Personalized Learning May Appear to Solve Pandemic Education Challenges but New Research Raises Big Concerns

Here we are at the beginning of July, and the COVID-19 numbers are soaring across many states. The recessionary collapse of state budgets makes public school funding look shaky, and nobody can quite say how to make school safe. With the 2020-21 school year expected to start in six weeks, school leaders face overwhelming uncertainty. It is easy to imagine that a well-known, free, online learning platform and curriculum, funded entirely by tech philanthropists, might be extremely tempting.

But there are reasons for caution. Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a guest column from researchers at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a guest column describing the Summit Learning Platform, and warning about some of the reasons for school district leaders to be cautious. These researchers, Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, have documented serious concerns about protecting the privacy of student data collected by Summit Learning and its sponsors. To underscore the seriousness of their concerns, they describe the powerful people behind Summit Learning:

“Summit Public Schools, founded in 2003, currently operates 11 schools enrolling approximately 4,675 students in California and Washington State. In 2013-2014, there was no Summit Learning Program or ‘partner’ schools. Things changed quickly after a 2014-2015 agreement between Summit and Facebook established the goals of enhancing Summit’s self-created software platform and collaborating on a marketing strategy for its nationwide adoption. Since then, Summit Public Schools has received extensive technical support from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and almost $200 million in funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Iniative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.”

Molnar and Boninger review Summit’s marketing claims: “Summit Public Schools claims that its educational program does an exceptional job of preparing students for college and that its graduates succeed in college. Its specific claims are that its students are ‘100 percent Eligible for 4-Year College,’ that ’98 percent [of its students are] accepted to four-year college,’ and that its students graduate from college at ‘2X the national average.’… Schools that agree to become ‘partner’ schools agree to adopt Summit’s free, off-the-shelf program, use its digital platform, and participate in the required staff trainings and Summit-organized support activities… This marketing pitch has met with considerable success. By the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 400 schools nationwide, with nearly 3,800 educators and more than 72,000 students were using the Summit Learning Program.”

Molnar and Boninger’s report on their five years of research focuses on what ought to be serious data privacy concerns for school districts that might choose to fall back on this free digital education platform in these difficult times.  But the new research on the difficulty of protecting students’ data is not the first serious critique of Summit Learning.


A year ago, as part of an in-depth evaluation of the Providence, Rhode Island public schools, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy condemned the use of Summit Learning in that city’s public schools for academic reasons. In extensive classroom visits, researchers observed that students were neither engaged by their online lessons nor learning very much:  “(W)e witnessed significant problems in the use of the Summit Learning Platform. In one school, Summit was the major mode of mathematics instruction; in other classrooms, it seemed to be used for supplemental (e.g., remedial or practice) instruction. When we observed students using Summit, they were not engaged with the software in optimal ways. Instead of watching videos or reading tutorial texts, students went straight to the exam and attempted to answer the questions. When they answered incorrectly, corrective text popped up, which students did read; they then tried again with the next question. Even if students progressed according to plan, their learning would be limited to how to answer problems in the format presented by the Summit exam. In one school, we did not observe a single Summit math teacher engage in whole-class or even small-group math instruction. Instead, teachers either completed work at their desks, and/or answered questions when students raised their hand. Finally, the lack of teacher surveillance of student progress in some Summit classrooms meant that students worked very slowly through the material.”

It is, therefore not surprising that the Johns Hopkins researchers discovered students hated the program: “Students almost universally disliked the Summit program. They told the team that they are burned-out through the overuse of screen time, and bored. Some claimed that students actively left school as a result of the platform. There were classes we visited in which teachers appropriately integrated a blended learning model, but in most cases, students were just staring at the screens, totally disengaged.”

In 2018, students at New York’s Brooklyn Secondary School of Journalism walked out of school in protest and formally wrote to Mark Zuckerberg to critique the program: “Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers. Not all students would receive computers, the assignments are boring, and it’s too easy to pass and even cheat on the assessments. Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate. Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.”  In their letter, the Brooklyn students also demanded information about the massive amount of student data being collected by Summit Learning.

A New York advocacy organization, the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, has investigated and protested Summit Learning’s collection of student data: “Summit claims the right to collect an extraordinary amount of personal student information. Among the data collected by Summit… include: student and parent names and e-mail addresses; student ID numbers, attendance, suspension and expulsion records; their disabilities, gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status; their date of birth, teacher observations, their communications with teachers; their grade promotion or retention, test scores, college admissions, survey responses, homework assignments, and extracurricular activities they participate in. Summit plans to track students even after they graduate from high schools, including their college attendance and eventual careers. Summit shares this data with as many as 20 corporate ‘partners’ including CZI (the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) and Google….”

NEPC’s New Report by Faith Boninger,  Alex Molnar, and Christopher M. Saldana

In their new report reflecting five years of research, Boninger, Molnar, and Saldana emphasize Summit Learning’s serious failure to protect student privacy: “Our review of summit partner school contracts suggests that student data collected by the Summit Learning Platform… presents a potentially significant risk to student privacy and opens the door to the exploitation of these data by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and possibly by unknown third parties—for purposes that have noting to do with improving the quality of those students’ educations.”

Summarizing the report in their guest column published by Valerie Strauss, Boninger and Molnar remind readers: “Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have taught the world that data are fungible and can mean big money. And, also that data can be very dangerous when controlled by an opaque organization immune to public oversight. Regardless of who is named the owner of student data in partner school contracts, as Summit Learning’s technology partner, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has full access to the de-identified data and certainly has access to the technical expertise to re-identify it. Though it is often thought of as a charity, it is important to note that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is nether a charity nor a philanthropic organization. It is a limited liability corporation. A business.  As a result, although it may make charitable contributions, it may also make political contributions, engage in political lobbying, and invest in for-profit companies. Among the things the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative can gain from its collaboration with Summit Learning is access to significant amounts of student data that it can convert into a considerable amount of money.”

In their report, NEPC researchers recommend that state departments of education upgrade their oversight of personalized learning platforms “to require that the digital personalized learning programs be externally reviewed and approved by independent third-party education experts…; require that the assumptions and programming of all algorithms associated with personalized learning materials be audited for bias and other possible risks to students before the algorithms are implemented; and develop a standard data-security agreement that protects the privacy and limits the use of all data, including de-identified data, collected by schools through personalized learning materials….”  (emphasis in the original)

The researchers report that Summit Learning did not comply with their requests for data and detailed information. Data shared was anecdotal. Summit Learning persisted in undocumented claims that its learning platform is: “a ‘science-based’ personalized learning mode of teaching and learning that results in all of its students being academically prepared for college… None of the claims made by Summit Public Schools have been confirmed by independent evaluators.”

Boninger, Molnar, and Saldana conclude:  “The rapid spread of the Summit Learning Program—despite a lack of transparency and the absence of convincing evidence that it can deliver on its promises—provides a powerful example of how policymakers are challenged when faced with a well-financed and self-interested push for schools to adopt digital personalized learning programs.  There is now an urgent need for policymakers to move quickly to protect the public interest by establishing oversight….”


New Yorker Profile Warns: When It Comes to Mark Zuckerberg, Be Careful!

Evan Osnos’s extraordinary profile of Mark Zuckerberg, published in the September 17, New Yorker, wouldn’t seem a fitting topic for coverage in this blog about public education. Osnos hardly touches on Mark Zuckerberg’s ventures thus far into education philanthropy—the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which has made education-based philanthropy one of its primary foci, or the $100,000,000 gift to help Chris Christie and Cory Booker charterize the public schools in Newark, New Jersey, a controversial and poorly conceived initiative that did not improve the education of children in Newark.

Osnos’s profile explores the question of who has the power,”to pull the lever of what we see, hear, and experience.” Osnos is, of course, examining the role of Facebook and whether and how it functions as an arbiter of free speech. The central subject of the profile, however, is Mark Zuckerberg himself and how he thinks and operates.  Continuing to explore the issue of free speech, Osnos explains: “Zuckerberg is hoping to erect a scalable system, an orderly decision tree that accounts for every eventuality and exception, but the boundaries of speech are a bedevilling problem that defies mechanistic fixes.”

Last spring when Zuckerberg testified before Congress, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank described Zuckerberg as “the boy billionaire,” a caricature that precisely captures the Mark Zuckerberg Osnos depicts: a naif who knows coding and tech systems but who cannot comprehend his own and his company’s power.  Unfortunately, Zuckerberg also seems unable to grasp what he doesn’t know.

How the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative will affect public education remains unclear. Writing for Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum explains: “In late 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan promised to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to their philanthropy, which would focus part of its work on improving American education… But the organization remains one of the least transparent funders in education.  Unlike a number of other philanthropies, CZI does not publicly list its grants, instead announcing only certain awards on Facebook or in press releases…  As a limited liability company, CZI is not required to list donations on its tax forms, unlike private foundations… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s recent giving vaults CZI into the top echelon of education funders, though it remains behind the Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation for now.  Whereas CZI averaged a bit over $100 million in grants each of the last three years, Walton spent $191 million on U.S. education programs in 2016 and Gates spent about $367 million. That kind of funding is dwarfed by the public dollars spent on education. But philanthropic money can have an outsized influence on policy: think the rapid spread of teacher evaluation changes, the Common Core standards, and charter schools, all catalyzed by funding from major philanthropies in the last decade.”

Barnum summarizes a broad range of CZI’s grants that have been announced since 2016, including grants to promote what appears Mark Zuckerberg’s primary interest: personalized learning, defined in Zuckerberg’s thinking as the development of programs to help students learn independently via computer “CZI has funded personalized learning efforts directly in a variety of places: statewide in Rhode Island ($1.5 million), in more than 100 Chicago-area schools ($14 million), and in a small district in California, Lindsay Unified ($775,000).  It has supported personalized learning-focused work by leadership groups: Chiefs for Change ($3 million) and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers (nearly $400,000).  CZI has backed efforts to infuse the concept into teacher training, including through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching and Learning Academy ($3 million), the New Teacher Center ($1.7 million), and the Harvard Graduate School of Education ($1.1 million).”

Just as “personalized learning” for Mark Zuckerberg is defined as designing programs and apps that shape the way children can learn on their own in front of a screen, “community” also has a specialized definition in the world of Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Osnos explains what Zuckerberg means when he talks about building the Facebook community: “Over time, Facebook devoted ever-greater focus to what is known in Silicon Valley as ‘growth hacking,’ the constant pursuit of scale.  Whenever the company talked about ‘connecting people’ that was, in effect, code for user growth.”

Not only does Zuckerberg conflate company growth (and profit) with the kind of human relationships that most of us think of when we define “community,” he is also comfortable with encouraging his company to manipulate human psychology to grow his “community”: “Facebook engineers became a new breed of behaviorists, tweaking levers of vanity and passion and susceptibility.  The real world effects were striking… These powers of social engineering could be put to dubious purposes.” When the company’s design ethicist shared “his concern that social media was contributing to alienation… Zuckerberg and his executives adopted a core belief: even if people criticized your decisions, they would eventually come around.”

There is also Zuckerberg’s ethical naiveté—the assumption that people in “community” will pursue good and honorable ends and use his online system for the right reasons.  Osnos describes Zuckerberg dismissing the possibility that someone would use Facebook to try to manipulate the 2016 election: “(H)e still bristles at the implication that Facebook may have distorted voter behavior. ‘I find the notion that people would only vote some way because they were tricked to be almost viscerally offensive… Because it goes against the whole notion that you should trust people and that individuals are smart and can understand their own experience and can make their own assessments about what direction they want their community to go in.'”

Finally, Zuckerberg embraces the idea of disruptive innovation at all costs: “Facebook had adopted a buccaneering motto: ‘Move fast and break things,’ which celebrated the idea that it was better to be flawed and first than careful and perfect… In Zuckerberg’s view, skeptics were often just fogies and scolds. ‘There’s always someone who wants to slow you down,’ he said… ‘In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing.  The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.’ ”

Evan Osnos’s profile of Mark Zuckerberg hoists one red flag after another to warn anyone who might embrace Zuckerberg (and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) as arbiters of public education policy. For very good reasons, public schools have been the domain of the kind of people Zuckerberg calls “fogies and scolds.”  In so many ways public education as an American institution represents the very definition of a set of principles that starkly contrast with the values Mark Zukerberg and Facebook represent.  The evolution of our society’s public schools over time has demanded the creation of programs to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the obligation to serve all children.  And we have recognized the urgent need for laws to protect children’s equal access to schooling in a society where some with evil motives would deny quality education for children they dismiss as unimportant or undeserving.

  • Zuckerberg seems to lack a real understanding of community—the kind of community made up of educators and children together in a school learning to trust each other, to communicate with one another and to collaborate.  Public schools also serve as neighborhood anchors and the source of real live community pride.
  • Zuckerberg has tolerated a business culture of manipulating human psychology to make his product more addictive to children as well as adults. Public school educators and researchers continue to strive instead to make education more supportive of normal child and adolescent development. Another primary goal is to help children and adolescents discern occasions when they are being manipulated and to develop good judgement.
  • Zuckerberg prefers to reject the idea that someone might misuse his system for an evil purpose—to throw an election or incite a genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma. The history of activism for justice in public schools demonstrates our society’s recognition of the need for laws banning racism and other kinds of institutional oppression in schools. Laws now protect the rights of racial and ethnic minorities; protect services for the disabled, and protect the rights of LBGT students at school. State school funding formulas are intended to protect equity in the distribution of tax dollars invested across jurisdictions. When students’ rights are denied, students and their families have a right to petition under law for protection.
  • Zuckerberg promotes the motto, “Move fast and break things. ” Inside the company, if his strategies fail and Facebook ceases to grow, Facebook may see its stock price drop. When education “reforms” fail, the victims are innocent children. In fact in almost every case the children hurt worst are the poorest children in the poorest communities. Core community institutions are also wrecked. We watched the Gates Foundation move fast to break up comprehensive high schools, and to announce the failure of that experiment a few years later.  Then the Gates Foundation experimented with financial incentives and penalties to make teachers work harder to raise students’ test scores.  When that experiment failed, the public school district in Hillsborough County, Florida was left covering millions of dollars in costs when the Foundation walked away.

In a 2013 NY Times column, tech-reform critic Evgeny Morozov describes the kind of thinker Mark Zuckerberg represents: “They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call ‘solutionism’: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal… Such predisposition makes it harder to notice that not all problems are problems, and that those problems that do prove genuine might require long and protracted institutional responses, not just quick technological fixes produced at ‘hackathons’… ‘In the future,’ says Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, ‘people will spend less time trying to get technology to work… If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.’ ”

Morozov quotes Mark Zuckerberg: “There are a lot of really big issues for the world that need to be solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.” Morozov examines what is really underneath Zuckerberg’s thinking:  “Such digital humanitarianism aims to generate good will on the outside and boost morale on the inside. After all, saving the world might be a price worth paying for destroying everyone’s privacy, while a larger-than-life mission might convince young and idealistic employees that they are not wasting their lives tricking gullible consumers to click on ads for pointless products. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are competing for the same talent pool, and by claiming to solve the world’s problems, technology companies can offer what Wall Street cannot: a sense of social mission.”

After 22-Year-Long State Takeover, Newark Regains Control of Its Schools

State takeovers—always intrusive—often arrogant, experimental, and ideological—don’t work.  But state officials persist in believing they know better than residents and school leaders in poor, black and brown communities, and the idea that takeover can compensate for states’ own underfunding of their poorest school districts wins again and again. The Flint lead poisoning resulted from Michigan’s imposition of emergency state fiscal managers to shape up local municipal and school district finances without enough attention to government’s responsibility for quality services. Louisiana and Michigan imposed so-called “recovery school districts” in New Orleans and Detroit. Michigan unsuccessfully turned over Highland Park and Muskegon Heights school districts to for-profit charter managers. And in Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia has been run since 2001 by a state-appointed School Reform Commission.

In New Jersey, until last week, the state has been running the schools in Newark for 22 years, despite the presence of a toothless local school board, whose meetings were even boycotted by Cami Anderson, a recent state-appointed superintendent.

Here is Karen Yi for the Newark Star-Ledger last Wednesday:  “The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to end is takeover of the Newark school district and begin the transition to return control to the locally-elected school board after 22 years… The move comes after decades of fierce battles with the state and boiling frustrations among Newarkers who had little leverage over their schools. Key in the power shift: The local school board will now have the ability to hire and fire its own superintendent.”

Yi quotes Mayor Ras Baraka, a graduate of the Newark Schools and a local educator himself—formerly a Newark teacher and award-winning high school principal: “The people of Newark, we have some self-determination… We now have control over our own children’s lives.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes or there won’t be any errors or obstacles… we have the right to make mistakes, we have the right to correct them ourselves.”

Baraka has been criticized for leaving in place a number of the charter schools brought to Newark by the despised recent superintendent, Cami Anderson, but he has also managed to create enough trust to work with the newest state appointment, Christopher Cerf, to bring the catastrophic Cami Anderson One Newark plan, and the Mark Zuckerberg $100,000 million-funded privatization fiasco—a dream turned nightmare and put in place secretly by Governor Chris Christie and now Senator Corey Booker—under control.  This blog extensively covered Anderson’s tenure here.

Cerf’s contract ends at the end of this school year, and the wind-down of state control will happen over a series of months. Marques-Aquil Lewis, president of the locally elected (but until now toothless) School Advisory Board, commented on the importance of the  Board’s right to appoint the next superintendent: “It’s important the next superintendent understand the community that he or she is going to serve. It will help (to be from Newark). Not a requirement, but it will help.”

David Chen, for the NY Times, describes Lewis and the state takeover that has dominated his own school years: “In 1995, when Marques-Aquil Lewis was in elementary school, the State of New Jersey seized control of the public schools here after a judge warned that ‘nepotism, cronyism and the like’ had precipitated ‘abysmal’ student performances and ‘failure on a very large scale.’  For more than 20 years, local administrators have had little leverage over the finances or operations of the state’s largest school district. Choices about curriculum and programs were mostly made by a state-appointed superintendent, often an outsider.  The city could not override personnel decisions.  Now, Mr. Lewis’s 4-year-old son is in prekindergarten, and things are changing.”

State takeovers too often mean experimentation on the children in the nation’s poorest urban school districts. Adequate funding for the most basic and necessary improvements—small classes to insure that all children are known and supported—wraparound programs like health clinics and social services—is more than most states have been willing to invest in. State takeovers are an extension of the ideology of accountability—that if schools are run like a business, they can be made financially accountable. The idea that educators can be pressured through threats and financial incentives to raise test scores is the other side of this bargain, along with the idea that privatized charters will create competition.

John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education comments on the arrogance and paternalism of these assumptions: “First, it’s important to understand that these state takeovers are taking place in the context of decades of disinvestment in public schools. Due to tax cuts and austerity budgets at the state level, schools in poor communities have suffered increasing inequities in funding for vital education services. Recent studies document that states taking over the democratic rights of local citizens and elected education officials have themselves failed to meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with equitable resources needed to provide students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. In short, inequitable funding and disenfranchisement by school takeovers are actually a vicious cycle, a double threat to democracy in poor communities. It’s also impossible to dismiss the disparate racial impact of state takeovers. An overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers or mayoral control serve African American and Latino students and voters. The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago that are made up predominantly of people of color raises serious federal civil rights issues. The same communities that often face the greatest barriers to the ballot box are those susceptible to further disenfranchisement by removing local control of schools.”

What Nicholas Kristof Left Out in Column Promoting Bridge International Academies

Over the weekend, the NY Times published Nicholas Kristof’s puff piece about Bridge International Academies (BIA), the private, for-profit education start-up trying to get a foothold in Africa and India. Kristof has definitely read the material provided by Bridge’s communications arm, and he was impressed when he visited some schools.

He also has such a dim view of children’s education in the developing world that any tech-savvy “solution” would be an improvement: “Imagine an elementary school where students show up, but teachers don’t. Where 100 students squeeze into a classroom but don’t get any books. Where teachers are sometimes illiterate and periodically abuse students. Where families pay under the table to get a ‘free’ education, yet students don’t learn to read.”

Fortunately, two in-depth pieces have been published recently to answer some questions about Bridge International Academies—who started it, what it is, where it operates, how its doing.  Diane Ravitch references both articles in her recent response to Nicholas Kristof’s piece.

Ravitch, an education historian, also raises the most basic question about Bridge International Academies, so we’ll start there.  Is it in the best interest of any society to turn over the education of its children to a for-profit company whose investors include the World Bank, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg? “I think Kristof is wrong because BIA is a short-term fix, not a solution.  It cannot possibly educate the hundreds of millions of children whose parents can’t afford to pay. By providing this ‘fix,’ the governments are relieved of their obligation to establish a universal, free public school system with qualified teachers. If teachers are sleeping in their classrooms, who should take responsibility? Who should supervise them and make sure that every child has a decent education?  That is the government’s job. Addressing the systemic problems of low-quality public education would accomplish far more than creating a for-profit corporation to offer scripted lessons to some. BIA is not a long-term solution…. This is a lifeboat strategy; instead of righting the ship, throw life preservers to a few (at a price).”

Over the last year, it has been difficult to track Bridge’s activities, as governments in Uganda and Kenya have withdrawn support, and then renegotiated the opening of Bridge schools.  Ravitch references two recent and carefully researched articles, the first from Peg Tyre in the NY Times Magazine and the second by Maria Hengeveld from a Dutch magazine and reprinted in translation at Alternet.  Both are very much worth reading.

Hengeveld’s deepest concerns are about the pressures on teachers and the financial hardship even a tuition of $6 or $7 per month places on families. Teachers are pressured to grow enrollment at the Bridge schools by actively recruiting. Hengeveld describes Anton, a teacher who no longer works for Bridge: “He was under too much pressure to attract new pupils and the ‘rigid payment system’ put him in uncomfortable waters with parents. Every month, about half of the parents couldn’t pay their fees on time, and would get upset with Anton when their children were, again, sent home from school. These tensions made it even more difficult to attract new customers and to persuade existing customers to bring in new ones.” Anton was eventually fired by Bridge for allowing three students to continue sitting in the classroom after their parents had failed to pay the fee. The students were discovered when Bridge administrators visited the school. Hengeveld describes hidden costs that parents are not told about in advance: “What’s more, Bridge is by no means as affordable as the company claims.  In Kenya, the cost per student is between US$9 and US$13 a month once exam fees, uniforms, books and administration costs are included.  The situation is similar in Uganda….”

Tyre provides some background about the students who attend the public schools in Kenya, the target student population from which Bridge International Academies is recruiting: “Wealthy Kenyans and foreigners send their children to private schools, which are taught in English and enjoy lavish resources. The working poor often opt to send their children to parochial or local private schools, known as informal schools, that take no money from the government but charge fees that are slightly higher than public school’s (fees)… Sending a child to Bridge was more expensive than the village public school, though less expensive than some informal schools.  The poorest families simply couldn’t afford the tuition and additional payments that Bridge required.” Tuition at Bridge is described as “a monumental obstacle” for many families.

Tyre traces Bridge International Academies’ history as an education-tech startup. “The company’s pitch was tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change.  Investors were impressed by… the audacity of (the founders’) plan.  The idea of doing ‘high quality at low cost was really interesting….” Currently Bridge has schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India.

As you might expect in a school founded by tech-savvy entrepreneurs and investors like Gates and Zuckerberg, Bridge International Academies is an experiment in blended learning. Tyre describes teachers using tablets with pre-programmed lessons: “(A) third-grade teacher was reading from a computer tablet, reciting a lesson script that had been transmitted from the Bridge headquarters in central Nairobi, a 45-minute drive away.  The instructor quietly spoke the lesson as he wrote on the chalkboard, explaining the math symbols that indicate ‘greater than’ or ‘less than.’  Twenty-three third grade students, all dressed in bright green Bridge uniforms, were doing their best to follow along.  Because Bridge schools are standardized… the teachers were working from the same synchronized lesson guide that was being delivered in hundreds of Bridge’s schools in Kenya, allowing the company to ensure that students everywhere were receiving a uniform curriculum.”

The programmed curricula makes it possible for the company to save money by hiring teachers who are not certified. Tyre describes the English language curriculum, designed by “charter-school teachers in Cambridge, Mass.,” and “loaded onto the e-reader in East African classrooms each day… Bridge has writers in Nairobi who create the lessons that are in Kiswahili, but many lessons, to be delivered in English, are written in America. And it is challenging to develop lesson plans for teachers and children from a different culture.”

But Hengeveld describes growing concern in the countries where BIA is operating.  In Kenya, “In August 2016, the Ministry of Education sent the company an ultimatum. Bridge was given 90 days to adapt the curriculum to Kenyan guidelines and ensure that at least half of the teachers had a diploma. If they didn’t meet those requirements, Bridge was at risk of having to close down all of its schools.”

Tyre describes a different reality in Liberia, where the Liberian government entered into a contract with Bridge.  Students would participate without fees and tuition as the government paid for the operation of 50 schools—with expansion anticipated if the experiment was deemed successful.  The government would provide school buildings and pay only Liberian-certified teachers, a condition imposed only after much protest from advocates who wanted to protect the interests of the nation of Liberia—its families and its children—from exploitation by a global giant. Justin Sandefur, an economist who was asked to evaluate the arrangement for the Center for Global Development in Washington, remains very concerned.  He recently told Tyre: “there was no longer a governance firewall between the interests of a commercial company and the Ministry of Education, which is supposed to be advocating on what is best for Liberian children.”  Despite the warnings of Sandefur and others, Tyre reports that the Liberian government has agreed to scale up its contracting with Bridge International Academies.

I wish Nicholas Kristof had explored these concerns in his recent NY Times column. He swallows the argument for technocratic efficiency and neglects to consider the colonialist dynamics of power and money.

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.

Liberia to Outsource Its Entire Education System to For-Profit Bridge International Academies

While this blog covers issues of justice in American public education and almost never examines international issues, today is an exception.  Over the weekend, a friend with ties to education in Liberia sent me a shocking article from Main & Guardian Africa about Liberia’s plans to outsource its entire education system to a private, for-profit American firm.

Here are the facts as reported by Main & Guardian Africa reporter, Christine Mungai: “In January, Liberia’s minister of education made a far-reaching announcement, which nevertheless has largely flown under the radar—until now, when a top UN official has come out strongly in opposition to it.  Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage.  The deal will see the government of Liberia pay over $64 million over a five-year period; public funding for education will support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company.  Under the public-private arrangement, the company will design curriculum materials from April to September 2017, while phase two will have the company roll out mass implementation over 5 years….”  Mungai adds: “It would possibly be the largest, and most ambitious privatisation attempt in Africa’s recent history, and the move has elicited mixed reactions, for good reason.”

A little research showed me that I should already have known about efforts to privatize education in Africa.  Late last summer in her blog, Diane Ravitch reported that the World Bank has been advocating the privatization of education in Uganda and Kenya.  At that time, Ravitch referenced an article from Mint Press News reporter Billy Briggs about growing alarm over the World Bank’s education priorities: “Private, for-profit schools in Africa funded by the World Bank and U.S. venture capitalists have been criticized by more than 100 organizations who’ve signed a petition opposing the controversial education venture… The schools project is called Bridge International Academies and 100,000 pupils have enrolled in 412 schools across the two nations (Kenya and Uganda).  BIA is supported by the World Bank, which has given $10 million to the project, and a number of investors, including U.S. venture capitalists NEA (New Enterprise Associates) and Learn Capital. Other notable investors include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar and Pearson, a multinational publishing company.”  Briggs explains that the World Bank’s Jim Kim praised Bridge International Academies for raising average test scores in reading and math but adds that the data supporting such a conclusion came from “a study conducted by BIA (Bridge International Academies) itself.”

Briggs reported last summer that the cost for attending a Bridge International Academies school would represent more than two-thirds of the monthly income of a family in Kenya or Uganda.  Christine Mungai’s report last week from Liberia indicates that the Liberian government will cover the fees without cost to each family.

Even if Liberia’s government covers the cost, one wonders about the flow of capital out of an economy in need of internal growth. In a March 22, 2016 press release from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Kishore Sing, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, declared: “It is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.”  He advocates investing in building Liberia’s own educational capacity, calling on Liberia “to approach the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for technical assistance and capacity building, instead of entering into such partnerships with for-profit providers in education….” “Before any partnership is entered into, the Government of Liberia must first put into place legislation and policies on public private partnerships in education, which among other things, protect every child’s right to education.”

One must question the wisdom of Liberia’s reliance on an a single American for-profit company to shape and provide education, a plan that will slow Liberia’s strengthening its own educational infrastructure and apparently halt the nation’s development of a well-trained and credentialed teaching profession.  Mungai explains: “Bridge’s model is ‘school in a box’—a highly structured, technology-driven model that relies on teachers reading standardized lessons from hand-held tablet computers.  Bridge hires education experts to script the lessons, but the teacher’s role is to deliver that content to the class.  This allows Bridge to hold down costs because it can hire teachers who don’t have college degrees—a teacher is only required to go through a five-week training programme on how to read and deliver the script… Bridge depends on large class sizes. An ideal class size is 40 to 50 pupils, but the classes can get upward of 70 students.” Mungai adds: “But the back-end—the technology running it all—is sophisticated indeed, relying on Big Data, algorithms, and automation of most school administrative tasks.”

Liberia, reports Mungai, may be ripe for such experimentation after a 14-year civil war and devastation by the Ebola epidemic. She describes growing concern, however, in the international educational community.  She quotes the recent statement of the United Nations’ Kishore Singh, calling Liberia’s deal with Bridge International Academies “unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violate(ing) Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.” She quotes Singh defining the provision of education as a core function of the state: “Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”

One must also examine the motivation of some of the so-called investors described as backing the work of Bridge International Academies, for example Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Are these tech-philanthropists supporting such an international education venture as part of their philanthropic aid work or is the purpose to expand the worldwide market for the kind of education technology that has created their personal fortunes?  One of the other primary investors listed, Pearson, the world’s biggest education publisher and developer of standardizied testing,  has a clear interest in enlarging its markets worldwide.

Zuckerbergs’ New Philanthropy Promotes Charity over Justice

In Fire in the Ashes, a reflection on twenty-five years’ of writing about the challenges for families and schools in very poor communities, Jonathan Kozol considers the difference between charity and justice: “(C)harity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… (T)he public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 204)

Public education serves more than 50 million children in cities, towns, suburbs, and rural areas across the United States.  Public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent.  But these days, the policy that shapes our public schools is being increasingly driven by the focused investment of the wealthy philanthropists in the One Percent. Charity—by which wealthy donors choose their favorite worthy causes— has driven hedge fund money to Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in New York City, invested Gates Foundation money in Hillsborough County, Florida to experiment with merit pay for teachers based on econometric measures, and resulted in Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to charterize a large number of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

Charity can be disruptive and experimental—try something new, see whether it works.  By its very definition, justice must be systemic, and it must embody the principles of adequate investment, equitable distribution of resources and opportunity, and stability.  Justice in the way we educate children across America can be achieved only if the institutions and laws of our society are framed to distribute distribute opportunity for all, not just for some who are especially “deserving” or whose parents know how to play the school choice game.  Public schools have historically shown themselves to be the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to have a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

What brings all this to mind this week is the establishment of a new mega-philanthropy by Mark Zuckerberg along with a new report from The Institute for Policy Studies, Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400… and The Rest of Us.  Here are some of that report’s findings: “America’s 20 wealthiest people—a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet—now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.  The Forbes 400 now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African American population—plus more than a third of the Latino population—combined.  The median American family has a net worth of $81,000.  The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American Families.”

The report’s authors, Huck Collins and Josh Hoxie, emphasize the shocking economic divide by race and ethnicity: “As of October 2015, the homeownership rate for white Americans stands at 71.9 percent.  By contrast, only 42.4 percent of African Americans own their own homes and only 46.1 percent of Latinos.  Ownership of corporate stocks, a valuable store and generator of wealth over time, appears even more skewed, with 55 percent of white households owning at least some stocks, but only 28 percent of African Americans and 17 percent of Latinos.” “An even more striking statistic: The wealthiest 100 members of the Forbes list alone own about as much wealth as the entire African American population of 42 million people.”

The authors explain some of the ways our society’s growing inequality matters: “According to research across several academic disciplines, extreme inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity undermine democracy, social cohesion, economic stability, (and) social mobility…. Extreme inequality corrodes our democratic system and public trust.  It leads to a breakdown in civic cohesion and social solidarity…. Too much inequality disenfranchises us, diminishing our vote at the ballot box and our voice in the public square.  Wealthy donors dominate our campaign finance and lawmaking systems….”

The authors list members of the Forbes Top 20, several of whom have been deeply involved in driving public policy in education—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg and four different members of the Walton family.  Mark Zuckerberg stands out as this month’s example, because on December 1, after the birth of his first child, he set up what is described as a “limited liability corporation” as a way to distribute a mass of his fortune to charity during his own lifetime. Josh Hoxie describes how Zuckerberg’s new philanthropy will work:  “The Internal Revenue Code defines various kinds of tax exempt charitable entities and sets standards for their governance.  For example, all the tax returns of non-profits and charities are public and online.  If they make grants to other entities, those grants are reportable.  Directors’ names are disclosed and any hint of self-dealing or conflict of interest is a matter of record”  By contrast: “The records of an L.L.C. are completely private… Then there is the matter of lobbying and campaign contributions.  The L.L.C. can do both,” but “a regulated non-profit cannot enter the political realm without limits…  It looks like a vehicle for the Zuckerbergs to use as a plaything—to invest through and to promote their ideas—without having to sell their Facebook shares and pay tax.”

Notice that in their letter to their new daughter—in which they explain the establishment of their new L.L.C. as a “gift” in honor of her birth, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife profess a commitment to the common good, but at the same time, they reserve the right to define what’s good for the public: “Technological progress in every field means your life should be dramatically better than ours today.  We will do our part to make this happen, not only because we love you but also because we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.  We believe all lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today.  Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world…. But right now, we don’t always collectively direct our resources at the biggest opportunities and problems your generation will face.”

Surely we must give the Zuckerbergs credit for their generosity, but there is something else happening here. According to the Zuckerbergs, all people have equal value. But there is also the assumption that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife have so much value they can define what’s best for the rest of us.  This is, of course, the classic definition of charity.  And the Zuckerbergs explain what they will be promoting as far as their L.L.C.’s investments in education: “(S)tudents around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don’t live near good schools.  Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.  We’re starting to build this technology now, and the results are already promising.”

In their report for the Institute of Policy Studies, Huck Collins and Josh Hoxie advocate for a very different idea about how the wealth of the Forbes 400 can be used by our society to create a promising future.  For those of us who may have forgotten what we learned in Civics Class, they explain the role of progressive taxation. Merely changing the current income tax rates for the highest earners, they write, would help society, reduce inequality, and  “have a negligible personal and economic impact on those households.” Congress could also tax capital gains as ordinary income and close one other loophole:  “One small yet particularly nefarious loophole in the capital gains tax gives hedge fund managers the ability to pay taxes on their income at the capital gains rate.”

Taxes empower the public while philanthropic investments empower individuals who can collect their non-taxed profits in foundations and L.L.C.s which they can personally guide and control.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes the difference between public and private power: “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will…. First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself.  Better philanthropy than nothing, but far better than philanthropy is a democratic public capable of taking care of itself with its own pooled resources and its own prudent planning.  The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves as a public; democracy on the other hand, empowers the public to take care of itself.” (Consumed, p 131)

Russakoff’s “The Prize” Exposes Arrogance and Pride of Chris Christie and Cory Booker

The Prize is Dale Russakoff’s new book about the plan cooked up by then-Newark-mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey governor Cris Christie to transform the schools in Newark, New Jersey as a national model.  Booker’s view was that it was the perfect district for such an experiment because it is small enough that most of the variables could be controlled. Booker traveled to an elite conference in Sun Valley, Idaho to present the idea to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who would be asked to donate $100 million.  Booker and Christie’s plan was designed to be top-down, to be announced on the Oprah Winfrey show before the people of Newark knew about it:

“It called for imposing reform from the top down, warning that a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. ‘Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,’ the proposal said.  Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.’  The plan called for an ‘infusion of philanthropic support’ to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations, build sophisticated data and accountability systems, and weaken tenure and seniority protections.  Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending.  Christie approved the plan, and Booker began pitching it to major donors.  In those pitches, Booker portrayed the Newark schools as a prize of a very different sort: a laboratory where the education reform movement could apply its strategies to one of the nation’s most troubled school districts.  He predicted that Newark would be transformed into a ‘hemisphere of hope’ catalyzing the spread of reform throughout urban America.” (pp. 20-21)

Russakoff’s book is less about school reform really than about the hubris of Cory Booker and cruel arrogance of Chris Christie, despite that its focus is the imposition of corporatized school reform upon Newark.  Russakoff is at pains to take us into classrooms and to make us see the work of school teachers.  Her approach to portraying the schools through stories of excellent teachers leads to what I see as the book’s flaw—an adoption of “the school teacher as savior” myth.  Russakoff is won over by energetic young principals and teachers in KIPP charters who go to all lengths to save children—including even the creation of a carpool of teachers who pick children in one family up and deliver them home each day to a shelter—to help the children avoid the label “homeless.”  Such efforts, while laudable, cannot possibly be the building blocks of sustainable systems to educate the children of our nation’s poorest families.

Once Zuckerberg had bought in, Booker and Christie set about selling the preconceived plan to the community, and immediately things backfired. An early hire was Bradley Tusk, a New York consultant brought in to create a process to get the community to agree to the need for the plan that had already been adopted by city leaders.  “A senior aide to Booker privately deemed Tusk’s work ‘a boondoggle.’ According to a board member of the Foundation for Newark’s Future , which paid the bill (This agency was created to administer Zuckerberg’s gift and other grants that Zuckerberg specified must be raised to match his original $100 million), ‘It wasn’t real community engagement. It was public relations.'”  (p. 63)

Though she eventually promoted the expansion of charter schools as central to the plan that was later dubbed One Newark, Cami Anderson, the superintendent  hired to oversee the plan, is portrayed in The Prize as having understood the biggest danger of school reform based on rapid expansion of charters. “She pointed out that charters in Newark served a smaller proportion than the district schools of children who lived in extreme poverty, had learning disabilities, or struggled to speak English… In cities like Newark, where the overall student population was static, growth for charters meant shrinkage for the district. Newark charters now were growing at a pace to enroll forty percent of children in five years, leaving the district with sixty percent—the neediest sixty percent… Anderson called this ‘the lifeboat theory of education reform,’ arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink on the big ship.” (p. 118)  By contrast, when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a neighborhood school ask Mayor Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building, he replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

Despite what may have been her reservations, Anderson played the corporate game imposed by Christie and Booker.  She was supported by a succession of expensive consultants from New York.  “The going rate for consultants in Newark and elsewhere on the East Coast was $1,000 a day, and their pay comprised more than $20 million of the $200 million in philanthropy spent or committed in Newark.” (p. 71)  “Two of the highest-paid consultants were friends and former colleagues of Anderson, Alison Avera and Tracy Breslin, both senior officials in New York under Klein and Cerf and both fellows at the Broad Academy.  Both had worked for the Global Education Advisers consulting firm originally founded by Cerf, and Anderson asked them to stay on for about a year in two of her most strategic positions—Avera as interim chief of staff and Breslin, who had extensive experience in human resources, as interim director of a new Office of Talent… Avera and Breslin were married to each other; had they been public employees, nepotism rules would have prohibited one from supervising the other… Avera and Breslin had joined Global Education Advisers at $1,200 and $1,000 a day respectively, and they continued at those rates for Anderson; Breslin charged over-time on days when she worked more than eight hours, even though her contract specified that she be paid by the day, not the hour… In less than eighteen months working for Anderson… their combined pay exceeded $740,000.” (pp 126-127)

We keep on reading even when we know in advance how the story works out. One Newark crashed when Anderson couldn’t raise test scores despite replacing a large number of school principals and despite moving many experienced (and thought by Anderson to be ineffective) teachers into a pool who continued to be paid because they could not, by New Jersey law, be summarily laid off.  Booker, Christie and Anderson had sought and failed to break due-process protections, and the money ran short before Zuckerberg could establish the merit bonuses for teachers he believed were the key to transforming the district.  Anderson quickly alienated the community as well as the school staff, and she quit attending meetings of Newark’s largely toothless elected school board (Remember, Newark had been under state control for 20 years.) in January of 2014, over a year before Christie finally decided to terminate her.

Russakoff concludes: “For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a national ‘proof point’ in Newark.  There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it.  Two hundred million dollars and almost five years later, there was at least as much rancor as reform.  Newark illustrates that improving education for the nation’s poorest children is as much a political as a pedagogical challenge.” (pp. 209-210)

If not a national model, One Newark and the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg-Anderson style of school “reform” is a symbol of what’s been happening in cities like Bloomberg’s New York and Rahm’s Chicago and experiments like Bill and Melinda Gates’ failed national small schools initiative and their effort to get teachers rated by students’ test scores.  Philanthropists and tech-savvy entrepreneurs leap to the conclusion that their business acumen gives them an edge to solve social problems way beyond the ability of mere school teachers. For the philanthropists who are underwriting these projects, money and celebrity also provide the political connections that make it possible for them to experiment on communities and schools and children far from home.  There are few consequences for the philanthropists if they fail, apart from losing money; and they have so much money that the loss of a hundred million dollars doesn’t really matter very much.

The failure of the Newark experiment doesn’t seem to have taught today’s big money experimenters a lesson.  Just last week Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, bought a full page ad in the NY Times to announce XQ: The Super School Project,  her new $50 million endeavor described by reporter Jennifer Medina as “the highest-profile project yet of the Emerson Collective, the group that Ms. Powell Jobs uses to finance her philanthropic projects.” “(T)he campaign is meant to inspire teams of educators and students, as well as leaders from other sectors to come up with new plans for high schools… By fall next year, Ms. Powell Jobs said, a team of judges will pick five to 10 of the best ideas to finance.”

And in the Washington Post last Thursday, Valerie Strauss described an exclusive “Philanthropy Innovation Summit” being held later this month, “to give philanthropists space ‘to convene and discuss their giving in an intimate, non-solicitation environment.'”  Participants are invited to, “Come be inspired by information and insights that can only be learned at this event.  You will leave with new and actionable ideas and skills to help you as you think about your philanthropy moving forward in topic areas including: Seeding Innovation in Philanthropy, Nexus of Design Thinking and Strategic Philanthropy, Philanthropreneurship, (and) Philanthropic Investment for Scientific Advancement.”  Strauss comments: “If you are wondering what ‘philanthropreneurship’ is, it is a term that came into use about a year ago and refers to… ‘the idea that the skills which enabled people to make their fortunes are often the ones required to solve apparently intractable problems.’  In other words, billionaires who created computers, software, Internet browsers, retail stores, etc., are the people the country needs to solve societal inequity and other ‘intractable problems.'”

In Newark, the most encouraging development was the emergence of a skeptical community and strong leadership by Ras Baraka, the respected high school principal and city councilman who made opposition to the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg-Anderson plan the centerpiece of his campaign for mayor. As Russakoff demonstrates again and again, the citizens of Newark understood from the beginning that Mayor Booker had brought in outsiders to impose a dangerous experiment on their children and their neighborhood schools. In a place where the schools have been under state takeover for twenty years and where the citizens have little power over the district, the citizens of Newark rallied together to throw out One Newark and Cami Anderson, and to elect Ras Baraka.  It will take considerable time, however, for the damage to be repaired.