Lisa Haver, retired educator, reading testimony written by retired educator Karel Kilimnik, who was unable to attend.
Tomika Anglin, parent and community member
Catherine Blunt, retired principal and educator
Alison McDowell, public school parent
Lisa Haver, retired educator, reading testimony written by retired educator Karel Kilimnik, who was unable to attend.
Tomika Anglin, parent and community member
Catherine Blunt, retired principal and educator
Alison McDowell, public school parent
Today I offered public testimony at a special hearing discussing early literacy education and standards held by the Education Committee of Philadelphia City Council. Below is a recording of my testimony, followed by the written text I submitted for the record. In my introductory remarks I mention Econsult Solutions, a firm that has two affiliates who made it from the pool of hundreds of candidates to be considered for appointment to the new school board. Suzanne Biemuller, Senior Advisor, and Lee Huang, Senior Vice President, were designated finalists, their names among the twenty-seven put forward for consideration by Mayor Kenney. I wrote about the firm’s ties to Pay for Success and Ready Nation here.
“In 1976 my third-grade class constructed a geodesic dome reading nook under the guidance of our teacher Mrs. Nevius. Inside, with books and carpet squares and flashlights, a bunch of eight year olds found magic. Wilder Elementary had a librarian who could place the perfect book in the hands of each and every child. We anxiously waited for Mrs. Nevius to take out her bookmark to read the next chapter of The Cay or Island of the Blue Dolphins aloud to us. Those were formative experiences for me. I am now the parent of a Philadelphia student and have witnessed a relentless campaign to steal this magic from our schools. Today, I welcome the opportunity to consider what humane education looks like and how we can support it.
Many students, including pre-k and kindergarteners, are instead being logged into software programs designed to harvest personal data. Rather than age-appropriate, play-based learning, they are being put in front of screens. Increased screen time leads to social isolation and creates angry, depressed children. Instead of developing healthy relationships through quality time with teachers and peers, they are having their education shaped by algorithms and computer code.
They may not have libraries, but they do have unique IDs that track their every move online. Children have no idea their data is fed into predictive analytics systems; that their unpaid digital labor creates value for ed-tech investors. There is no guarantee their data will be protected from hacks or leaks. No one can be sure it won’t be used to profile them in ways that limit their future opportunities rather than open doors.
The most powerful companies in the world are cloud-based computing companies that have an interest in pushing education online. Venture capital and philanthropies are helping to facilitate this transformation through social impact investments. In the name of “evidence-based” policy, there is a now a bipartisan push to embrace “innovative” finance schemes that use private money to fund social programs, including pre-k and early literacy.
The “Pay for Success” model requires a lot of data to prove that programs “work.” Not coincidentally, this is what education software systems promise to deliver. Remember the housing market crash of 2008 when bundled mortgages were turned into vehicles for financial speculation? There are powerful global interests who want to do it again using the debt associated with pre-k and literacy program investments. The next “Big Short” could very well be our nation’s education system, gambling not on homes but on children’s lives. Philadelphia’s youth must learn to be independent, creative, courageous thinkers. No software system is going to teach them that. When allocating resources for education, invest in people first. That’s where the magic is. Approach big data with caution. It can be weaponized against children and the common good.”
These are the three pages I shared with Council members that support my concerns about securitizing debt associated with pre-k and early literacy social impact bonds and Pay for Success contracts. I encourage you to explore the website created for the Ready Nation Global Business Summit on Early Childhood. It’s eye-opening.
Additional testimony from Lisa Haver (for Karel Kilimnik), Tomika Anglin, and Catherine Blunt here.
My friends at the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools have done commendable work researching the slate of candidates initially selected by the nominating panel to be considered for the mayoral-appointed Philadelphia School Board. Reading through their first installment, I noticed that two of the twenty-seven have ties to Econsult Solutions. Suzanne Biemuller is a Senior Policy Advisor and Lee Huang is a Senior Vice President. The name rang a bell, so I decided to do a little more digging.
It is a large economic consulting firm that does business with private and government interests from the Philadelphia region and farther afield. Their extensive client list includes the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as philanthropies like the MacArthur Foundation, known for promoting digital learning, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, known for promoting Pay for Success, and the William Penn Foundation, known for hiring Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia schools and recent initiatives to promote out-of-school time, informal learning initiatives.
One of Econsult Solution’s four areas of practice is public policy and finance. Philip Peterson, a former actuary who now acts as an expert in the use of Pay for Success finance in early childhood education, became an advisor to the firm last September. Peterson’s LinkedIn profile states that he manages KidSucceed LLC, a firm he founded in July 2016 with addresses in Marlton, NJ and Manchester, VT.
His company provides services similar to those offered by Econsult Solutions, advising on the use of Pay for Success for homelessness and healthcare in addition to early childhood services. This six-minute video features a Q & A on Pay for Success that Peterson did with the National Conference of State Legislatures in August 2016.
Between 2014 and 2016 Peterson worked as Deputy Director for ReadyNation, an organization that promotes adoption of this “innovative” approach to pubic finance. It embodies Third Way privatization, employing private capital to fund public services while demanding that specific measures of success be met. Demonstrating “success” requires collection of copious data, which is most efficiently gathered by pushing service delivery onto digital platforms. Cue the ed-tech impact investors.
ReadyNation is an organization under the umbrella of Council for a Strong America, a coalition of leaders representing military, law enforcement, religious, business, and athletic national interests. It emerged from work initiated by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Biemuller’s former employer. ReadyNation and the Council for a Strong America promote investment in early childhood for the purposes of ensuring children are workforce and military ready. According to his profile from the Institute for New Economic Thinking website, Robert Dugger is a hedge fund manager who co-founded ReadyNation and seeks to build business coalitions to support “high-return investment spending in children prenatal to age five.” There is a lot of money to be made from children living in poverty if you know how to structure it properly. Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds provide the fiscal policy infrastructure that enables poverty mining.
As Pew wound down their involvement in 2011, ReadyNation went public. That was the year before the concept of social impact bonds was brought over from the UK and piloted at Rikers Island. The following year Dugger, who maintains a close working relationship with University of Chicago human capital researcher Dr. James Heckman, teamed up with the Kauffmann Foundation as the “Kaufmann-ReadyNation Working Group on Early Childhood Finance Innovation” to prepare a progress report entitled “Social Impact “Pay for Success” Finance: A PKSE Bond Example.” Page six of the report boldly states their intention to securitize debt associated with early childhood social impact bonds enabling them to be 1) bought by for-profit and non-profit investors; 2) traded among investors worldwide; and 3) be aggregated into asset-backed securities.
If you’re not familiar with the dangers of securitized debt, I recommend watching the film The Big Short about the 2008 housing crash. Imagine what they did to mortgages, but next time the vehicle for financial speculation could very well be student education data. I should note that a representative of the Kauffman Foundation was among the Social Innovations conference attendees who participated in a bus tour Comcast brought to Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in February. You can read more about that excursion here.
Without question, there is serious money on the table. This is not just about early childhood and early literacy being transformed into investment markets for impact investors in the United States. No, this is a global market. On November 1st, hundreds of business people from around the world will gather at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City to plot their strategies to reap profit from children at the 2018 ReadyNation Global Business Summit on Early Childhood. The agenda includes: brain science and economics; corporate leaders in social innovation; effective business-led advocacy; and taking successful programs to scale. What is especially notable is that while the speaker list includes people representing the World Bank, the Federal Reserve, the Marine Corps, chemical companies, venture capital interests, figure skating, churches and even coin laundry operators, there are no early childhood educators. To attend this conference one must request to be approved, and those who are “children’s advocates” or “policy experts” can only attend “with a pre-approved team of at least four business people.”
While attracting investors like Goldman Sachs, the metrics demanded by the Pay for Success model have led many to call into question whether or not this approach is actually good for children. See this article in the New York Times and this one in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. There are many ways to define the metrics and deploy screening tools to game the system, just as with charter schools. Additionally, the focus on measurable outcomes is pushing data-driven service delivery via ed-tech platforms. The growing number of early childhood literacy apps coming to market in recent years is surely related to anticipated expansion of this finance model.
Waterford Upstart online preschool, pioneered in Utah and currently being used with refugee families in Philadelphia, is an example of the type of software literacy program designed to harvest data to prove the “impact” required for investors to obtain their profit. Programs like Upstart are promoted as a cheap way to achieve “literacy;” but at what cost to children? If you are not familiar with Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds and their ties to technology and Big Data, please watch the video in this post and explore some of the supporting materials.
Philadelphia City Council’s Education Committee will hold a public hearing on Monday March 12, 2018 at 1pm in Council Chambers to “discuss how we can better implement educational standards in the early childhood years from Pre-K to 3rd grades to prepare our children for success later in life.” You can read the resolution here.
Is this setting the stage for early childhood and early literacy Pay for Success programs that will usher in expanded technology purchases and data mining? Will Econsult Solutions get a foot in the door with an appointed representative to our new School Board? Will Mr. Peterson perhaps be there on Monday pitching his “innovative” approach to standards-based education funding? Will we be going down the road paved by Salt Lake City and Chicago? Or will Philadelphia strike out in a different direction and instead choose to invest pubic funds to support human relationships that nurture children in ways that cannot be put on a rate card, generate data points, and or enrich Goldman Sachs? Stay tuned.
Today I share a guest post from an elementary school teacher in Maine, a state in the vanguard of Ed Reform 2.0 implementation. Unless changes are made, this year’s freshmen are expected to graduate under the state’s new proficiency-based diploma requirements. In recent months, push-back against this new educational paradigm has grown substantially. Parents, teachers and students are finding standards-based education, a model that emphasizes technology-based education delivery, highly problematic. Here is one teacher’s perspective:
“I love technology. I love it so much that I got my Masters in educational technology through Boise State University in Idaho. Through this program I learned to teach online, gamify my curriculum, personalize learning, use countless technology tools, and promote digital literacy in the classroom.
When I switched to a school district that had one to one technology for my students, I was over the moon! That was until I actually saw it implemented on a large scale. What I saw was not more engaged students, but students clicking through activities without a moment’s notice or even thought. What I found were kids wanting tablets, but not wanting to learn on them; they just wanted to play on the devices.
So I tried to implement activities that would get them really thinking and creating. We made PowToons for our learning. We used educreations to show our thinking. We used Google docs to share writing. Most of what we tried did not enhance learning one bit. Sure, it looked cool and professional, but my students could present a wonderful powerpoint and not even be able to answer questions about what they presented.
In addition, I had to sift through hundreds of different websites, tech tools, and resources to see what would be the best to use in my classroom. I found very little that was better than what I had been using in the classroom before technology. I was disheartened to discover that this was not the silver bullet I thought it was for education. The funny thing is that I thought technology would save me so much time. It really hasn’t, except for a few instances where I don’t have to grade spelling tests; and the apps that I use for spelling do not promote better spellers.
Unless you think I am now anti-technology, I am not. I use technology every day both personally and professionally. I appreciate how it connects me with some of my family far away. I love how I can create products only imagined before, like an iMovie. I love the ease of a word processor and platforms to collaborate and share my writing with others. I also love having my students use the technology for many of the things listed above, but now I know they need so much more than a flashy program for learning. They need me. They need my instruction. They need to discuss face to face with myself and their peers. They need to struggle through problems, with me encouraging them to press on and knowing when to come alongside them and help, but not enable. They need human accountability.
There is a movement in our country to transition students into more digital learning. I could go on about why this is all happening, but others have done that work for me (see Save Maine Schools and Wrench in the Gears). In the end, it will boil down to fewer teachers and more screen time for even our youngest learners. Kids will adapt and learn to click through the system like Pavlovian subjects. We will probably have “experts” claiming increased performance on their very narrow metrics.
What I see in my own school district is not better learning but more behavior. As we push kids beyond what they are capable of understanding, and think that “personalized learning” through technology will be the answer, we are sorely misinformed. Technology has its place in the classroom, but it should never replace what has made education great for hundreds of years-teachers.”
Signed, An Elementary School Teacher in Maine
The following commentary was originally published February 12, 2018 by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to approve both technology resolutions at their February 14 meeting; details here. Numerous community members testified against the $19.5 million allocation for online learning and data; see video recorded by Kenneth Derstine of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools here.
“On February 15, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission will vote on two resolutions. One allocates $10 million for virtual classes and adaptive learning systems, while the other awards Pearson $9.5 million for cloud-based services that collect data and deliver educational content to students. Online curriculum is gradually replacing face-to-face instruction in schools, and it appears the SRC intends to cement this trend firmly in place before disbanding. For our underfunded district to devote these enormous sums to cyber education when so many other pressing needs remain unmet amounts to a hostile takeover.
Philadelphia has become a hub for educational technology development. Wharton-affiliated venture capital combined with research support from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and Temple fuels growth in this sector. Many ed-tech companies have positioned themselves as vehicles for social impact investments, which ImpactPHL promotes as a tactic to expand our regional “impact economy.” Digital education will greatly benefit telecommunications companies that build skyscrapers with tax abatements that undermine tax revenue for neighborhood schools. One such company recently sponsored a closed-door event where Chamber of Commerce members discussed the future of business in schools while public school parents, teachers and community members protested outside.
Digital education is a business. Children are the mechanisms through which economic value is extracted. Eric Schmidt, former board chair of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said data is the new oil. These resolutions make it clear the plan is to frack data from Philadelphia’s vulnerable public school students, the majority of whom are black and brown and live in poverty. It is a profit-taking enterprise that unites venture capital, higher education, and philanthropy.
If passed, these resolutions will push our schools towards automated education. No one consulted parents. We were not given the option to choose between teachers and online test-prep, because district officials knew we’d tell them that virtual courses and adaptive software are no substitute for face-to-face instruction. Data dashboards cannot replace the nuanced assessment human teachers provide. Even as “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) learning assistants are breathlessly promoted, parents know it is teachers that change children’s lives, not computer code.
Achieve 3000, iReady, and Lexia Learning will not empower children. Instead, they restrict learning to limited pathways using data-mining. Learning online is learning that is constantly monitored and surveilled. With a learning management system, the algorithm is in charge, not the teacher. In an era of leaks and security breaches, nothing about our children that is uploaded to the cloud can ever truly be “secure.” We know data is used to profile, algorithms are racially biased, and classroom devices collect vast amounts of personally identifiable information. Serious health concerns arise with increased screen time, especially for young children. These include vision impairment, concentration and behavioral problems, and Wi-Fi exposure. Plugged-in children can become isolated, disconnected, and destabilized. Digital products are harming children in their schools, places they should feel safe. When bridging the “digital divide” means hooking students up to corporate learning modules, it is a bridge too far.
Parents want money spent to reduce class sizes and restore librarians. We would make sure every child had access to school plays, choirs, foreign language instruction, sports, debate teams, and field trips before putting a dime into virtual classes. We want public funds spent bringing joy back to schools. Parents don’t want data-driven education. We don’t want our children treated as human capital. Our schools are not profit centers for predatory social impact data-mining ventures. The interests of students, teachers and parents must take precedence over for-profit interests as well as those of their non-profit partners. Local control of Philadelphia’s schools means nothing if corporations control classrooms through contracted ed-tech vendors. The voice of the people must come first.”
On social media yesterday someone asked me what exactly I was doing to stop data-driven “personalized” ed-tech education, and I realized I hadn’t posted the video for the informational picket I set up outside the Philadelphia Education Fund’s February Education First Compact Meeting. Since the focus of the meeting was data, I decided to ask attendees to complete a survey that required some self reflection about their complicity in the ongoing defunding of Philadelphia’s public schools and how data-driven education was actually about profiting from the unpaid digital labor of students. I also included information about changes that had been made by the Philadelphia Education Fund to their event registration policy that allows them to screen people wanting to attend these meetings. If you’d like to print or adapt the survey for your own use you can download it here.
I also created a video summary of this action. Remember, you don’t need a lot of people to start an education campaign. Just one or two people who are willing to show up with materials and document the proceedings can be enough to get things rolling. The meeting took place at the United Way Building on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. It is important to know that the United Way is heavily involved in pushing data collection on children and promoting the use of social impact bonds to fund early childhood education and was a facilitator of the problematic Salt Lake City pre-k SIB. The gentleman from the United Way came out that morning and took a photo of the banner seen in the image above about children not being impact investment opportunities.
This is a video summary of the action. Apologies for the poor camera work; it is challenging to hand out papers and hold the camera at the same time. I was grateful to have the support of my friend Barbara who spoke eloquently about the importance of fully-staffed and resourced libraries to authentic literacy education. Even though data-driven education proponents might like to push literacy as an “evidence-based” online app, we know reading books of one’s choice and discussing those books with educators and friends is truly what changes lives.
This is the survey we handed out to attendees.
This is a screen shot of the email describing the agenda of the meeting and the speakers.
This is a copy of the “voluntary” subscription page. You are only guaranteed access if you pay $100-$750 to become a subscriber. Kind of makes it hard to get excited about “local control,” doesn’t it? Especially given that the Mayor’s Office of Education is in favor of special meetings on education policy with “diverse stakeholders.”
Last Monday, parents, teachers, and community members took to the streets outside the marble halls of Girard College to protest a closed-door event where representatives of the Mayor’s Office of Education, the Philadelphia Education Fund, and the Read by Fourth Campaign met with Chamber of Commerce affiliates about the future of business in Philadelphia’s schools. We handed out a sheet with five demands to the attendees on their way into the event and requested the Mayor’s Office of Education respond by February 9, 2018.
I share below the response we received with annotated comments. While I appreciate Mr. Hackney’s efforts to address the demands, I am left with a lack of clarity about the role private interests, corporations and non-profits, will play in shaping education policy going forward. We specifically asked the mayor to take a public stance against adaptive learning management systems for literacy and the use of Pay for Success or Social Impact Bonds to fund early childhood or K12 education and workforce development. The letter below endorses the former and says nothing about the latter, which is a serious concern. It supports the use of software in literacy but there is no mention of reduced class sizes, restoration of libraries with librarians, or reading specialists.
The letter also indicates an acceptance of closed door meetings whereby “feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders” is obtained. What stakeholders would need to meet with the mayor and his representatives in small groups outside the public eye? As we move to “local control,” that is a very important question. Will we have a version of “local control” that preferences “Big L” interests like Comcast over “little l” interests like regular parents and teachers? Who gets a seat at the table? Will community engagement drive policy development or remain an easily-dismissed charade as it was under the School Reform Commission?
For reference, these were the original demands:
1. No private “stakeholders” who have financial dealings with the Philadelphia public school system will sit on any policy boards or committees. The voices and needs of students, teachers, and parents must take precedence over those of private interests, including corporations and non-profit organizations.
2. No public official or employee of the school system or school board may be present at any closed-door meetings where public education business or policies are discussed. Public education policy and business will NOT be developed in any venue that restricts public access. All provisions of the open meeting laws will apply: nothing about us without us.
3. Philadelphia’s corporations and non-profits are obligated to pay their fair of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for the full public funding that is needed to make our neighborhood schools whole.
4. Establish a clear public commitment to early literacy by reducing class size, restoring school libraries with librarians, and providing reading specialists to all schools. Refuse technological solutions, like Waterford UPSTART, and adaptive online learning systems that isolate and data-mine children.
5. The City of Philadelphia must take a public stand against the use of social impact finance “solutions” including Pay for Success contracts and social impact bonds to fund early childhood education, K12 education and workforce development. Public schools should be funded with PUBLIC dollars, not philanthropy or venture capital.
This is the response that was offered:
In light of this letter, it is important to know that Comcast sent a bus of ed-tech, social impact investor conference attendees to the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences on February 7, 2018. Mayor Kenney was a featured speaker with David Cohen at the conference, which was billed as a Social Innovation Summit. This tweet indicates Cohen and Kenney participated in a morning discussion about “innovation” and the “future of work.” I wonder if any teachers, students or parents were included?
An informational picket was set up outside Feltonville that morning to welcome Comcast’s investor guests. Banners were laid out on icy sidewalks: “Teachers Before Tech,” “Children Are Not Data, Human Capital or Impact Investment Opportunities,” and “Public Schools NOT Private Profit.”
We handed out this flyer. To print a copy, use this Link.
A quick glance at some of the conference lanyards indicated the following were in attendance: a representative of the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City that is working with Ready Nation to promote the securitization of early childhood social impact bonds; venture capitalists from Landmark Ventures; and a person with the Lili’uokalani Trust serving poor indigenous Hawaiian youth.
Superintendent Hite was there as was Fran Newberg, Deputy Chief of the Office of Education Technology for the district. On April 10, 2018 she and Melanie Harris, Chief Information Officer, will be guest speakers at a “Day of Discussion on the Next Stage of School Transformation.” An email forwarded to me indicates the event will examine: “a new incursion of data from software, from the intersection of technology with redesigning the physical environment, and more. This event helps you make sense where it is all going.” Read the full event description from the email here.
It seems we are facing some challenges Philadelphia. We have a school district that desperately needs additional funding. Austerity doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. We have a mayor who is pretty cozy with Comcast, seems very interested in social impact investing and educational technology, and who might very well be inclined to fund our schools through “innovative” financial tools like pay for success and/or social impact bonds. We have education policy officials condoning special meetings with unspecified diverse stakeholders who seem open to “cross-sector” opportunities. To me this sounds an awful lot like public-private impact investing opportunities. If you haven’t yet, please spend some time with my video about social impact bonds. I have a feeling the information is going to be relevant very soon.