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)

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Did Mark Zuckerberg Just Get Taken In Again on Education Reform?

You may remember that Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial foray into education was in Newark, NJ, where he allowed then-mayor Cory Booker and governor Chris Christie to convince him to donate $100 million to fund their scheme to charterize Newark’s public schools.  Now Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, have launched the huge Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and they have hired Jim Shelton to run it.  Shelton headed up the Office of Innovation and Improvement at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education, where he rose through the ranks to become Assistant Deputy Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer.

Shelton was really good with the rhetoric. In 2012 he told Michele McNeil of Education Week: “(T)hough the federal government provides only a small fraction of education funding, we are one of the largest single sources. We send incredible signals to the marketplace about what should happen with innovation.  That’s not been something either policymakers or regulators have thought a lot about… (I)nnovation happens in the context of an ecosystem.  R&D leads to entrepreneurship and investment, which leads to adoption and use… (W)hen we create things like the Investing in Innovation competitive grant program (i3), we are defining an evidence threshold that was not a part of most federal education programs before… As i3 continues and as we get more comfortable putting tiered evidence levels in other areas of the department, we will work on that.”

Shelton has now taken a job heading up the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, described by Benjamin Herold for Education Week: “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was formed last fall, when the couple announced their intent to give 99 percent of their Facebook stock, valued at an estimated $45 billion, to a variety of causes, headlined by technology-enabled personalized learning in K-12 education.  Created as a limited liability corporation, the organization is free to make philanthropic donations, invest in for-profit companies, and engage in political lobbying and policy advocacy.” Mark Zuckerberg built his fortune from Facebook.

In many ways, Shelton’s resume and training are a perfect match for his new job running the Chan Zuckerberg philanthropic limited liability corporation. Shelton came to the U.S. Department of Education via a series of jobs in the business and philanthropic sectors.  Writing for Schools Matter, Susan Ohanian explains that after graduate school, he worked as a program analyst at Exxon, then moved to McKinsey, Edison Schools, the NewSchools Venture Fund, then the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After he left the federal government last year, he took a job as Chief Impact Officer at 2U, a company that helps colleges and universities develop online degree programs.  He earned a B.A. in computer science and then a joint business-education MBA/MA from Stanford.  Ohanian quotes the Stanford Educator‘s description of this program: “training people to apply business know-how to the field of education. Numerous high-profile alumni like Shelton now fill the leadership rosters of charter school organizations, venture funds, other education-related nonprofit and forprofit enterprises…”

Describing Shelton’s new appointment for Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan argues that Shelton will be leading Chan and Zuckerberg’s philanthropic corporation to signal a primary shift in the direction of school reform.  Callahan reminds us of Zuckerberg’s earlier failed initiative—investing $100 million behind the Booker-Christie effort to expand charters in Newark: “You can see why Zuckerberg might have been originally attracted to a reform model hinging on large-scale disruption.  Many of the people in the tech world have made their fortunes by destroying yesterday’s industries and creating new products that sweep quickly to market dominance. Business funders have flocked to a charter movement promising the same thing: The creation of a better product that would over time, put traditional public schools out of business.  They’ve also backed attacks on teachers unions, hoping to knock off defenders of the status quo much as Uber is now working to bust the cartel power of taxi drivers worldwide.  But Newark showed the limits of these strategies, as have failures in other cities, such as Milwaukee.  And Zuckerberg and Chan’s takeaway, apparently, was that wielding dynamite is not the proper way to achieve change in systems where, in fact, everyone mostly shares the same goal: helping children succeed… The most notable thing about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is that the focus is mainly on how students learn, as opposed to the institutional context in which they learn.”

We’ll see how all this goes.  It is important, however, to consider what is largely missing from the coverage about the new philanthropic corporation Shelton will be managing.  Zuckerberg’s definition of “personalized learning” is about the use of computers and represents what he has apparently learned from his very successful business—Facebook. “Personalized learning” here has nothing to do with the trust and understanding built in the relationship of a real child and a human teacher. There is no talk about what teachers study about learning theory or education research in academic college and university programs. There is no talk, so far at least, about the experiences of real teachers and what they think they need to help children. There is no attention at all to the scale and coverage required in public education understood as a systemic enterprise intended to meet the needs and protect the rights of an enormous and very diverse population of children and adolescents—50 million of them. It is really all about experimenting with new innovations and trying to replicate them.

Natasha Singer, covering Shelton’s new appointment for the NY Times, quotes Shelton: “When you think about philanthropy, the question is, ‘How can you be catalytic?’ It’s a huge opportunity for transformational work.”  Shelton may be better at being catalytic and transformational than demonstrating careful follow-through, however.  Though evidence-based reform was his claim at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton’s management of the Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement has been criticized for lack of oversight. In June, 2015, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of national education organizations, asked Secretary Duncan to establish a moratorium on federal support for new charter schools until the Department improved its own oversight of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is responsible for the federal Charter School Program.  The Alliance cited a formal 2012 audit in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement was ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight of the funds it disbursed.  An October, 2015 report from the Center for Media and Democracy, Charter School Black Hole, also exposed the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement’s total abrogation of responsibility for oversight of an education sector to which it has granted $3.7 billion since 1995.

Based on Shelton’s record managing the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and his reliance on business rhetoric, one wonders where Shelton will take Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s new philanthropic corporation and its effort to redefine the future of American education.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Back in 2009, I happened to be at a meeting at the U.S. Department of Education, where Arne Duncan’s newly appointed staff were outlining the direction the Obama administration would pursue in education.  Jim Shelton caught my attention that day.  Shelton spoke what sounded to me like a foreign language, and he proposed to take the department someplace it had never been.  He was the Department’s new head of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, and he led the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) as well as Promise Neighborhoods, the program that said it would replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone.  He led work on evaluating teachers and building school choice and learning technology.  And he rose during his tenure, that ended with his retirement at the end of 2014, to become deputy secretary, second in command to Arne Duncan.

I started thinking about Jim Shelton last week because I saw a new piece written by Shelton himself and published by EdSurge, a letter in which Shelton announces his plans for the next phase of his career: “I will be joining the leadership team at 2U, Inc. as its first Chief Impact Officer.  For those not in the ed tech space, 2U is a rapidly growing provider of technology and technology-enabled services that enables leading nonprofit colleges and universities to deliver their high-quality degree programs online.  Some of its partner programs include UNC’s MBA, USC’s master’s of social work, and Georgetown’s master’s of nursing programs.”  Training social workers and nurses online?  Shelton continues: “At the outset, some would have claimed 2U’s business model unlikely to succeed at all let alone produce one of the few ‘unicorns’ in the education arena.  However… the better leaders recognize that moving into this space requires not only significant technological capability but also agility, ongoing resources and experienced change management capacity… 2U is building the culture and core capabilities of a next generation learning company with emphasis on results, data, transparency, student and faculty experience and value to student and employer.  The underlying systems and processes are robust and have the potential to provide a sustained advantage.”

Shelton is one of the people who brought the language and ideas of business and technocracy to Arne Duncan’s Department of Education along with the methodology of philanthropy as a replacement for the style and substance of government.

According to a Department of Education biography, Shelton majored in computer science at Morehouse and subsequently earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened charter schools and based it all on test score data.  He became a partner for the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.  To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer directly into government. At the time, in a blog called Schools Matter, Kenneth Libby worried about that: “Considering the Gates Foundation does not have a profit motive and is fantastically wealthy, it is unlikely a former Gates Foundation employee would use their new position to funnel money to their former employer.  They could, however, show favoritism towards projects supported (either currently or in the future) by the Gates Foundation, a kind of meld that does not necessarily serve the best interest of the public. This is particularly relevant because the Office of Innovation and Improvement directs competitive grants instead of simply formula-driven funding streams.”

And education policy copying the foundation model is exactly what Duncan’s Department of Education began creating—with guidance not only from Jim Shelton but also from Margot Rogers, Duncan’s chief of staff, who also received a waiver to come directly from the Gates Foundation.  Joanne Weiss who later replaced Rogers came directly from the NewSchools Venture Fund.  The style and substance of the policies that came with these new “thought leaders” at the Department of Education became the huge grant competitions—Race to the Top and i3, competitions for money that had once been part of the Title I formula that awarded funds to school districts according to the number of children in poverty and additionally their concentration in particular districts due to segregation by race and class.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch describes the symbiosis that developed between Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Now that the ideas promoted by the venture philanthropies were securely lodged at the highest levels of the Obama administration, policymakers and journalists listened carefully to Bill Gates.  In a 2009 interview with Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, Gates signaled a new direction for his foundation.  Hiatt wrote, ‘You might call it the Obama-Duncan-Gates-Rhee philosophy of education reform.’  It was also the Bloomberg-Klein-Broad philosophy of education reform.  Gates said that his foundation intended to help successful charter organizations such as KIPP replicate as quickly as possible and to invest in improving teacher effectiveness.  Gates asserted that there was no connection between teacher quality and such things as experience, certification, advanced degrees, or even deep knowledge of one’s subject matter  (at least below tenth grade).” (p 219)

Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education under Jim Shelton also came to promote the methodology of philanthropy by which the government would grant funds competitively to states, school districts and nonprofit organizations to help them address educational problems.  In 2009, in a piece called The Innovation Administration, Dana Goldstein explained that Obama’s federal stimulus package designed to address the economic collapse in 2008 was a model of social innovation: “At its core, social innovation refers to the belief that for-profit institutions should be the model for nonprofit ones, and that nonprofits, in turn, can be more effective protectors of social welfare than government.”  Goldstein had reservations at the time: “But it’s entirely possible that social innovation is little more than a federal foray into a B-school fad that may be, during an economic crisis, insufficient to addressing the scale of the social problems facing the American public.”

The programs that made up the federal stimulus package were competitive: Race to the Top created losing states as well as winning states by redirecting funds that had been previously distributed across all fifty state school systems to the select states that provided the best applications.  The i3 program was a competition for nonprofit organizations that promised to partner with schools to promote what were thought to be promising innovations; as a competition, it also created losers as well as winners.  And from the very beginning, these programs involved the foundations.

Joanne Barkan describes what happened with the launch of Race to the Top: “The ‘stimulus package’ included $4.3 billion for education, but for the first time, states didn’t simply receive grants; they had to compete for RTTT money with a comprehensive, statewide proposal for education reform.  It is no exaggeration to say that the criteria for selecting the winners came straight from the foundation’s playbook…. To start, any state that didn’t allow student test scores to determine (at least in part) teacher and principal evaluations was not eligible to compete.  After clarifying this, the 103-page application form laid out a list of detailed criteria and then additional priorities for each criterion… But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K-12 education and then writing an application, which the DOE requested (but did not require) be limited to 350 pages.  What state has resources to gamble on such a venture?  Enter the Gates Foundation.  It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application.  Gates even prepared a list of recommended consulting firms.  Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was giving some states an unfair advantage; it was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program.  After some weeks of reflection, Gates offered the application money to any state that met the foundation’s eight criteria… Who says the foundations (and Gates, in particular) don’t set government policy?”

Jim Shelton’s i3 innovation grant competition modeled the kind of program that patched together government and philanthropic dollars to support not-for-profit organizations working with schools to implement particular reforms.  In her 2013 book, Follow the Money, Sarah Reckhow explains how the i3 application process worked: “The i3 program required a 20 percent private grant match for any federal funds awarded.  To facilitate matching, the Department of Education coordinated directly with philanthropies for funding the i3 program.  Initially, 12 foundations—including Gates, Carnegie, Ford, Wallace, and Walton—committed $500 million to ‘aligned investments’ with the i3 program.  These foundations created an online Foundation Registry for the i3 program, which grew to 40 participating foundations.  All of the applicants selected by the Department of Education for i3 grants were able to secure private matching funds.” (p. 152)

Then in 2011, after the original i3 grants had been awarded,  Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton were the featured speakers at an event held by the Aspen Institute for the losers in the original i3 competition. Alyson Klein in Education Week described the i3 program and the way the Department of Education was scurrying to help the losers: “The competition, intended to help districts and nonprofit groups scale up promising practices, attracted 1,698 applications.  Just 49 winners were awarded grants…. That left a lot of prominent runners-up, including some well-known education nonprofit organizations, such as NewLeaders for New Schools, a New York City-based group that trains principals….”  So Aspen convened the losers at a conference with potential funders.  “For its part, the U.S. Department of Education isn’t playing a direct matchmaking role between the almost-winners and philanthropies, said Suzanne Immerman, the department’s director of philanthropic engagement.  But it has encouraged philanthropies and other funders to take a second look at all of the proposals that didn’t ultimately receive federal dollars through i3. It has posted applications for the i3 program online, as well as those for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative…. The department also worked with philanthropies to create an online i3 registry, which is meant to connect funders and applicants… Aspen invited 212 nonprofits, school districts and other i3 applicants who nearly made the cut….”

And what about the rush to try what’s new without any evidence that what we are trying will work?  A persistent and unanswered charge about the whole “education reform” movement is that it has been experimental.  Despite all the talk about the need for a research base, most of the reforms imposed by the Bush Department of Education under Margaret Spellings and deepened and enhanced by Duncan’s Department of Education lack a substantial basis in research.  In a piece published in 2009 by Brookings, Innovation, Motherhood, and Apple Pie, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst worried that the emphasis on innovation at the expense of tested ideas in programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and i3 would undermine education: “Effective innovations enhance a desired outcome, whereas ineffective innovations do not… Most education innovations exist around the midpoint of the effective-ineffective dimension due to lack of evidence, i.e., they have not been evaluated or have not been evaluated with an approach that provides credible evidence.  They may work.  They may not.  We do not know.  Unless effectiveness is thought of as a central dimension of innovation, the current innovation zeitgeist will subject the nation to yet another era of fad and fancy in education rather than continuous improvement.”

Jim Shelton’s journey at the the U.S. Department of Education is over, but after a trip, it is a good thing to think about the experience.  And it is important to remember how to get home.   A well-funded system of public schools remains the best institution to meet the many complicated and diverse needs of the mass of our children and to protect their rights through accountable public institutions. The federal government’s role in this system has historically been to intervene with money and oversight when states have not met their obligation to serve all children. We haven’t heard much about any of that on our recent trip.

Venture Capital in Education—Education Technology and On-Line Charters Viewed as Investments

Late last week The Nation posted on-line a series of articles that will appear in the October 13, print edition of the magazine—a special issue on education.  These are in-depth pieces on issues such as the crisis in Philadelphia’s public schools, the role of teachers unions, lack of regulation in charter schools, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters, and two articles this blog will explore today on the push by so-called “education reformers” to promote the use of technology and on-line education—including Lee Fang’s blockbuster investigation, Venture Capitalists are Poised to “Disrupt” Everything About the Education Market.  Many of the pieces were originally behind a paywall, but The Nation has now made them accessible to all readers.  As the week continues, this blog will explore some of the other articles in The Nation‘s special issue on education.

“As the articles in this issue illustrate,” write the magazine’s editors as they introduce the special issue, “the strategies pursued by education reformers frequently dovetail with those of austerity hawks.  The latter burnish their conservative credentials by cutting budgets and defunding schools.  The reformers sweep in to capitalize on the situation, introducing charter chains like Rocketship and K12, which produce no real benefits for children.  The chains do, however, generate cash for investors, as a new trove of public money is directed to private coffers.”

Pointing out that in the last quarter century, the marketplace has “carefully crafted business strategies (that) have transformed markets to create huge profits in unlikely sectors”—most notably healthcare—Fang writes, “Next year, the market size of K-12 education is projected to be $788.7 billion.  And currently, much of that money is spent in the public sector. ‘It’s really the last honeypot for Wall Street,’ says Donald Cohen, the executive director of In the Public Interest, a think tank that tracks the privatization of roads, prisons, schools and other parts of the economy.”  Fang quotes a venture capital investor who believes that “despite the opposition of ‘unions, public school bureaucracies, and parents,’ the ‘education market is ripe for disruption.'”

Noting that key staffers came to the U.S.  Department of Education straight from the  “education investment community,” Fang traces the role of the Obama Administration as promoter of the invasion by the private sector into public education.  One enormous market opportunity is emerging, for example, to provide services connected with the Common Core standards, whose expansion across the states will involve the tests themselves developed by two consortia and marketed by publishing companies, aligned textbooks and computer programs, the necessary computers or tablets by which students are to be tested on-line, and the grading and analysis of the tests. (This blog recently covered the ongoing Los Angeles iPad fiasco.)

Fang reminds readers that Ted Mitchell, recently confirmed as Under Secretary of Education, came to the Department of Education from a position as chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund.  Jim Shelton, Deputy Secretary, came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and before that NewSchools Venture Fund.  Shelton is also “a longtime education investor and the former co-founder of LearnNew, a charter chain that was sold to Edison Learning, a for-profit charter management company.”  Shelton is quoted by Fang as explaining “that the Common Core standards will allow education companies to produce products that ‘can scale across many markets,’ overcoming the ‘fragmented procurement market’ that has plagued investors seeking to enter the K-12 sector.  Moreover, Shelton and his team manage an education innovation budget, awarding grants to charter schools and research centers to advance the next breakthrough in education technology.”  Shelton has predicted that education innovation will spark the next “equivalent of Google or Microsoft to lead the global learning technology market.”  Says Shelton, “I want it to be a U.S. company.”

Fang also traces a changing culture across the states including Democrats and Republicans alike in big city mayors’ offices and state legislatures, a culture that is comfortable “to divert taxpayer funding to charter schools, which are often run as for-profit companies and are more willing to embrace tech-centric classroom solutions….” Fang’s case study is K12, an on-line-virtual charter school,  “a for-profit charter behemoth that enrolls 123,259 students” and that is a darling of Wall Street, despite its notorious reputation.  K12, through its on-line affiliates across the states, enrolls children to study at home on their computers.  Despite that achievement is low and dropout rates are high, state legislators are driving money to such schools at virtually the same rate as to public schools where there is a significantly greater need for staff, transportation, and buildings in addition to other services.

Fang reports that only 27.7 percent of K-12’s on-line schools met the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress standard, compared to a 52 percent average at brick and mortar public schools.  In Colorado, Fang reports that one study showed half of the online students at K12 left within a year. Tennessee actually closed K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, and recently K12’s largest on-line affiliate, Agora Cyber Charter in Pennsylvania is considering severing ties to K12 due to K12’s manipulation of data to hide the school’s dropout rate.  On Wall Street, however, K12 is promoted as a “solid investment opportunity.”  Baird Equity Research has actively pushed K12 stock because of its potential for growth, based on “K12’s success in working with state policymakers and school districts to enable the expansion of virtual schools into new states or districts.”  Investors are encouraged to learn about the amount K12 spends on advertising and lobbying. “The company has years of experience in successfully lobbying to get legislation passed to allow virtual school to operate,” says Baird in a note to its investors.

While Fang traces the waste of public funds and failure to educate children in for-profit, on-line schools, in  What Happens When Your Teacher Is a Video Game? Gordon Lafer explores the operation of Rocketship Education, a company that has been expanding from California to Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.  “Corporate lobbyists are increasingly promoting a type of charter school that places an emphasis on technology instead of human teaching… Rocketship’s model is based on four principles.  First, the company cuts costs by eliminating teachers.  Starting in kindergarten, students spend about one-quarter of their class time in teacherless computer labs, using video-game-based math and reading applications.  The company has voiced hopes of increasing digital instruction to as much as 50 percent of student learning time.  Second, Rocketship relies on a corps of young, inexperienced, low-cost teachers… Third the school has narrowed its curriculum to a near exclusive focus on math and reading.  Finally, Rocketship maintains a relentless focus on teaching to the test.”  Rocketship investors include Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and venture capitalist John Doerr.  Hastings has become well-known as a national spokesman for the elimination of locally elected boards of education, and Lafer explains the reason: “As Hastings explains, ‘School districts [are hard] to sell to because [they] are really reacting to voter forces more than to market forces.'” “By contrast, public-school curricula are set by officials who are accountable to a locally elected board prohibited from any financial relationship with vendors.”

Lafer emphasizes that experimentation with technology-driven schooling is currently an inner-city phenomenon:  “Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, a new type of segregation is spreading across the urban landscape.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity and their legislative allies are promoting an ambitious, two-pronged agenda for poor cities: replace public schools with privately run charter schools and replace teachers with technology… The destruction of public schooling starts in poor cities because this is where parents are politically powerless to resist a degraded education model. But after the industry has taken over city school systems, it will move into the suburbs.  Profitable charter ventures will look to grow indefinitely, until there are no more public schools to conquer.”  “As Rocketship co-founder John Danner explains, critics shouldn’t worry about charter schools skimming the best students, because eventually ‘we’re going to educate all of the students, so there’s nothing left to skim.'”