On August 5th Alison McDowell was a guest on KEXP’s news program Mind Over Matters. You can listen to the interview by clicking on the link below ( be patient – it takes a little bit of time for the file to load). A transcript of the interview follows.
My concern as a parent is within these adaptive learning systems, I don’t want an online system that has to learn my child to work. I don’t want a system that has to know everything my child did for the last six months, to operate properly. Because I think that becomes problematic. How do you ever have a do over? Like, is it just always building and reinforcing certain patterns of behavior and how you react…it’s, they, I think they present it as flexible and personalized, but in many ways I think it’s limiting.
Mind Over Matters – KEXP
Interview with Alison McDowell
Mike McCormick: It’s time once again for Community Forum, and we’re very lucky to have with us live in the studios this morning, Alison McDowell. Alison McDowell is a parent and researcher, into the dangers of corporate education reform. She was presenter this last March this year here in Seattle. The talk entitled Future Ready schools: How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education. Alison, thank you very much for coming in and spending time with us this morning.
Alison: Oh, I’m very glad to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Mike: So, tell us, how did you get interested and involved with the issue of corporate education reform?
Alison: Well, I’m a I’m a parent. I have a daughter who is sixteen in the public schools of Philadelphia. And we’re sort of a crucible for many different aspects of education reform. We’ve had multiple superintendents from the Broad Academy. We’ve been defunded. Our schools have been, numerous of our schools have been closed, teachers laid off and about three years ago I became involved in the Opt Out movement for high stakes testing. Because at that point I felt that if we were able to withhold the data from that system we would try to be able to slow things down. Because they were using that testing data to close our schools. So I worked on that for a number of years until I saw that the landscape was starting to change. And a lot of it was leading up to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. That that passage. And it seemed at that time that our school district, which is challenging in many respects, was all of a sudden actually interested in Opt Out, and making that, sharing information and materials… Pennsylvania has a legal Opt Out right on religious grounds…and making materials available in various languages. And something just didn’t compute in my head. I’m like, well, even if, if we’re entitled, the fact that they were interested in engaging with us on that, made me sort of question why that was. And then so post ESSA, it became clear that the shift that was going to be taking place was away from a high stakes end of year test and more towards embedded formative assessments. So in our district we’ve seen an influx, even though there isn’t funding for many other things, lots of technology coming in, lots of Chromebooks. Every, all of the students have Google accounts. Google runs our school district. Even though they say philsd.org, their Google accounts, and each student, their email address is actually their student id number. So to access a Chromebook as soon as you login, you know all of that information is tied back into their id number. So the technology was coming in. Many schools were doing multiple benchmark assessments. So there was less and less time for actual meaningful instruction throughout the school year and there were more and more tests taking place, many computerized. So, at that point, we were looking into like, what did this mean, what is the role of technology and the interim testing, in this movement And so, I had come across my…I have a blog. It’s called Wrench in the Gears. It’s a wordpress blog. So you, I have a lot of information there, and it’s all very well documented and linked. My colleague Emily Talmage, who’s a teacher in Maine, who has seen this first-hand. She has a blog: Save Maine Schools. And so I had found her blog and at one point she said, you know…you know, only click on this link, you know, if you’re willing to go down the rabbit hole. And at that point it was, it was a website called Global Education Futures Forum, and they have this agenda for education up to 2035. And it is their projection. And it’s a global…global membership led by Pavel Luksha, who’s connected with the Skolkovo Institute, in Russia. But the local person here, actually he’s very local, is Tom Vander Ark, is one of the US representatives. And so he was former Gates Foundation. And has his own consulting firm now. And it’s based out of Seattle. And, but anyway, so they have sort of what they call a foresight document, a sort of projecting based on trends and patterns, where they see things going for education, like over the next 20 years. And so really, they have a very sophisticated map. And all you have to do is sort of look at their map. And then match it up to current events. And you can see, like, where they’re pretty much on target where things are headed. And there, they have some really interesting infographics and, one of them, it’s a very decentralized system. So education is just like the individual at the center. So everything you’re hearing, personalized learning, and and individual education plans, like it’s one big person and you’re the center of your own universe. And sort of around you, there aren’t teachers or schools. It’s it’s many sort of digital interfaces, and devices, and data-gathering platforms. And this idea that education is a life-long process. Which I think all of us generally agree with, but the idea that you’re sort of chasing skills in this new global economy, and like constantly remaking yourself. Or like the gig economy and what that means. And managing your online reputation. Not just your skillsets. But your mindset. And your social outlook. And your behaviors. And the role of gamification. So there are many many elements to this, that if you look into it, I think raise a lot of questions. And increasingly, really over the past five years there’s been a lot of discussion about remaking education. Re-imagining education. You know, education for the 21st century. Future Ready Schools. And I think for the most part, parents and community members have been left out of this conversation, of what really does Future Ready Schools mean? And the folks who are running the conversation, are running the agenda, are largely coming from a tech background. And this is something that’s built up since the mid-nineties, when the Advanced Distributed Learning Program was set up within the Defense Department, and the Department of Education. To have like you know, Tech Learning for all Americans. Which, you know, again I think we all need to be tech knowledgable, I, the question is, how is the tech used and how in control of of your education are you, and your educational data. So anyway, a lot of this is being driven by interests of digitizing education. And really, through austerity mechanisms, pulling out more human interaction, out of the equation. So we’re, we’re seeing things that a number of years ago, Detroit, had a kindergarten, where they would have a hundred kindergarteners, with like one teacher and a couple of aides, and a lot of technology. So there’re lots of questions increasingly about the use of technology especially in early grades, and I know in, in Washington State there’ve been a big push for tablets down to the kindergarten level. Our children are being part of this sort of larger experiment that has health considerations that have not been closely examined. In terms of eyestrain, audio components, even hygiene with earphones. The wifi aspects. And then also the data collection. So, there’s this grand experiment going on for Future Ready Schools, and parents and community members aren’t really aware of the fact that it is an unproven experiment, and what the implications are long-term.
Mike: And it’s being driven heavily by corporations that are producing these platforms, this software, the electronics, kind of behind the scenes, because no one knows this is going on except a select group of administrators and teachers?
Alison: Yeah, well so they have, there are a number of like pilot districts. So the idea is sort of, you get a beachhead, and then you, you roll it out. You convince, I mean they have very sophisticated marketing manuals. Like Education Elements, they say, this is how you do it. You know first you, you have a social media campaign, you get the young teachers who are really into tech and you train them up in the way that you wanna do things, and then they mentor all the veteran teachers and you get the principal on board and then you have the parent meetings and it’s…again…with…if you understood it as, like selling a corporate product as opposed to public education, it might not be so disturbing. Like for me, I find having this sort of corporate approach to marketing, a new approach to public education. That’s, that’s what, what I find disturbing. I’ve called this Education 2.0, because I think we’re, we’re about to see a shift from the earlier version of privatization, which was the high stakes, end of year high stakes testing, vouchers, charter schools. Those things will all still continue, but they’ve, they were never the end game. So they have been used as a way to de-stabilize the, the landscape of neighborhood schools. And in many cases they’ve been used to, you know, acquire real estate, further sort of gentrification, insider contracts, like there are many aspects that allow that to become a profit center. But there’s going to be a point of diminishing return. Where sort of like all the easy pickings have been taken. And if you’re pursuing sort of a tailoristic model , like the ultimate efficiency, lean production, Cyber-Education is the end game. So creating a system of education that really has very little in human resources. There’s lots of folks within Pearson and IBM and Microsoft who are looking at AI, like everyone will have your own artificial intelligent, like learning sherpa for your life. You know, and this isn’t just K12, this is forever. You know, someone on your shoulder telling you what you should be doing next. But removing the humans out of the equation and putting more technology in place. So I think that’s what this shift to Education 2.0 is going to be about, is largely cyber but I think most parents at this point are not comfortable with that model. They wouldn’t say, you know, and I will admit, like there, there’s a small group of kids who are highly motivated for whom a cyber, exclusively cyber model may work. I mean a lot of the research shows that for most kids the outcomes are not great. So what they will be selling is project based learning. And that’s what you’ll hear a lot about, coming up, like in the next couple of years. But those projects won’t necessarily be linked to schools. So you’ll hear more and more about, anytime, anyplace, anywhere, any pace learning. So they’re looking to de- disconnect education from physical school buildings, and actual teachers in classrooms, to sort of what’s called a learning eco-system model. So something that’s more free-flowing, you’re just out in the world collecting skills. And that’s what was so interesting about, like the Common Core State Standards set-up. And I know a lot of states have sort of rolled back or renamed them. But the idea of having education tied to very specific standards, was a way of atomizing education and making it available for digitization. So if, if education is a human process of growth and development, that’s very murky to try to put in a metric, right? You need bits and bytes. And so if you create an education that’s strictly around standards and like sub standards and little sets, you can just aggregate those, and collect them or not collect them, and run that as data in a digital platform. So that push toward standards, yes it allowed for school report cards and value added modeling and things that hurt schools and teachers, but it also normalized the idea that education was less a human process and more people collecting things. Like collecting skills and standards, which is what you need for like a competency based education approach.
Mike: So, talk about some of the specific examples…one of the advantages to going into your site is you have links to so many different documents from the very corporations and people that are producing these systems. And one of the examples you’ve talked about in your talk back here in March was something called Tutormate? That was involved, kids getting pulled out of class, to go see, basically AI icons talking to them and they become attached to them…
Mike: …it’s disturbing.
Alison: Well there were a couple of, there’s a couple of interesting things. I had sort of a slide saying who’s teaching your children? Because increasingly it’s not necessarily their classroom teacher. The chatbot was actually Reasoning Mind, which is a math program. It was developed in Texas. And so it’s been like long-running and gotten a lot of funding, both from public and private sources. About refining sort of a personalized learning towards math. But kids were interacting with these online chat bots and developing connections and relationships to these online presences in their math program. I’m in Pennsylvania. So a lot of, a lot of things are developing in Pittsburgh. They have a whole initiative called Remake Learning in Pittsburgh which I believe is sort of early-stage learning ecosystem model and a lot of that is coming out of Carnegie Mellon because Carnegie Mellon is doing a lot of work on AI and education. And they have something called Alex. So they like the idea of peer-based learning. That sounds attractive like, yeah, kids like to learn from their peers. This, their version of peer-based learning is that you have a giant avatar cartoon peer on a screen and the children interact with this peer on a screen. So that’s something that’s being piloted in southwestern Pennsylvania right now. And then Tutormate is actually a different variation but they were pulling kids out of class, away…these were young children, from their classroom setting to put them in a computer lab to do tutoring with a corporate volunteer via skype, and an online platform. So in this case it actually was a human being, but this was during school hours. This was not a supplement to classroom instruction, this was in lieu of having direct instruction with a certified teacher. They were being put into an online platform with a corporate volunteer and you know, it turns out a number of the sponsors of that program had ties to defense contracting industries. You know, Halliburton, and Booz Allen Hamilton. You know, things that you might wanna question, is that who you want your second grader spending their time chatting with? You know, in lieu of having their second grade teacher teach them reading. So again, there is this shift away from, from teachers. There’s, there’s a model that’s going on right now, within many one-to-one device districts, so districts where every child has their own device. Young kids often have tablets, older kids have Chromebooks, in high-end districts you might have an actual laptop, with some hard-drive on it. The Clayton Christensen Institute, or Innosight Institute, they’ve been pushing blended learning. So blended learning is this new model. Where, there are a number of different ways you can…flipped classrooms, which many people have heard of…but there’s one called a rotational model. So children only have direct access to a teacher a third of the time. Like the class would be split into three groups. And you would be with a teacher for a third of the time, doing peer work a third of the time, and doing online work a third of the time. So again, it’s a way of increasing class size supposedly, like supposedly the quality time you have when you’re with the teacher with the ten kids instead of thirty is supposed to be so great even though maybe you only get fifteen minutes. What’s happening in other districts is they’re saying the time where kids are not with their teachers, and they’re just doing online work, they don’t really need a teacher present, they could just have an aide. So that’s again, in terms of pushing out professional teachers, is that, well if kids are doing online learning, maybe you just need an Americorp volunteer, in the room, to make sure that no one’s hurting them…each other. You know, and that they’re on, supposedly on task. You know I think that’s a worrisome trend. And even though they’ll sell blended learning as very tech forward and future ready, the kids don’t love spending time on these devices, like hour after hour after hour. And my concern as a parent is…we’re all starting to realize what the implications are for big data. And how we interact with online platforms, either in social media, or other adaptive situations. And how, that these devices are actually gathering data, on ourselves.. .so, they they gather information through keystroke patterns, they all have cameras, they all, you know, the tablets have TouchSense, so theoretically there’s body temperature and pulse sensors. Like there’s many many elements, are they all being used now? No, but there is that capacity for using them to develop that level of engagement. To understand how you’re interacting with these programs. And that’s being developed through, with the Army Research Lab and USC, their Institute for Creative Technologies. And they are developing, a lot of this is being developed in conjunction with the Defense Department, for their interactive intelligent tutoring systems and with the Navy actually, which is relevant to Seattle. A lot of these early prototyped intelligent tutoring systems have been developed specifically with the Navy in mind. Training very specifically on computer programs, and optimizing that. But once they develop the infrastructure, then they’re able to apply that in non-military settings. And so it’s, it’s making its way out. So there’s a lot of data that can be collected and the other, the other push that you’ll start to see is gamification. So games, like gaming in schools. And kids love games, like parents love games. It sounds so fun. But I think what we have to realize is there’s a lot of behavioral data that’s coming out of the gaming too. That we’re not necessarily aware of. And so this push for gamification, or sometime…like gamified classroom management systems. So Google has something called Classcraft. And all the kids have avatars. And like if they’re behaving in class, they can, you know they earn points, or have points deducted, and you’re on teams, and you can save your team member or not. And with ESSA, having passed, you know, they’ll tell the story that like we care about more than just test scores, we really wanna care about the whole child, we wanna, you know we we care about children as individuals. Really they wanna collect all of this data, not just on your academic skills, but on your behaviors, and your mindset. And are you gritty, and are you a leader, or are you, you know, flexible, are you resilient. And these, these gamified platforms, whether they’re run by the teacher, or gaming that’s done with the students in these simulations, and also AR/VR, augmented reality/virtual reality games that you’re starting to see. There’s just a lot of information going through, and you have to wonder, how is it being used, what are the privacy implications, and also what are the feedback loops being created? In terms of how you interact with a platform. Is it reinforcing aspects of your personality that you may or may not want reinforced. My concern as a parent is within these adaptive learning systems, I don’t want an online system that has to learn my child to work. I don’t want a system that has to know everything my child did for the last six months, to operate properly. Because I think that becomes problematic. How do you ever have a do over? Like, is it just always building and reinforcing certain patterns of behavior and how you react…it’s, they, I think they present it as flexible and personalized, but in many ways I think it’s limiting.
Mike: In some of the documentation you present, they have systems that wanna pay attention to whether a person that is working with the program is getting bored, or falling asleep, or whatever, so they were like watching like you know, the eye, literally to see if it’s like where it’s wandering off to…you said they potentially could be checking your, your temperature, your heart rate…
Alison: I mean, you know, are they doing it right now? I don’t know that they, but the capacity is there. And…
Mike: And all that data is being saved somewhere. And shared. In some capacity. We don’t know.
Alison: W…and I think it’s very unclear. And I think they’re, they’re many parents who are very concerned about privacy and working that angle of controlling what data goes in…I mean I think all of us are aware that once something is up in the cloud, even if there are promises made about privacy and protections, that nothing is really safe up there. In terms of from hacking, or even just legal. Like FERPA is very, the education records, sort of, privacy has a lot of loopholes. You know anyone who, many of these organizations, companies are third parties are designated agents of school districts. So they have access to this information. And I will also mention Naviance, because the other shift that we’re seeing happening is the shift towards creating an education system that is geared towards workforce development. That, that, that children at younger and younger ages should, should be identifying their passions, and finding their personal pathways to the workforce and the economy. And so Naviance is one of a number of companies that does strengths assessments and surveys. And many states you can’t get your diploma unless your child does a complete battery of assessments, personality assessment through Naviance, which is this third-party program. Also linking towards like their future college plans, and other things linked in, and very detailed information about people’s family situations. So again, the, the amount of data that’s being collected on many many different levels to supposedly like guide students moving forward into the economy, I think it merits a larger conversation. And I’m not saying that everyone needs to agree with my position, but I think that the, the agenda that’s being moved forward is being done in a way that for the most part, parents and community members, there’s not been a consensus reached, with us. That this is okay. That this new version of school is, is what we desire.
Mike: And being a parent in the Philadelphia School District, when these new systems are, have been implemented, you know, and the potential use of all, gathering of all your child’s data, I mean, have you been consulted on that prior? Did, every time they bring in a new system did they let you know, oh, we have another piece of software here that potentially could be, you know, data-mining your kid, are you okay with that?
Alison: So I think on the, on the plus side, because we have been so severely defunded, we haven’t seen quite as much of an influx of tech yet. Although I, I anticipate it’s coming. We’ve just had a big roll-out of Minecraft I think in schools. That’s their new thing that they’re, they’re all…there are a number of schools, like within turnaround sort of, that, that are being piloted for these one-to-one devices. I will say that there was an opt-out form for Google Apps for Education. Which is, and I so I opted, I opted my child out of Google Apps for Education. I may have been the only parent in the Philadelphia School District who did that, and it, it makes it complicated because again, there, it’s convenient, you know, it’s a nice, you know, way for teachers not to have to carry around lots of papers, and they have kids put it all on their Google drive. But I, I think we’re all starting to be a little wary about the amount of information and power that Google has, you know, in the world and what the implications are for that. So I think if, if people have concerns around some of these privacy aspects, you know, that’s, that’s a potential starting, starting place, is to opt out of Google Apps for Education, and see where that goes. Or even have targeted like device and data strikes, during the school year. So we don’t get a notice every time there’s a new program. I guess long story short.
Mike: Just a few minutes left. And again, some of the companies, in addition to Defense Department having early hooks into education reform, and online learning, some of the companies involved, and heavily investing in this, as an example, like Halliburton and Booz Allen, which to me, let’s say Booz Allen which is also heavily tied into doing, they have access to data bases that the NSA does and, Edward Snowden worked for Booz Allen.
Alison: I would say like right now, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC, is huge and they’re pushing Summit Basecamp. I know we just have a few min…minutes in closing so I also wanna mention, in addition to tech, we also have global finance interests involved, because in ESSA there are provisions for Pay for Success. Which is where they’re looking to use private venture capital to affect educational outcomes. Either right now it’s in universal pre-k, also early literacy. So we need to be aware of the role that Pay for Success is going to play in this, and that’s essentially like “moneyball” for government. Where they’re looking to save money. I mean there’s a conference that they, they’ve put this together. Evidence based policy. That’s what they call it. That’s sort of the code word. Is that if you can come up with a computerized program that will give you specific success metrics, venture capital can make money on that. So a lot of global finance interests, and impact investing interests are looking, I believe at education as a market, a futures market in student education data. So I have more information on that on my blog. But social impact bonds and Pay for Success are a critical piece to understanding why education is being digitized. Also Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, IBM, the tech interests, Summit Basecamp, AltSchool, Micro Schools are another big component of this. These value-model private schools, if vouchers go through, that, we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of that. The tech is also focusing on Montessori school models, and, and very high-end. So you have Rocketship Academy, which are sort of stripped down versions for low-income districts and, but they’re also marketing tech to affluent families and aspirational families as being sort of future-ready. So it’s really a, there’s many different branded versions of education technology.
Mike: So long story short, you have a kid in, going through school, or, you know, anyone you care about then, this would be something to look into.
Alison: Yes. Understand how much time they’re spending on devices. Advocate that school budgets prioritize human teachers, and reasonable class sizes, and not data-mining, not adaptive management systems. And and have this conversation in your community. Is education about creating opportunities for students to learn and grow together as a community, or is it these isolating personalized pathways, where people are competing against one another. And and I think that’s a larger conversation we all need to have in our school districts.
Mike: Alright. We’re speaking with Alison McDowell. She is a parent and researcher in the Philadelphia school system. Produced a series, Future Ready Schools: How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education. And again, your website is…
Mike: Wrenchinthegears.com. And with that we’re unfortunately out of time. I want to thank you for coming and spending time with us this morning.
Alison: Thank you.