OUSD, the Digital Divide and Edtech – Be careful what you wish for

24 Jul

By  Steven Miller, July 22, 2021 (Guest Post by former Oakland Educator)

In 2018, Thomas Ultican wrote about the dangers of Edtech:

“Public education in America contends with four dissimilar but not separate attacks. The school choice movement is motivated by people who want government supported religious schools, others who want segregated schools and still others who want to profit from school management and the related real estate deals. The fourth big threat is from the technology industry which uses their wealth and lobbying power to not only force their products into the classroom, but to mandate “best practices” for teaching. These four streams of attack are synergistic.”

Edtech is now far more predominant everywhere today, after 2 COVID school years, which has resulted in the massive imposition of distance-learning.

Back in 2018, Education Week Research Center reported that a strong majority of the country’s principals  – 85% of those interviewed –  felt that too much screen time was not good for students – 77% felt students worked alone too often and 67% felt the tech industry had too much influence over public education.  And now Edtech is being established as the savior of our children.

That was then; this is now.

We all know, teachers, students, parents, communities – all the primary stake-holders – we all know that the new school year presents us with some of the greatest challenges we have ever faced in public education. Re-opening is a crisis and an emergency. So what is Edtech bringing to OUSD? Is it helping?

The education reporter for The Oaklandside, Ashley McBride, wrote on July 20, 2021:

“More than a year ago, the city of Oakland together with Oakland Unified School District and a group of nonprofit partners launched the Oakland Undivided campaign with an ambitious goal: to close the digital divide by raising enough money to purchase laptops and internet hotspots for every student in Oakland who needed them during the pandemic. At the time, public school students were required to learn from home virtually, but roughly 25,000 of them in Oakland lacked a computer, reliable internet, or both….”

“Today, as students prepare to head back to their classrooms full-time in the fall, nearly 97% of students in Oakland Unified School District have a computer and working internet at home, including 98% of students who are low-income, according to district data.”

Sounds like a good thing, a really good thing. The problem with Edtech, however, is not the digital technology. Technology is a tool that can be used well or turned against us. Technology can actually be employed to make schools better, not cheaper. The issue is how it is configured. As always, we must follow the money trail to really discover who benefits.

While OUSD is currently planning on fully re-opening, distance learning is an option. It will certainly be more pervasive in the classroom. Edtech makes its money off harvesting student data. Who will own the data this coming year, 2021-22?  Who can use the data? Do students or their parents control their own data?

The School Board must play a leading role in guaranteeing public policy here.

Chrome books store every single key stroke (and possibly every eye movement) on the cloud, which they own. Google Chromebooks also have a pre-installed program called “Gaggle”, which, we are told, scans student homework to look for depression, suicide ideation and likely various threats to shoot up the school. Google Classroom material is configured to surveille the students. Data and ever more data is the mother’s milk of Edtech. 

One problem is the people who control the data harvested from Edtech algorithms have increasing influence in creating the curriculum. This new private power in public schools is routinely used to undercut the role of experienced teachers and call the shots.

Whether corporations or big-shot administrators, the people who control this power love to spout about “healing the digital divide”. This is the corporate happy-speak that the OUSD school board, as well as their “private partners” and NGOs, traditionally have used to dress up policies that are demonstrated to work against student learning. But “healing the digital divide” with chrome books turns our children’s information into fodder for corporate profits.

Another favorite is “personalized learning”, supposedly something that Edtech will make available to every student and bring public education into the 21st Century. This myth is based on the same type of algorithms that Netflix and Amazon use to “personalize” their services to your interests. The biggest backers of personalized learning are Bill Gates, Google and the Chan- Zuckerberg Initiative.  As noted by blogger Peter Greene:

“Personalized learning, whether we’re talking about a tailored-for-you learning program on your computer screen or a choose the school you’d like to go to with your voucher, is not about actual personalization. It’s about another path for marketing, a way of personalizing the marketing of the product, the edu-commodity that someone is already trying to make money from.

“We’re being sold (and in many cases are arguing against) an AI that spits out just the digitized worksheet that Student 12-5452 needs to continue studies, but that’s not where we’re headed. Look, for instance, at the new, improved PSAT
that returns both a score and some recommendations. ‘Looks like you need to log in to Khan Academy’s lesson series for calculus.’ Or ‘You would really benefit from the AP Calculus course– talk to your guidance counselor today.”’

On March 21, 2021, OUSD signed an agreement to replace diagnostic testing from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium with the notorious I-Ready. One of the funders of i-Ready is the Kenneth Rainnin Foundation, which also funds local Oakland privatizers like GO Public Schools, the Oakland Public Education Fund, the New Schools Venture Fund, Aspire charter schools, Educate 78 Oakland Public Schools, the East Bay Community Foundation, and Education for Change.

I-Ready is based in the techniques of behavioral modification that was fundamental to the highly discredited system of Competency Based Education that holds that children should learn alone and in isolation, taking constant tests to prove their “mastery”.

This reactionary and unproductive philosophy is also disguised as “performance-based education”, “standards-based education”, “outcome-based education”, and “programmed instruction” among others. I-Ready is Competency Based Education on a screen.

Funny thing, i-Ready regularly identifies Black, Indigenous, and students of color as failing. If the goal is to prove that Oakland children are “failing”, then i-Ready is the tool to use. But maybe it is not best to welcome students back and then give them standardized tests to measure how far behind they have fallen.

 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote:

“The dystopian imagery of a ‘lost generation’ of Black youth is redolent of earlier moral panics: the discoveries of ‘crack babies’ in the nineteen-eighties and ‘super predators’ in the nineties were also rooted in anecdote-driven, pseudo-scientific evidence. Today’s evidence for the spiral of Black children is the tactically vague measurement of ‘learning loss.’ But no one needs to invent a new metric to discover that, during the worst crisis in modern American history, students might be falling behind.”

Ashley McBride describes another facet of Edtech coming to Oakland:

“The Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy group involved with the Oakland Undivided campaign, has been working with Sydewayz Cafe, an information technology business in Oakland, to provide tech support for the organization’s virtual family hub during the pandemic. In the fall, The Oakland Reach plans to launch a fellowship to give students and their families more intensive training in technology and digital platforms, said executive director Lakisha Young. They’ve also been helping families get a federal discount on broadband service.”

Here we have another private power with powerful influence in OUSD. Oakland Reach and the OUSD, in partnership, received a $900,000 grant from the notorious privatizers, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and The New Teacher Project, which supposedly trains teachers, but which pushes privatization. These organizations are part of a complex of billionaire-financed privatization networks like Teach For America, too many to name.

CRPE advocates that school boards should look at schools like a stock portfolio, get rid of the poor performers and invest in the successful stocks. When New Orleans privatized every single school as charters, CRPE came up with “the Blueprint Process”. OUSD used the Blueprint Process to justify closing 23 schools in 2018.

The OUSD School Board, in its grace and wisdom, still intends to close schools as the 2021-2022 school year begins. How many? The Board will announce its plan for school closures on August 16, one week after school begins. “Nothing says ‘Welcome back to school for a restorative restart’ than to tell schools filled with Black and brown students that we’re going to close your school or change your school because you’re not doing well,” said parent Kim Davis during a public comment portion of the meeting.

CRPE has developed a national network called “Education Cities” with the purpose of disrupting public schools. This corporate mob operates in 32 different cities across the country including Oakland, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

From Atlanta to Cincinnati to Oakland, a loosely connected network of nonprofit groups is working to reshape the way their school districts function. Their national scope has gone mostly unexamined, even as their influence is arguably far more likely to affect schools in the average American city than a Betsy DeVos-inspired voucher program.

CRPE also advocates to abolish the political control of public schools by elected school boards. They would be replaced by “Community Education Councils (CECs)”, which would exert “light local governance”. In addition, CRPE advocates for vouchers, what they call “backpack funding”:

A local CEC would have three essential functions: (1) assembling and disbursing funds for each student’s personal education fund; (2) monitoring the quality, innovativeness, and responsiveness to economic change of the learning options available to students; and (3) protecting students by ensuring valid information for choices among diverse learning experiences, monitoring equity of student placements, and identifying fraudulent or ineffective schools or learning providers.

Their essay on funding also discusses students’ personalized education funds, including so-called “back pack funding” that follows students through different learning experiences, and how they can be assembled and managed. The remainder of this essay focuses on the promotive and protective functions of light local governance.

The complex of “OUSD partners” that have banded together to enforce a corporate dictatorship for privatized and semi-privatized education is out in the open. It runs the gamut from chrome books to Oakland Reach to Oakland Undivided to the Center for Reinventing Public Education to the Gates Foundation to Michael Bloomberg, who has bought and paid for several school board members, and beyond.

Certainly, better and more equitable education technology is essential and a public priority. But the way this will be implemented threatens children in Oakland and across the country.

Key question that unravel the whole mess are:

“What are these corporate education reformers going to do with all the data your child will produce next year? Who owns it?”

Every click, every search, the amount of time a child spends on a project or on multiplication, whatever, becomes the property of the corporations that own the apps and the algorithms. They can store it, sell it, search it and configure it with AI, and even… create a profile of your kid that the corporation owns. In May, Dr Velislava Hillman a visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics shared,

“Naviance, owned by Hobson, is a multi-layered data-collecting platform, which until February 2021 formed part of the Daily Mail and General Trust in the UK. The platform has access to a wide range of personal and sensitive information of students. It tracks students as they move through elementary school, college and beyond.”

Hobson serves roughly 12 million students globally across 2000 institutions of post-secondary  education and some 8500 schools and school districts in 100 different countries. It focuses on student “life-cycle management.”

What will happen to Oakland students then when they graduate? Can they retrieve their “profile” from the corporations? What if a student has asthma, causing her to miss school at a rate 7.8% more than her cohort, perhaps taken as “race”, “class,” or measured against the easily developed “Obstruction Index”, which reports on non-cooperation as a behavior trait? 

Perhaps OUSD School Board members will tell us soon whether or not our children’s data will be exploited by corporations. That definitely is the national and international trend. Perhaps School Board members can explain how OUSD intends to protect the information of children – their legacy as living beings – and guarantee their rights to control their digital profile.

We can only hope… or maybe we should force the issue?

4 Responses to “OUSD, the Digital Divide and Edtech – Be careful what you wish for”

  1. T Edward July 24, 2021 at 2:54 pm #

    Agreed that For-Profit companies have no business in Ed Tech, Student Privacy should be absolute, and that Less Ed Tech is more. That still leaves teachers with a need for good learning software. Without it they can’t help kids reach their potential (best curriculum in the world can’t close learning or opportunity gaps, you have to go to each child, find the problem and coach them up; and if you have dozens or hundreds of students this is impossible without learning software). When schools or districts fail to do this they leave an opening for the cynical private equity “education” companies and various billionaire’s vanity/make even more money “education” software. So here are three non-profit math programs that work; that are free or affordable; and that aren’t sharing student data to make more money: 1. STMath.com (large effect size at scale, concrete to abstract learning path, rigorous research for continuous improvement, deep understanding of concepts, customizes path for each child, prices have dropped as they grew, non-profit that spends 5 million a year more than they take in from schools); 2. ThatQuiz.org (absolutely free, customizable web pages for each classroom by roster or student, math fluency engine; with a little work this helps teachers “go to every child”) 3. Desmos + Illustrative Math/Open Up (an exciting blend of active-learning math modeling software and free or cheap math textbooks: with ST Math or ThatQuiz as a fluency/comprehension engine, Desmos can help kids use their math skills and knowledge to do creative math and problem-solving).

    Like

    • tultican July 24, 2021 at 5:29 pm #

      Agreed. Thanks for the note. By the way, I really liked the Desmos graphing utilities.

      Like

  2. Sheila Resseger July 26, 2021 at 5:47 pm #

    Mr. Miller, Thank you very much for your insightful description of the harms of the privatization/”personalized” mindset of those either salivating for the income from these mediocre digital materials, or relishing the control via mega-data and AI over the lives of the disposables. I would like to point out another harm from these devices that bona fide research has shown to be damaging to biological cells–pulsed/modulated radiofrequency/microwave radiation emitted from cell phones, iPads, Chromebooks, routers, and cell towers placed on school grounds. I am well aware that many people, bamboozled by the telecom industry and the FCC that has been captured by the industry, believe wholeheartedly that this technology is completely safe. However, a serious search of the scientific literature establishes that this is not the case. Please see this report from the state of NH as a start to understanding what we are up against and why we must speak up to protect our children. “Final Report of the Commission to Study The Environmental and Health Effects of Evolving 5G Technology” http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/statstudcomm/committees/1474/reports/5G%20final%20report.pdf

    Like

    • tultican July 26, 2021 at 7:27 pm #

      I am very interested in the NH study. Thank you for sharing.

      Like

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