An Interview with Alison McDowell: KEXP’s Mind Over Matters Community Forum


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.

Alison McDowell Interview

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

Community Forum

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, 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…

Alison: Yeah…

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: 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.

Weekly Update: Class sizes of 36, 50 and 62, the Walton’s in Louisiana, a global education strike and more

The Weekly Update for the news and views you might have missed

Alice Walton of the Walton family, who are big contributors to the proliferation of charter schools and vouchers, is the same Alice Walton who has contributed $1.7M, and counting, to the charter school Initiative 1240 in Washington State. The Walton’s are investing heavily now in Louisiana where school vouchers are now legal and the Walton’s, along with some of the other wealthy few, want to ensure that charter schools not only remain in place but proliferate as the article in The Nation below describes. See the Walmart 1% for additional information on the Walton’s involvement in public education.

From The Nation, an excerpt:

Why Do Some of America’s Wealthiest Individuals Have Fingers in Louisiana’s Education System?

Last fall, a coterie of extremely wealthy billionaires, among them New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, turned the races for unpaid positions on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) into some of the most expensive in the state’s history. Seven pro-education “reform” candidates for the BESE outraised eight candidates endorsed by the teacher’s unions by $2,386,768 to $199,878, a ratio of nearly twelve to one. In just one of these races, the executive director of Teach for America Greater New Orleans-Louisiana Delta, Kira Orange Jones, outspent attorney Louella Givens, who was endorsed by the state’s main teacher’s unions, by more than thirty-four to one: $472,382 to $13,815.

To support Orange Jones’s campaign against Givens, Eli Broad, billionaire head of the education reform organization the Broad Foundation and a major trainer and placer of school superintendents, chipped in $5,000. Reed Hastings of Netflix kicked in the same. Houston energy hedge fund billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura gave a total of $10,000, as did Walmart heiress Carrie Walton Penner and her husband Greg. New York City’s second-wealthiest man, Michael Bloomberg, contributed $10,000 as well.

Kira Orange Jones wasn’t the only candidate for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who received previously unheard of levels of out-of-state cash. K12 Inc., an online education company, gave at least $12,000 to pro-reform BESE candidates and PACs. Siblings Alice and Jim Walton of the Walmart fortune gave more than $150,000 to candidates and PACs, and Michael Bloomberg gave a total of $330,000. In the end, only one candidate opposed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and education reformers actually won: Lottie Beebe, a public school personnel director who spent less than half of what her opponent spent. Compare this to the last BESE elections, in 2007. The total spent by all candidates in contested BESE races that year was just $258,596—roughly one-tenth of the 2011 total.

Why would out-of-state billionaires care about Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education? The state board must approve the governor’s nominee for the powerful state superintendent of education by a two-thirds majority, and the 2007–11 board would have been unlikely to approve Jindal’s nominee, John White. White had been in Louisiana for less than a year at the time, after coming from New York City to head Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which the BESE directly supervises. A Teach for America alum, White had previously spent five years working as a deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education under Michael Bloomberg. Louisiana’s education superintendent administers the state’s educational system, but of particular interest to wealthy donors, the superintendent recommends which schools should be eligible for accreditation and state support to the BESE, which ultimately approves. In the past decade or so, that has meant that the state superintendent and BESE discern which charter or voucher schools are eligible to provide instruction in the state of Louisiana.

The article continues:

….Jindal’s reform plan hit the ground running. State Representative Steve Carter introduced two bills modeled after the proposals in Jindal’s January speech on March 12, the first day of the legislative session. The two bills, now known as Act 1 — Talent, and Act 2 — Choice, are multifaceted. Act 1 deals primarily with limiting school boards’ ability to give tenure to teachers, as well as increasing the usage of teacher evaluations in making hiring decisions and giving superintendents considerably more latitude to hire and fire without the approval of their school board. (It is for this reason, among many others, that the Louisiana School Boards Association vehemently opposed both bills.) Act 2 focuses on the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. Under this new regime, nonprofit organizations can be given the authority to become charter authorizers, bypassing elected and public bodies. And any child below a certain income level attending a school rated C, D or F can receive a voucher to go to a private or parochial school. Act 2 also allows Louisiana businesses to receive funding from the state to provide apprenticeships, and allows charter and private schools to recruit uncertified teachers.

The legislative action on the bill was short but hard-fought. An estimated two thousand teachers rallied against the bill on March 14, but were not let into the committee room, which Karran Harper Royal, a leading activist who is a mother of a child with disabilities, told me was unprecedented in her years of advocating before the legislature. Michael Deshotels, a retired Louisiana educator, wrote on his blog that he witnessed only one teacher testify in favor of the bills.

Note: Parents Across America member Karran Harper Royal is running for school board. Her opponent is backed by some of these same wealthy individuals. Anyone who can, please consider a donation to Karran.

Now, on to charter schools.

The reason that the Washington State PTA decided not to support Initiative 1240 was because there would be no public oversight of charter schools, the charter school authorizers or the charter school commission. The  Office of the Inspector General, a branch of the US Department of Education, recently published results of its audit on the oversight of charter schools.

Diane Ravitch provides some interesting details regarding the audit.

Audit Blasts Lack of Oversight of Charter Spending

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General issued a stinging audit, showing a near absence of oversight of charter school spending in the three states studied: Florida, Arizona, and California. On the same day, the California charter schools association celebrated another big expansion of the charter sector in that state. There are now more than 1,000 charter schools with nearly half a million students in them, and the state department of education lacks the staff to monitor them. Some of the schools never open; some open and close within a year or two. Some pay outrageous executive salaries.

The main focus of the audit was the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation, which awarded over $1 billion to spur the growth of charter schools. It is headed by James Shelton, formerly of Edison Schools, McKinsey, the NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation. He is an avid proponent of charter schools.

Expecting Shelton to monitor the growth and oversight of charter schools is like calling out the fox who is guarding the hen house and expecting him to be more vigilant. His job is to increase their number, not to monitor their quality.

Please pay attention, folks. The U.S. Department of Education is doing whatever it can to spur competition in the education sector by funding entrepreneurs, Gulen schools, no-excuses schools, and anyone who wants some federal money to go into business with no regard to quality, longevity or soundness.

This is the next big Gates’ roll out, mining student data and selling it to the highest bidder.

Parents, do you know where your child’s data is? My interesting but not reassuring afternoon with the Gates Foundation’s Shared Learning Collaborative

An excerpt:

Sharren Bates

Yesterday, I spent several hours at the Shared Learning Collaborative “camp” held in midtown, where the Gates Foundation people invited teachers and  developers to brainstorm new “learning apps” to take advantage of all the confidential student data that they will be “holding” in their “data bank”.  (See our press conference, media coverage, and videos, during which we released a letter to the State Attorney General and the Regents, protesting the unprecedented agreement of NYC and NY State to provide confidential teacher and student data to this data bank without parental consent.  Four other districts and states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, and Colorado are also participating in this project, and Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana have agreed to follow soon.) 

The Gates Foundation identifies their role as “facilitating” the transfer of this data to commercial developers so they can invent learning products aligned with the Common Core; to aid in encouraging “efficiency” in “addressing the individual learning needs of students.”

I walked in late to the morning session, and after asking a question about the risks to student privacy, they seemed to identify me as a person of interest.  I’m not sure if they recognized my name when I signed in, or realized this from my question, but after the session was over,  someone from their PR firm buttonholed me and asked me if I wanted to speak privately with Sharren Bates, who is one of the leaders of this project for Gates Foundation.  I said sure.

I had asked my friend Justin Wedes to attend this “camp” too, who is a techie and has done work for Class Size Matters.  The two of us sat in a room with the PR rep and Sharren, and we tried to explain our myriad privacy concerns, both the risk of unauthorized data leakage but also why the transfer of confidential student information to commercial enterprises without parental consent is not okay.   

I repeatedly asked why they needed this confidential data to build their “learning tools”, and Sharren said something about “modular” and “interoperability” which I didn’t understand.  She said all this was being done to “personalize” instruction, and I said I agreed with the goal but not the way they were doing this.  (Of course, the Gates Foundation has opposed class size reduction, which is really the best way to achieve personalization; instead, they seem to think that technological tools can somehow substitute the direct contact between teacher and child.)

In response to our questions, Sharren told us that would be housing the “data store”, and a firm called OmniTI would be in charge of operation of their API (Application programming interface) – managing help tickets, debugging, etc.  Murdoch’s Wireless Generation has also been involved in helping to build the structure (to the tune of $44 million!), but Sharren insisted that they would not have access to individual student data— that is, I suppose, unless they contract with DOE to build some learning apps, which seems quite likely.

We went over our concerns again and again, which related to both the risk of data leakage but also the “authorized” transfer of our children’s confidential information to commercial enterprises, without parental knowledge or consent. I asked what information would be available to these vendors in their “data store.”

She said that student test scores, grades, their special education status and IEPs, as well as disciplinary records would all be included, and all of this shared with for-profit corporations, as long as the district consented.  I asked about student medical and/or counseling records, and economic data included in free lunch forms.  She said that would be essentially left up to the district, but anything that might be “helpful” for teachers to know about their students could and should be part of the “data store” and made available to vendors. 

She also insisted that the district would continue to “own” the data and that it already makes much of it available to vendors. I said that even if this is true (which I don’t know is the case), this did not make us feel better; and that the Gates’ role in facilitating the process of data sharing with multiple vendors  would likely exponentially increase the chance of this data being misused.

When she asked us what process we would want them to follow instead, Justin said the legal process now required in sharing medical records:  i.e. no information about our kids should be shared with any third parties without our consent.  Sharren looked very blank at that moment and seemed averse to discussing this possibility any further.

At one point after talking about their “customer” which is the “district,” I asked her exactly what she meant by the “district” and she said the superintendent.  I said, you must mean the chancellor in NYC, because here superintendents have completely been stripped of their powers.    I then assumed she was not familiar with DOE and the way things work here.  I tried to explain to her why her statement that they would leave it up to the district to decide which vendors get this data did not help allay our concerns, since parents do not trust DOE officials and do not think they act in our children’s interests.

I described how parents feel totally disempowered and disrespected by DOE, assuming she was not aware of these issues.  I even mentioned the $80 million boondoggle that is ARIS.  However, when I got home I looked her up and it turns out she had worked for DOE for almost two years and had been in charge of the ARIS project.  Oops!

She did say that soon, she will post new documents that will describe in more detail the project’s privacy protections, and after that, she would be willing to talk again with me and/or other parents about these issues.

When I mentioned how this was all being done behind our backs, she suggested that perhaps there could be an “app” that would inform parents what data is being housed at the SLC, and which data is being shared with other companies for what purpose.     I don’t know if she was trying to quiet me down or co-opt me, but when she asked me if I would stick around to help develop the idea I agreed.

She then brought in one of their consultants from Alvarez and Marsal to “work” with me. After I explained to the consultant our concerns, it was clear he had never thought any of this through (he is new to the project).  He seemed honestly floored that the Gates people were intent on sharing all this stuff with third parties without parental consent. He said he used to work for a telecom company and no sharing of confidential information was allowed without the customer’s affirmative buy-in.  But the problem in this case is they consider the “customer” DOE, not us! 

To read this article in full, go to NYC Public School Parents.

Bill Gates says that class size doesn’t matter but parents, teachers and students know better.

Class sizes of 36, 50 and 62 in Beaverton, Oregon and yet the appointed school board wants to spend $1M on virtual charter schools and more testing. Parents in Oregon are angry.

Karyn Servin brought her two children and four other students to ask how OEIB can make expensive proposals that sell more expensive testing without making education better.

Thanks to Save Our Schools Oregon for the video.

And on the college front, Wesleyan College just changed their policy and now when a student applies to the school, the school wants to know if the student can afford the $60,000 tuition.

From Democracy Now:

Students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut are continuing to protest against the school’s decision to change its admission practices by ending what is known as “need-blind admissions” to all applicants. Qualified students now face possible rejection if they are deemed unable to pay full tuition, now around $60,000 a year, making it one of the most expensive schools in the country. Students say the new policy will target the poor and middle class.

And this is a video made by two financial aid students to illustrate the importance of a “need blind” admissions policy at Wesleyan University.

What’s happening in our country?!

I came across this website and it is obvious to see that what is happening in the US  is happening globally and students around the world have taken notice and are taking action.

From the International Student Movement:


   November 14-22, 2012

We are calling for a Global Education Strike. It is the first time that an education strike is being coordinated worldwide.

We will UNITE in solidarity, because no matter where we live, we face the same struggle against national state and profit driven interests, and their hold on education. Increasing tuition fees, budget cuts, outsourcing, school closures, as well as other phenomena are linked to an increasing commercialization and privatization of education. Only by uniting globally will we be able to overcome these and enable free emancipatory education for all.

We are all struggling against cuts in education. Most of us are drowning in student debt. The increasing pressure to perform just makes us sick and the restrictions on education and ever-increasing tuition fees, among other barriers, make us angry!

Everyone must have access to education no matter their monetary or social status.

We have had enough of the pressure to measure everything – even the  unmeasurable! We are sick and tired of competitiveness being the only criteria dictating everything! It is about time that we do something about this together – UNITED!

Much to think about this weekend.

Have a good one.



The Weekly Update: The Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and vouchers. A few of my favorite things.

The Weekly Update for the news you might have missed.

We’ll start with this commentary on the Gates Foundation and how it has lost its way. A non-profit can have too much money.

Reforming Gates

Rendering of the Gates Foundation Headquarters in Seattle

In my last post I wrote about the pattern at the Gates Foundation of abusing the idea of “research” and “evidence” to advance its education policy agenda.  Gates has an organizational culture that permits intellectual corruption.  There are good people at Gates doing good work, but there is something rotten about the organization that needs to be changed if they hope to succeed over the long run.

In addition to their abuse of research and evidence, the Gates Foundation suffers from a bloated staff and paralyzing bureaucracy.  As their 990 tax filings show, their assets doubled over the last decade, but their staffing levels increased ten-fold — even more rapidly than the increase in assets as Buffett adds his money to Gates to create a philanthropic Leviathan.  They have so many people that they needed to build the $500 million palace pictured above to hold all of them.

But with huge size, staffing, and wealth comes the huge danger of corruption.  If an organization becomes bloated, inefficient and corrupt in the profit-seeking sector, the possibility of a hostile takeover can help check or eliminate abuses.  But in the non-profit sector there are no corporate raiders.  No outside shareholders can come in to take over the Gates Foundation, sell off its over-priced facilitates, cut staffing, reduce corruption and focus on the core mission.

To read this opinion piece in full and the comments, which I would recommend reading, go to Jay Greene’s blog.

While on the subject of Bill Gates, it seems that the evaluation system used at Microsoft  which has been touted as the best system to use in our public schools by Bill Gates and Eli Broad along with their mouthpieces Michelle Rhee, Stand for Children and the League of Education Voters, has been an abject failure at Microsoft.


Ranking employees falls out of favor among companies

Many American companies that had adopted a much-vaunted employee evaluation system have lately been turning away from it.

Known as “stacked ranking” or “forced ranking,” the process made famous by General Electric Co. is really just a version of what teachers call grading on the curve: a few people at the top, a few at the bottom and the rest clumped in the middle.

The practice leaped into the spotlight — at least for people who study how companies perform — when Vanity Fair published in its August issue a profile of technology icon Microsoft Corp. The company’s malaise, the author argued, was partly pegged to its evaluation system.

Whether a company makes screws or salads, whether it’s a hole in the wall or boasts a hundred global offices, it wants to know which employees are doing well, which are doing badly. A good evaluation system encourages creativity, spurs productivity and lifts morale.

So why did many American companies use a system that experts say is often stifling, demoralizing and counterproductive? And why are they now shying away from it? Generally, rewards and penalties follow the numerical rankings. But not necessarily success.

Vanity Fair notes that Apple Inc. now has more revenue from one product — the iPhone — than mighty Microsoft has in all its businesses combined. The article, by Kurt Eichenwald, portrays the company’s culture as “cannibalistic.” Microsoft’s response to the Vanity Fair story: The company’s performance review system is designed to “provide the highest rewards to employees who have the highest impact on our business success.”

To read this interesting article in full, go to the Los Angeles Times.

In the “You gotta’ be kiddin’ me” category we have the results of an “investigation” into the purported cheating that took place during Michelle Rhee’s reign as Chancellor of DC schools.

DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson

By the way, the present Chancellor of DC schools, Kaya Henderson, was brought in by Michelle Rhee in 2007 to be the Deputy Chancellor. She was with Rhee at The New Teacher Project (TNTP), an organization that Rhee established after three years of teaching. At TNTP, Henderson became the Vice President for Strategic Partnerships.  As Deputy Chancellor she was the chief negotiator for the contract between the DC Public School system and the Washington Teachers’ Union,  and was in charge of the development of IMPACT, a teacher assessment system based on test scores.


D.C. schools cheating report thin and biased

By Jay Mathews

Now we know who did it. D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby has concluded his 16-month probe of cheating on the D.C. schools’ annual tests by saying that kids, not adults, made the astonishing number of wrong-to-right erasures found on answer sheets.

Never mind that testing companies, academic experts and veteran teachers say that students almost never make more than one or two wrong-to-right erasures per test. Ignore the fact that in Atlanta, where there were similar volumes of erasures on 2009 tests, state investigators with subpoena power found 178 principals and teachers had changed the answers.

After Willoughby’s investigators visited only one school, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, he endorsed their conclusion that since the adults at that school seemed innocent of changing answers, none of the adults at dozens of other schools with massive erasures could be guilty either. The investigation is over, in part because Willoughby, allegedly immune to influence from interested parties, let D.C. school chancellor Kaya Henderson persuade him that schools she thought were great should not be examined.

I had hoped Willoughby’s report would be thorough and independent, since that is what people in such jobs are supposed to be. This thin, biased 14-page document fails egregiously on both counts.

Henderson has not responded to my questions about her involvement in the probe. Deputy Inspector General Blanche L. Bruce said “your assumptions and conclusions are incorrect.” She said her office’s conclusions relied “on the totality of all the evidence.”

Noyes, the only school investigated, had 75 percent of its classrooms flagged by the testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill for unusual numbers of wrong-to-right erasures in 2008, followed by 81 percent in 2009 and 80 percent in 2010, on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests. At least five Noyes classrooms had wrong-to-right erasure rates of more than 10 per child, while the D.C. average was less than two. (Disclosure: my wife Linda Mathews conceived and supervised a USA Today investigation that revealed 103 D.C. schools had abnormally high erasure rates at least once from 2008 to 2010.)

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill testing expert Gregory Cizek, a consultant to the Atlanta investigation, told me “nothing we know of” has ever caused such large groups of students to change so many wrong answers to right. Massive erasing only occurs when “others do if for them,” he said.

To read this article in full, go to The Washington Post.

While on the subject of tests, testing and test scores, check this out:

Broad Academy Superintendent: Too much Test Security

By Tim Slekar

If you listened to @the chalk face on BlogTalk radio earlier this evening you heard us break the unbelievable story out of Pittsburgh.  According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh city schools’ test scores dropped this year.

The district’s scores are now where they were two years ago.  Of course there is a lot of blame to go around (no mention of poverty) and Broad Academy graduate and Superintendent of Pittsburgh City Schools, Linda Lane is going to do whatever it takes to find out what happened.  Along with a host of issues (no mention of the 40%+ poverty rate in the city) Superintendent Lane seems to not be too happy with the new testing security. One of the possible causes for the drop in test scores was…

Uncomfortable testing conditions for the PSSA brought about by new, “aggressive” state-required test security measures that left teachers and principals “afraid to do even the things they could do, especially with younger children.”

I’m confused.  Is Broad Academy Graduate and Pittsburgh City Schools Superintendent Linda Lane saying that guarding against cheating may have brought down test scores?

What do they teach in the Broad Superintendent Academy?

And in Louisiana so much for the separation of church and state with the new voucher system. Every “con profit” in the state can open a school and get state tax dollars.

Check out Diane Ravitch’s post below and please go to the linked article. This has got to go into the “How low can you go” category.

Voucher Carnival Gets Even Wilder in Louisiana

This one takes the cake.

John White has approved the Light City Church School of the Prophets to get vouchers, nearly $700,000 a year.

The man who runs it describes himself as an apostle or a prophet.

Whatever. People can call themselves whatever they like.

Please read the linked article to see how low the bar is for getting taxpayer dollars from the state of Louisiana.

The state will have no standards for voucher schools. There will be no accountability for voucher schools.

A few months ago, John White told a Reuters reporter: “To me, it’s a moral outrage that the government would say, ‘We know what’s best for your child,’” White said. “Who are we to tell parents we know better?”

Well, he is the state commissioner of education, and he is the one who is supposed to know better. If he doesn’t, why is he in that job?

But John White has no problem setting standards for public schools and holding their teachers accountable.

He thinks that once you leave the public system, no standards or accountability are necessary.

In Bobby Jindal’s world, that’s called reform.

What I want to know is where our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama are on all of this. Ultimately aren’t they to hold all of these shysters accountable with this ed reform system that they unleashed on us? What about the constitutionality of this voucher system President Obama? Or, is it just the teachers and principals who are to be held accountable for all of our human failings?

Speaking of President Obama and his change we can believe in administration, check out this op-ed piece comparing Obama’ response to our financial crisis and that of President Roosevelt’s  programs:

Austerity Hastens Economic Decline

by Stephen Lendman

Obama and other Western leaders face Depression conditions. Roosevelt addressed them in the 1930s. Imagine how austerity then would have imposed greater hardships.

Instead Americans got Social Security, homeowners loan refinancing, and moratoriums on foreclosures. Small farmers were helped unlike current subsidies earmarked for agribusiness.

Farm credit provided refinancing help. Doing so let many stay solvent and survive.

Unemployment insurance was established in partnership with states. Jobless workers got help. Now they’re being told go find a job. We won’t help you. More on that below.

FDR’s alphabet soup of programs created jobs. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers built public infrastructure and worked on other projects.

Civilian Works Administration (CWA), National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), Public Works Administration (PWA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and other federal initiatives put millions back to work.

Despite hard times, people got help. So did America. Accomplishments were impressive.

They included building or renovating 700,000 miles of roads, 7,800 bridges, 45,000 schools, 2,500 hospitals, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 1,000 airfields, and other infrastructure projects.

Much of Chicago’s lakefront was built. Unemployment dropped from 25% in May 1933 to 11% in 1937. It then  spiked when victory was declared too early. War production revived economic growth. Full employment followed. Mirror opposite conditions exist today.

Over three years after the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) declared America’s recession over in June 2009, unemployment, based on how calculated in the 1980s, approaches 23%.

Poverty is at Depression levels and rising. Stimulus and job creation programs are absent. Austerity is policy. So is directing America’s resources for militarism, wars, banker bailouts, and other corporate handouts.

Growing public needs go begging. Instead of New Deal help, anti-New Dealism is policy. Increasingly people are on their own sink or swim.

On accepting his party’s 1932 presidential nomination, Roosevelt pledged “a new deal for the American people” and delivered.

Obama promised “change you can believe in” and lied.

To read this op-ed in full, go to Daily Censored.

When I started paying attention to public education in Seattle, which occurred when my daughter became a student in the Seattle Public School system a few years ago, I started asking questions because things weren’t as they should have been with our Broad superintendent running the school district according to  the Eli Broad playbook of education reform. Since those first questions, my curiosity has led me to the top of the food chain where the individuals and corporations with the most money are running our country to the point of micromanaging how our children are to be taught. Folks like Obama and Romney are merely puppets that serve at their pleasure.

The Occupy movement has been in reaction to this realization that many of us have had over the last few years. Others saw this coming years and decades ago but for me it has been a more recent shock with accompanying rage and sadness.

Things must change. We as a nation cannot continue like this. Everyday there are more children slipping into poverty, more families without health care, more students becoming homeless.

This blog is about education not revolution but many times the two are closely related.

The following article caught my eye because it is a discussion on how to change the course that we are on today.

Diversity of tactics and the 1%

I participated in an all-Britain Peace News camp in which we discussed, among other things, the idea of diversity of tactics. I was a little surprised when my fellow panelists wanted to turn it into a conversation about pacifism and whether violence can ever be justified.

Although I’m a pacifist, I didn’t get their point. Most people who participate in nonviolent campaigns aren’t pacifists; they choose nonviolent action strategically, because it increases their chance of winning. In Oman during the Arab Awakening, for example, the campaign began nonviolently but soon detoured into violence. The movement stopped, regrouped, began again nonviolently and won their objectives. Had the majority of Omanis somehow become pacifists? Of course not; they simply applied a sensible strategy.

Thanks to the work of political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, we now know that, between 1900 and 2006, when mass movements tried to overthrow their regimes, they doubled their chances of winning by choosing nonviolent struggle. Clearly the millions of people who won nonviolently had not taken an ethical stand against ever using violence, as pacifists do; they simply invented a strategy that worked.

For me, therefore, the question before us is whether diversity of tactics makes sense at this time in struggles against the economic and political dominance of the 1 percent in the United Kingdom — or, for that matter, in the United States.

Violent tactics in Tahrir Square

The question becomes clearer when we compare our situation with the 2011 uprising in Egypt, when alongside the massive use of nonviolent action there was also the use of injurious force against people, as well as property destruction.

It’s important, however, to distinguish between moments of confrontation, when the movement chooses tactics designed to win over the large segment of the population that sympathizes but is unwilling to act, and mass political and economic noncooperation. These are stages three and four, respectively, in my five-stage framework for revolution.

The Egypt we saw on television last year was in stage four, with its massive occupations and strikes and boycotts and demonstrations around the country. Stage four is when Occupy Wall Street organizers could call a general strike on May Day and actually get a response! Stage four is also when, as in the Egyptian case, property destruction and some actual violence is less likely to slow the movement; the basic population shift has been made and the momentum is already enormous.
In other words, the movement’s violence in Tahrir Square isn’t relevant to other movements that are still in stage three. In the U.K., the U.S. and so many other places, our task is to conduct confrontations in ways that maximize the contrast between our behavior and that of the opponent. Our creativity and courage need to show dramatically to the public why they should join us, as happened in Occupy Wall Street’s early confrontations and were largely responsible, through police violence, for its remarkable growth.

In hundreds of campaigns in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, we see this dynamic at work: Nonviolent stage three confrontations lead to massive participation, and then the stage four tactics open a power vacuum and the possibility of breakthrough.

What about when our target is the 1 percent?

Never in my long life has the rule of the 1 percent been as vulnerable as now. They are experiencing a perfect storm of consequences that are directly traceable to their decisions — that is, when we do the tracing, shining the light on their decisions through creative actions. See Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stoneto learn how much worse it’s going to get for them, and for the planet.

Our challenge is to stay focused. The 1 percent want very much to change the conversation and distract us, as when they go about “protecting the Olympics” in London by installing surface-to-air missiles. Their intent is to scare the public by projecting fearsomeness on the shadowy others, including, of course, activists like us.

Now we can see all the more clearly the brilliance of the African-American students sitting in lunch counters in the sixties. Of course they could have heaved rocks through windows or beaten up store owners. That would have been a tremendous gift to the racists because it would have played into the stereotype of blacks as violent. Instead, the students were emphatically nonviolent, and everyone could see exactly who it was who was violent, and begin to make connections to the violence of racism.

To read this opinion piece in full, go to Nation of Change.

We need to start having open conversations about how we can change the course that we are on now. It won’t happen through the leadership of a charming or even worse,  charismatic, leader. It has to happen with us and within us. Whether the discussion is about a three party system, a different form of governance or change through non-violent means, we must start determining our own course.