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




What the NEA probably wouldn’t want you to know about “personalized” learning in Boone County, KY.

Just weeks before the 2017 Annual Meeting opens in Boston, an article from NEA Today, As More Schools Look to Personalized Learning, Teaching May Be About to Change, makes it clear NEA’s top leadership prioritizes digital curriculum over the right of a student to be educated without data mining and to have unconditional, full time access to a human teacher. For those familiar with NEA’s and AFT’s partnership with Ed Reform 2.0 interests on the Education Reimagined initiative this comes as no surprise, though seeing the propaganda in print is still jarring. If you’re NOT aware of this partnership, stop and read Emily Talmage’s Anatomy of a Betrayal now. Oh, and later check out the NEA’s 2011 Policy Brief in support of blended learning. Here Tom Vander Ark notes the content of the brief is largely drawn from the work of Clayton Christensen’s reformy Innosight Institute.

The general rule for ed-activists is to never, ever read the comments, though I encourage you to make an exception in this case. Over fifty heartfelt statements against digital curriculum have been logged thus far, though you should be aware that at least four other comments were posted and subsequently removed by the site administrator. One was from Emily Talmage and included a link to Anatomy of a Betrayal. Another was from a former NEA member and midwestern teacher “NEA’s motto-destroying public education from within.” A Connecticut teacher and NEA member wrote “What a deceptive article – shame on NEA Today.” And the fourth was submitted by Massachusetts Teachers Association member Mary Porter.

Mary’s comment included the full text of New Business Item 6, MTA Opposes the MAPLE / LearnLaunch Partnership with Massachusetts DESE. The NBI was approved at the state meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers Association on May 20, 2017, and as far as I am aware it is the first instance of a union taking an official position opposing digital curriculum. I am grateful to all who crafted, sponsored and supported this NBI, and I am sharing Mary’s comment below because this NBI is a landmark policy and a model other unions should look to as they develop their own responses to ed-tech’s assault on our nation’s schools.

MTA Opposes the MAPLE/LearnLaunch Partnership with Massachusetts DESE
NBI # 6 Adopted
Massachusetts Teachers Association Representative Assembly, May 20 2017

1.The MTA opposes the MAPLE/Learn launch partnership of the Massachusetts DESE, on the grounds that it reflects a predetermined plan to impose a new, untested “personalized” oversight system on the public schools. This initiative is privately controlled by LearnLaunch, a non‐profit consortium of for‐profit education technology ventures. The MTA will investigate the legality of this partnership and its appearance of being a crony arrangement to guarantee return to for‐profit vendors who would benefit financially from the policies being imposed through collaboration with the DESE.

The MTA will inform the DESE of our position in a letter, accompanied by a press release to the public.

2. The MTA will establish a MAPLE/Learnlaunch Toolkit Page, which will collect and review reports from members, describing instances where, in their professional judgement, the educational opportunity of students and the respect for teaching staff are undermined by the products and working conditions demanded by the consortium.

3.  MTA members and staff will use our toolkit to share strategies to combat the harmful effects of and unvalidated edtech products on our students, and to defend teachers’ professional judgement and standards against interference by business interests.


1.  Office of Digital Learning Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 75 Pleasant Street Malden, MA 02148-5023 @MASchoolsK12

Digital Learning Advisory Council Meeting Minutes Date: Wednesday, January 6, 2016:

a. MAPLE (Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech) Consortium is a public / private partnership emerging between ESE and LearnLaunch as an effort to catalyze personalized and blended learning supported by technology in districts and schools across the Commonwealth. MAPLE is having discussions with some philanthropic organizations to support this effort.

b. There will be a convening of the DCPS (Digital Connections Partnership Schools) Grantees at LearnLaunch Symposium and a second convening of the DCPS later in the spring.

c. The Commissioner set goal of 100% online testing in Commonwealth by 2019. ODL/DLAC will be involved in advising for this effort.”

2.  Promotional materials for the Center for Collaborative Education describe its agenda-driven out-of-state backers:

“In 2016, CCE launched the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network (MA PLN) to work with district leaders, principals, and teachers to design and implement personalized learning plans…

Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) is proud to partner with Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech Consortium, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Agilix. CCE is a regional partner with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) as part of a national initiative to scale up personalized learning schools. PLN is supported by EDUCAUSE through the Next Generation Learning Challenges, the Barr Foundation, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, and IBM.” school-design/massachusetts-personalized-learning-network

3.   Learnlaunch is a “non-profit” consortium of for-profit investors and vendors, which specifically advertises to member investors that it has the capacity to maximize their financial return.


“Investor Path   Want to hear from other edtech investors on how they make decisions in such a fast-paced marketplace? Want to see demos from LearnLaunch Accelerator startups and pitches from our pitch competition finalists? Check out these sessions for a closer look into the trends, innovations, and companies that are shaping the future of edtech.”

LearnLaunch sponsors

Learnlaunch Accelerator for-profit member Companies:

Some supporting links:
Our Children @ Risk – Parents Across America Details the Dangers of EdTech
Follow the Money – Who is Nellie Mae? Save Maine Schools
Overview and Timeline of personalized learning drive in Massachusetts: Hybrid Learning, Cicada Killers & the Next Big Fight

Given that the NEA has tipped its hand on where leadership stands with regard to Zuckerberg’s “personalized” playlist education agenda, it’s time to shine a light on what is happening in Boone County, Kentucky. The Boone County School District is exactly the type of environment described in the article, and it’s imperative that teachers, parents and community members understand what reformers REALLY mean when they use terms like “personalization” and “innovation,” because it’s NOT what you think.

To give you some idea of the problems see the post below (shared with permission) describing a school meeting that took place last October in which parents expressed serious reservations about the implementation of the Summit Basecamp personalized learning platform in their local middle school.

Boone FB

Teachers in Boone County are members of the Kentucky Education Association, an NEA affiliate. The county, one of the fastest growing in the state, is located in northern Kentucky within the greater-Cincinnati sphere of influence. Cincinnati is where Knowledgeworks, the primary proponent of the learning ecosystem model, is based. I’m certain they’re paying close attention to how things are playing out across the river. There’s a lot of regional economic development, including recent plans by Amazon to establish a $1.5 billion worldwide cargo hub there. Amazon’s other major business venture is, of course, cloud-based computing which provides critical infrastructure for online learning management systems.

In 2012, Kentucky passed legislation creating Districts of Innovation to enable “rethinking what a school might look like.” “Innovative” districts are released from administrative regulations and statutory provisions and waive local school board policy. ALEC has developed model legislation for “Innovation Schools and School Districts,” which is being adopted in a number of states. Texas, for example, has seen a lot of activity around innovation districts over the past year. The flexibility offered dovetails nicely with complementary ALEC legislation that expands e-learning options. The following ALEC legislative templates have been created or updated since passage of the Every Student Success Act, which incorporated language in support of so-called “innovative” learning: Statewide Online Education Act; Digital Teaching and Learning Plan; Online Learning Clearinghouse Act; Resolution in Support of Student-Centered Accountability Systems;  and the Next Generation Charter Schools Act.

Boone County School District, the third largest in the state and growing, joined the program in 2016 with the intention of creating an “Imagineering Academy” combining personalized learning platforms and work-based projects in a competency-based education framework. The district already had gone down the e-learning road, piloting a Spanish language program using Rosetta Stone software in 14 elementary schools between 2013 and 2016. In a press release touting this “innovative” digital world language program, Linda Black, director of Elementary Education, stated  “Like many public school districts encounter, it can often be difficult for us to find, and more importantly, afford certified world language educators.” Matt Hall, of Rosetta Stone, affirmed this sentiment noting “School districts don’t need big budgets to think innovatively and provide access to 21st-century skills for its students; Boone County is living proof.”

So let’s take a look at the language in the application and the waivers they requested to provide the flexibility to implement the “Imagineering” vision. You can read Boone County’s entire District of Innovation Imagineering Academy report HERE.

Boone County schools are very interested in optimizing their resources in a cost-effective way. Outsourcing instruction to online platforms and community partners through their early college program enables them to achieve these types of efficiencies. Both approaches reduce K12 student access to certified teachers in neighborhood school settings.

Boone Resource Optimization-1

The Imagineering model also directs students to specific career pathways directed by regional workforce needs including: design, robotics, advanced manufacturing and home building. The document clearly states that in addition to specific vocational skills they are looking for “employability traits.” A “Work Ethic Certificate” is referenced.

Boone Workforce-2

Boone Workforce 3

These excerpts describe plans to expand virtual schooling in the district. The intent is to decrease costs by using aides instead of teachers to oversee digital instruction and to reduce Carnegie Unit requirements, which means reducing the amount of time students need to actually be IN a school setting. The plan notes that in some classes “teacher contact is important, but not to the extent that in-class time has been traditionally established.” NEA members, consider how this blended learning approach will affect the amount of meaningful instruction time you will have with students.

Boone Virtual School-1

This excerpt touts supposed public interest in K12 virtual charters, specifically Ohio’s virtual academy. The plan is to increase virtual classes in the district “exponentially.”

Boone Virtual-2

Here we have Knowledgeworks’ trademark “anywhere, anytime learning” language. No need to limit your education to physically going to a school building with certified teachers. You can enroll in virtual courses any time during the year or sign up for performance-based credit opportunities at the maker space or home building campus.

Boone Anywhere Anytime

This portion of the application requests the number of hours of instruction required for a course to be counted towards graduation be reduced by a third, a 33% reduction in student access to in-school courses with face-to-face instruction by certified teachers.

Boone Seat Time

The waiver below is probably the most egregious with respect to the NEA Today personalized learning propaganda piece. Through this waiver Boone County is granted the flexibility of allowing teacher’s aides to take on the role of instructing and supervising students while they are using virtual or digital content. A comment left on the NEA article notes this is already happening in a Utah district.

NEA Comment

Given the sections above describing plans to exponentially increase the number of virtual classes, this policy could decimate the professional teaching force. There is no doubt that aides provide crucial support services in classrooms. I do not want to diminish in any way the importance of their contributions. However we need to recognize that the job description of a “Teacher’s aide” is fundamentally different when the “teacher” is, in actuality, a computer program. I can’t imagine such a situation would be satisfying for anyone-students, aides or the now-absent, certified teachers.

Boone Para

In 2013, the state of Kentucky commissioned a study of Performance-Based Credit through the state office of Education Accountability. Boone County was identified as having three courses that met this criteria. The report summary stated such course offerings tended to be technology-based rather than teacher-led. Once again, certified teachers are removed from the educational process, and student access to human contact and opportunities to learn in relationship is limited.

Boone Performance

The final waiver I’ll post is one where they request an additional reduction of ten instructional days to be replaced by virtual learning or performance-based instruction.

Boone flexible

The 43-page application concludes with an 8-page marketing and communications plan promoting “Imagineering Academy.” It was expected that members of the “Build Champions” leadership group would undertake speaking engagements, develop a website, manage social media campaigns and ad buys, cultivate positive word of mouth, interface with the media, schedule group text messages, even design promotional signage. But the media campaign seems to have backfired, since many families expressed ongoing concerns in public meetings and media outlets  regarding the adoption of the Summit Basecamp blended learning program in the district’s middle schools. See Facebook Program at School Causes Controversy.

Boone Summit

More problems are cited in Carrie Cox: Some parents don’t like the new ‘Summit Personalized Learning Platform,’ want to opt out including: teachers being unable to meet the expectations of providing individual mentoring and differentiation; students completing curriculum modules too quickly; and concerns over privacy and sharing data with third parties. Evidently Summit has dealt with the latter issue by no longer requiring parental consent for students to use the platform.

Boone Summit-3

Boone Summit-4

Summit 6

Indeed many parents spoke critically of the Summit Basecamp program at a November 10, 2016 Boone County Board of Education meeting. Minutes here. Unfortunately there was little the superintendent or elected school board members could do about the curriculum, because those decisions are under the purview of the SBDM or Site-Based Decision Making Councils. Issues with how SBDM’s operate are detailed here.

While “personalized” learning is promoted as an “innovative” opportunity for the 21st-century, the reality is that Zuckerberg, Hastings, Gates, Dell and their ilk are selling us a cyber-parody of education where children are compelled to give up not only their data, privacy and autonomy but also the opportunity to learn from and connect with other human beings in meaningful ways. Certified teachers who have undertaken extensive study, training and credentialing to take up the vital work of educating future generations are being systematically marginalized, while the leadership of both national teacher’s unions actively partner on the ed-tech roll out. The NEA Today article is one more example of those at the top of the “business union” pyramid sacrificing members to advance their own political agenda. I hope everyone in Boston between June 25th and July 5 will take this information to heart. Draw inspiration from NBI-6 developed and approved by members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (see below), organize your colleagues and arm yourselves with tools you’ll need to salvage your profession and protect our children. Come prepared and be stalwart.

New Business Item 6-Approved at the 2017 Massachusetts Teachers Association Annual Meeting: MTA Opposes the MAPLE:LearnLaunch Partnership with Massachusetts DESE. Meeting summary HERE.


Scholarchip IDs: Convenience but at what cost?

I’m grateful to the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools for keeping tabs on the Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission’s monthly meeting agendas. They recently alerted me to a resolution about student ID cards, that in turn started me thinking about ubiquitous computing, digital classrooms as nodes within Smart Cities, and the role big data, payment systems, public-private partnerships, and Blockchain ledger-based finance could play in Ed Reform 2.0.

The SRC passed the Philadelphia School District’s 2017-18 budget last month, and the upcoming meeting on June 15 is packed with resolutions for new contracted services. Among these is a 5-year, $6.5 million contract with Scholarchip, the company that manages the district’s student ID and automated attendance system. Philadelphia is transitioning to a new student information system, Infinite Campus. A perfect name for the learning ecosystem age; no need to restrict learning to schools when the entire city can be your “campus.” One reason the district gave for deciding to extend Scholarchip’s contract was their use of smart card technology.

“The School District has maintained a good pulse on the state of the relatively limited market space for student identification card systems, having conducted previous RFP solicitations in 2005 and 2011. Many of the solutions available utilize radio frequency identification (RFID) as opposed to smart card technology. As a card technology platform, smart cards differentiate themselves by allowing data to be programmed and modified directly on the card itself, thus permitting greater functionality and flexibility such as use with fare systems (i.e. SEPTA), storing lunch money or fee balances, and documenting student health conditions or restrictions. Under this contract, ScholarChip would continue to implement its kiosk station architecture at school building points of entry/egress, and would utilize its cloud-based service to manage and administer kiosks, control access, collect/maintain data, and provide a web-based administrative interface to the system.” See page 51 of the June 15, 2017 School Reform Commission Public Meeting Proposed Resolutions.

I admit to having concerns about “smart” technology. My husband anxiously awaited the roll out of SEPTA’s smart card system, but I find myself reluctant to give up on tokens, which though inconvenient to purchase provide a level of anonymity smart cards do not. Cory Doctorow put RFID chips on my radar. Predictive policing via transit cards was part of the plotline of Little Brother, a book I highly recommend. Beyond monitoring attendance, access, and location services, Scholarchip’s smart cards also come with payment capability. There is a level of convenience there, but if you can put lunch money and transit fare on a card, you can just as easily put an entire Education Savings Account (voucher) on one. In fact education debit cards are already being used in Arizona.

Scholarchip handles student ID cards for private schools, and their payment gateway system is set up for tuition payment plans. The learning ecosystem of the future will have different requirements than the traditional voucher. There will be no up-front, lump-sum tuition payment, because the plan will be for students to chart their own educational pathways as they go along, cobbling together a combination of online and community project-based options. For that reason the industry needs a mechanism, like a card (or at some point even a chip in your finger? See Eggers The Circle) that can handle micropayments to multiple providers. In all likelihood those money transfers will be linked to meeting academic or non-cognitive student performance measures through a Blockchain or smart contract process. I’m sure those pushing ledger-based educational finance will say that it offers security, transparency and accountability, but at that point the process of education simply becomes transactional. Students’ lives are digitally transferred to the ledger, and the money follows the child and his or her performance in a very public way.

Even more concerning is the resolution’s off-hand reference to putting student health conditions onto a smart card, especially given the push to gather social-emotional data on children through gamified classroom behavior management apps and surveys. Plus, there is growing interest in bringing outside health and mental health providers into schools as part of community school initiatives. I would hazard a guess that most parents do not realize HIPPA protections do not apply in school settings, and that FERPA protections are woefully inadequate. This link indicates Infinite Campus student information system has the capacity to store health and mental health information on students. Will these cards eventually pull in that type of data, too? Do parents know?


In 2014 Scholarchip acquired ABE Systems, a web-based behavioral intervention software platform. The card syncs real time truancy, tardiness, and class cuts with the student information system and assigns students to online remediation behavioral remediation programs. See below:

Scholarchip Behavior

Scholarchip Behavior Photo

So what might start out as an attendance tracking device could actually evolve into a school policing mechanism. Much of the language found on the Scholarchip website evokes security, policing and student management. Even the image of the kiosk feels impersonally authoritarian to me, but I admit I may be biased.

Scholarchip 4While this is not part of Scholarchip’s card services, I want to mention Clever badges at part of this discussion. Clever, based in San Francisco, has developed software allows students to access hundreds of online educational apps through a single portal with one login and password. The company connects a district’s student information system to online learning programs associated with various rosters. As blended learning programs have pushed down into K-2 classrooms, remembering even a single password presents challenges. The solution? Badges (cards) printed with QR codes that when held in front of the device’s camera logs the student into the software programs automatically. See this video of students using Clever badges at a Rocketship Academy charter school. A simple card can be used to aggregate a lot of data.


Looking at the Scholarchip resolution, we owe it to our children to consider its broader implications. This is not just about making attendance taking easier, is it? No. It is about investing in an infrastructure that has the capacity to alter education payment systems and mine children for ever-increasing amounts of data that will be channeled into insatiable student information systems. It atomizes the educational experience; each student’s identity embedded into a card, layers and layers of data that can be used to track, manage and optimize them to the needs of the workforce. Or, profile them in ways that guarantee they have no place in the workforce.

A child’s transit patterns, eating habits, health needs, academic scores, career profiles? Is there any guarantee that this data, stored in the cloud and subject to hacking, will not eventually end up in a predictive analytics platform? Jose Ferriera’s Knewton talk from Datapalooza (see below) once seemed amusing, but not any more. That authorities could speculate on how well a student would do on an exam based on what he or she ate for breakfast? If it’s all tied into a child’s Scholarchip card, you can see how that could come to pass.

We should not be investing millions of dollars to mine student data, break down data silos and pull together information across all of these domains. We should protect our children from harmful predictive analytics. We should avoid creating mechanisms that could be used to link educational payments to performance measures. Instead we must invest in the human side of education. We should spend public funds to reduce class sizes, reinstate shuttered school libraries, and expand electives offerings and teacher-led extracurricular activities. Human relationships are paramount. That is what we should be spending $6.5 million on, not Scholarchip, not big data.

Sleight of Hand, Slate?

Over the past few days, my social media feed has been buzzing about Slate’s “The Big Shortcut.” The eight-part series, developed in coordination with Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s The Teacher Project, explores “the exponential rise in online learning for high school students who have failed traditional classes.” Many of us have been working hard to sound the alarm about online education undermining teaching as an inherently human, relationship-driven endeavor and to draw attention to negative impacts of digital curriculum on student health and emotional well being. So to have our concerns seemingly validated by not just one article but by EIGHT was initially refreshing; that is until I read the whole series. Once I finished the last article, I was left scratching my head.

Why would Slate and The Teacher Project expend significant resources to discuss one VERY narrow aspect of online education, namely credit recovery? Certainly it’s an egregious practice, but given the rise of personalized “blended/hybrid” online learning that is overtaking regular classrooms, why choose to expend ALL their energy exhausting that topic while remaining silent on so many others? There are millions of students today enrolled in regular bricks and mortar neighborhood schools who are taking one or more online classes as a regular part of their curriculum. In fact, some states actually require students to take an online course in order to graduate. These are not credit-recovery courses. Austerity budgeting, teacher shortages and ever-more rigorous graduation requirements are increasingly pressuring districts to delegate core instruction to the cyber-sphere. Everyone is expected to do more with less—less money, less time, fewer human bodies; and with this disaster by design, digital curriculum becomes a convenient, but ultimately dangerous, remedy. Readers should take note that in this 8-part series, discussion of non-credit recovery cyber instruction, blended-hybrid-personalized learning and flipped classrooms is conspicuously absent.

As Slate focuses our attention on credit-recovery, you might ask what are they trying to distract us from or prepare us for? Well, you should first know that the magazine started out as a Microsoft-sponsored venture in 1996. The original staff operated out of the company’s Redmond, WA campus. It was sold to the Washington Post Corporation in 2004. Slate is now a business unit of Graham Holdings. The name change came in 2013 after the company sold the Washington Post newspaper. At that time Don Graham, Chairman of the Board noted: “We’re especially excited about the increasing number of digital opportunities available to expand our reach and the innovative kinds of services all of our divisions can offer.” Ventures beyond online and print news included a new education division featuring “Kaplan’s diverse and global education businesses.” Currently Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, serves on the company’s board of directors. Former Delaware Governor Jack Markell, a prominent figure in ed-reform, workforce development and blockchain initiatives, was added to their board this month. (Appreciation to Mythos: Education, Political Economy and Culture for making the Graham Holdings/Kaplan connections.)

Columbia University, home of The Teacher Project, has a rather checkered past with respect to predatory home-correspondence/distance education detailed in David Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills (see page 34). Following the money is my preferred strategy and in this case did not disappoint. Who funds The Teacher Project? As it turns out, the Carnegie Foundation is involved. They are among those seeking to kill off the seat-time-based Carnegie Unit in favor of digital learning that can take place “any time, any place.” They’ve been a regular donor to iNACOL (International Association of K12 Online Learning) since 2010 and in 2015 awarded them $1.2 million to advance innovative school models. Another supporter is the Emerson Collective, a financial vehicle for education reform established by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow. It is set up as an LLC just like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Emerson Collective’s most notable project has been the XQ Super School Initiative whose focus is school “redesign.” The third supporter is the Pinkerton Foundation, whose assets originated with the notorious, strike-breaking private detective agency. They fund youth programs and seem particularly interested in supporting out-of-school time learning, which is the other piece of the learning ecosystem program. Also worth mentioning is the significant amount of Gates Foundation money that has poured into Teachers College, Columbia University over the years in support of various education reform initiatives.

My take is that the series is meant to shine a light on “poor” implementation and “bad” online learning programs and establish the need for rigorous evaluation that will guide districts in purchasing “quality” education products that are managed “with fidelity.” Slate and The Teachers Project devote an entire article to poor quality online products, while wholly neglecting substantive discussion of the issues of social-control, surveillance and financialization that are crucial to gaining a true understanding of educational technology’s influence within the neoliberal education landscape. Their intent is not to fundamentally question the legitimacy of digital curriculum in all its varied manifestations or investigate the structural conditions that led to its widespread adoption. Rather, taken together, the pieces attempt to lay the groundwork for market conditions that will ultimately advantage major players like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft and encourage speculation on educational impacts via Pay for Success.

Quotes like the ones below make it clear the series really wants to lay out the circumstances under which online education will work rather than encouraging broader discussion of whether we should be pursuing digital curriculum at all:

  • “Yet Gadsden’s experience also shows that there are ways to implement online credit recovery without it becoming a sham. Administrators can trade information about providers to become savvier consumers of the myriad products available to them.” Source
  • “Above all else, the students’ stories show that what matters most when it comes to online education is how well—or how poorly—individual schools implement the programs.” Source
  • “An increasing number of states are getting serious about vetting the online education companies that are now responsible for instructing a growing number of their kids.” Source

While calling out problems with the existing credit recovery system, the articles manage to slip in propaganda for Ed Reform 2.0. Woven throughout are references to online learning as “fun and flexible,” “entertaining,” and offering “more freedom.” They note students appreciate logging into a class “anywhere, anytime.” It is true that criticisms are leveled against online credit recovery in the series, but you also get statements that could have been lifted straight out of a CompetencyWorks or iNACOL brief.

  • For scores of students, the flexibility and independence of the mostly online curriculum is invaluable. Source
  • Both teenagers say that online schools can serve an important purpose for disengaged youth. Source
  • For some, learning in a virtual silo is a relief. Sixteen-year-old West Gadsden student Luis Avalos says that he likes working online because he doesn’t get teased for asking questions or giving wrong answers. Another student, 19-year-old Keishon Derrick Brown, also likes learning independently—so much so that he does most of his work from home.  Source

Sarah Carr is the lead on The Teacher Project. According to her LinkedIn profile she has also been an editor and writer for The Hechinger Report since 2012. The publication, affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, was launched in 2009 with major support from the Gates and Lumina Foundation. Her article in the series, “Online Education Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating” tees up what the series is actually about, namely setting the stage for blended learning. Her piece describes online learning at Bronx Arena, which is part of New York City’s iZone initiative. According to the website “Innovate NYC School projects supports schools by connecting educators and students, who understand school and classroom needs, with edtech companies who are developing innovative teaching and learning solutions.” The program was launched in 2010 under Joel Klein using Race to the Top funding and is affiliated with Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. The program pushes technology, “personalized” learning, innovation, and alternative pathways—all the hallmarks of Ed Reform 2.0. This version of education is about teachers managing vendor content through data management tools. Carr’s task is to carve out a “middle ground” for ed-tech as a complement to face-to-face instruction. The horrors of credit-recovery provide a useful counterpoint. She describes teachers crafting their own “computer-based” content, which sounds a lot like playlist education using Open Education Resources. In the second-to-closing paragraph she notes that even though models like Bronx Arena may not be as cost-effective, there are benefits to having access to a human teacher who can occasionally offer “help” and supplement online instruction.

What is NOT said can be just as important as what IS said, and it pays to read between the lines. While it pleases me to see discussion of ed-tech’s many problems, we have to recognize this series represents an investment by a major media outlet in partnership with an institution fueled by ed-reform funding to further tech’s desired message. The message they WANT us to take away is that online education that includes some access to a human teacher is not all bad. Don’t buy it. That should NOT be your takeaway. Please, if you share these articles, include an introduction encouraging people to question why we’re allowing this type of controlled, surveilled digital education to be pushed into our classrooms the first place? Who benefits financially? Who holds the power?

This past March, Audrey Watters of Hack Education was awarded in Spencer Fellowship to the Columbia School of Journalism. As far as I can tell the fellowship is not affiliated with The Teacher Project. Ed-tech will continue to be the focus of her research. The day she made the announcement, she also deleted her Twitter history. We certainly need investigative research into ed-tech, venture capital and global finance. But can that come out of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism? After doing research for this piece, I have concerns. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Personalized Learning Poised to Take Center Stage

As new state education plans are unveiled, the ed-tech sector is positioning itself to take full advantage of the ESSA’s ample provisions for innovation / entrepreneurial experimentation on public school children. Language in Title lV-21st Century Schools Part F, Subpart 1 of the Every Student Succeeds Act allocates $200 million+ annually in fiscal years 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 to “create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.” Any state educational agency, local educational agency, consortium of such agencies, or the Bureau of Indian Education may partner with a non-profit organization, business, educational service agency or institution of higher education to develop these “innovative” products.

The New Schools Venture Fund Summit 2017, an invitation-only event, expects over 1,000 entrepreneurs, funders, policy makers, educators, and community leaders to converge on the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame, CA next week to “reimagine education.” Technology features prominently with sessions on rigor in personalized learning, tech in special education, tech as an equity issue, and developing a robust R&D program to “drive the kinds of technological breakthroughs we need in education.” Platinum level event sponsors include the Gates and Walton Family Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative-all forces behind the Ed Reform 2.0 digital curriculum agenda. According to EdWeek, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently teamed up with Chiefs for Change (CFC) to establish a “Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Platinum sponsors

Their partnership will promote adoption of “Personalized Learning” at state and local levels, building on efforts underway in states like Rhode Island where Chan Zuckerberg funds are being used to pilotLighthouse Schools” that have adopted online learning platforms developed by the Facebook-affiliated Summit Learning. Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools, is slated to speak at the New Schools Venture Fund conference referenced above.

With backing from Zuckerberg, the company’s “free” Summit Basecamp has expanded its reach from ten bricks and mortar charter schools to over one hundred public schools nationally. The Gates Foundation helped underwrite this expansion via two grants totaling nearly $3.5 million and funded a white paper documenting the program prepared by FSG, a social impact consulting firm. Facebook provided technical support to develop Summit Learning’s “Personalized Learning Platform” that embraces Ed Reform 2.0 principles of competency based education and playlist modules. A New York Times article from August 2016 contrasts Zuckerberg’s current approach to education reform with earlier top-down efforts in Newark, noting this time around he plans to employ “a ground-up effort to create a national demand for student-driven learning in schools.” The Chan Zuckerberg/CFC collaboration appears to be part of that plan.

Established as a program of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2010, Chiefs for Change spun off in 2015, expanding its mission to include city school districts as well as state departments of education as targets for their bi-partisan ed-reform strategies. Though the group at one point had dwindled to four members, it’s growing again and currently numbers twenty-six, seventeen of whom joined in 2016. The four newest members are: William Hite, Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools; Kunjan Narechania, Superintendent of the Recovery School District Louisiana; Paymon Rouhanifard, Superintendent of the Camden City School District; and Candice MacQueen, Commissioner of Education for Tennessee. As of now, seven state departments of education are represented in addition to eighteen school districts. You can find information on members of CFC here.

Chiefs Map

In 2015 CFC received $500,000 in support from the Walton Family Foundation and $250,000 from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that manages Mark Zuckerberg’s donor-advised fund. Board members listed on the organization’s 2015 990 tax filing included: Hanna Skandera, New Mexico Secretary of Education and CCSSO board member; Mark Murphy, former Secretary of Education for Delaware and now CEO of Griptape and member of America Achieves; Deborah Gist, former Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Rhode Island and now Superintendent of the Tulsa School District; and John White, State Superintendent of Louisiana. Michael Magee, founder of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies and Walton Family Foundation “Educator to Watch,” is both CEO and a board member.

Over the past year CFC has produced numerous policy papers detailing how to dovetail ESSA implementation with choice initiatives and school redesign efforts. While charters remain a key element in the privatization picture, increasingly reformers are pursuing “Third-Way,” cyber colonization tactics (like Summit Basecamp) that are imposed on neighborhood schools via turnaround protocols. In the coming year we are likely to see how the tech industry’s push for innovation, flexibility, growth, and multiple measures in assessment will play out in classrooms. My guess is Silicon Valley’s online-embedded assessment / data-dashboard / competency-based framework is not what alternative assessment advocates had in mind when fighting punitive end of year testing. Adopting growth measures means non-stop data collection yielding “efficacy” metrics that will likely set the stage for public-private partnerships and impact-investing down the road.

Summit PLP

So where will Chan Zuckerberg / CFC be focusing their efforts? As I discussed in a previous post, reformers in Rhode Island seem intent on making theirs the first “personalized learning state.” Officially there are no CFC members from Rhode Island, but the organization’s CEO, Mike Magee, co-founder of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, and COO, Julia Rafal-Baer, are both based out of Providence according to their LinkedIn profiles. This article from Wired notes that ten percent of Summit Basecamp’s schools are in Rhode Island, right behind the much larger states of California, Texas, and Illinois.

Another candidate may be neighboring Massachusetts. Given its proximity to Rhode Island there would certainly be synergy in developing the two states in tandem. Massachusetts has recently set up a Personalized Learning Network via the Center for Collaborative Education; Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (performance-based assessments are part of the Summit Basecamp program); and Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed-Tech Consortium (MAPLE). Given that organizational capacity, the presence of ed-tech incubator LearnLaunch (that recently set up a satellite in RI), a growing ed-tech workforce of 6,000+, and keen interest from Boston-Based impact investors like New Profit, the Commonwealth seems a logical place to center a personalized-learning campaign of the type Chan Zuckerberg and Chiefs for Change are contemplating.

Springfield Innovation

Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, may have tipped his hand in a March 7, 2017 op-ed in the Washington Post “Radical Change for Struggling Schools? It’s reliably doable.” The piece was co-written with John White, Superintendent of Education for Louisiana. Both are members of Chiefs for Change. The piece calls for radical interventions in schools that put in place new leaders, autonomy, flexibility, and the involvement of third party non-profit entities. This rhetoric is consistent with legislation now under consideration that would establish “innovation partnership zones.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association provides background on these bills here. They have issued a statement of opposition to the bills here.

Even with substantial flexibility built into the ESSA, reformers are still pushing deregulation and waivers to speed ed-tech implementation. Innovation zones carve out spaces to pilot and develop proof points to advance the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda. In March 2016 iNACOL (International K12 Association for Online Learning) created an issue brief “Innovation Zones: Creating Policy Flexibility for Personalized Learning.” The brief offers sample language from Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi and New York that allow for implementation of competency-based education models. In the past year Districts of Innovation have also appeared in Texas, and model legislation for innovative districts is now available through ALEC. Note their emphasis on adopting plans that “try new ways of delivering instruction and/or allocating resources.”

ALEC Innovation Zone

Which brings me to the new Massachusetts state education plan. In preparing to write this piece, I spent some time with it and pulled a few excerpts to share below. Read between the lines and see if you draw the same conclusion I do.

Page 11: Massachusetts will continue our commitment to transforming the lowest performing schools and districts through a strategy that includes state/local partnerships, empowering school and district innovation focused on student success, and aggressive intervention authority.

Page 12: The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education employs five overarching strategies to advance the goal of success after high school for all students:

  • Strengthen standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessments
  • Promote educator development
  • Support social-emotional learning, health, and safety
  • Turn around the lowest performing districts and schools
  • Use technology and data to support student learning

Page 18: Supporting high-quality professional development for educators to personalize learning and improve academic achievement through technology. Through a public-private partnership, we will catalyze personalized learning in the Commonwealth to better prepare students for their future. Among other activities, the partnership will help schools pilot projects that allow students to progress through the curriculum based on demonstrated competency on the expectations set forth in the curriculum frameworks.

Page 22: In an era of increasing demands for public services as the state’s population ages, the education sector will be competing with other public services for financial resources. Districts must continue to find ways to get more out of the people, time, and fiscal resources they already have to help improve outcomes for students, including by reducing inequities in the allocation of resources to different types of students. To this end, the state has created a new Office of Resource Allocation Strategy and Planning to develop new tools and supports for districts to rethink how they use their resources.

Consider the ALEC innovation legislation as it applies to the following scenario. The commonwealth attempts to establish a position that additional resources for public education funding are not possible and should not be expected. However recognizing the importance of every child having a “quality” education they will employ data and technology via “personalized learning” and competency-based education to attempt to achieve that goal cheaply and efficiently. Schools will be scrutinized regarding their use of the limited resources provided to them. Those that do not meet required outcomes or use their resources “wisely” can expect aggressive intervention, likely involving some sort of outside partnership arrangement. Autonomy and flexibility will be offered under the guise of helpfulness, but in reality it will be used to remove existing contractual protections from teachers and recuse the Commonwealth from its responsibility to fully and adequately fund public education. Does that sound about right?

Massachusetts  teachers will be gathering with educators from across the nation a few months from now as Boston hosts the 2017 NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly in late June and early July. It is imperative that rank and file educators raise concerns and begin to organize NOW around the threats ed-tech and personalized learning pose to their profession. In Arizona, pretty much any “warm body” is allowed to teach due to the state’s dire teacher shortage. A few years from now, who knows, they may not even require human teachers, or at least face-to-face teachers as cyber instruction becomes the norm. Don’t let that happen. Children are counting on adults to pay attention and act on their behalf.

Reasoning Mind

Out of School Time Learning, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time

Digital education, pitched to parents as innovative, future-ready, and personalized, reduces student access to human teachers and builds robust data profiles that can be used for workforce tracking, behavioral compliance, and fiscal oversight. While adaptive online learning is a key element of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda, it is not the only concern. Another issue that merits close attention is the push to expand “out-of-school time” (OST) learning programs.

Increasingly states are passing credit flexibility legislation where students have the option to earn school credit for activities that take place outside school buildings and without the direct involvement of a certified teacher; though teachers are often pressed to manage the associated paperwork with no additional resources. These are known as ELOs, extended, expanded, or enhanced learning opportunities. States with credit flexibility may also allow online classes to be considered for ELO credit. Even when not offered for credit, out of school time partners have stepped in to provide programs that have been intentionally and systematically stripped from the curriculum through the imposition of punitive austerity and accountability measures. Increasingly, student access to art, music, drama, creative writing, and enrichment activities, particularly in low-income and turnaround schools, is contingent on tapping into programs offered by community-based organizations (CBOs).

I’ve written previously about ELOs but wanted to raise the issue again after obtaining correspondence via an open records request to the Pennsylvania Department of Education regarding input provided on the development of the state’s new education plan as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. One letter stood out from the rest. You can read it HERE.

Mila Yochum, Director of APOST, or Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time, sent it to Ted Dallas, Secretary of Health and Human Services on September 28, 2016, and it was apparently then forwarded to the Department of Education. APOST is a program of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and a member of the Remake Learning Initiative, which, based upon the work Knowledgeworks has done in the greater Pittsburgh region, appears to be a fairly well-developed trial run for the learning ecosystem model.

The first paragraph of the letter asserts that APOST is “uniquely well-positioned to support state and local implementation efforts, particularly with regard to expanded learning and partnerships with community-based and intermediary organizations under the new law.” It is notable that the text of the letter never specifically references “Pennsylvania” but only “the state” or even “the states,” which leads me to suspect this was a template letter provided to numerous OST organizations by a national group. The fact that the letter was sent to the wrong department (Health and Human Services rather than Education) also raises a red flag. I would be very interested to hear from others who have submitted open records requests on ESSA input if you have a similar letter in your file.

Given this blog’s focus on CBE, I found it notable that APOST specifically references their interest in developing “innovative assessments” under the new ESSA provisions, see a screen shot of the top of page three of the letter below:

APOST Out of School Time Leaning

Why would “community partners and intermediary organizations” take such a strong interest in developing innovative assessments that involve “mastery” and can take place “regardless of the time or setting?” Maybe because they are looking to outsource many core elements of public education to OST settings? You have to wonder if “the state” took this “expert partner” up on their kind offer of assistance, and if so, what “innovative approaches” they developed? Tot date, the Pennsylvania has still not released a draft plan for public review.

In recent years, CBOs have aligned their offerings to Common Core State Standards, and moves are being made to remove barriers to data sharing between schools and OST providers. We are headed towards a scenario where students could spend their in-school hours toiling on devices that generate data on core academic competencies and are then shipped out to community partners for hands-on, project-based learning where their social emotional competencies can be evaluated and measured against industry standards. This educational paradigm is designed not to develop the intellect and imagination of children, but rather to monitor the “efficacy” of educational investments dictated by the global economy.

The United Way is incubating OST networks across the nation; they have been involved in “Pay for Success” deals associated with early childhood education; and they sponsor numerous workforce development initiatives. Transitioning to a 21st century educational system reliant on privately-financed community partnerships and tied to workforce outcomes would certainly be one way to create a vast new market for Social Impact Bonds. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania seems to know which way the wind is blowing and has already set up a pipeline to train a the next wave of impact investment managers as can be seen from these course offerings and the numerous conferences they’ve hosted since the fall of 2015.

Fortunately for all those up and coming managers there appears to be no shortage of foundations interested in jumping into the education sector. Grantmakers for Education is a network of hundreds of education philanthropies based in Portland, OR. Cristina Huezo, board chair, is the Program and Policy Officer of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Other board members include Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation that has funded Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning ecosystem test bed, Nicholas Donohue of iNACOL and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that funds CBE implementation in New England, and Sanjiv Rao of the Ford Foundation, funder of the American Alliance of Museums report described below. Their report “The Funders Guide to Quality in Out of School Time” asserts the need for expanded OST options as well as new metrics to monitor program “quality.” Impact investing is ALWAYS about the metrics.

Elizabeth Merritt, Futurist for the American Alliance of Museum, wrote the opening essay for in a 2014 Ford Foundation-funded whitepaper entitled “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem.” The quotes below are from “Setting the Stage: Forecasting a New Era of Education.”

“We see signs that the U.S. is nearing the end of an era in formal learning characterized by teachers, physical classrooms, age-cohorts and a core curriculum—what some people call the era of industrial-age learning. The signals presaging this transformation include the rapid increase in nontraditional forms of primary education such as homeschooling; near record dissatisfaction with the existing K–12 education system; funding crises for schools at the state and local levels; growing gender imbalance in higher education; and proliferation of digital content and digital delivery platforms designed to transform the nature of classroom learning.” p. 10

And on the next page:

“The End of the Neighborhood School: communities have long been fiercely protective of the schools in their own back yards, valuing the way these schools keep their children close to home, in their own neighborhood, with the support of their peers. Now the economic crisis and state and local funding crunches are driving a wave of school closures and consolidations in New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere in the nation. This may increase the willingness of parents, already unhappy with school performance or school options, to opt out of the public school system and into independent charter schools, private schools, homeschooling or unschooling.”

and on page 13:

“In 2012 the National Governors Association released a report documenting that 36 states have disconnected “seat time” (time spent in the classroom) from the awarding of educational credit. States are waiving seat time many different ways (by basing credits on mastery of material, allowing for individual seat-time waivers, basing credit on performance-based assessments, etc.) and for individuals with many different needs (students who have fallen behind, students who excel, students who don’t do well in traditional academic environments, etc.). As states formally validate learning that takes place outside the classroom, this paves the way to educational networks that encompass a range of place-based experiences (including museums), as well as online resources.”

This was written three years ago, and now the future is here as evidenced by the Grand Rapids Public Museum School that recently received a $10 million grant from Laurene Powell Jobs’ XQ: The Super School Project. Remember, learning doesn’t just happen in schools!

In July of 2011, Michael Robbins, Senior Advisor for Non-Profit Partnerships at the US Department of Education, convened a working group of national and community-based nonprofits, philanthropists, business interests, parent organizations, schools and school districts. The chief Education Evangelist for Google was there, as was a representative of iNACOL (International Association of K12 Online Learning). The YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, The After School Corporation and 4-H were in the room, as was the “entrepreneur in residence” for City Light Capital. Foundations included the MacArthur Foundation, an advocate for digital media learning, and Motorola Mobility, focused on innovative technology. Click HERE for the complete list of attendees. It should come as no surprise that most of the discussion at this meeting involved how best to utilize CBOs in scaling ed-tech blended learning opportunities and opening up avenues for education entrepreneurship.

Notes from this working group session used to be available on the US Department of Education website, but were later pulled. You can see a copy of the document obtained via the Wayback Machine HERE. I’ve excerpted quotes from the eight pages of notes generated that day to give you a sense of the proceedings:

“CBOs can also serve as “routers” on the network of learning, helping to coordinate a student’s learning experience across multiple nodes such as libraries, museums, online communities, schools, and student homes.”

“Alignment across nodes. Blended learning systems can help align education efforts across schools, CBOs, homes, and other diverse settings. This alignment can facilitate community-wide networks of learning where students move seamlessly from one node to the next, making anytime/anywhere learning a reality. It can provide a common framework for conversations between students, teachers, youth development staff, and parents about a student’s goals and progress. These systems 
can also embed parental consents required to share school records and education data between schools and community partners.”

“The workforce of informal educators is 1 million strong, with CBO staff disproportionately young adults who are unafraid of technology. We need to translate ed tech to these potential partners and include them in professional development.”

“CBOs offer fertile ground for developing badges and electronic portfolios, adapting and broadening assessments.”

“Free online educational activities are powerful tools for both families and CBOs; new PowerMyLearning learning platform funded by Gates can enable easy use.”

“There is significant concern that there is limited capacity for schools to absorb the technology. CBOs may provide an opportunity to augment that capacity to sustain promising technologies.”

“Edtech ventures are working on a variety of different focus areas, but one of particular interest is technologies that allow schools to become “team players” and incorporate the efforts of CBOs.”

“There are barriers we need to address around blending organizations with different staffing and pay structures, regulatory requirements, who pays who, who controls facilities, etc.”

“Community engagement. Blended learning can be a cornerstone for high-quality education partnerships between communities, families, and schools. It could increase engagement of CBOs in education at an unprecedented scale, leveraging after-school networks, national nonprofit organizations, and national and community service organizations. Blended learning, especially if it is linked to proficiency-based credit achievement in non-school settings, has the potential to unleash a new wave of educational entrepreneurship.”

And so the truth is revealed. Shifting educational opportunities from neighborhood schools to non-school settings is actually about unleashing “a new wave of educational entrepreneurship.” While maker-spaces and community-based programs can be incredibly appealing, we should be wary. We must have a commitment to fully fund a rich curriculum and extracurricular activities using PUBLIC funds within our public schools. Non-profits, by their very nature, are beholden to the monied interests of foundations and investors that do not answer to the public. Even though OST programs being peddled by community partners may seem like a breath of fresh air, know those groups will be no more able to escape the grip of algorithmic education than our schools are. The notes from the working group above make that very clear. Today’s world runs on data, and the venture capitalists won’t hesitate to chase it out the school door and into the museum. Resist the ecosystem model; it won’t be good for children or society.