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.

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Notorious Ohio Online Charters Try to Evade Oversight, Tarnish Reputation of Charter Sector

Patrick O’Donnell, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reports that, “Poor test results at online schools are creating divisions in the charter school community in Ohio and nationally, leading some national leaders to question whether e-schools should even be part of the charter school movement.”

He adds that, “In Ohio three statewide e-schools, each run by for-profit companies, dominate the market with 30,000 students between them.  Combined, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio Connections Academy and Ohio Virtual Academy account for 76 percent of all online students in the state.”  The Ohio Virtual Academy is operated by K12 Inc., and Ohio Connections Academy is reported by O’Donnell to be owned by Pearson. ECOT, the largest, is operated by Columbus entrepreneur, William Lager.

Last month a group of think tanks released a three-part report on the problems in the massive online charter schools. Mathematica Policy Research described how the nation’s 200 online charter schools operate; the Center on Reinventing Public Education explored the policy concerns around regulation, accountability, and funding provisions; and Stanford CREDO examined academic results of the e-schools and compared them to the academic records of traditional public and charter schools in which children come to a school and are taught by live, on-site teachers.  O’Donnell describes the conclusions of CREDO’s study: “Researchers found that students in online schools learn far less than students in other schools.  Nationally, students learned the equivalent of 72 days of school less in reading and 180 days less in math, each school year…. For Ohio, online students learned 79 days less material in reading than peers in traditional schools and 144 less days in math.”  This blog covered the series of reports on e-schools here.

O’Donnell reports that the online schools complain that they are being condemned for serving a very different type of student.  They say they educate many students who have failed to succeed in any other setting and then try online schooling only as a last resort.  The schools complain that with such an at-risk population, they should be held to a lower standard than other schools.  Nina Rees, director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, disagrees.  In an interview, Rees told O’Donnell, “I don’t know if these online schools are the right fit in the charter model.”  She suggested that, unlike charter schools which are required in most places not to impose overt selection screens, online schools ought to be able to select students with motivated parents who will oversee the online instruction to ensure that students do the work.

CREDO’s research has been widely criticized by the operators of the online charter schools, but Lynn Woodworth, a researcher at CREDO defends the conclusions of the research: “If  online charter schools are serving a population so different from other students, then the online charter schools should document: 1. how their students are so radically different, and 2. what they are doing to meet the challenges of those special needs.  Right now the data show the academic growth of students attending online charter schools is not up to the growth of students in brick-and-mortar settings, traditional or charter.”

Meanwhile in Ohio, Neil Clark—ECOT’s lobbyist, who is described by Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon-Journal as “one of the most influential lobbyists in the state,” is said by Livingston to be exploring with members of Ohio’s House of Representatives attaching to an unrelated bill some language that would soften for Ohio’s online schools the very modest new regulations for charter schools that were finally passed by Ohio’s legislature last month.  The recently passed charter oversight bill curbs the most egregious violations by Ohio’s charter sector—obvious conflicts of interest for charter treasurers and board members, charter hopping, and contracts that leave publicly purchased assets of closed schools with the charter management company when a charter school is closed down—passed finally despite years’ of heavy investment in Republican campaign coffers by Ohio’s online charter czars.  The measure Clark is working with members of Ohio’s House to slip quietly into another piece of legislation would add a complex and poorly understood econometric charter grading plan that could be adapted from California to make it appear that Ohio’s online academies are better serving their students.  Surely before such an amendment is attached to legislation, it ought to be evaluated by technical experts equipped to make its operation for all charter and traditional public schools transparent.

In the meantime, O’Donnell reports that Peggy Lehner, Chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, is considering another provision, one that would penalize the online schools.  She says the Ohio Senate will consider changing the way online schools are reimbursed by the state.  Her proposal is that the state pay online schools not according to the number of students who are enrolled, but instead “based on how many credits students earn toward graduation.”  Because there are years’ of evidence that these schools have found ways to pad their enrollment figures to balloon the tax dollars they draw from the state, paying these schools for credits earned would be a very significant move toward better public stewardship.  Let’s hope Peggy Lehner is able to sustain the leadership she courageously provided earlier this year to put in place some regulation of what has been called Ohio’s notorious “wild, wild West” charter school sector.

John Oliver Examines NCLB, Race to the Top, and Testing in Comedy Monologue

Surely it must be significant that John Oliver, the HBO comedian, did an 18 minute segment last week on what’s gone haywire in American public education.  Oliver traces the history of test-and-punish since the federal testing law No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in January of 2002.  I urge you to watch this segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

You will see a clip of President George W. Bush defining (Definition probably wasn’t his strong point.) school accountability and a video of candidate Barack Obama, in a speech to the National Education Association, disdaining an education philosophy centered around children coloring in bubbles on standardized tests.  Oliver puzzles about the inconsistency—a candidate Obama who said he hated testing and a President Obama whose administration has vastly expanded the amount of testing through programs like Race to the Top that led to the Common Core and stretched the uses of testing not only for rating and punishing schools but also for evaluating teachers with algorithms based on their students’ scores.

As if that isn’t enough, Oliver looks into the corporate testing industry—its reach and power in the lives of children and teachers, it’s secrecy, and the public’s inability to do anything about it even when test questions are poorly written.  We hear from the people who work as test graders—people who responded to ads on Craig’s List, people who are themselves held accountable for coming up with a bell curve in scores among the essays they read—not too many high scores.

The situation in our schools has been at the same time absurd and deeply troubling for almost fifteen years now, but none of this seems to have seeped inside the Beltway, where Congress is considering legislation that leaves annual testing in place, continues to blame teachers, and fails to address serious problems in the struggling schools of our nation’s impoverished communities.

Is nobody paying attention to what is happening with our children?  I have wondered if, as a culture, we have adopted an education philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind”—if we have accepted a focus on test scores as a proxy for caring about our society’s children.  I am delighted to see John Oliver raising this issue as though it is something people watching television ought to be thinking and talking about.

Our children and our more than 3 million school teachers across America ought to matter to us.  Watch this video.  Talk about it.  Get some other people to watch it and talk about it.

More on the New GED

Last week this blog explored Daniel McGraw’s devastating expose of the new and intentionally very difficult GED exam.  McGraw’s article has stimulated additional important coverage of the new GED—managed for-profit by the mega-publisher Pearson in collaboration with the American Council on Education—and what the new management and the new test will mean for high school dropouts who want to work for a credential that will help them find a job or qualify for further training.

Reporting for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Cory Turner shares the history of the GED: “During World War II, vast numbers of young men and women left school before graduation to fight for their country.  The government foresaw a need to help them get back on track when they came home.  So the American Council on Education (ACE) created the GED in 1942…  It never measured up to the high school diploma in terms of cachet or opportunity—and research has long confirmed that it does not translate into comparable earnings.  But it came to represent a second chance: for immigrants too old to attend school, for prisoners trying to turn their lives around, for teen parents or anyone whose life has gotten in the way of his formal education.”  Five updates have occurred since 1942.  In 2011 to create the most recent version, ACE partnered with Pearson, a for-profit company, to manage the test.  At the same time ACE has stated that it sought to make the test harder, upgrading the credential to ensure that those who pass are college-ready.  The exam is now aligned with the new Common Core Standards.

Turner reports that during 2014, the expense and difficulty of the new GED exam caused ten states to drop the test as their designated measure of high school equivalency .  HiSET, the High School Equivalency Test, produced and administered by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service and the University of Iowa, is being adopted by 12 states.  A second new test, TASC, from McGraw-Hill (presumably for-profit),  has been approved by nine states.  Both new tests are cheaper for test takers, and they are administered with paper and pencil, a format preferred by many high school equivalency candidates who may be poor, imprisoned, homeless, and without a computer.

Last week in his blog, UCLA professor Mike Rose explored a range of problems with the new, harder GED exam.  Rose examines the topic of adult education and the GED in his 2012 book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.  I urge you to read Back to School, but until you have a chance to do it, you should read Rose’s new blog post, in which he revisits much of what he wrote about adult education and the GED in Back to School.

Rose believes making the new test harder merely excludes many of the people for whom it was designed: “For some, the GED certificate already represents a monumental goal, aspiration more dogged and hopeful than many of us can imagine.  Some low-skilled adults at this time in their lives do not have the finances, family arrangements, support systems, or work schedules that make any goal beyond passing the exam feasible.  If we want them to achieve more, the we need to go way beyond the amping up of a test to provide more employment opportunities, childcare and healthcare and other services—all of which are being cut back rather than enhanced.”  At the same time Rose endorses the social as well as personal value of a second chance credential:  “The social benefits of Adult Education and other compensatory and second chance programs are particularly salient with people who have been living on the fringe of society: caught up in street life, violent or addicted or both, not infrequently coming out of prison.  When these people reenter school, they are often walking right on the line… wanting to make this work, but at times terribly unsure that it will.  And as the months progress…. they begin to draw a bead on the future.”

Then there is the issue of the introduction of a new and harder test at a time when neither the states nor the federal government have been investing significantly in either social services or education in our poorest communities:  “A number of the adult educators I spoke to expressed a further concern that the increased focus on the enhanced GED, especially in a time of limited—and shrinking—resources, will draw attention and funding away from the other sectors of Adult Ed.  When we make programs more demanding, we also have to assure that we have other programs in place to address the needs of those who risk getting left behind.  Otherwise, we will continue to help the (relatively) better off at the expense of the truly vulnerable….”   Rose acknowledges that we live in a time when competition is a dominant value and we prefer to invest in programs that reward grit.  “Hand in glove with the austerity perspective there is a belief, held by many in positions of power, that those in Adult Education who went through American schools blew it the first time through, and why should society pay again for what should have been learned already?… This belief clashes with the notion of the United States as a second-chance society.”

The conversation about the new GED raises broader questions about our society.  Is our approach to education encouraging or punitive?  Thirteen years after the passage of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, is it possible our society can once again accept—on faith really—that students are benefiting from being in school even if much of the value is intangible and cannot be measured on a standardized test?  Do we value education that enhances people’s lives even if it does not lead directly to college and even if it doesn’t directly contribute to a student’s job skills?

And finally: are we willing to pay for educational programs that enrich the lives of our most vulnerable students? This is, of course, a question about taxation.  Where are the political leaders who will remind us that the very definition of the social contract assumes that helping individuals get an education enriches us all and contributes to our civic and cultural life?

Ted Mitchell, Nominee for Under-Secretary of Education, Is a Privatizer

Lee Fang, a respected investigative reporter for The Nation magazine, exposes ties of Ted Mitchell to private education contractors and a for-profit university.  Mitchell is chief executive of NewSchools Venture Fund and President Barack Obama’s nominee as Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

According to Fang, “As head of the NewSchools Venture Fund, Mitchell oversees investments in education technology start-ups.  In July, Zynga, the creators of FarmVille, provided $1 million to Mitchell’s group to boost education gaming companies.  Mitchell’s  NewSchool Venture Fund also reportedly partners with Pearson, the education mega-corporation that owns a number of testing and text-book companies, along with one prominent for-profit virtual charter school, Connections Academy.

Fang also connects Mitchell to a for-profit university, at a time when many hope the Department of Education will begin better regulating these institutions:  “Mitchell serves as an adviser to Salmon River Capital, a venture capital firm that specializes in education companies… Salmon River Capital helped create one of the biggest names in for-for-profit post-secondary education, Capella University…  Capella heavily recruits veterans and has received $53.1 million from the GI Bill in the past four years.  The Minnesota Attorney General is currently investigating the company for its recruitment tactics, and for leaving veterans unable to repay federal loans.  Numerous investigations have shown that for-profit colleges have targeted veterans with deceptive recruiting tactics.”

Who Are the Philanthropic and Corporate Sponsors of Today’s School Deform?

I believe that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—is essential for ensuring that all children are served, and I believe that a strong system of public education is essential as the foundation of our democracy.  In that context, I think it is important to write more about what I support—strong public schools—than what I oppose—the assault on public education by those who would privatize the education of our children primarily for the purpose of making a profit.

However, I don’t think we ought to be naive.  For this reason I sometimes like to look up the source of the money behind the school privatization movement as a discipline to keep myself informed.  In that spirit, let’s check on some of the foundations and corporations that sponsored Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit last week in Boston.

Foundations

The Grand Rapids, Michigan founders of Amway Products, Dick and Betsy DeVos, through their family foundation and Betsy’s organization, All Children Matter, are among the nation’s most persistent promoters of vouchers.  According to Think Progress, “In 2002, Dick DeVos sketched out a plan to undermine public education before the Heritage Foundation, explaining that education advocates should stop using the term ‘public schools’ and instead call them ‘government schools.'”

The Oberndorf Family Foundation devotes itself to school choice and privatization.  According to Think Progress, the Orerndorfs, whose money was earned through SPO Partners, an investment firm, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past five years in school privatization: “Bill Oberndorf… said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the ‘gold standard’ for what should be done across America.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, has been a strong supporter of charter networks and the corporate school reform movement with grants to the New School Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund, KIPP charter schools,  and Teach for America.  The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund is the philanthropy of the founders of The Gap.  According to the National Education Policy Center: “The Fishers were early supporters of Edison Schools, and have been major supporters of KIPP and Teach for America… the family also supported a young organization, The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee. As noted on the Fisher’s 2011 Form 990, the foundation contributed $250,000 to Rhee’s newest organization, StudentsFirst.”

And there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the longest and most constant funder of school voucher efforts.  Bradley, a Milwaukee-based foundation, underwrote think tanks and astro-turf organizations behind the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee.  The Wisconsin Center for Media and Democracy has closely tracked the far-right giving of the Bradley Foundation, and quotes a local newspaper investigation: “According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ‘from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.’”

Corporations

Here is Amplify, the school tablet and education data management division of Rupert Murdoch’s The News Corp.  Joel Klein, who revolved right out of his job as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools to his position with the News Corp, worked with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to bring mass charterization, disruptive change through ongoing school closures, and school co-locations to New York City.  Microsoft is also a large contributor.  Jeb Bush has worked with many of the technology firms, including Microsoft, to promote “blended” learning that is said to save money for school districts if computers do some of the teaching and thereby permit larger class size.  Edgenuity, another sponsor, promotes blended learning and sells “blended” curricula that incorporate computers. Intel is another enormous ed-tech company.

Here among the sponsors are a number of corporations who supply standardized tests and grade the tests and manage the data around testing: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scantron.  Scholastic is selling educational materials to implement the Common Core Standards.   Renaissance Learning produces curricula aligned with the Common Core Standards.  The Education Testing Service, the manager of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for decades, has also been prominent in the burgeoning K-12 standardized testing market.

Finally there is K12, the nation’s largest, for-profit, on-line charter school with affiliates across the states.  K12 brags about its huge enrollment, but cannot boast about its graduation rates and student achievement. This is the company about which hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson published a scathing critique a couple of weeks ago.