What You Should Know About “Pay for Success” as Testing Season Approaches

From this week’s newsfeed:

  • Chicago schools may end classes three weeks early due to lack of funding.
  • Several dozen Detroit schools close temporarily due to a “boil water” advisory.
  • Some Boston schools anticipate 20%+ cuts to already meager budgets.
  • Philadelphia teachers crowd-fund a billboard explaining they’ve been working without a contract or raises for nearly five years.

Against this backdrop we enter another high-stakes testing season where teachers and students are expected to relinquish their classrooms to the demands of big data, praying they score high enough to avoid the turnaround list. Each year this becomes more difficult as schools are deprived of even the most-basic levels of public support. Test scores are used to punitively grade schools and rate teachers even as the most important human aspects of education, the ones that cannot be uploaded to data dashboards, are carelessly dismissed. It makes no sense until you realize that data, rigorous assessment and ranking systems are demanded to accomplish the true goal of transforming public education into a vast market for private investment. Tim Scott offers a detailed analysis in his piece “Social Impact Bonds: The Titans of Finance as the Altruistic Merchants of Schooling and the Common Good.”

Pay for Success (PFS) is an investment model where public institutions seek infusions of private capital to finance programs that would otherwise remain unfunded. Returns are paid if programs demonstrate they’ve met predetermined metrics for “success” as outlined in the Social Impact Bond (SIB) deal. Deal brokers determine the metrics without input from the people accessing the programs. Those who have the money define what “success” looks like.

Provisions for Pay for Success were written into the new Every Student Succeeds Act, and last October the first two deals were issued by the US Department of Education. One, promoting workforce development, is being run through Social Finance and Jobs for the Future. The other was awarded to American Institutes for Research (AIR) to investigate pilot programs for English language learners. While the number of Pay for Success deals in education is currently small, the article “Paying for Success in Education: Comparing Opportunities in the US and Globally” prepared by the Brookings Institution in June 2016 indicates there’s likely to be a big market for SIBs moving forward if these early deals pass muster.

Pay for Success (PFS) originated in the UK around 2010. New Profit and their policy arm America Forward were instrumental in bringing the idea to the US, successfully lobbying to have PFS provisions incorporated into WIOA in 2014 and ESSA in 2015. Way back in 2007, George Overholser, founder of Boston-based Third Sector Capital Partners, addressed attendees at America Forward’s annual “Gathering of Leaders” and pitched the concept of investing private capital in public programs that were determined to be both scalable and rigorous in measuring outcomes. He felt the timing for such programs was right due to the growth of nonprofit capital markets and improving technological capabilities.

“Information technology, with its amazing ability to coordinate minute-to-minute activities, is gradually transforming the way social purpose organizations are able to operate. For the first time, without going seriously broke, they are able to monitor quality in real-time, across hundreds of locations, and to track and control expenses as well.”

Given that quote, consider how digital education and embedded online assessments might function within a PFS framework. Technology-based education, heavily promoted during the Obama administration through initiatives like Future Ready Schools, ConnectEd and Digital Promise, seems like a perfect fit. SIB returns rely on data that can be readily processed by third party evaluators like SRI International, MDRC, and the Urban Institute. What better way to gather vast quantities than pushing students onto online learning management systems? Despite recent talk of “innovative assessments” it is clear that evaluators will not be sifting through portfolios of authentic student work to determine whether or not Goldman Sachs or Pritzker get their payout. The pressure for data-driven instruction will only mount if SIBs become a regular part of the education funding mix.

Thus far education SIBs in the US have focused on early childhood interventions and workforce development, both identified in a 2011 article written by staff of Third Sector Capital Partners and published in the Community Development Investment Review of the San Francisco Federal Reserve:

“Fit with Issue-Area Priorities-As the bonds unite private investors or philanthropists with government entities, alignment with issue areas is critical. Sectors such as education and workforce development are two areas in which local and federal governments have a vested interest in both increasing social outcomes and the efficiency of public funds spent. Strong government benefits will help attract public sector partners.”

Proving success in workforce development requires significant, and intrusive, levels of data collection and the ability to track students beyond high school. I can’t help but think the push to create longitudinal data systems and federal clearinghouses like the one discussed in hearings held by the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making could well be paving the way for widespread adoption of PFS models a few years down the road. Jeffrey Liebman serves on the Commission, and his profile from their website indicates more than a passing interest in PFS, “Since 2011, his Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab (GPL) has been providing pro bono technical assistance to state and local governments interested in implementing pay for success contracts using social impact bonds.” While the repayment structure of several early childhood SIB deals are linked to data collection that takes place at kindergarten enrollment, the “Parent Child Center” SIB program in Chicago provides an additional payout if children meet specified levels of literacy attainment based on test scores in third grade. It’s clear that PFS-related data collection will not stop at the schoolhouse door.

The John and Laura Arnold Foundation has worked steadily to advance Pay for Success. A 2015 article from Inside Philanthropy notes, “The Arnolds and Bloomberg Philanthropies both recently received props from the Obama administration for being “essential partners” in government’s quest to surface the tools, programs and approaches that will help the country adapt to a changing educational and economic landscape.” Both are high-profile figures in the movement to privatize public education, and the Arnolds have also been at the forefront of pension “reform” efforts. Since 2013, the foundation has poured tens of millions of dollars into an “Evidence Based Policy and Innovation” initiative. In 2015, the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy wound down its operations after 14 years and merged with the Arnold Foundation. Among the coalition’s accomplishments were successfully lobbying for the creation of the Social Spending Innovation Research program in K12 education as well as Paul Ryan and Patty Murray’s Commission on Evidence Based Policy Making.

Below is a relationship map of select John and Laura Arnold Foundation grants showing strategic investments that have been made in various arenas to enable widespread adoption of Pay for Success and Social Impact Finance at a national scale. These include investments in funders, think tanks, lobbyists, data brokers, evaluators, as well as reform groups like KIPP and Teach for America suited to working within the constraints of data-driven educational environments. I plan to create maps for other Pay for Success players in following posts, so that we can better understand the financial networks operating behind the scenes to advance SIB implementation and school redesign efforts linked to these initiatives. To access the interactive map click here.


The tests are coming, and the data will be extracted from all but those who refuse to participate. So by all means continue to opt out! The reason for it has nothing to do with education. It’s about power and control. We are experiencing a hostile takeover of one of our most precious resources, our schools. If we cannot turn the tide, the idea of public school as a physical space in a community where students gather to learn face-to-face with a human teacher, certified and professionally trained, could disappear. And once our public assets are liquidated and teachers cast aside, the learning ecosystem model could very well be built on that wreckage using Pay for Success. I imagine a day in the not too distant future where online education companies or community partners compete for payouts based on the performance of students whose data is extracted on a minute-by-minute basis, not just during an end of year test. Public education would be transformed into a human capital pipeline to be mined for profit. Educational surveillance would become normalized with the Personally Identifiable Information of everyone interacting with these systems tracked in real time. The evidence-based policies advocated for by folks like John and Laura Arnold are not ones that value humans as individuals. Their world view is one where education is a series of generic programs to be scaled, controlled and managed for profit. Keep this in mind when you see those testing dates coming up on the school calendar. This is all happening for a reason, even though for the uninitiated none of it makes sense.

Future Ready Schools: How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education: A talk by Alison McDowell

Do you live in the Seattle area or have friends who do? I’ll be presenting there on March 25th.

Seattle Education


Future Ready Schools:

How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education

March 25th, from 10:30 AM-Noon

Lake City Branch of the Seattle Public Library

12501 28th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98125

This talk is free and open to the public.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, schools across the country have been destabilized by ongoing austerity budgets and punitive data-driven policies. Meanwhile, an alternative infrastructure of digital education has been quietly developed and refined through public-private partnerships set up between the Defense Department’s Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, technology companies, and higher education interests.

The Obama administration made a big push for 21st Century School redesign where teachers would be turned into “guides on the side” with children spending more and more time on adaptive learning management systems. Now we face a future in which education policy is being handled at the state level, where…

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Decaying Buildings and the Rise of Digital Education


“DeVos doesn’t think we should be funding school buildings as much as students.” The line caught my eye as I scrolled through social media this weekend. How could it not? I’ve been working hard over the past year to try and convince other education activists that the true endgame of the reform movement is to make school buildings obsolete. So I listened to the video of DeVos speaking to attendees of the Magnet Schools of America National Policy Training Conference in Washington, and there it was at timestamp 11:40: “I don’t think we should be as focused necessarily on funding school buildings, as much as we should be having a conversation around funding students.”

DeVos, being from Michigan, surely knows the deplorable conditions students in Detroit face daily trying to access a free and appropriate public education. And Detroit is not alone. Parsons completed a Facility Condition Assessment for the School District of Philadelphia last month identifying $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance. Over $1 billion of that total involves life safety, code compliance, health hazards, accessibility, and security issues. Think about that. We are asking vulnerable children and school staff to enter buildings that are not safe five days a week, while at the same time the Secretary of the US Department of Education is proclaiming we should not be funding school buildings.

This week I also came across a legislative forecast for Educational Savings Accounts (vouchers) prepared by Jeb Bush’s group Excellence in Education. The info-graphic accompanying the report indicated that my home state of Pennsylvania was one of 13 states identified as having a 75+% chance of implementing ESA legislation in the coming year. Our schools are already in an incredibly precarious financial position after years of austerity budgets and onerous debt service. The combination of intentionally unsafe buildings and ESAs will likely end up pushing more families out of the public school system with devastating consequences for those who remain.

Following on the “don’t invest in buildings” comment was another doozy from Jonathan Swan’s conversation with DeVos featured in Axios “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.” And while some chuckle over that last line, I’m pretty sure she’s talking about “Learning Ecosystems” which exist in concept right now, if not execution. The decentralized cyber-based education model with community drop-in centers would be consistent with her support of market-driven choice and tech-based educational content delivery, as well as her disdain for neighborhood schools being anchors in their communities. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable DeVos noted, “One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the Internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished.”

As new state ESSA plans roll out, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about personalized learning – learning that can take place any time, anywhere, at any pace. Even now, Knowledgeworks, a major promoter of the learning ecosystem model, is tracking personalized learning provisions emerging in state plans on an interactive map. Personalized learning is consistent with competency or proficiency-based education, and DeVos’s home state of Michigan has implemented many CBE policies. Acceptance of competency-based education and virtual schooling is key to the implementation of learning ecosystems. It will be impossible for reformers to fully separate education from buildings and teachers until they eliminate “seat time” requirements where students must go to a physical school building for a set number of hours or days per year. The report “Competency Based Education: An Overview for Michigan’s Superintendents” goes into considerable detail on this. At the same time reformers are working to get credit flexibility legislation passed, as they did in Ohio, that will allow credit for “non-traditional” learning experiences that take place online or “out-of-school time.” Ironically, it is the Carnegie Foundation itself that is working very hard to eliminate the “factory model” Carnegie Unit.

In 2013, the National Governor’s Association funded a study on credit flexibility for the Governor of Pennsylvania under the innocuous sounding title “Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning.” Much of the 32-page report is used to pitch competency-based education as well as cyber schools, which isn’t so surprising since NGA is behind Common Core State Standards and CBE. While the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit compiled the report, special thanks were given to Chris Sturgis, a consultant affiliated with Competencyworks. Competencyworks is a collaborative initiative of Ed Reform 2.0 interests. Their advisory board includes representatives of iNACOL, the Florida Virtual School, Council of Chief State School Officers, NGA, Knowledgeworks, Great Schools Partnership, Center for Collaborative Education, Nellie Mae Foundation, and Jobs for the Future.

It is important to note the role Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit played in shepherding along this report, because the truth is we should all be paying much closer attention to Pennsylvania’s Intermediate Units, and their equivalents in other states. See my related piece on Mass Customized Learning and Appalachian Intermediate Unit 8. The system of 29 Intermediate Units was set up in 1971. Each school district is assigned to an IU that provides services like curriculum development, professional development, educational planning services, and serving as a liaison to state and federal agencies. However the “about us” page of the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units website describes IUs as “entrepreneurial, highly skilled, technology-rich, and agile providers of cost-effective, instructional, and operational services to school districts, charter schools, and over 2,400 non-public and private schools. Additionally, intermediate units are direct providers of quality instruction to over 50,000 Pennsylvania students.”

So they are positioning themselves as technology-rich, cost-effective providers of instruction, are they? That sounds a lot like virtual schooling. And, in fact IUs across the state are busily setting up a shadow network of public cyber schools ostensibly to compete with cyber charter schools. Over the past decade public (non-charter) virtual schools have been set up and expanded nationwide, including: Florida Virtual School, Illinois Virtual SchoolNorth Carolina Virtual Public School and many others. In fact there’s a Virtual School Leadership Alliance that retains the consulting firm, Evergreen Education Group, to promote their interests. Some virtual schools cater to students who take ALL of their courses online, but most are also set up to accept students enrolling in a few courses per year.

The Capital Area Intermediate Unit, set up CAOLA, the Capital Area Online Learning Association in 2009. Today the association has 37 members, including 10 of the state’s 29 IUs. Course offerings are aligned with standards set by the International Association of K12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and cover hundreds of core courses and electives provided by vendors like Edison Learning, Apex Learning, Accelerate Education, Presence Learning, and Smarter Measure.

The Capital Area Intermediate Unit is cozy with iNACOL and in 2016 joined with them to co-sponsor the Mid-Atlantic Conference on Personalized Learning held in Baltimore, MD. iNACOL is a non-profit education reform advocacy group founded in 2003 to support growth of the virtual school movement. Supporters include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, all major players in the movement to privatize public education. As you can see below iNACOL’s board composition reflects the various elements of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda:

PA Intermediate Unit 13, also known as the Lancaster Lebanon Virtual Solutions Program, is a member of CAOLA. On January 31, 2017 they hosted Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee for a roundtable discussion on hybrid online learning. State Representative Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, facilitated the discussion, and among the day’s presenters were Ken Zimmerman and Collette Cairns, both of whom are employed by IU13 and have ties to iNACOL (the International Association for K12 Online Learning).

One of the lines politicians are using to try and sell the public on in-house (IU run) virtual schools is that it’s a great way for children to have more course options. The pitch usually focuses on access to elective courses that might otherwise be unavailable to students, courses like Chinese or Latin, but in reality, most virtual school offerings are core courses. For example, the Montgomery Virtual Program serves an affluent suburban county with the highest level of education funding in the state. The program offers over 100 courses in K-5 education through Connections Learning, which is owned by Pearson. With the exception of one or two offerings ALL of these classes should be available to students in a neighborhood school as part of a well-rounded curriculum. This is not about providing more choices. It’s about outsourcing education to online vendors like Edgenuity or FuelEd for financial reasons.

Let’s be clear, virtual programs, even if done under the auspices of “public” entities, will siphon students and funds away from neighborhood schools. These “public” online courses will be pitched as “better” than cyber charters, because some courses might employ local teachers – see the Open Campus PA program based in Lancaster. They will be pitched as a prudent cost-savings measure. They will be pitched as more transparent than corrupt cyber charters. They will be pitched as collaborative, “it takes a village,” a chance for districts to work together to share teaching resources. But we must recognize that IF we choose to participate in such ventures, we are ensuring that scarcity will remain a permanent feature of the educational landscape.

It will be a number of years before learning ecosystems are ready for primetime. While the various elements are being refined (ESAs, Blockchain/Bitcoin payment systems, skills badging programs, out of school time partnerships, universal broadband, and SIB/Pay for Success legislation), reformers are going to need to condition people to accept digital education as the new normal. Hybrid-Blended Learning will be a key tool during the Ed Reform 2.0 phase. People are still too invested in neighborhood schools to willingly buy into the ecosystem model where schools mostly disappear, replaced by a few community drop-in centers. Hybrid-Blended learning is designed to aid this transition, to gradually reframe people’s expectations about what public education is meant to be.

In 2016, The Center for Digital Education with financial support from Microsoft, Edgenuity, Insight, and Smart prepared a report called “Making Blended Work: School District Chief Academic Officers Sound off on Best Practices for Blended Learning.” Officials from 16 school districts, including Cheryl Logan of the School District of Philadelphia, provided input. It should be noted that our district had been looking into Blended Learning as early as May 2013 when it was the topic of a special Strategy, Policies, and Priority Meeting. Two years later in May 2015, the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia approved Resolution A-22 authorizing expenditures of up to $10 million on blended learning programs for the district between 2015 and 2018.

The quote below is taken from page 13 of the “Making Blended Work” report.

“Starting in 2014, the district (Cabarrus County Schools) identified its best high school and middle school teachers, doubled the amount of students those educators teach, cut the in-person time with these students in half and paid the teachers more to reach more kids and get the same results.”

Does any thoughtful parent or teacher really believe you can DOUBLE the amount of children being taught and reduce in-person instruction BY HALF and get the same results? Well, perhaps if you are only measuring data points, but that denies all the learning that takes place in relationship to one another. How can we knowingly sit by and allow this so called “personalized” blended learning model to usurp face-to-face instruction and the right to learn in a class of ones peers?

None of this is happening by chance. It is part of a much larger program to shift control of public education away from communities to financiers and technocrats. It’s very much linked to impact investing. Adopting online courses as a “temporary fix” to deal with austerity budgets is ill advised. Newsflash: IT WON’T BE TEMPORARY. Accepting stripped-down computerized services today will only normalize austerity and ultimately make access to a full-time human teacher seem like an unaffordable luxury. Once in place, funding for reduced class size, more human teachers, and a well-rounded offline curriculum will never be restored. We need to check the power of the Intermediate Units (or their equivalent in other states), organizations that are NOT accountable to local school districts, and we all need to take a deep breath before adopting any form of digital instruction that reduces the amount of time children have with human teachers. Meanwhile, my child’s school really needs a new roof.








Hybrid Learning, Cicada Killers & the Next Big Fight

Those seeking to privatize our schools know framing the conversation is key. That’s why institutions like the MacArthur Foundation have put serious time and money into social science research. Focus group results have been refined into sophisticated campaigns designed to convince us that digital education for children is superior to face-to-face instruction with a certified teacher. The goal? Put technology front and center in 21st century school redesign, and push human beings to the sidelines. Please disregard the fact that many giants in the tech world choose to send their children to Waldorf schools where natural materials and learning in relationship are the norm. I’m hoping this cicada killer post will be a bit of a shock to the system, one that can help reframe the current conversation about digital education and spur us to action. I know you’re curious, but bear with me, the insect portion of the story comes near the end.

We’re actually making it easy for the digital education lobby. Most of us ARE enamored of technology. It’s tempting to be lulled by arguments that adaptive online learning will somehow optimize our children’s brains for the new economy. If it’s innovative, it must be good. Personalization? Bring it on! And for students in underfunded schools with leaky roofs and tainted water, the arrival of technology brings a glimmer of hope that someone actually cares. But are we bridging a digital divide? Or are we setting our schools up for digital dehumanization down the road?

Over the past decade education activists have been conditioned to see the struggle between neighborhood schools and charter schools as our primary fight. Pitched battles have been waged for years, up to and including the successful opposition to Ballot Question 2 which would have lifted Massachusetts’ cap on charter schools. While we’ve exhausted ourselves fighting bricks and mortar charter expansion a new threat has slipped in with little fanfare, and that threat is hybrid or blended learning. It could actually end up being MORE devastating than its charter predecessor.

Barely a month after Question 2 was voted down, the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed Tech Consortium was launched to leverage technology in K12 education across the Commonwealth. MAPLE was funded in part by the Nellie Mae Foundation, the force behind the roll out of  Competency Based Education  in New England. The Center for Collaborative Education has also had a hand expanding personalized learning in the region through their involvement with the Next Generation Learning Challenges program (use the link to check out the partners, really!). According to minutes from a June 2016 briefing of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on the Digital Learning Program, the idea for MAPLE was drawn from a 2014 report, The New Opportunity to Lead: A Vision for Education in Massachusetts in the Next 20 Years,  prepared by Sir Michael Barber, of Brightlines who is also Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, and the Massachusetts Business Education Alliance with funding from the Barr, Nellie Mae, and Gates Foundations.

Nellie Mae Foundation Grant for Maple issued February 18, 2016 for $81,750

LearnLaunch Institute  was selected to manage the consortium, which will connect entrepreneurs, inventors, and industry affiliates with school districts interested in adopting what is essentially a value-oriented digital approach to instruction.

The MAPLE personalized learning webpage hits all the CBE touchstones:

  • Competency-Based Progression-check
  • Personalized Pathways-Go as fast or as slow as you want, but stay in your lane.
  • Learner Profiles-Just sit back as we mine your data, academic and behavioral.
  • Flexible Learning Environments-You don’t even have to come to school!
  • Technology-It makes all of the above affordable, at scale!

The quality of cyber education has been roundly criticized. Which leads me to question why so many give it a pass when it’s brought into neighborhood schools dressed up as hybrid-blended learning? We owe it to our children to examine digital education critically. In an era of ongoing austerity, we must set priorities. What is actually BEST for children, human connection OR devices? Make that determination and then fight for what is right and just. Do not settle for cheap and expedient.

Reed Hastings founder of Netflix, investor in the NewSchools Venture Fund, and supporter of KIPP and Rocketship Academy Charter Schools is opposed to locally controlled school boards. He sees wide adoption of technology as a strategy Charter Management Organizations can use to cut costs (human staff) and expand their brand. As charter brands expand, local control shrinks. Now, we are entering a NEW phase of privatization where ESSA policies favor “innovative, personalized” learning and assessments. Those policies support the rapid deployment of technology that will give Hastings and other ed-tech entrepreneurs a platform to launch an assault on neighborhood schools from WITHIN.

In 2010, Reed Hastings through the Charter School Growth Fund bought Dreambox Learning for $15 million with an additional $10 million to develop new content areas and aggressively promote the company’s e-learning footprint in schools across the nation. While Dreambox was purchased with an equity investment from the Charter School Growth Fund, this learning management system is widely used in neighborhood schools across the country. This includes affluent suburban districts that imagine themselves to be tech-forward having jumped on the personalized learning bandwagon. While “Product Partners” for MAPLE have yet to be identified, it seems likely Dreambox will be in the mix as their Vice President of Learning is among the speakers at LearnLaunch’s annual “Across Boundaries” Conference scheduled for February 2-3, 2017 in Boston.

Realize this: neighborhood schools are allowing themselves to be colonized by low-quality online education, the very same programs used by charter companies to cut costs and reduce teaching staff. And the software fees school districts are paying  directly benefit privatization interests. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now for the insect part of the post: in the dog days of summer here in Pennsylvania you will sometimes see lawns full of large wasps that circle intently a few feet above the ground. Reaching up to two inches in length, cicada killers patiently hunt their prey, capturing it on the wing. After paralyzing an unfortunate victim, the wasp drags the cicada into an underground burrow where an egg is laid on the immobilized host. As the larva grows it consumes the cicada, still alive, from within.

It is a graphic image, but in many respects apt to our present situation. Hybrid learning is the cicada killer larva poised to consume our schools from within. Weakened by prolonged budget cuts, teacher shortages, and facilities beyond repair, our schools are highly vulnerable to such predation. What many are welcoming as innovative and cost-effective, will ultimately lead to the demise of neighborhood schools as learning communities of people who collaborate, discuss, and grow together in relationship beyond the watchful eyes of devices and data extraction.

So one year 10% of the instructional day is given over to canned online curriculum, 25% the next, then what? 40%? Eventually you reach a point where your neighborhood schools are no longer YOUR schools anymore. No one should be diverting public funds into the coffers of those who seek to dismantle public education altogether.

Now is the time we all must take a stand for the things we believe in. The next fight, the REAL fight for the future of public education will be digital versus human. Are we willing to put ourselves on the line for the rights of children to have an education grounded in face-to-face interaction and freedom from profiling? Will we fight to preserve neighborhood schools as physical spaces within our communities? Or will we cede that ground to devices and drop in centers? Massachusetts you are on the front lines now. We are looking to you. Will you quietly accept a statewide ed-tech “personalized” learning program? Or will you question MAPLE? Will we all take a loud, public stand for humane education? Can we live with the consequences of silence if that is the choice we make?





How exactly did the Department of Defense end up in my child’s classroom?

You cannot fully understand what is happening with Future Ready school redesign, 1:1 device programs, embedded assessments, gamification, classroom management apps, and the push for students in neighborhood schools to supplement instruction with online courses until you grasp the role the federal government and the Department of Defense more specifically have played in bringing us to where we are today.

In 1999, just as cloud-based computing was coming onto the scene, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13111 and created the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative or ADL.

Section 5 of that order set up “The Advisory Committee on Expanding Training Opportunities” to advise the president on what should be done to make technology-based education a reality for the ENTIRE country. The intent was not only to prioritize technology for “lifelong learning,” but also shift the focus to developing human capital and in doing so bind education to the needs of industry and the economy.

Representatives of Cisco Systems and Jobs for the Future co-chaired the committee. Others around the table included the e-learning industry, student loan financiers, educational testing companies, human resource managers, labor market analysts, universities, community colleges, chambers of commerce, city government, and a futurist. George Bush incorporated Clinton’s work into Executive Order 13218, the 21st Century Work Force Initiative, the following year giving the effort a bipartisan stamp of approval. The Obama administration continued this push for online learning in the National Broadband Plan, which contained an entire chapter on digital education, as well as through a variety of 21st century school redesign efforts like ConnectEd, Future Ready Schools, and Digital Promise.

ADL began as an electronic classroom for the National Guard and later expanded to serve the entire Defense Department. In 1998 the government decided to use it for ALL federal employee training. And by leveraging its influence over federal contracting the government successfully pushed for standards that enabled wide adoption of cloud-based instructional technology.

As the Department of Defense worked on e learning for the military in the mid 1990s, the Department of Education put together the nation’s first educational technology plan, which was completed in 1996. A tremendous infusion of federal funds was released into schools to support technology purchases and expand Internet access. The FCC’s E-Rate program was established that year.

At the same time IMS Global began to advance implementation of e-learning systems. This non-profit began as a higher education trade group and now has over 150 contributing members, including IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Pearson, and hundreds upon hundreds of affiliated companies and institutions that use its open source specifications. The Gates Foundation is a platinum level sponsor of four major IMS Global initiatives.

Over twenty years IMS Global members shared research and resources, and built up an industry now valued at $255 billion annually. So if you still wonder why they won’t give education back to human teachers, you simply need to take a close look at the many politically connected interests that are counting on digital education becoming the new paradigm.

IMS Global and ADL teamed up to establish common standards for meta data and content packaging of so-called learning objects. In the world of 21st century education reformers anticipate school will become largely about children interacting with these online learning objects-a playlist education if you will where based on your past performance algorithms will serve up what they think you need to know next. For folks like Reed Hastings, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg, such an education where students consume pre-determined content seems the ultimate in efficiency. Gamified experiences and online simulations being developed through ADL and DARPA in partnership with many universities and non-profits, will also provides a structure for to capture students’ soft skills and shape their behavior.

The first product ADL and IMS Global came up with was called SCORM or Shared Content Object Reference Model. SCORM provided pathways for the bits and pieces of e-learning content to get to a particular learning management system, like Dreambox, accessed by a particular student. It tracked elements like course completion, pages viewed, and test scores.

By 2008, there was a desire to track a student’s interaction with devices OUTSIDE of fixed learning management systems. New devices and games often did not work within the SCORM framework. Ed-tech proponents wanted students to be able to interact with online content in new ways, so they could record interactions taking place on mobile platforms, directly through browser searches, or via Internet of Things sensors.

ADL commissioned a new specification that could track activity streams as students interacted with online media. The result was xAPI or Tin Can API, which debuted in 2011. Now all sorts of data can be monitored, tracked, and put into data lockers or learning record stores. LRS’s can store information about what videos you watched, what online quizzes you took and the results, what websites you visited, what books you purchased, what games you played, what articles you read or annotated. It can also capture data gathered via sensors, RFID chips, and biometric monitors. LRSs collect data about all sorts of so-called “informal” learning experiences. The MacArthur Foundation has been funding considerable research in digital media learning (or DML) in informal settings for youth.

With the development of xAPI, the Ed Reform 2.0 vision of “anytime, any place” learning, learning where human teachers and school buildings are no longer required, could proceed more quickly. IMS Global is now supporting Mozilla’s open badge initiative. xAPI meta data could eventually be combined with badge programs and Blockchain/Bitcoin technology to create e-portfolios (online credential systems). And if automatic credential verification and micro-payment systems come to fruition, a virtual wallet voucher system could devastate already precarious public education funding.

The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative is a major player in the development of mobile, game-based, and virtual learning environments. They also conduct extensive research and development on online “personal learning assistants” and with the aim of creating digital personal tutors for all of us. Their research is carried out at four Cooperative Laboratories or co-labs, which are located in Madison, WisconsinAlexandria, Virginia; Memphis Tennessee; and Orlando, Florida. Each lab supports partnerships with private sector interests and institutions of higher education.

The Wisconsin co-lab works specifically on academic projects, many involving the Florida Virtual School with whom they have a long-standing relationship. The co-lab’s focus is on competency-based education. They’ve partnered with the Educational Psychology department at the University of Wisconsin Madison to create educational gaming platforms and maintain over 60 other partnerships to research and refine game-based online instruction. Another focus has been on developing MASLO or “Mobile Access to Supplemental Learning Objects,” which is enabled by xAPI technology. The Tennessee co lab has been doing research on an intelligent tutoring system that even recognizes human emotion in the person using a given device and tries to counteract negative emotion.

DARPA-the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also in the business of developing gaming simulations and intelligent tutoring systems. They work closely with the office of the Navy. Their “Engage” program was set up in 2012 and through partnerships with Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M, UCLA, and the University of Denver, created numerous games for K12 students based on Alternate Reality Teaching “Our Space” in virtual environments. Instruction in Social Emotional learning was built into the games. Their Full Spectrum Learning project aims to create an online platform that can monitor students and identify their strengths and weaknesses and revise the experience adaptively based on the data generated.

The arrival of ADL, changed public education in a very fundamental way. It is no coincidence that the destructive No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in the year after it was created. Over the next fifteen years, with bipartisan support, education incrementally gave way to training, creativity to compliance, serendipity to standards, and human connection to digital isolation. As the curriculum became narrower and narrower, emphasizing standardized test scores and demonstrations of skill, education became a hollowed out exercise, something could be digitized and outsourced to corporations.

Data-driven, standards-based tactics have been intentionally employed to regiment the very human process of teaching and learning. During ADL’s first decade, the imperative was to get technology and Internet into schools. Once that infrastructure was in place, they could concentrate on restructuring the curriculum making screen-based education central and pushing the teacher into a secondary role on the sidelines.

Common Core State Standards were a big part of that process. The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created the standards in 2009. Not as many people know about the Common Education Data Standards that were established at the same time. CEDS enabled the collection and sharing of vast amounts of data across sectors from Pre-K through Community College.

The Learning Registry is another important piece of the puzzle. It was created in 2011 as a partnership between the US Department of Education and once again the Department of Defense. It is an open source distribution network of learning resources that holds meta data and para data. It is important to understand that learning objects can be tagged in many ways, including adding tags for a variety of standards. For that reason even if we get rid of Common Core State Standards, it wouldn’t necessarily make a dent in slowing down the rollout of adaptive, digital curriculum.

In addition to meta data, which is data that describes individual education resources, the Learning Registry also collects para data through the use of emitters that can be mounted on smart boards in classrooms.

Para data describes how online learning resources are used:

  • Who’s doing the searches?
  • What students are in the room with the person doing the searches?
  • A history of searches conducted
  • What is being viewed, downloaded and shared?
  • What is favorited or embedded?
  • To which standards is the selected content aligned?
  • What tags have been added to content?
  • How is it being incorporated into the curriculum?
  • What grade is it being used in?
  • Where is it being used?
  • What is the audience is for the item?
  • What the instructional setting is.
  • What is the experience level of the class and the teacher?

The devices in our children’s classrooms are largely there because a specific set of government policies have prioritized technology over human educators for the past fifteen years. These devices are watching us as much as we are watching them. And we should be aware that many of the programs in use are direct outgrowths of work done by the Department of Defense in partnership with private sector interests and institutions of higher education. Technology can be used for good, but not if it is given an unconditional pass in our classrooms. Shine a light on educational surveillance. Ask questions. Talk to others and organize!


Understanding the End Game

I gave this talk yesterday to a couple of groups of Philadelphia teachers and activists who wanted to better understand the ways education reform will be changing post-ESSA.

The push for conditioning and compliance will continue as we finalize the transition to an education system where surveillance is branded as data-driven “personalization” and devices monitor our children’s classrooms continuously. It’s difficult to organize and fight such a nebulous foe.  In this hour-long talk I hope to convey the reality of the reformers’ true end game- a future of automated teaching, virtual schooling, and community-based badging programs where workforce skills trump knowledge and critical thinking in the human capital game.  A future where parents and students must cobble together dozens of credentialed online and offline educational opportunities for their e-portfolios, feebly attempting to pay for them from meager virtual wallets/Educational Savings accounts. Watch it with the accompanying slide-share open. Many slides have links to resources you can investigate. Please share this post after watching, so we start to understand exactly what we’re up against and begin to organize effective resistance at a national level.