how to discern and describe the stories of places. I also learned to stick with the search even when the trail peters out. Deeds, census records, maps, and oral histories; often if you persevere, the piece you’re looking for eventually clicks into place. That training has turned out to be invaluable as I’ve poked around dark corners of the Internet uncovering next-gen education reform. Being able look beneath the surface, read widely and synthesize information into a bigger picture has been, I think, either my gift or my curse.

The Ed Reform 2.0 push to atomize knowledge into bits and pieces for validation by badges and micro-credentials has me very worried. It’s not what I want for my child, for other people’s children or for future generations. There are many days I feel like a Cassandra. It’s not that people don’t believe my predictions; rather, they are down in the trenches fighting more immediate battles and don’t have the luxury of time or head space to step back and let things come into focus. Part of the strategy, in fact, is to create repeated immediate threats that zap our resources and distract us from the true end game. It is unclear exactly what is to be done, because pushing back against these powerful global forces will take tremendous collective effort. And of course it is a weighty thing to hold this knowledge. I sense there are a lot of people who simply don’t want to look for fear that it will be too hard to carry that knowledge going forward.

I recognize there was no era in which public education was designed to care for ALL our nation’s children. As we stare down Ed Reform 2.0, we must be prepared not only to fight the reformers’ surveillance, human-capital management tactics, but also to collectively imagine and realize a new paradigm that will cultivate the intellect and talents of each and every child while recognizing and celebrating their human dignity. Rather than the toxic construct of “personalized” online learning that railroads children into set pathways, isolates them, and forces them to compete against one another, we need to embrace learning as an inherently human process, one that encourages students to take pleasure in discovering and constructing knowledge with the guidance of trained educators, in the fellowship of engaged peers, and within the context of their communities and culture.

I live in Philadelphia,  home of the Liberty Bell. July 4 is a big deal here, but I can muster little enthusiasm for potato salad or sparklers. This “Independence” Day, I spent the afternoon at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia listening to a reading of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass. The understanding that this freedom we celebrate was built on land theft, genocide and the enslavement of millions weighs heavily on my mind. In recent years I’ve grown as a person, recognizing national myths for what they are. In this confluence of national and world events we sometimes have the good fortune to connect with thoughtful and brilliant friends who challenge us and expand our horizons. Through organizing and resistance I’ve been included in conversations I never had access to as a child of corporate suburbia. I simply would not have had the base of knowledge to do this research three years ago, and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped me get to this point, knowing that I still have much farther to go.

I now hold in the forefront of my mind the understanding that our society relies on large segments of the population being rendered disposable, people who are cast aside after their value has been extracted-people of color, the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable. The education system as it is presently constructed is part of that. To normalize this, systems are maintained that isolate us, keep us in echo chambers, dull our senses, peddle distraction and cultivate contempt for one another and for critical thought. Sometimes we allow these systems to operate unimpeded; we don’t disrupt.

I used to be much better behaved than I am now, and I regret that. I hope I can in some way begin to make up for my previous inaction by using this blog to transgress, to ask troubling questions, to provoke discussion and throw a few wrenches in the gears of the disimagination machine. The financial elite class is closing ranks, and technology is on their side. The hour is late. I’m starting to appreciate just how much I did not know, and how much work there is yet to be done. I’m ready; I just hope we have the tools and solidarity needed to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

I write this blog as a digital skeptic parent, but acknowledge that I am doing this work from a place of privilege, a relatively safe perch. I have flexibility in my work schedule that allows me to pursue this research, and this broken system is not yet directly harming my child or threatening my family. I am not a teacher or an academic or a union member. I arrived here without pedagogical credentials, without heroes, an outsider. I aspire to no elected office or position within this world and as such I am free to follow the money, look at the evidence and turn over each and every rock that seems promising. I pursue the facts, and my goal is to share and discuss them with as wide an audience as possible, so we can come to a common understanding of what we are up against and what to do about it. Unraveling these threads has been a challenging, somewhat abstract intellectual exercise that has occupied a lot of my bandwidth over the past year. But as I began to put the timeline of events together last month, I couldn’t help but notice how rapidly things are speeding up. I cling to a fleeting hope for safety, but recognize global finance and digital surveillance reach not only into education but into all aspects of our lives and will soon hit us like a ton of bricks. If you’re not yet familiar with Sesame Credit, you should read How China Wants To Rate Its Citizens. Of course it will hit marginalized communities and communities of color earlier and harder than others. I expect Philadelphia will be on the front lines.

I love my adopted city, a place I’ve called home for over twenty years. We live with stark contrasts; conspicuous consumption bumping up against extreme deprivation. Fueled by generous tax incentives “luxury” townhomes spring up at rates defying the number of residents who could ever possibly afford to live in them. Meanwhile librarians are being trained to administer Narcan to waves of heroin addicts seeking shelter in the restrooms; black men are killed by police during traffic stops, like David Jones just this June; our prisons are full and evictions are rising. We celebrate our status as a sanctuary city with a vibrant immigrant culture, but thousands live in daily fear of deportation. Philadelphia has all the accouterments of hipster culture, food trucks and pop-up beer gardens, nestled in the shadow of Comcast’s massive new headquarters. Once complete, it will be the tallest building in Center City and central to the public private partnership’s goal of governing for profit and control. We cannot allow a reductionist approach to education to take hold, one where knowledge is constrained by ones and zeros and consumption prevails over questioning.

Surveillance in the digital world as well as the physical world is something all citizens need to reckon with moving forward. Predictive policing that incorporates “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) analysis of police body camera video footage, ubiquitous CCTV cameras, gunshot sensors, and listening devices, continues to focus the powers of the police state on those deemed problematic and/or expendable. “Smart” technology advancements will soon make that control apparatus absolute. Moving forward, our “smart” cities will be occupied not only by the flesh and blood humans, but also by our cyber doppelgangers, quantified, aggregated “federated citizens” uploaded to the cloud for optimization within increasingly complex, automated man-machine systems. Their vision of the future would value us primarily for the data we produce, and when we consume public services underwritten by private capital using “innovative” partnerships that very data would be used to enrich the impact investment class, driving an engine of speculative derivatives built on the securitization of social impact bonds. In the coming decade we may very well see the rise of fixed digital identities linked to crypto-currency systems; the data flow from every aspect of our lives, seamlessly added to Blockchain, “the ledger.” We must recognize that in bridging the digital divide we are inviting the surveillance state into our lives and into our classrooms. Broadband, mesh networks and 5G will bring a degree of digital discipline to society that, standing on this side of the threshold to the Internet of Things, most cannot yet fully appreciate.

Philadelphia is a “Smart” City. We jumped on board in 2011 with a workforce badging program underwritten by IBM and more recently accepted a large grant from the Knight Foundation to investigate the Internet of Things. This fits nicely with Comcast’s plan to pilot IoT systems using LoRa Wireless Radio Frequency Technology in the coming year. I’m not sure how all of this will play out given that Philadelphia skipped over the Y2K issue, having never upgraded our municipal computers systems in the first place. Sometimes those intractable Quaker values come in handy. But if the transition happens, deliberate austerity makes it unlikely that the city would have funds to retain in-house professionals to manage these complex systems. Which leads us to these larger questions:

If you outsource municipal operations to multinational corporations and those systems become embedded into your city’s infrastructure to the extent they cannot be easily removed, what role then do locally-elected officials play?

If Cisco or IBM is running the show, does that let “smart” city mayors off the hook?

Do they become figureheads providing cover for corporate partners (and their algorithms) to make “data-driven” policy?  

What would local elections even mean in that context?

To whom are the companies running “smart” cities accountable, citizens or shareholders?

And with increasing automation, cognitive computing and Big Data, are humans even going to have a meaningful role in running the show at all?

Pennsylvania recently launched its first Pay for Success project, and while it wasn’t directly for pre-K education, I have concerns about where things are headed. The John and Laura Arnold Foundation (New Orleans school takeover and Baltimore surveillance project) teamed up with Michael Bloomberg (NYC education reformer and founder of the Domain Awareness System) to underwrite an advertising campaign in support of the soda tax intended to fund the city’s universal pre-K program. I don’t take their involvement as a good sign.

Meanwhile out in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Problem Solutions is refining xAPI, the protocol they hope will truly open the door to “anywhere, any time learning.” Philadelphia has an extensive array of museums and cultural institutions that I’m sure would find such an arrangement very attractive. Our public library system, the Philadelphia Free Library, was identified as a national model for community-based learning experiences in the American Alliance of Museum’s 2014  whitepaper “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem. The William Penn Foundation, the philanthropy that hired Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia public schools in 2013, just launched an initiative promoting informal “out-of-school time” learning. The Wallace Foundation has underwritten digital architecture to track data in afterschool program settings, all the better to feed the impact investment machine. Philadelphia is one of a dozen “Cities of LRNG” supported by the MacArthur Foundation. They want the “smart” city to become our classroom, but what does that mean for people who seek an education beyond the reach of badges and proficiency demonstrations? If learning happens outside an xAPI protocol will the authorities recognize it as legitimate? Do we need to build an infrastructure to support fugitive learning? Maybe we should have already started.

The corporate partnership’s ability to track water, buses, energy, people, transactions and knowledge through state-monitored systems should give everyone pause. Anyone who’s seen Snowden (or better yet Laura Poitras’s CitizenFour) or followed the advocacy work of William Binney knows this. Our virtual selves live on in Bluffdale, UT, at least for a hundred years.  “Smart” cities are surveilled cities, though undoubtedly this oversight will be presented as being for the collective “good.”

The narrative being crafted by Ed Reform 2.0 aims to convince us that through “personalized” data-driven education any child can become a “winner” in the global economy. That simply isn’t true and completely disregards grave concerns many hold about future labor markets with respect to automation. These interests are very happy for us to take out bonds to build 21st century schools and purchase legions of tablets and laptop carts. Global finance thrives on debt, and if it hastens the demise of neighborhood schools, so much the better. Reformers are selling us the idea that learning ecosystems will be “vibrant learning grids,” when in reality this loose system of unaccountable cyber and community-based learning opportunities will only magnify inequities inherent in the existing system. Their “learning grid” will be a disorienting maze that only children who have the most support and resources can navigate successfully. They know it and even write about it in the dystopian essay A Learning Day 2037. Such a fate would be a disaster for my city. That is why I am doing this work, and why I hope you will join me on this journey.

There are many moving parts to the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda but fundamentally it is about enclosing the commons of public education, pushing learning onto digital platforms where it can be monitored, disciplined, and turned into a commodity for speculation in the global financial marketplace. That fact must be internalized before we can move on. I hope the slides that follow help you in that process, so we can collectively strategize for the resistance.

Education in the Cloud-Introduction

Massachusetts Teachers Take A Stand Against “Personalized Learning”

During the annual meeting in May, representatives of the Massachusetts Teachers Association overwhelming approved three New Business Items opposing the roll out of so-called “personalized” learning programs in the Commonwealth via the MAPLE/LearnLaunch initiative. Additionally, a commitment was made to expand research the MTA has been conducting on privatization to include “personalized” learning and to create a webpage to share information and document the harm being done by such programs to teaching and learning.

I have written about digital curriculum in Massachusetts HERE and HERE. Mark Zuckerberg’s “personalized” learning platform Summit Basecamp has been making its way into a number of Massachusetts districts as well as districts in neighboring Rhode Island, which reformers have targeted for conversion as the nation’s first “personalized learning” state. More on that HERE.

In an email to members yesterday, Delegates say NO to personalized learning and YES to funding, MTA president Barbara Madeloni highlighted a number of NBIs passed by delegates during the meeting, including those related to Personalized Learning. See the screenshot below.

MTA Personalized Learning

The email also acknowledged the need to incorporate “personalized” learning into the high-stakes testing discussion, since both further the privatization agenda and seriously impact the time teachers and students have for authentic, meaningful instruction.

MTA Email -2

As far as I am aware, this is the first instance of union members in the United States directly challenging the ed-tech takeover of our schools. I hope you will draw inspiration from the stand they have taken and build on it. I expect this work will have to come through grassroots organizing, since top leadership of both national unions have aligned themselves with a concept of “Future Ready” schools that prioritizes digital curriculum over face-to-face instruction with certified teachers. Read the particulars HERE, HERE, and HERE. Full text of the NBIs can be accessed below. If you are an NEA member and planning to be in Boston later this month come prepared. This is not just Massachusetts’s fight, it is a fight on ALL of our doorsteps. Let’s get to work.

Text of the NBI motions, shared with me by the submitters, includes supporting links and reference information: MTA Personalized Learning NBIs