The Edu-Tech Billionaires Promote “Personalized” Learning That Lacks the Personal Touch

I was relieved when I read the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial a couple of weeks ago about the newfound humility of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as regards its education philanthropy. Recounting the history of billions spent on failed projects like the small-schools initiative, the initiative to evaluate teachers and reward the best with merit pay, and the investment to develop, publicize and spread the Common Core standards, the LA Times editorial board writes: “Tucked away in a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week, along with proud notes about the foundation’s efforts to fight smoking and tropical diseases and its other accomplishments, was a section on education. Its tone was unmistakably chastened. ‘We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,’ wrote the foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman… ‘It is really tough to create more great public schools.'”

The only problem is that it isn’t quite true that Gates has disappeared from the world of education “reform.” Gone are the days, of course, when Arne Duncan hired Jim Shelton, right out of the Gates Foundation to lead the Office of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education. But the Billionaire Boys continue to work behind the scenes.

Today the focus is “personalized learning,” the Orwellian name its proponents are calling computer-driven learning.  And, no surprise, Jim Shelton has come back to lead the philanthropically-driven effort, but this time he’s working with the Gates Foundation from a perch as head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what Benjamin Herold at Education Week calls “the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.” “The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, former U.S. deputy education secretary Jim Shelton, previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than seven years.”

Here is Herold’s description of the new project: “Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students. The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative…. Their joint award was given in April to New Profit, a Boston-based ‘venture philanthropy’ organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving.”

Reporters for Inside Philanthropy, who call the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative CZI, add that since Shelton took over a year ago, “CZI’s work on personalized learning has evolved rapidly, and now has a number of parts. Developing and promoting the technology for personalized learning is a central focus. In March, Shelton wrote on Facebook that CZI is ‘building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning.’ More specifically, it’s creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which ’empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests.’  This platform was developed by a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a leading charter school provider. It’s now used by 130 schools, 1,100 teachers and 20,000 students, according to Shelton. But CZI is dreaming even bigger… Shelton described the philosophy here more broadly: ‘It turns out when you let people choose, their level of engagement and motivation goes up.'”

And, explains Inside Philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made a grant to Chiefs for Change, a network of local and state school superintendents convened by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has pushed all sorts of ed tech contracting. “Chiefs for Change will use the funds to support the new Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Inside Philanthropy concludes its report: “What can be said is that personalized learning, facilitated by new technology, obviously tracks with Mark Zuckerberg’s own background and world view. And it reflects a techno-optimism at the core of CZI’s work. ‘We believe engineers can help turbocharge and scale solutions to facilitate social change,’ the organization says.”

In a new analysis for the NY Times, Natasha Singer is a little more skeptical about The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools, including Facebook’ s Mark Zuckerberg: “The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.”  She continues: “If Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg has his way, children the world over will soon be teaching themselves—using software his company helped build. It’s a conception that upends a longstanding teaching dynamic. Now educators are no longer classroom leaders, but helpmates… Mr. Zuckerberg has described how it works. Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them. ‘When you visit a school like this, it feels like the future—it feels like a start-up.. You get the feeling this is how more of the education system should work.'”

Let me be very clear.  Students need to learn how to use technology. Even as a relatively computer-illiterate blogger, I compose on a laptop. I recently found an old kitchen mug to store all the pencils that have been lying around the house, and I carried them up to the attic. And technology is a wonderful tool for exploring and researching and calculating.  School should incorporate technology beginning in the elementary years.

But there is something very important missing from these articles about Zuckerberg and Gates and Shelton and the huge grant to New Profit.  In Education Week, Benjamin Herold quotes the Gates Foundation’s program officer commenting on the new work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “It’s 100 percent collaborative… We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”  If this is a collaborative project about how students are going to learn in the future, I wonder about the very important people whose voices seem to be missing from the collaboration: teachers.  If this effort were really collaborative, wouldn’t you think the edu-philanthropists might have folded in some contributions from experts at Teachers College or Bank Street or the state teachers’ colleges? What about engaging the wisdom of advisory panels from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers? Teachers might bring a focus to the kind of classroom leadership, student mentoring, and classroom management that is going to be needed for this “remaking” of education.

And finally there is the really personal part of learning.  While the tech edupreneurs might dream about each child’s “personal” exploration through the computer, lots of us worry about protecting the personal relationships between children and their classroom peers and their real live teachers—in small enough classes where those relationships can flourish. We must insist that, just as patients in hospital beds need doctors and nurses (assisted by technology of course) to care for them, children be provided well-trained, experienced teachers to build classroom communities and nurture learning.

In a recent book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator Steve Nelson shares his concerns about so-called “blended” and “personalized” learning: “My objections to technology are mostly directed to the misuse with young children and to the alarming tendency to substitute technology for real human interactions… The world’s greatest problem is not a shortage of people who can write computer code… Our challenge is to develop humans who have the fluid intellect, creativity, imagination, aesthetic sensibilities and ethical convictions to save the world from the sorry mess we have created. That’s the purpose of education… Relationships are central to learning, both as a contributor to the release of dopamine, but also as a critical social context for language development as articulated by Vygotsky, Bruner, et al.”

Nelson continues: “The colorful images that often accompany education articles or on school websites show children sitting in small cubicles, smiling at their computers, with little human interaction at all…  The symbolic representation of life is not the same as life itself. Perhaps the greatest harm done by technology is an act of omission. Every hour of screen time, whether in school or at home, is an hour not spent in some much more important activity, especially those things that involve real human engagement…. (T)echnology is just the most recent manifestation of the industrial model of education.  Inherent in the technological model of education is economy of scale. It must be impersonal, and people and parts must be interchangeable. It must be replicable…  Most importantly, it must be profitable.” (First Do No Harm, p. 126-133)

Nonprofit Charters Turn Taxes into Profits for Board Members

Yesterday the Economic Policy Institute published a stunning new report that examines Rocketship Charter Schools and the financial backers tied to the success of the Rocketship chain of schools.  The report’s author is political economist Gordon Lafer, who examines Rocketship Charter Schools in the context of Wisconsin, where corporate lobbies such as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a member of the far-right State Policy Network, working together with the American Legislative Exchange Council, have supported recent legislative efforts to privatize public schools in Milwaukee.   While these advocates did not succeed in the recently concluded Wisconsin legislative session, Lafer warns, “Nevertheless, the more ambitious proposals will likely remain at the core of Wisconsin’s debates over education policy, and legislative leaders have made clear their desire to revisit them in next year’s session.”

Why should efforts to privatize schools in Wisconsin matter to you and me?  The corporate lobbies and investors working to privatize public schools are active in your state and mine just as they are in Wisconsin.  Vouchers, for example, began in Milwaukee over 20 years ago.

Lafer’s focus in the new report is the Rocketship chain of charter schools, launched originally in California by promoters who intend to expand into Wisconsin and other states.  The Rocketship charter chain uses “‘blended learning,” which substitutes computers for teachers for part of each day, thereby permitting far larger classes.  According to Lafer, “The profit margins of ‘blended learning’ schools—which split students’ days between in-person and online instruction—aren’t as high as those of entirely virtual schools, but they may be the next best thing. For this reason, investment banks, hedge funds, and venture capital firms have increasingly looked to ‘blended learning’ as a preferred model for urban school districts.”  Rocketship’s philosophy incorporates four principles: replacing teachers with computers for part of the day, relying on young and inexpensive teachers, narrowing the curriculum to math and reading, and focusing on preparing students for standardized tests.

This is a rather long, in-depth report about school privatization in Wisconsin, not only the influence of ALEC and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, but also the role of the business community including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.  Most fascinating to me, however, is Lafer’s documentation of the power behind the development of Rocketship’s “blended learning” model and the not-for-profit’s plans for rapid expansion.  “While Rocketship has realized significant financial growth over its short lifetime—from 2010 through 2013, the company’s assets increased by over 600 percent, from $2.2 million to $15.8 million—the schools’ academic achievements, even by their own measures, have not followed the same trajectory.”  Rocketship charters’ standardized test scores “show significant declines in academic performance,” which is perhaps why Rocketship continues to adjust its approach to “blended learning” while Rocketship has never suggested eliminating the on-line curriculum altogether.  According to Lafer, Rocketship’s promotion of large classes (a ratio of fifty students per teacher at one point), whose disadvantages are supposedly offset through on-line learning, enables the company to spend far more on administration than traditional public schools.  Rocketship has been investing a sizeable part of its administrative costs into future growth and expansion.

Another prime reason for Rocketship’s commitment to on-line learning is the charter network’s business partnership with its own for-profit providers of curricula.  “Rocketship Education is a nonprofit company.  However, its operational model blurs the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit businesses.  At the heart of what makes Rocketship different from other schools is online instruction—often conducted using licensed software applications supplied by for-profit vendors.”  Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and venture-capitalist John Doerr both sit on Rocketship’s Board, but they are at the same time primary investors in DreamBox Learning, a for-profit company that provides the math curriculum used by Rocketship.  “Thus, Hastings and Doerr help fund the nonprofit Rocketship chain, which contracts with a for-profit company they partially own…,”  although it is impossible to learn the size of Doerr and Hastings’ profits because DreamBox is privately held. That the DreamBox math curriculum has been rated by the U.S. Department of Education as producing “no discernible effects on mathematics achievement for elementary school students,” has not undermined Rocketship’s loyalty to DreamBox.

Rocketship also buys the services of Zeal software, a for-profit company founded by Rocketship’s (now retired) founder, John Danner.  Lafer concludes: “As with DreamBox, then, Rocketship’s relationship with Zeal features a nonprofit school serving as a testing ground and customer base for personally and financially connected for-profit companies.  Rocketship’s use of both DreamBox and Zeal software would likely be prohibited as illegal conflicts of interest if they took place in a public school system.  If a board member proposed that a school contract with a vendor with whom he or she had a personal financial relationship, this would be rejected out of hand.  But Rocketship is not bound to uphold the same standard of ethics demanded of public officials, and it does not.”

While public regulation is missing in the charter sector, it is important to remember, however, that the dollars filling the coffers of DreamBox and Zeal are from taxes.

Federal Register Notice Spells Out Arne Duncan’s Priorities

Have you, by chance, found yourself wondering if it can really be true that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is actively supporting school privatization through the expansion of charter schools?  Maybe it isn’t true, you thought.

To help you sort out the role that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is playing in privatization of public education, I’ll share the little blurb that caught my eye in the December 3, 2013 e-news blast on public education from Politico:

TODAY’S FEDERAL REGISTER: PRIORITIES FOR CHARTER SCHOOL GRANTS: The Education Department is pondering whether grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter school projects should be weighted based on whether they improve efficiency through economies of scale, improve accountability, recruit and serve students with disabilities and English-language learners more effectively and combine technology-based instruction with classroom teaching. There are other proposed definitions relating to graduation rate and student achievement. Weigh in during the next 30 days. http://1.usa.gov/IDkgmy

Yup.  Right there in the Federal Register it says the Department of Education is making grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter schools.  And then Politico provides a kind of laundry list of possible priorities for the granting: make charters more efficient? more accountable? more inclusive of English language learners and children with disabilities? more technology-based?  Much as the Federal Register is not my favorite periodical for casual reading, I followed the link to try to untangle how the Department of Education plans to spend our tax money and what are the issues on which we all have a chance to weigh in during the next 30 days.

The Department’s notice in the Federal Register makes it very clear that the Department of Education actively supports the expansion of charter schools.  Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants, says the notice, are designed “to increase national understanding of the charter school model by… providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools; evaluating the effects of charter schools… expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation; and encouraging the States to provide support to charter schools for facilities financing….”  Because the program being described in yesterday’s Federal Register notice is for CSP National Leadership Activities, the blurb describes this particular initiative: “The purpose of the CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities is to support efforts by eligible entities to improve the quality of charter schools by providing technical assistance and other types of support on issues of national significance and scope.”

Yesterday’s Federal Register notice is not a request for proposals, but is instead to announce proposed “priorities, requirements, and definitions” that will apply when the Department of Education actually launches the competition.  “The Department most recently conducted competitions for CSP(Charter School Program) Grants for National Leadership Activities in FYs 2006 and 2010.  In those competitions, we invited applications for projects designed to improve stakeholder capacity to support high-quality charter schools but did not require or give competitive preference to particular types of projects… To ensure that projects funded with CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities in future years address key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale, the Department proposes the priorities in this notice.”  They are:

Improving Efficiency through Economies of Scale: “Compared to charter schools, traditional public schools tend to have higher student enrollment, which may result in lower average costs per student…” says the notice.  Grant applicants are asked to join in consortia to design “projects of national significance and scope that promote shared systems for acquiring goods or services to achieve efficiencies….”

Improving Accountability: “While there are many high-performing charter schools across the nation, charter school performance varies significantly and too many persistently low-performing charter schools are not held accountable for their results.”  Grant seekers would be expected to create “projects of national significance and scope to improve authorized public chartering agencies’ capacity to conduct rigorous application reviews, monitor and oversee charter schools… close underperforming schools, replicate and expand high-performing schools, maintain a portfolio of high-quality charter schools, and evaluate and communicate the performance of that portfolio…”

Serving Students with Disabilities: “As public schools, it is essential that charter schools provide equitable access and appropriate educational services to all students, regardless of disability, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…”  Grant seekers would propose “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for students with disabilities…”

Serving English Learners: “From 2001 to 2010 the number of students identified as English Learners increased significantly, growing from approximately 3,700,000 to 4,660,275 nationwide…” “This proposed priority is for projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for English Learners….”

Personalized Technology-Enabled Learning: “Learning models that blend traditional, classroom-based teaching and learning with virtual, online, or digital delivery of personalized instructional content offer the potential to transform public education….”  Grant applicants would be proposing “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to improve achievement and attainment outcomes for high-need students through the development and implementation in charter schools  of technology-enabled instructional models….”

As I read all this, of course, my first thought is about what I am not being asked to comment on.  Is investing tax money in charter schools that are privately operated a good idea?  Is the Department’s assumption correct that such schools are more innovative than traditional public schools?  Despite this program’s goal of creating “projects of national significance and scope,” haven’t the larger “national” Charter Management Organizations been unable to demonstrate that they are on the whole better than traditional public schools?

And what might be my response to the five priorities, beginning with the first priority: creating economies of scale? One question comes to mind: instead of creating huge consortia of privatized charter schools, wouldn’t we be better able to realize such economies by returning our focus to improving traditional public schools in which economies of scale are a natural part of the system?  Why create a whole other infrastructure when we have a relatively workable system already?

My experience here in Cleveland makes me wonder about the political feasibility of the second priority—granting money to encourage states and non-profits to regulate charters.  Charters are usually created and operated in state law, and despite that our Cleveland mayor created  just the sort of regulatory capacity the Department is proposing in this priority—a Transformation Alliance to oversee charters and to close those that are failing our children or stealing the state’s money—when it came time for the Ohio legislature to embed the Cleveland mayor’s regulatory plan into law, legislators in the pocket of William Lager (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and David Brennan (White Hat Management Company) ensured that the the statute they passed lacked the teeth that would have enabled the Transformation Alliance to close the bad schools.

The third and fourth priorities are deeply troubling because they suggest that the Department of Education has somehow drifted from its important role as a protector of children’s civil rights.  The federal role in education has historically been to expand opportunity and access to education for children in groups who have been under-served.  Title I has provided federal dollars for schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty.  IDEA guarantees and funds services for children with disabilities.  Other regulations and funding streams support the education of immigrant and migrant children and children learning English.  That the Department of Education is proposing to make grants to develop programs to encourage charters to begin serving these children seems bizarre, when the same Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights whose function is to enforce that all publicly funded schools will provide appropriate services for these children as their right.  Why is the Department offering grant money to encourage provision of the services that the same Department is legally responsible for ensuring that these schools have already been providing?

This is not a new issue.  In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Recovery School District in New Orleans, because the mass charterization of the schools after Hurricane Katrina left students with disabilities poorly served.  According to SPLC:  “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education…  Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.”

The fifth priority seeks to promote controversial on-line learning.  We know that the virtual, e-charters—K-12 being the largest and most notorious—have the worst academic record of  any kind of school and that they are known to suck millions of dollars out of state public school budgets.  And the idea of blended learning—larger classes, fewer teachers, and more computers—is being questioned as a pedagogical theory, while it is known to cut costs for personnel.

What we can confirm by reading yesterday’s Federal Register is that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is squarely behind charters.  It is also fully engaged in the practice of competitive grant funding.  I3 money—money for the Office of Innovation and Improvement—is proposed in the President’s 2014 budget at $150 million.  I would personally prefer to see this money put into the long-underfunded, Title I Formula program to improve the public schools in the poorest communities where families struggle and state school funding lags across virtually all the states.  These are the communities now subject to punitive sanctions like school closures.