Focus on Pedagogy, Not Just Privacy

This is the fifth of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatising Schools: Question Five

Is fixing data security / privacy the answer?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a reminder that the business model of the big tech firms is based on extracting and exploiting our personal data. Here in the UK, Ben Williamson has made the link between Cambridge Analytica and the tracking, profiling, and ‘data mining’ of children which education technology makes possible (see here). One of the strengths of your work, I think, is your very clear view that the problems with tech-driven schooling – what we might call the platform model of education – go beyond issues of privacy and data security. It seems that, in this model, human relationships – between teachers and students, or amongst students – are far less important than in more traditional kinds of education. In an interview last year, you warned about the possible ‘feedback loops’ created by tech-driven schooling. Could you say more?

My Response

Does the technology used in your child’s public school empower students to share their own insights and creativity with the larger world, or does it transform them into consumers of corporate content through algorithmic profiling? If a computer program requires a login from a child and cannot function without having access to their previous interactions with said program I have serious reservations about it, even if they promise the data is secure.

Some reformers envision a time within the next two decades when Artificial Intelligence (AI) learning assistants largely supplant human teachers. These futurists imagine AI “guides on the side” functioning as child minders delivering “just-in-time” content for in-demand workforce placements. This dystopian vision includes students outfitted with biometric wearable devices that extract real time data to guide the delivery of online content. Harvard Innovation Lab’s Brainco has already developed a brain wave monitoring device for classroom use and is now selling it to Chinese markets.

The information fed to students will, of course, be determined by profiles tracked on data dashboards, reinforcing the position each child is expected to occupy in society. God forbid a student stumbles learning their multiplication tables in third grade and is shunted over to the prison labor track. In this model AI, and the racially biased training data that often underpins it, becomes a de facto gatekeeper to knowledge. Information restricted; made available only on a need-to-know basis. Your profile says you’ll never need physics. Your data says you have no talent for languages. The dashboard says you’re behaviorally non-compliant, which is too bad given your high intelligence. Education systems have always profiled students as a means of social control, but developments in Big Data, machine learning, and predictive analytics have the potential to make existing systems considerably more oppressive.

The “personalized learning” model conditions students to view themselves as independent operators, free agents attempting to navigate a precarious gig economy alone. Screen-based isolation and an emphasis on data-driven metrics steadily erode children’s innate tendencies to creative cooperation. Which is ultimately better for society, an algorithm that learns each student in a classroom and delivers a pre-determined reading selection that they review and are quizzed on online, or a human teacher who selects an all class reading in which there is lively debate? The first scenario forecloses creative thought in service of data generation and reinforces there is but one correct answer. The second opens up chances for students to gain new insights while limiting opportunities for digital surveillance.

As a parent, I place my trust in teachers and want them to have the resources and support they need to really know the children in their care and guide them on their educational journeys. Learning is not a linear process, but an organic one with occasional doldrums sometimes followed by great leaps of understanding. A human teacher does not view their students as data points subject to precision engineering; they see them as contributing members of a classroom community each with unique talents, strengths, and weaknesses. A good teacher deftly navigates the waters of collective learning, and their students are better prepared to face the world having had the experience of co-created knowledge.

I am fortunate that my child attends a magnet school where they haven’t embraced online adaptive learning programs. The students use technology to write papers, create presentations, and coordinate group projects. They enjoy freedom in their learning and have a great deal of human contact even though their class sizes are quite large. They still undertake projects and skits and non-digital art, which is something that cannot be taken for granted these days. I am glad for it, but it saddens me immensely that children in schools with low test scores, children who have been subjected to the “turnaround” process, are often compelled to use online learning systems for in-school and at-home instruction. The children with the greatest need don’t have access to non-surveilled education as my child does, which is a travesty. The children who most require personal connection are denied that right; instead data-driven “fixes” are substituted for human care.

While student data privacy is important, I caution activists that we don’t want to “win” on privacy but end up with “secure” algorithmic learning. I’ve been led down the wrong path before. We thought opt-out would be an effective tool against privatization, but instead it ended up reinforcing reform arguments for all-the-time testing. We did not realize that until it was too late. I have concerns that student data privacy may be leading us down a similar road. We must not be fooled twice. Many reformers are excited to talk about privacy and appropriate use of data. Let us not allow them frame the discussion in this way. We must ground ourselves in the importance of good pedagogy, one that respects the humanity and personal agency of both student and teacher. Privacy concerns can play a role in educating the public, but to win this war we have to ground our strategy in the rights of parents and teachers to unplug students from adaptive learning systems altogether, not simply to secure the data in those systems of oppression.

Part One: Talking Across the Pond Here

Part Two: Virtual Reality and Globalized Workforce Here

Part Three: “Personalized Learning” Driven By Data Here

Part Four: We Haven’t Won, We’re Testing All The Time Here

We haven’t won. We’re testing all the time.

This is the fourth of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatising Schools: Question Four

Why are reformers questioning the tests?

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, the head of England’s school inspection agency, said last year that ‘there is more to a good education than league tables’. Students are being made to ‘jump through accountability hoops’; there is too much teaching to the test; schools have become ‘exam factories’, etc., etc. The Chief Inspector has even taken to lecturing her audiences about Campbell’s Law. Which is all very strange, given that the organisation she leads is, and has always been, a key driver of the system.

Does any of this seem familiar? I have a feeling that we’re following in the footsteps of the USA here, but that we’re a few paces behind.

My Response

Often the powers controlling the education reform agenda implement punitive measures intended to remain in place long enough to inflict discomfort, destabilize the system, and set the stage for their actual desired outcome. We experienced this under our national education legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which cemented the primacy of high-stakes standardized testing and remained in place between 2002 and 2015. This law caused grave harm, driving untold numbers of teachers out of the profession, galvanizing the test-preparation industry, and normalizing the idea that the education of human beings is something that demands massive amounts of data collection. NCLB imposed accountability, but that accountability was borne by those on the front lines in classrooms and never extended to the people in power who embraced austerity and policies that favored school “choice” at the expense of neighborhood schools.

Federal education legislation signed into law at the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was lauded in some circles because it broadened accountability measures beyond the confines of reading and math scores. Now instead of measuring two subject areas, schools are expected to track graduation rates, proficiency for English language learners, student growth, and a fifth measure of school quality such as social-emotional learning, school climate, college or workforce preparedness, or parent engagement. This shift to “multiple measures” means the amount of data being tracked under ESSA has increased exponentially. There is also an emphasis on formative assessments, which has led to the implementation of off-the-shelf, data-driven benchmarking “solutions” like iReady. Some schools are even adopting rubrics for recess and play. Accountability has not lessened at all. The data-driven mentality now extends into every aspect of the educational experience. We are literally testing all the time.

Since public education is in the process of being remade as a profit center for social impact investment, policymakers can ill afford to stop the data collection game. Data is what fuels the machine. It appears they intend to avoid the corrupting influence of Campbell’s Law not by forsaking data collection but rather by measuring everything.

Part One: Talking Across the Pond Here

Part Two: Virtual Reality and Globalized Workforce Here

Part Three: “Personalized Learning” Driven By Data Here

“Personalized” Learning: Driven By Data, Surveilled By Algorithms

This is the third of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website. Read the introduction and question one, Talking Across the Pond, here and question two about virtual reality field trips here.

Privatizing Schools: Question 3 on Blended Learning

An English school chain set up by a group of hedge fund managers, Ark Schools, is planning a ‘blended learning academy’, on the model of the California-based Rocketship charter schools (see here). Other academy chains are experimenting with computer-based instruction and ‘one-to-one device programmes’. Could you say something about blended learning – or ‘personalised learning’, as it is becoming known?

My Response

During the 2013-14 school year over 1.7 million students in the state of Pennsylvania attended one of 16 online virtual schools, a number of which are steeped in corruption. Often parents felt compelled to remove students from bricks and mortar schools that were not meeting their children’s needs due to intentional underfunding, chronic mismanagement, refusal to meet terms of individual education plans, and health or safety concerns. The shift of public funds into virtual charters has been financially destabilizing to school districts across our state, and studies continue to show most students are not well served by the online model.

Besides charter operators offering home-based, 100% online learning, a growing number of traditional classrooms in the United States are experiencing a shift to digital education via learning management systems, the “personalized learning” you reference. These systems deploy unique log-ins, machine learning, and algorithms, serving up online content to students as young as five years old. The youngest children cannot remember their usernames and passwords, so they are issued QR code badges that are scanned with the device camera. These “Clever” badges are widely used in Rocketship Academy charter schools.

As the price point for tablets and Chrome books has dropped, it has become increasingly common for students, even in low-income districts, to be issued their own device through 1:1 initiatives. Parents are required to sign-off and take responsibility for devices and sometimes pay insurance fees. All device-based activity is subject to monitoring, and many districts contract with software companies like Go Guardian for remote viewing, screen capture, and content control. Parents are finding that schools no longer provide print textbooks. Instead, students must access content via screens, which has spurred growing concern around vision problems and reduced reading comprehension and retention. The state of Maryland recently passed a law requiring research into best practices for screen-time for children, including device use in school settings to address these concerns.

The blended-hybrid learning model has been widely promoted by the online learning industry over the past decade. Though it can take a number of forms, it is generally understood to be supervised learning away from home that is carried out at least partially online with the student having input over the pace of their learning. While described as “personalized” learning, the reality is that many programs are just digital worksheets or playlists of videos, sometimes known open education resources (OER), and reading selections with associated online quizzes. Those pushing “playlist” “personalized learning” include Silicon Valley moguls like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook / Summit Basecamp) and Reed Hastings (Netflix / Dreambox). Hastings, a charter school supporter and investor in Rocketship, has made it clear his goal is to undermine local control of schools, by eliminating elected school boards, which he views as inefficient.

iNACOL, the International Association of K12 Online Learning, has been a major force behind the promotion of expanded digital education in our country. See their report on blended learning with an assessment of models from 2008-2015 here. iNACOL’s board is comprised of individuals representing social impact investing, competency-based education, learning ecosystems (as a substitute for neighborhood schools), and data-driven innovation. Mickey Revenaugh, a director of new school models (online virtual schools / Connections Academy) for Pearson, serves as vice-chair.

Another player in this arena is Clayton Christensen’s Innosight Institute. Christensen is a venture capitalist and professor at the Harvard Business School known for his work on disruptive innovation in the fields of education and healthcare. In 2011, Innosight collaborated with the Charter School Growth Fund to develop an overview of various “personalized” learning models underway in the United States. That report, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” can be accessed here.

Online learning is a means by which schools may reduce staffing costs, pushing up class sizes and hiring non-certified assistants to monitor students while online. Many schools start out with a rotational model in which the day is divided into thirds. Students spend part of their day pursuing online learning individually, part of their day collaborating online with peers, and part of the day in small group instruction with a human teacher. Education Elements is a consulting firm and mouthpiece for the industry that works closely with the Christensen Institute to promote the rotational online learning model. They’ve facilitated adoption of “personalized learning” in over 100 districts across the country. If you’d like to know more, I’ve written other pieces on “personalized” learning here, here, here, and here.

Virtual Reality and the Globalized Workforce: Talking Across the Pond, Part 2

This is the second of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. Read the introduction and first installment here. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatizing Schools: Question 2

Anthony Seldon, a former headteacher who is an influential voice in education debate in England, has published a book called The Fourth Education Revolution. He claims that robots – ‘adaptive’ learning systems or ‘AI personal tutors’ – will replace teachers within 10 years.

Echoing Selden, our current secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, recently called on the tech industry – ‘both the UK’s burgeoning tech sector and Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Microsoft’ – to ‘launch an education revolution’. To quote at slightly more length:

In some schools, state-of-the-art technology is bringing education to life by helping children take virtual trips through the Amazon and control robots, while also slashing the time their teachers are spending on burdensome administrative tasks.

Would you like to comment?

My Response

It seems Mr. Seldon’s book may be referencing the shift to what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a concept advanced by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In the spring of 2017, WEF opened a Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the Presidio in San Francisco, California. The focus of the Center is to develop policies around the future of work, automation, artificial intelligence, cross-border data flows, the Internet of Things, and technologies like drones and autonomous vehicles.

To make sense of what is happening in schools today we must place ourselves in the position of the global elite. They anticipate a future where stable careers that pay a living wage will become increasingly scarce as automation and virtual agents creep into service sector jobs like teaching, medical treatment, therapy, and elder care. They anticipate a future where human-robot cooperation is normalized in advanced manufacturing settings. For a sense of research underway see the publication list from the Tufts Human Robot Interaction Laboratory here. As digital economic systems take hold through widespread adoption of crypto-currencies and Blockchain smart contracts, global supply chains will continue to evolve. Corporate interests will be operating from a globalist perspective. The real world and virtual worlds will meld in ways that disrupt current conceptions of human capital and supply chain management.

A malleable workforce with the proper mindset will best serve the interests of the elite. That is why we are seeing growing emphasis on capturing data on students’ non-cognitive skills. People must be acclimated to the premise of “lifelong learning” in which they will be constantly reskilled to effectively interface with cutting-edge automated systems. Having a population of independent thinkers will not benefit those at the top of the economic pyramid. In fact, independent thinking of the type encouraged by self-selected reading over algorithmic online education modules could be perceived as a threat. There will always be a small group at the top who will have access to humane instruction, but the masses must be conditioned towards dutiful acceptance of their fate, placated with digital entertainment and monitored through deployment of ubiquitous surveillance being incorporated into “smart” city design.

Those in positions of authority have long-range plans with aligned communications strategies geared to incrementally move us towards acceptance of these “innovative” practices. If they move at a gradual, yet steady pace it is likely people won’t catch on and instead will accept this future as if there were no alternative. Adoption of virtual field trips as a mode of educational training is one example of how tele-presence is being normalized, despite serious health concerns over VR use in children. If the goal in fifteen years is to make it acceptable for poor people to carry out manufacturing activities via virtual reality simulators for affluent factory operators in distant, secured locations, they have to get people conditioned to operating in virtual worlds now. But it should seem like fun, not work. It should be presented as a special opportunity, not drudgery.

In closing, I will add that virtual reality systems enable the capture of vast amounts of biometric data. Most people do not realize when they put on a headset and hand pieces, they create as much data as they consume. In addition to eye tracking and body positions, systems can also capture heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, and emotional states. See more information here, here, and here. Many companies are also looking to position virtual and augmented reality simulators as impact investments, due to their capacity to change attitudes and opinions around social issues. This aligns with research I recently undertook around “solutions” journalism and impact markets in media. In any event, don’t listen to Mr. Seldon; beware VR empathy machines.

Talking Across The Pond About Ed Reform 2.0

One of the nice things about working in digital spaces is that you’re able to connect with people across distances and find you have a lot in common. You can help one another and learn new things in the process. The blogger at Privatising Schools based in the UK reached out to me with a proposal that we collaborate on a project that might help British readers get up to speed with the evolving landscape of privatization, since they are a few years behind us. I thought it sounded like a great plan. What follows is the first in a series of ten questions posed by Privatising Schools and my responses. For regular readers, much of this will be familiar ground, but I think it worthwhile to see how developments in the UK and US overlap, and they do in some unexpected ways. Privatising Schools has woven together a somewhat more condensed version with answers to our first round of questions. Check it out here to get more of the UK perspective.

Question 1

First of all, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I know that your work is closely tied to your experiences as a parent with a child in the public school system in Philadelphia; the subtitle of your blog is ‘A Sceptical Parent’s Thoughts on Digital Curriculum’. But many people don’t appreciate how hard tech-based schooling – cyber-schools, ‘blended learning’, ‘adaptive’ learning systems using AI, and all the rest – is being pushed, both in the US and here in England. Could you say more about the experiences which led you to start your blog? Is there something about the Philadelphia school district which brought the issues into focus for you?


Our daughter attends public schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is a large, under-funded, urban school district that serves a majority black and brown student body. A significant percentage of our families live in poverty. For sixteen years, until this one when we transitioned back to a school board appointed by the mayor, the School Reform Commission managed the operations of our district. The state controlled a majority of seats on that body, and Philadelphians had no say over what happened in our schools. Throughout that time, and presently, our district superintendents had all been trained by or affiliated with the Broad Academy, a venture philanthropic entity that places high-level administrators throughout the country to act as change agents in fostering the privatization agenda.

It took me years to realize our schools were being broken on purpose in order to open the public education sector up to corporate raiding via charter schools and technology and data-mining initiatives. Throughout my daughter’s elementary years I was active at the school level, volunteering and fundraising. I occasionally testified at public meetings, but mostly stayed in my lane.

The nature of my involvement, however, changed in 2013 when the School Reform Commission, on the recommendation of a corporate consultancy funded by the largest foundation in the city, decided to close 23 schools and lay off over 3,000 teachers. This action destabilized the entire district at which time it was decided to implement a punitive school report card program, an initiative underwritten by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (Dell being a company that sells computers and contracts with the National Security Agency). After a contentious meeting, future public input sessions were scuttled. Clearly something was afoot.

Scores from end-of-year standardized tests were being used to justify closures and turnover of operations at “underperforming” schools. A number of parents and teachers banded together to launch a campaign around opting out of these harmful tests. There was a national push around opt out for several years leading up to the passage of the new national education law at the end of 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act. During that time I was part of a network of loosely affiliated chapters under the umbrella of United Opt Out. We shared information, coordinated actions, and held several conferences.

We thought that if we could encourage enough parents to withhold their children’s data, it would make it harder for officials to use standardized test scores as weapons against schools and teachers. These tests redirect public funds into the pockets of companies like Pearson and reduce curriculum to deadening test-prep for months at a time. They’re also harmful to students whose first language is not English and students with learning differences. The Philadelphia school district has substantial populations of children in each of these categories.

In Pennsylvania we have a legal right to opt out on religious grounds. Nevertheless, it surprised me when in the winter of 2015; officials agreed to my request to translate state-provided literature about opt out, so that all of the families in the district would know their rights. District leadership had a reputation for putting up roadblocks in the face of even basic requests. So why would they readily cooperate on an action that would weaken their position with regards to testing?

As 2015 progressed and we became aware of provisions embedded within the Every Student Succeeds Act, it dawned on some of us that a transition was underway. Over time authorities would begin to de-emphasize end-of-year tests in favor of constant online “benchmark” testing. This would exponentially increase the data stream and improve prospects for speculative investments in ed-tech curriculum.

We called this new phase Ed Reform 2.0. Ed Reform 1.0 was characterized by: school closures, charter school expansion, deprofessionalization of teachers via alternative certification programs, a push towards vouchers that parents could use to redirect public funds into private schools, and high-stakes end of year testing. Ed Reform 2.0 would embrace turnaround models where school management was outsourced rather than schools being closed altogether, all-the-time testing would roll out via “personalized” online learning playlists, data would be collected across all subject areas rather than just literacy and math, non-cognitive data would be gathered via classroom management software systems, letter grades would be replaced by “mastery” rubrics, gradually there would be a shift to supervision of students on devices by support staff rather than certified teachers, and there would be an emphasis on “out-of-school time,” project-based learning with community and work-based “partners.” I’ve pulled together resources on this new phase here.

For a time, we were posting all over social media threads trying to explain what was happening. We tried to convey to people that just because those in positions of authority were finally relenting on opt out didn’t mean we’d won. Instead, the battle had moved into a new phase. It was very hard for people to hear, because those engaged in this struggle do so often at great emotional cost. It is grueling. Everyone wanted to think we’d won; but we hadn’t won. The terms of engagement had simply changed.

Another problem was that language, concepts, and terms that sounded humane, had already been co-opted by the other side. Reform interests were leveraging real trauma and harm experienced by our city’s poor communities to create an environment suitable for the implementation of predatory data-mined service delivery linked to social impact investing. Even concepts as seemingly innocuous as “community schools” were fraught with peril, as I testified before the School Reform Commission in the fall of 2015.

In September 2016, I wrote one of my first blog pieces for Wrench in the Gears. I titled it “Stop! Don’t opt out. Read this first.” Some took offense at the title, but the goal was to get people’s attention. I needed them to stop and think. Since that time it has been viewed over 7,500 times. The post was accompanied by similar ones written by six other bloggers with whom I had come to work over the years. It was meant to emphasize the need for a shift in strategy, one that would confront all-the-time embedded assessment in online curriculum and “playlist” consumable education that is being pitched under the euphemism “personalized learning.”

In many respects, Philadelphia is not nearly as far down the road with ed-tech adoption as other districts. See this blog from Baltimore County, Maryland parents here. We don’t have a district-wide 1:1 device adoption program, an initiative where students are issued inexpensive Chromebooks on which most of their lessons are delivered. But our district HAS opted to put tens of millions of dollars in recent years into online education and data-management. This is being done despite the preference of parents and teachers to direct resources into reducing class sizes, restoring electives and extracurricular activities, ensuring all schools have a functioning library with a certified librarian, and addressing unsafe building conditions. Philadelphia’s football team, the Eagles, won the Superbowl in January and during the celebratory parade, which is near where I live, I set up a station to ask people in the crowd how they wanted public funds spent on schools. They don’t want tech and data; they want teachers and face-to-face learning. I created a video from these interviews and blogged it here.

What I’ve come to realize over the past five years of in depth research is that what is happening to schools is a global concern. I spend a lot of time tracking money and mapping it using the crowd-sourcing software Little Sis. You can see an example of my research on the takeover of North Dakota’s schools here. This transition is not something specific to my city or to the United States. Our schools are viewed by global finance as profit centers and data factories. If you really want to explore a deep rabbit hole look up the Global Education Futures agenda here.

The damaging policies being incorporated into educational systems seem illogical until you grasp the fact that we are experiencing a period of profound struggle around who will control access to information and learning. Will education systems be allowed to empower communities or will they be taken hostage to generate profit for private interests?

Be on your best behavior! Impact investors target laundromats and barbershops in poor communities.

Today, partners in Philadelphia’s Read by 4th Campaign meet to discuss outcomes of the national Grade Level Reading Week held at the Logan Hotel July 23-27, 2018. As we know from previous comments by economist James Heckman and billionaire political candidate JB Pritzker (here), the sweet spot for early childhood impact investing is believed to be in character training ages 0-3. The Heckman Equation toolkit promises a 7-10% annual rate of return on such investments, which can be boosted to 13% when metrics are expanded to include health outcomes.

Consequently, emphasis on behavior change and links between poverty, health, and literacy referenced in the email below are closely aligned to the Heckman / ReadyNation investment plan. The one element that is somewhat surprising is the targeting of laundromats and barbershops for interventions. It will be interesting to see how these “learning landscapes” manifest and what form the “impact” data capture takes. Providing print (non-app, non-Internet of Things-enabled) books in these spaces won’t service global finance capital, though such a move would be nice for kids. I could use some eyes on the street; if you see this rolling out in your community be sure to drop me a line. I would not be surprised if the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government is involved, as they are a supporter of the Barbershop Books initiative (featured image).

Read By Fourth Meeting

The July Grade Level Reading (GLR) conference was convened to coordinate activities among a growing network of 360+ communities working around closing early literacy gaps (i.e. refining speculative impact investment markets). If you need background on the political economy of early childhood education and literacy impact investing see links here, here, here, and here. The screen shot below is from Melissa Sanchez’s May 2016 article for the Chicago Reporter, Investors earn max initial payment from Chicago’s ‘social impact bond.’ The table, derived from contract documents, shows three separate metrics that inform investment pay outs. Article here.

Chicago Early Childhood MetricsEleven videos of the GLR conference are available for viewing here, including: Using Data and Learning Science to Drive Impact; National Partners are Using Technology and Data Visualization; and the Funder Huddle Open Plenary with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. The emphasis on learning science, data visualization, technology and impact is about transforming early learning spaces into locations of data extraction that will serve up poor children as data points, not just once, but multiple times (pre-k, kindergarten, third grade), in order to maximize opportunities for venture philanthropy profit taking.

Attendees signing up for the “Funder Huddle” were invited to arrive a day early for briefings on actionable “success” tools designed for replication across the network. The other two tracks were “Community and State Leads Convening” where the focus was “bigger outcomes” and “game-changing impact” at scale, and “Institutes” charged with looking at using trauma-informed practice and character education to impact children’s health and literacy.

The William Penn Foundation was the underwriting sponsor of the GLR conference. The foundation has been a major supporter of school privatization efforts and is an influential partner in the growth of out-of-school time learning and Rebuild, the city’s program to promote healthy lifestyles and workforce development through data-driven investments in libraries and recreation centers (cue up learning ecosystems and ESAs). Other event sponsors included ReadyNation, the Bezos Family Foundation (see my post on Bezos’s Montessori Pre-K program here), Comcast, and numerous finance and banking interests. Also notable given my last post on the hijacking of non-profit media by impact investors is the presence of the Knight Foundation.

GLR Sponsors

So, with all of this money and influence behind the GLR conference, how it is that there is no hew and cry to make sure Philadelphia’s schools have libraries and librarians? How is it that no one is advocating for reduced class sizes to improve classroom environments and increase time for face-to-face instruction?  How it is that band-aids are offered up in the form of technological interventions and volunteer reading coaches? How is it that corporations aren’t offering to pay more taxes to support our schools rather than scuttling funds into foundations they can use to influence policy and seed impact investment markets?

Austerity and misery create markets for impact investment profit-taking. Once we transform early childhood education and early literacy into profit-taking opportunities, there will never be any reason to address the structural nature of the problem. Global capital is not about to eliminate a profit center. What is happening with these grade level reading campaigns is wrong. Children should be encouraged to read books of their choosing. They should have access to text-rich environments. They deserve professional teachers to support them in their literacy journey. They deserve to develop these skills in ways that are not surveilled or micro-managed through technologies, that do not transform them into speculative piles of human capital in service of banks and community foundations.

Fund our schools, and ensure administrators and school boards are accountable to communities. Make corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and eliminate philanthropic hijacking of the social sector. Enough with the cute babies on billboards. We know the games you are playing with our children. Stop it!

Don’t Let Impact Investors Capture The Non-Profit, Activist Media!

I wrote last week about Sir Ronald Cohen’s assertion that the non-profit sector MUST be restructured and centralized in service of social impact investment markets. The elite demand this transformation, one that will ease the flow of performance data and venture philanthropy capital at scale. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this shift is poised to fundamentally remake education, and many other public service sectors. However it had not occurred to me, until a few days ago, that the reach of global impact markets would extend to the realm of media, communications, and documentary film.

In an impact investment scenario, media messaging must ultimately advance the interests of funders. Funders will pay content providers for desired behavior change. Narratives will be weaponized not only as propaganda, but as profit centers via innovative financial instruments like impact securities. Articles, tweets, comments, video clips, feature films, online games, even virtual simulations will be coordinated to achieve (or impede) social change. Powerful investors will use their largesse to compel digital media influencers to deliver (or withhold) votes, catalyze (or suppress) protest, and deliver (or derail) accountability to the public.

Source for infographic below here.

Impact Assessment Gauge

As the print model of journalism crumbled, new media paradigms emerged, creating opportunity and peril. Communication outlets today are increasingly structured as non-profits, which comes with a whole host of issues. The grants that support the work being done are de facto extensions of corporate and state power (the operations of WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate, currently underwritten by the Department of Homeland Security being but one example). It comes as no surprise that impact finance would wade into this arena, but the implications of such a move are grave indeed.

This month the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism announced the creation of a $20 million fund to promote “innovative” journalism for the digital age focused on metropolitan areas with profound challenges.  They’ve invited other philanthropists and corporations to pitch in, too. More here. Resources will be devoted to “change management training” around data-analytics, audience engagement, and product development. Philadelphia will be a focus area, because they are already working with a dozen newsrooms and institutions of higher education. The Knight Foundation press release notes the initiative is intended to “help news organizations accelerate their shift to digital delivery.” Remember, data is the new oil.

I sense the non-profit media is being positioned to advance the message that the answer to our entrenched poverty problem is venture philanthropy and data-driven, outcomes-based finance. The amount of money being poured into this effort indicates just how much profit financiers anticipate extracting from the misery of the poor in the years to come. They and the telecommunications industry aim to create a secondary impact investing market by hijacking activist media to SELL the broader poverty-mining impact investing agenda, a truly macabre example of vertical integration.

Tribune Lenfest

The image above was taken from an article in the Philadelphia Tribune, read it here.

Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) appears to be a hub of “impact” journalism activity. Headquartered in New York and funded by many of the most powerful philanthropic institutions in the world, it was launched in 2013 (a year after social impact bonds were imported here from the UK). SJN promotes coverage of social issues with a focus on evidence-based solutions. Link to interactive version of the map below here.

Solutions Journalism Network Supporters

SJN’s website states over 10,000 journalists have gone through their trainings; their curriculum is being used in 17 schools of journalism; they’ve collaborated with 148 newsrooms on projects; and are operating in nine communities including: New York, NY; Washington, DC; Los Angeles, CA; San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Paris, France; Kampala, Uganda; and Manila, Philippines. In Philadelphia their influence extends through a new venture called Resolve Philadelphia, an SJN spin off focusing on issues of poverty and re-entry of people who have formerly been incarcerated (both major impact investment sectors).

I don’t think it’s coincidental that Solutions Journalism Network launched the same year the Gates and Knight Foundations partnered with the Annenberg School of Communications at USC on the “Media Impact Project.” That grant was to “help media organizations, journalists, and social change-makers expand their use of storytelling through data and impact measurement.” The plan was to use the $3.25 million to “develop metrics that are more robust than TV ratings, page views, retweets and the like to determine how media influences people’s awareness and actions.”

A 2015 article by Anya Schiffrin and Ethan Zuckerman for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Can We Measure Media Impact? Surveying the Field” discusses efforts to devise metrics for media impact grounded in social change rather than advertising reach. Those working in this area include not only the Gates and Knight Foundations, but also the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and the Pew Center. Tools like Media Cloud, a collaboration between scientists and MIT and Harvard, are being developed to track digital engagement with content and ideas across the internet. The funders of this platform (Gates, Ford, MacArthur, Johnson, Open Society) are the same individuals funding the impact investment agenda.

Media Cloud

The implications of these developments are chilling. Media is changing, becoming more online than offline, more visual than text. Surveillance and predictive analytics are built into everything. We are inundated with information processed by opaque algorithms. Few people are aware of the sophisticated ways our emotional engagement with online content can now be analyzed. If you haven’t checked out Affectiva, you should. The way content creators and investors can track media consumption and engagement with digital platforms, correlating it to offline behavior in the burgeoning world of augmented reality and the Internet of Things, is unnerving. Media streams, including playlist education, can be intentionally or unintentionally curated to create feedback loops that lead people to certain ways of thinking. As I’ve processed my understanding of the intersections between impact investing and digital media over the past few days, I’ll admit to feeling more and more unsettled.


The media has always served as a mechanism of social control; see Noam Chomsky’s “10 Strategies of Manipulation.” Those at the upper echelons of empire understand the power of compelling stories, which is why they fund their own documentary film initiatives and pay for research on weaponized narrative. If media can be tied to outcomes-based funding streams, then content producers can be compelled to deliver “results” to private investors. So what will those results be? Who gets to decide? Whose interests are advanced? Do they seek behavior change? Political action? Cultural shifts? Are we looking at a future where we have propaganda not only as an end in itself, but also as a “social impact” profit center? Source for image below here.USC Media Impact Project

I came to write this post because of an invitation I received to attend “Media, Movements, and The City” on September 28, 2018. I was a guest of Cheri Honkala, founder of the Poor People’s Economic and Human Rights Campaign and one of the most vocal advocates for the un-housed in our city. Listen to her brief message; it distills our next steps pretty clearly.

Attendees came from a variety of media outlets and academic, philanthropic, and cultural institutions. There was also at least one company represented, whose focus is open data with a bit of predictive policing software on the side. The event was not open to the general public and was not a gathering of “the people” so much as a gathering of people who see their role as sharing stories of “the people.” It was sponsored by Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Jefferson University, and Rutgers University.

See map below-the large purple dots are sponsors. Click here for interactive version.

Media Movement and the City Sponsors

Agenda (note the wifi signal above the fist, it’s always about the data): IMG_2368


When I was preparing the event sponsor relationship map, I saw a number of the facilitators were connected with the Media, Inequality and Change Center, a program of Penn’s Annenberg School and the School of Communications and Information at Rutgers University. In addition to sponsoring the September 28 event for the “non-profit media,” the program is also working on a very different event, “The Media Future Summit,” scheduled for November 8, 2018. That exclusive one-day gathering convened by Bob Garfield, a fellow in the Wharton Future of Advertising Program, is by non-transferable invitation and comes with a hefty price tag of $3,000. Attendees get access to C-Suite decision makers shaping the future of corporate media not only for the day, but it grants access to their exclusive club. This summit is intended to be a day of common cause that can be “marshaled only at the highest levels of ownership and management.”Media Future Summit

A tale of two conferences: in the first, regular folks enjoy collegial conversations over coffee and construction paper charrettes (see my activism memory below). There are discussions about creating a collaborative “ecology” around activism and generalized next steps. No mention of tough topics like planned change management, impact metrics or data analytics, or philanthro-capitalism. No, it’s all pretty superficial stuff. Now picture a second conference, one where executives in expensive suits are seated around banquet tables engaged in high-powered discussions around Blockchain micro-payments and monetizing the attention economy. Two sides of the same coin-or perhaps crypto-token. We both have power, but the nature of our power is very different.


My collage activism memory blogged here.

I discovered this other conference when I was creating the relationship map of the event sponsors, which leads me to wonder if it was on the radar of other attendees? It would be interesting to know how non-profit media factors into the program of the “Media Future Summit.” It seems likely it would merit at least some mention given recent developments around the Lenfest/Knight initiative.

Do these executives view non-profit activists as pawns in their games of message manipulation and social impact schemes? The Media, Inequality and Change Center states they’re “committed to studying the political economy of social problems, media and democracy, while engaging local activist projects and drawing connections with national and international social movements.” But it doesn’t clearly state whose interests are being advanced. Perhaps Annenberg is trying to play both sides (non-profits and corporate) in the hopes no one notices or draws attention to the dissonance conjured up by the screenshot below.

MIC Future of Media

It felt incongruent to be talking about movement building in an expansive oak-paneled reception hall of leaded glass windows, waxed flagstone floors, and limestone fireplaces. The last time I’d been in that space was under very different circumstances with North Philadelphia activists Jackie Wiggins and Ruth Birchett as they led Stadium Stompers in a vigorous challenge to the plans of Temple’s trustees to construct a football stadium in their community.

I went into the September 28 gathering as an independent researcher and blogger who has taken up the cause of tracking down and exposing the impact investment machine in Philadelphia (see the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s 2016 whitepaper on growing our “impact economy”). I take no money, seek no rewards, and don’t join groups. It’s not that I want to be a loner, but at this time we need independent people who can show up and ask the provocative questions those angling for their next grant or seat at the table cannot.

I came with handouts and an invitation for people interested in doing research and creating media about poverty in Philadelphia that is unplugged from philanthropic and corporate influence to join me at Bartram’s Garden on November 10 from 11am-1pm to brainstorm possibilities. I consider myself a strong addition to the research arm of this initiative, but it is imperative we link research to on-the-ground struggles that uplift the perspectives of those targeted by impact predators. We need to create offline spaces where we can nurture strategies to confront this technocratic force. I hope this can be a step in that direction.


We are living through a time when humanity is under dire threat. The bio-capitalist machine that is Blockchain identity impact investing is almost ready for prime time. People in the room on the 28th are aware of such plans. This is not some distant threat. Our situation will not be meaningfully improved through incremental change, tweaked around the edges. Massive mobilizations and coordinated offline strategies are required to mount a credible challenge. Fin-tech wants to turn our lives into data for dangerous speculation, and we need our nimble activist media to stay out of the impact investment net. Winning efforts will not emerge from sanctioned gatherings in spaces like Mitten Hall. Academia has too much to lose, so it is not surprising that those interests prefer to get out in front, take the reins and attempt to establish terms of engagement.

The change we need won’t happen there. The true resistance will rise up in spaces like the one below, where the linoleum tile and the visage of Dr. King set the tone. Our imagination and belief in truth and justice will take us beyond the limiting confines of monopoly capital. I believe in the capacity of Philadelphians to rise to meet this challenge, tell our stories, and devise solutions the people deserve. Join us November 10th, and email your RSVP so I can be sure to have enough sandwiches on hand. If you can make it drop a line by November 6 to