Tag Archives: Personalized Learning

“Coal Miner’s Daughter” Hawks Digital Learning

8 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/8/2020

The last Democrat and first woman to serve as Governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue, has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for digital learning. She presents herself as a simple country girl from a poor family, but doesn’t mention that her coalminer father became a rich mine owner by the time she was in college. She is known as a powerful political and financial operative with connections that go all the way to the incoming Biden administration.

Creating a New Career

Governor Perdue has a background in education. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in history, she taught kindergarten in 1970-71, ninth grade 1971-73 and high school 1973-74. She then returned to college where in 1976 she earned a Doctorate in Education Administration. Her thesis was focused on education gerontology.

Following earning the education doctorate, she worked in long term care and geriatric services. She ran for the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1986 and won. Four years later, she won a state senate seat; holding it for a decade before making successful runs for Lieutenant Governor in 2000 and again in 2004. This all positioned her to become North Carolina’s first female governor in 2008.

For Perdue, the wheels flew off the campaign bus in 2012. She was facing tanking polling numbers when members of her 2008 campaign pled guilty to finance violations. Greensboro businessman Peter Reichard, the finance director, pled to a felony and lawyer Julia Leigh “Juleigh” Sitton, a fundraiser for the campaign, pled to a misdemeanor in order to avoid a felony charge. Perdue soon announced she would not be a candidate for Governor in 2013.

The June following her exit from the Governor’s mansion, the Newsobserver.com reported, “Former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has recently finished her teaching fellowship at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and plans to launch an education consulting business from her home in Chapel Hill.” The next month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Perdue a $250,669 grant to “develop a business and operation plan for the Digital Learning Institute (digiLEARN).”

That September digiLEARN received notice from the IRS of their successful application identifying them as a charitable organization. To do the heavy lifting at digiLEARN, Purdue brought in her advisor from the governor’s office on e-learning and innovation, Myra Best. Prior to joining Perdue in Raleigh, Best served as Director of the Business Education Technology Alliance (BETA) which established North Carolina’s first statewide Virtual Public School. BETA was a committee of 27 business, political and education leaders established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2002. The chair of the committee was Lieutenant Governor Bev Perdue.

DigiLEARN’s about web page states,

“Digital Learning Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating digital learning for all ages with a goal of increasing personal learning options for students and expanding instructional opportunities for teachers and instructors. In addition, DigiLEARN will focus on cultivating an innovative economy for education technology start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“DigiLEARN was founded and is chaired by former North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue, with former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer serving as vice chair.”

In 1997, the vice chair, Jim Geringer, was one of the governors who established the non-profit Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. It was an early adopter of cyber and competency based education. In a lengthy interview for the Wyoming State archives, Geringer speaks glowingly about the school and its methods.

The membership of the first digiLEARN board of governors made it clear that it was politically connected and aligned with the goals of the edtech industry. In addition to Geringer and Perdue former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise became a founding Director on the board.

In 2010, Jeb Bush and Bob Wise launched the Digital Learning Council which promoted cyber schooling and “personalized learning.” In 2015, North Carolina State University honored Wise at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation’s Friday Medal presentation. The institute notes, “The Friday Medal is awarded annually in honor of William C. Friday to recognize significant, distinguished and enduring contributions to education and beyond through advocating innovation, advancing education and imparting inspiration.”

Besides the three ex-governors, two North Carolina State Representatives – Craig Horn and Joe Tolson – were on the original board. Also on the board was one of edtech industries most widely published advocates, Tom Vander Ark. He became a national name in 1999 when named the Executive Director of the Gates Foundation in charge of education initiatives. In 2001 his notoriety grew when testifying before congress making the case for the now failed Gates small schools initiative. Teacher activist Anthony Cody wrote questioning Vander Ark’s 2016 push for new testing in a Washington Post piece,

“The growing ‘opt out’ movement poses a huge threat to the standardized testing ‘measure to manage’ paradigm.

“So what is to be done?

“Reinvent the tests once again, using technology. And who better for the job than Tom Vander Ark, formerly of the Gates Foundation, and now associated with a long list of education technology companies. The latest package of solutions is being called ‘competency-based learning,’ and it was featured prominently in the Department of Education’s latest ‘Testing Action Plan.”

Michael Lavine is also on the board. For almost 11 years he was Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center where according to his LinkedIn page, he “Founded research and development institute (a new division for the company) devoted to accelerating young children’s learning through the integration of proven and promising educational technologies.” For seven years, he served as an Advisory Board Member at Teach For America (TFA).

DigiLEARN focuses its activities on developing a network of support for competency based education and digital learning. Of particular note are their connections with The Friday Institute of Education Innovation and The Innovation Project both headquartered on the campus at North Carolina State University. They spend most of their billionaire provided largesse on Digital Scholars, a program developed to help teachers see the value in digital learning and to successfully institute it.

Liz Bell of EDNC (Education North Carolina) reported on the 2017 plan for establishing Digital Scholars:

“The program is operating on a $1.5 million budget, $900,000 of which will be for the 40 total Scholars training, travel, and experiences. The other $600,000 will be used to hire a full-time Digital Scholar, and for contracts, publications, and other expenses.”

“We have realized now that if you can put teachers really skilled in digital learning in every school in a state, or in every school in a district, then you can build to scale this thing we call personalized learning,” she [Perdue] said.”

A libertarian conservative named A. J. Dillon observed,

“This continued push in Digital Learning comes despite a study from January 2016 that says digital devices are a major distraction to students and achievement levels were suffering.

“The study was done by Bernard McCoy University of Nebraska Lincoln which was published in the Journal of Media Education and involved college students.

“A variety of recent research suggests that digital device access is lower academic progress, creating developmental delays for young children and has become a real distraction in the classroom. Digital learning is also proving to be very, very expensive.”

Dillon also urged her followers to read, “Screens In Schools Are a $60 Billion Hoax.”

Director Tom Vander Ark just published a new piece about Governor Geringer’s Western Governor’s University (WGU). In it he shares,

“WGU put together a skills architecture team alongside national competency networks. They then used EMSI, a common way to describe skills, to tag them to a competency and execute dynamic audits of performance.”

He quotes Marni Baker Stein, Provost and Chief Academic Officer at WGU,

‘“Over 90 institutions who are actively involved in this work. Ourselves, SNHU, Georgia State System, ACE, Wal Mart, Amazon, Udacity, US Chamber, more… Concentric Sky.’ (sic)

Vander Ark concludes,

“These developments will lead to a skills library that everyone can use and will encourage diversity in employment and educational institutions. Tagging all things to a skill makes them universally valuable — something that is particularly important with Human+ degrees.”

Behavioral badging in China (gamifying good citizenship) is quite similar to the dystopian future being offered here. Edtech enabled micro credentialing includes behavior modification using badging as a way to move schooling away from a rounded liberal arts program to a marketable skills program. Students complete small discrete skills at a screen and are rewarded with badges as proof of meeting the standard. Wall Street leaders in the online learning and edtech industries are making major investments in this scheme which holds the potential for destroying community public schools, generating large profits and lowering taxes on the wealthy. It has also proven to be bad pedagogy.

EDNC reported that this October, Lawmakers at the North Carolina Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee heard a proposal to make micro-credentialing a statewide system of professional development for teachers.

“Former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, head of digiLEARN, a nonprofit focused on ‘accelerating digital learning,’ is spearheading the development of a micro-credential program along with partners such as the state Department of Public Instruction, RTI International, and New America.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a chair of the committee, said that micro-credentials can help people better understand what kinds of teachers are in a classroom.” (Representative Craig Horn is a digiLEARN founding board member.)

Perdue, Vander Ark, Horn and everyone else at digiLEARN must be thrilled that Catherine Truitt is the incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction for North Carolina. Chancellor Truitt of the North Carolina branch of WGU is leaving the competency based cyber school for her new position.

Billionaires like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Laurene Jobs Powell have spent lavishly to create an education publishing group to get out their message of school choice and edtech. Both Perdue and Vander Ark are regular contributors to The 74 Million and Perdue is featured at The Education Post. One of her early pieces for Education Post was A Nation At Risk 2.0. In it Perdue echoed the calamity rhetoric of 1983’s “A Nation At Risk” declaring, “Right now, alarm bells should be clanging all over America louder than they were for President Reagan and business leaders more than 30 years ago.” She was decrying the slow implementation of edtech in schools.

Perdue has added a new position to her resume, Managing Partner for Education, at the Ridge-Lane Limited Partners. The former Pennsylvania Governor and first Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, has partnered with financier R. Brad Lane to create the company. Their about page says it is “a strategic advisory and venture development firm … focused on root-cause solutions to grand challenges in Education, Sustainability, and Information Technology.

Along with Perdue, former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise is on the Ridge-Lane board. Also on the board is former New Schools Venture Fund CEO and Obama’s Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell. He has strong ties to the investor community and the privatization movement. Two TFA alumni Hana Skandara and John White are on the board as is Chris Cerf.

With this lineup of education leaders there is little doubt that Ridge-Lane will be promoting both bad edtech and segregation engendering school choice.

Infecting the Biden Administration with Edtech Dogma

Prompted by an article I had written about North Carolina being ravaged with edtech spending, a profoundly shaken person contacted me to share their experience on Biden’s campaign Education Policy Committee. As the new administration prepares to take charge, many groups are meeting to develop an agenda to move America forward.  

In the Education Policy Committee, there was a tech sub-committee chaired by Bev Perdue. Reportedly the sub-committee had a large North Carolina contingent including Myra Best. The twenty member sub-committee was dominated by edtech supporters. Many members were people with backgrounds like former Amazon web-services director.

The committee’s attitude toward student privacy was unacceptable especially their positions on sharing data. My source described the sub-committee as the proverbial “foxes in the hen house.”

Edtech can be a wonderful thing for students and educators, but if the point is to make large profits off data and replace teachers with digital screens, edtech becomes a great evil. Unfortunately, Bev Perdue and digiLEARN are promoting the evil brand of edtech. Let’s hope the incoming administration can successfully filter out this tainted input.

Selling Edtech when Disguised as Philanthropy

27 Nov

By Thomas Ultican 11/27/2020

“Personalized learning” is being driven by foundations derived from companies that stand to profit by its implementation. Last year, George Mason’s Priscilla Regan and the University of Ottawa’s Valerie Steeves wrote the peer reviewed paper Education, privacy, and big data algorithms: Taking the persons out of personalized learning in which they state, “Other than the Carnegie Corporation, the private foundations who have been most supportive of personalized learning are those supported by the technology companies, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Google Foundation.”

In the case of the Carnegie Corporation, the authors note that the philanthropy has been supporting education causes since its founding in 1911. Recently, Carnegie has given monetary support to “personalized learning” but “typically in partnership with one of the tech foundations.”

Based on a listing of the fifteen largest education spending philanthropies in the first decade of the millennium,  the paper’s authors selected the technology linked Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the largest donor); Michael and Susan Dell (fourth largest donor); and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (#8 in 2010) for analysis. They added two newer giving organizations, the Google Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to complete their list of five tech associated education grant making companies to analyze.

In their review of scholarly papers and the popular press, they identified five types of activities supported by tech foundations with their K-12 spending:

“The first activity … involves grants to public schools for adoption of edtech applications, including personalized learning initiatives, or to educational initiatives to organizations working in public schools (such as Teach for America) or to organizations providing alternatives to public schools (such as charter schools).

“The second entails grants or some form of funding support for edtech companies.”

“The third area of activity is tech foundation support for coverage of edtech, especially coverage in publications directed to education professionals.”

“A fourth area of activity is tech foundation funding for research into studies evaluating the results of edtech applications, including personalized learning.”

“The fifth area of activity is tech foundation funding for advocacy groups who work in K-12 education.”

Three important observations from Regan and Steeves paper:

“We argue that, although there has been no formal recognition, personalized learning as conceptualized by foundations marks a significant shift away from traditional notions of the role of education in a liberal democracy and raises serious privacy issues that must be addressed.”

“It presents yet another example of the transformation of the traditional role of public education as educating citizens to one of educating future workers and consumers, a contrast of liberal democracy with neoliberal democracy.”

“The edtech sector has been focused on the notion [of personalized learning] …. While companies have generated hundreds of products and a smattering of new school models are showing promise, there is little large-scale evidence that the approach can improve teaching and learning or narrow gaps in academic achievement.”

After investigating education journalism, the authors chose to focus on Education Week as representative. The 1981 non-profit bills itself as “American education’s newspaper of record.” It has a print circulation of 50,000 and an online subscribership of 750,000 made up predominately of educators. Education Week has gotten an infusion of grant money from philanthropic foundations including $10 million from the Gates Foundation since 2005.

The authors concluded, “It accordingly is a site where various actors involved in personalized learning, including, teachers, school administrators, developers, policy-makers and foundations, share their views.” They also note that Education Week intersects with all five of the activity types supported by the tech foundations. For the study, they reviewed articles from the five year period 2013 to 2017.

What is being Sold?

“Personalized learning”, “blended learning” and standardized testing are three of the bigger items being promoted. Huge lobbying by big tech has turned the United States Education Department (USED) into a de facto tech sales firm. Statements like this abound on the USED web site,

“Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.”  

This grotesque distortion of reality is little more than propaganda backing technology based bad pedagogy. Tech provided schemes like “personalized learning” are founded on the behaviorist based mastery education theory. Besides promoting tech industry products, USED champions age inappropriate learning and publishes unfounded blather about better student outcomes.

The 1970’s “mastery learning” was so detested that it was renamed “outcome based education” in the 1990s and now is called “competency based education” (CBE). The name changes are due to the five-decade long record of failure. CBE is simply putting “mastery leaning” on a computer instead of using worksheets and paper assessments. In the 1970s teachers began calling it “seats and sheets.”

“Personalized Learning” is a euphemistic term that indicates lessons delivered on a digital device. These lessons are often organized with a playlist and come with a claim of using artificial intelligence to tailor the lessons to the recipient. The scheme is based on mastery learning theory.

“Credit recovery” is the fraud that has engendered soaring graduation rates. It is another way of implementing “personalize learning.” Students are completing semester long classes and receiving full credit for them in as little as one day. America’s high school graduation rates peaked at about 77% in 1970 and then drifted down for almost four decades to 69% in 2007. Today, fueled by this technology based scam, graduation rates are approaching 90%.

The current version of the national education law, The Every Student Succeeds Act, defines “blended learning”:

‘‘The term ‘blended learning’ means a formal education program that leverages both technology-based and face-to-face instructional approaches—(A) that include an element of online or digital learning, combined with supervised learning time, and student- led learning, in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience; and (B) in which students are provided some control over time, path, or pace.”

This means that a student gets lessons delivered to their digital device from a provider like the Khan Academy. Later the student’s teacher takes on the roll of tutor and helps them with their assignments during class. It is another way to de-professionalize teaching and sell technology.

There are many dark sides to education technology including personal privacy being sundered.

Education psychologist and author of “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds”, Jane Healy, spent years doing research into computer use in schools and, while she expected to find that computers in the classroom would be beneficial, now feels that “time on the computer might interfere with development of everything from the young child’s motor skills to his or her ability to think logically and distinguish between reality and fantasy.”

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras wrote Screens In Schools Are a $60 Billion Hoax for Time magazine. When discussing health risks associated with student screen time, he stated, “over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.”

Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me and iGen recently wrote an article for Atlantic magazine about the damage screen time is doing. She shared about the current group of teenagers she labels iGen,

“Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Not all edtech is bad. In fact some is necessary and some greatly enhances learning. In my personal experience, I found Jupiter Grades, the online grade book to be a very valuable tool for communicating with both students and their parents. Student management systems like those provided by Illuminate Education are essential for managing attendance, enrollment and other things schools legally must track.

In the classroom, high speed data acquisition equipment, word processing capabilities and high end calculators are a boon. Textbooks that take advantage of technology to create hints and provide tools for exploration are excellent learning tools.

The difference between technology that enhances pedagogy and bad edtech is the underlying purpose. Technology that is designed to fill a need and enhance learning is normally a good thing. Technology that is designed to improve system efficiency the way robotics has increased production outputs per worker is generally bad for learning.

In the new book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain,

“Because learning is deeply rooted in relationships, it can’t be farmed out to robots or time-saving devices. Technology, of course, is rapidly moving into classrooms. But just having more Chromebooks or online learning platforms hasn’t allowed for faster or larger batch-processing of students.”

Looking at the Scholarly Analysis

Regan and Steeves wrote,

“With respect to personalized learning, all five of the foundations emphasize that there are differences in the ways student learn and the importance of ‘flexible learning opportunities’ (Hewlett), ‘the right experiences to help students learn’ (Dell), ‘a truly transformative, personalized learning experience’ (CZ), and ‘the right learning materials’ (Google), which leads to the importance of ‘real-time assessments for gauging student learning’ (Gates) and ‘formative data … gathered as learning is happening … in-the-moment use of data in the classroom’ (Dell). None of the five foundations, however provide a definition of what they actually mean by personalized learning instead describing the importance of data and differences.

“Moreover, none of the five foundations offers actual evidence for the effectiveness of the innovations they are advancing although all discuss the importance of evidence.” (Emphasis Added)

 “Perhaps most interesting in our review of foundations’ Web sites was the almost universal absence of any mention of privacy or the implications of collecting all this data on students’ learning and personal characteristics that would be a necessary component to implement personalized learning, as well as an outcome of that implementation. … The absence of this topic from their overviews is startling given the attention companies like Google and Facebook have been forced to pay to both privacy and security.”

When looking at the EdWeek material the authors observed,

“The EdWeek data set … bifurcates into two, mostly separate, discourses. The first replicates the same themes we found in the foundation Web site materials. It consists of 14 articles written by eight authors, including senior EdWeek writers …; all eight authors are explicitly assigned to cover ed-tech from a business perspective …. For simplicity sake, we refer to this as the dominant discourse.”

“The second discourse appears almost exclusively in 14 articles written by Benjamin Herold, a staff writer who came to EdWeek from public radio and who covers ‘ed-tech, newsroom analytics, digital storytelling and Philadelphia’.”

One of the main themes from the dominant discourse is diminishing the roll of teachers.

“From this perspective, teachers are not experts in the education process equipped to make decisions about how and when to use edtech; instead, they must embrace the fact that, because of technology, ‘they don’t need to know it all. They’re not the experts’ …. Expertise resides in the edtech itself.”

The authors note, “And ultimately, when faced with hard numbers that suggest personalized learning is not effective, the dominant discourse falls back on the need to believe in the technology.”

Benjamin Herold’s articles pushed back against the dominant discourse. His basic argument is captured in the following quote attributed to a parent activist,

“As parent Karen Effrem, ‘the president of … an advocacy organization that supports parents’ right to control their children’s education’ says, ‘We’re sacrificing our children’s privacy, and we’re allowing corporations to make potentially life-changing decisions about our kids, all for technology that doesn’t actually help them.’”

Pearson Embraces a Digital Knock-Off of Authentic Education

6 Jun

By T. Ultican 7/6/2019

The world’s largest publishing company is betting on cyber education. Great Britain’s Pearson Corporation took a financial beating when common core state testing did not turn into a planned for cash cow and concurrently the market for text books slowed. With its world-wide reach, Pearson’s new play is for digital education to open up global markets. The corporation envisions creating life-long relationships with its customers to provide virtual schooling, professional certifications, assessments, and other services.

In April, Education International Research published “Pearson 2025 Transforming teaching and privatising education data.” Authors Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan report,

“Pearson aims to lead the ‘next generation’ of teaching and learning by developing digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in education (AIEd). It is piloting new AI technologies that it hopes will enable virtual tutors to provide personalised learning to students, much like Siri or Alexa. This technology will be integrated into a single platform—Pearson Realize™—that has now been integrated with Google Classroom.”

“… [I]ts corporate strategy is premised upon creating disruptive changes to (a) the teaching profession, (b) the delivery of curriculum and assessment and (c) the function of schools, particularly public schooling. These disruptions do not follow a coherent set of educational principles, but capriciously serve the interests of the company’s shareholders.

Two main concerns accompany Person’s new agenda. (1) The privatization of data and infrastructure will turn the commons into private assets. (2) Diminishing the teaching profession will transform education from its broad purposes such as social development and creative thinking into a focus on individual knowledge and skills. And looming over the entire enterprise is the risk of data breach which is sure to occur. Sellar and Hogan note that securing data “can be difficult, if not impossible to achieve, even with the help of advanced privacy preservation techniques.

Pearson currently has a presence in 60 counties. One of their clients is Bridge International for which they provide digital services and scripted lessons for low cost privatized education in Africa. In Diane Ravitch’s new Book The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch, she notes this is the company whose founders claimed it had the potential to become a billion dollar company selling school for between $46 and $126 dollars per year to poor families. Besides Pearson, “the investors include Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank.

Sellar and Hogan note, “At the 2018 AGM [Annual General Meeting], Pearson announced a £750 million investment in new technologies and platforms to provide new digital services, which it claims will provide educators with real-time data and “smart” assessments for their students, blended learning models that partner with existing educational institutions, and new kinds of educational programming.

In the United States, Pearson is concentrating on expanding their virtual charter school business. Mercedes Schneider reported on Pearson’s February 2019 earnings call. She wrote,

“Pearson is focused on expanding its Connections Academy market. Pearson is undergoing restructuring; it has (and continues to) reduce its workforce and has been selling off less-profitable companies in an effort to recover from unrealized profits, including those Pearson expected from Common Core (CC) and CC-related PARCC testing.”

Pearson Call 4

Connections Academy Slide Pearson Presented at the 2019 Earning Call

Virtual Schools Bring Low Costs and Poor Academics

May 28th, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado released its annual report on virtual schools. The report was written by Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, Najat Elgeberi, Michael K. Barbour, Luis Huerta, Sheryl Rankin Shafer, and Jennifer King Rice. In the report introduction they state,

“Many argue that online curriculum can be tailored to individual students more effectively than curriculum in traditional classrooms, giving it the potential to promote greater student achievement than can be realized in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. These claims are not supported by the research evidence; nonetheless, the promise of lower costs—primarily for instructional personnel and facilities—continues to make virtual schools financially appealing to both policymakers and for-profit providers.”

In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 300,000 students were enrolled across 501 full-time virtual schools. Poor academic performance and terrible graduation rates were a consistent characteristic of these schools. The authors recommended, “Slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”

Emily Tate interviewed one of the report authors – Michael K. Barbour an NEPC Fellow – for her edsurge.com article, “Despite Poor Performance, Virtual School Enrollment Continues to Grow”. Tate wrote,

“But even as the sector grows, one thing remains constant, Barbour says: ‘Students in these programs—both full-time online programs and blended schools—tend not to do as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.’

“He adds: ‘There’s not really a rationale for the growth, based on performance.’”

In an April EdWeek article, Arianna Prothero and Alex Harwin reported, “Nationally, half of all virtual charter high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent in the 2016-17 school year.” They also shared, “The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”

Prothero and Harwin’s article contains an interactive chart showing which cyber schools in each state did or did not achieve a 50% graduation rate over the past four years. “Out of the 163 schools, in some states, such as Indiana, not a single virtual charter school operating in 2016-17 had a graduation rate over 50 percent in the past four years.

If cyber schools have such poor academic outcomes, what explains parents putting their children in them? One clue can be found in a 2001 interview with Dick and Betsy DeVos at the Gathering, a group that Jay Michaelson describes as the “hub of Christian Right organizing.” Betsy said, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Dick lamented the fact that schools have displaced churches as the center of community activities. He then mentions that Bill Bennett is involved in something that could be quite helpful. He says Bennett’s new K12 Inc. cyber schools although not Christian could be a great help to Evangelical homeschoolers.

California Connections Academy

Map of California Connections Academy Structure

This Little Sis Map Shows the Structure of California Connections Academy in 2017

On September 18, 2018 a Mercury News lead read, “California has just kicked for-profit management companies out of the charter school business.” However, the new law is quite flawed. A for-profit company can create a non-profit to run the schools and then the non-profit in turn hires the for-profit management company to provide operating services and materials.

In 2011, Pearson Corporation purchased the cyber charter school company Connections Academy for $400,000,000. At the time Pearson said that this purchase gave them a leading position in the emerging cyber education arena.

Fortunately for Pearson, in California the Connections Academy cyber business was being run by the three non-profits shown in blue on the map. All three of the non-profits provide a similar explanation of their structure to this one in Capistrano Connections Academy’s 2016 form 990:

“Capistrano Connections Academy has a shared services agreement in place which includes the sharing of school staff and various other expenses between a network of charter schools. This agreement involves three non-profit public benefit corporations Capistrano Connections Academy, Alpaugh Academies, and friends of California Virtual Education. The school has also contracted with a third-party organization (Connections Academy of California, LLC a subsidiary of Connections Education, LLC) to provide educational products and services to the school. Due to delays in the receipts of state funding the school has arranged with Connections Education to process its payroll including the paying of school staff which requires the use of Connections Education, LLC’s EIN number. As part of this arrangement, the school reimburses connections education for paying staff as funding becomes available. As all staff members are reported on the school’s behalf using the EIN of Connections Education, LLC, no employees are listed as part of this return.”

There is some confusion in this statement. For example, Alpaugh Academies is also referred to as California on Line Public Schools (CalOps) and on December 18, 2017, Connections Academy of California, LLC submitted a termination statement to the California Secretary of State. It appears the Baltimore based Connections Education, LLC is now paying the bills and collecting the service fees through its Minnesota office. Also, there are two employees listed on the three non-profit tax form 990’s (Capistrano, CalOps and Friends). Director of Business Services, Franci Sassin receives more than $143,000 yearly and Executive Director, Richard Savage receives more than $225,000 yearly in total from the three non-profits.

There are four Connections Academy schools shown on the Little Sis map in yellow. In addition, a fifth school, California Connections Academy Central Coast is listed by the state as pending opening September 3, 2019. That must be one of the “strong pipeline of 2-5 new schools in 2019” Pearson referenced in their earnings call.

Locally we have been buzzing over the San Diego Union report, “Two charter school leaders illegally pocketed more than $50 million of state funds by siphoning the money through a network of 19 online charter schools across California which falsely enrolled thousands of students, prosecutors alleged Wednesday.” One of the issues cited in this scam was that little 145-student Dehesa School District in the mountains east of San Diego authorized 3 of these-cyber charters all outside of their district boundaries.

The Connections Academy model is not that different. According the 2018-2019 Connections Academy School Profile, “Capistrano Connections Academy is an accredited, virtual public charter school serving students in grades K–12 in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.” However, Capistrano Connections Academy is only authorized by one school district, Capistrano Unified. The other three schools have a similar territory outside of their authorizer’s district.

Table 1: Connections Academy Enrollment by Grade

Connections Academy Enrollment

What kind of education are those more than 1,000 students in the primary grades receiving? They certainly are not being socialized with other community members and it is well known that too much screen time is unhealthy for children.

Table 2: Connections Academy Graduation and ELL Rates Compared to the State

Connections Academy Graduation and EL

Sadly, these Connections Academy graduation rates are good compared to their peers in the cyber school industry. However, they are not acceptable as an education policy. In California, English language learners (ELL) are 19.3% of the enrollment which is by far the largest ELL percentage in the nation. As is typical of cyber schools the ELL percentage at Connections Academy is only 3.6%.

In an Education Week investigation of cyber schools, Benjamin Herold called it a “Broken Model” and summed it up this way,

“The schools are based on an educational model that doesn’t work for most kids. Many cyber operators have cashed in anyway, expanding aggressively, often with the help of their boards. Rather than pump the brakes, cyber authorizers have frequently gone along for the ride. And state lawmakers have repeatedly looked the other way, usually at the urging of lobbyists who fight tooth and nail against even modest attempts to improve oversight or limit growth.”

Some Conclusions

Pearson Corporation is an amoral entity that is not terribly invested in much beyond profit margin. They have made another bad bet. AI is science fiction and central to their latest education initiative is the Orwellianly labeled “personalized learning”. A Child sitting at screens responding to computer generated algorithms is as impersonal as it gets. Students hate it.

Policy makers like the cyber concept because they see the possibility of reducing the largest costs in public schools, teachers’ salaries and facilities. Reactionaries see cyber charters as one more positive step toward ending public education. However, people are catching onto this attack on the commons and do not like it.

Making war is not a legitimate central purpose of government; education is. Reduce the embarrassing military industrial complex and put some of those savings into revitalizing public education. Our children deserve small classes in top notch facilities that are well maintained and staffed with certificated professional educators.

It does not take much to see that a wide deployment of taxpayer-funded lightly-regulated cyber schools is a horrible idea. They already have a stunning history of corruption and bad outcomes. If homeschoolers choose to use cyber education, that is fine but there is no need for taxpayers to fund that private choice. There is a small legitimate need for cyber education, but those schools should be administered by elected school boards and not by profiteering corporations.

Personalized and Blended Learning are Money Grabs

5 Oct

By T. Ultican 10/5/2017

Big tech and their friends at big banking have turned to public education budgets for a new profit center. In the latest version of the federal education law, compliant legislators provided for both industries. They gave bankers social impact bonds and incentivized education technology. There are solid reasons to think both decisions harm most Americans while lining the pockets of corporate elites. I discuss some of the technology portion here.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is a reauthorization and amendment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Big money for technology is written into Title’s I and IV of ESSA. This federal law specifies large grants to promote both “blended learning” and “personalized learning.” It also legally defines “blended learning.”

‘‘(1) BLENDED LEARNING.—The term ‘blended learning’ means a formal education program that leverages both technology-based and face-to-face instructional approaches—(A) that include an element of online or digital learning, combined with supervised learning time, and student- led learning, in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience; and (B) in which students are provided some control over time, path, or pace.” (From official pdf of the law page 1969)

The term personalized learning is somewhat nebulous so I will define it. “Personalized Learning” is a euphemistic term that indicates lessons delivered on a digital device. These lessons are often organized with a playlist and come with a claim of using artificial intelligence to tailor the lessons to the recipient. The scheme is related to competency base education (CBE) and normally includes conferring micro-credentials or badges for competencies completed.

Title-I of ESSA authorizes the following spending schedule:

‘‘(1) $15,012,317,605 for fiscal year 2017;

‘‘(2) $15,457,459,042 for fiscal year 2018;

‘‘(3) $15,897,371,442 for fiscal year 2019; and

‘‘(4) $16,182,344,591 for fiscal year 2020.” (pdf page 1815)

A large percentage of this spending is earmarked for digital education; however, it is difficult to tell what the exact percentage is. However, it is clear that Title-I authorizes spending tens of billions of tax payer dollars on education technology.

Title-IV also authorizes spending on technology and this spending is 100% for technology. Title-IV states:

“There are authorized to be appropriated to carry out this subpart $1,650,000,000 for fiscal year 2017 and $1,600,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2018 through 2020.” (pdf page 1982)

Title-IV also specifies what uses can be made of the funds:

‘‘(1) providing educators, school leaders, and administrators with the professional learning tools, devices, content, and resources to—(A) personalize learning to improve student academic achievement; (B) discover, adapt, and share relevant high-quality educational resources; (C) use technology effectively in the classroom, including by administering computer-based assessments and blended learning strategies; and (D) implement and support school- and district-wide approaches for using technology to inform instruction, support teacher collaboration, and personalize learning;

“(2) building technological capacity and infrastructure, which may include—(A) procuring content and ensuring content quality; and (B) purchasing devices, equipment, and software applications in order to address readiness shortfalls;

‘‘(3) developing or using effective or innovative strategies for the delivery of specialized or rigorous academic courses and curricula through the use of technology, including digital learning technologies and assistive technology …” (pdf page 1981)

Old Rock School

Reputable Education Research Does Not Support this Spending

The Canadian Publication, “The Walrus” distributed a piece called The Failure of the iPad Classroom.” In the article, author, David Sax, shared some insights from Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University. Cuban, lives and works in Silicon Valley. Like myself, he began as a hopeful evangelist for education technology, but slowly turned into one of education technologies most prominent skeptics. Sax wrote:

“Cuban cites three reasons that policymakers typically use to justify the purchase of new technology for schools. First, the technology will improve student achievement and marks. Second, the technology will change traditional teaching to nontraditional teaching. Third, the technology will better prepare students for the modern workplace. At best, Cuban says, there is contradictory evidence for the third reason, little for the second, and none for the first.”

Mr. Sax made many cogent statements about education technology in “The Failure of the iPad Classroom.” This statement is a good example:

“Dollars spent on digital education technology are dollars that cannot be spent on teachers, building maintenance, or textbooks. It is money that has been pulled from programs in art, sports, music, and drama. Even though the research shows one of the greatest factors in reading improvements in students is the presence of school libraries, the number of libraries across school boards in the United States has declined dramatically. The logic behind this is often that libraries are pointless in the age of Google and eBooks, and that money would be better spent buying tablets or drones.”

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a 2015 report that heavy users of computers in the classroom “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes” and that: “In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.”

John Vallance, a Cambridge scholar and headmaster of Australia’s top K-through-12 school, Sydney Grammer, has said: “I think when people come to write the history of this period in education…this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.”

There has also been surprising research coming out of Canada: Students don’t prefer e-learning over traditional education. In a 2011 study, researchers found that students preferred “ordinary, real-life lessons” to using technology.

Researcher Dr. Kentaro Toyama, expecting to find a digital educational cure for the perceived ailments in education, came to understand what he calls technology’s Law of Amplification.” Technology can help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.”

The Dark Side of Screen Time

Education psychologist and author ofFailure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds”, Jane Healy, spent years doing research into computer use in schools and, while she expected to find that computers in the classroom would be beneficial, now feels that “time on the computer might interfere with development of everything from the young child’s motor skills to his or her ability to think logically and distinguish between reality and fantasy.”

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras (Aug 31, 2016) wrote Screens In Schools Are a $60 Billion Hoax for Time magazine. When discussing health risks associated with student screen time, he stated, “over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.”

Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me and iGen recently wrote an article for Atlantic magazine about the damage screen time is doing. She shared about the current group of teenagers she labels iGen,

“Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Reasonably Unbiased Research Instigated by an Industry Supporter Not Supportive

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contracted with the Rand Corporation to make a study of digital learning, the results were not very supportive. The best the lead researcher could say to the Hechinger Report was, “What I hope happens is people see this is a promising approach, but it requires a lot of things to fall into place for it to work right,” Pane said. “People need to have patience; they need to do it a while. Teachers and students need to get used to it.”

In other words, he is saying digital learning is “promising” but not proven. In this country, it seems we have an exaggerated belief in the capabilities of technology to improve anything. I personally had little doubt that education technology would lead to dramatic improvements. It does have positive uses but our refusal to see its limitations is causing damage.

The Rand study collected data on schools that received funding from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). A note from the report describes NGLC:

“The NGLC initiative is managed by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association dedicated to advancing the use of information technology in higher education, in association with other organizational partners, including the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K–12 Online Learning, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. NGLC receives primary funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with additional support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The initiative supports school districts, charter management organizations, and partner organizations that embrace PL as a means to dramatically increase college readiness rates, particularly among low-income students and students of color.”

There were 40 participating schools in the study and the data generated was predominately surveys of students, teachers and administrators. There was a small-scale analysis of standardized testing data based on MAP testing at 32 of the schools. Comparisons were made with a “virtual comparison group.” The study noted several possible biases in the data. The conclusion for one-year achievement comparisons says:

“We estimated positive treatment effects of approximately 0.09 in mathematics and 0.07 in reading, as shown in …. Only the mathematics estimate is statistically significant. These effect sizes translate to gains of about 3 percentile points; specifically, a student who would have performed at the median in the comparison group is estimated to have performed 3 percentile points above the median in an NGLC school in both subjects.” (Rand study page 34)

Let us ignore the fact that standardized testing is useless. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind’s test and punish philosophy of education improvement, every educator knows that teaching to a test will improve test scores. Computer based education is fundamentally a method for drilling for the test. It is surprising that these estimated effect sizes are so small and even insignificant for reading.

The survey data in the Rand study compares the NGLC schools in the study group with a national sample. I was surprised to learn that NGLC students do not feel as safe.

Rand Student Opinion Survey

From page 24 of the Rand Study

Bad Education Philosophy is the Source of “Personalized Learning” Failure

The behaviorist ideology of B.F. Skinner informs “competency based education.” CBE is the computer based approach that replaces the failed 1990’s behaviorist learning method called Outcome Based Education. Outcome Based Education is a renamed attempt to promote the 1970’s “mastery education” theory. Mastery education’s failure was so complete that it had to be renamed. It was quickly derided by educators as “seats and sheets.” These schemes all posit that drilling small skills and mastering them is the best way to teach. It has not worked yet.

Today’s proponents of behaviorist education hope that technology including artificial intelligence backed by micro-credentials and badges will finally make behaviorism a winner. It will not because little humans are not linear learners. Non-alignment with human nature is a fundamental flaw in this approach. In addition, behaviorism is not known as a path to creativity or original thinking. Those paths are created between teachers and students through human contact; paths undermined by “digital education.”

Artificial intelligence is more science fiction than reality. Computer scientist Roger Schank, a pioneering researcher in artificial intelligence notes,

“The AI [artificial intelligence] problem is very very hard. It requires people who work in AI understanding the nature of knowledge; how conversation works; how to have an original thought; how to predict the actions of others; how to understand why people do what they do; and a few thousand things like that. In case no one has noticed, scientists aren’t very good at telling you how all that stuff works in people. And until they can there will be no machines that can do any of it.”

With no unbiased positive proof of concept, hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars which were earmarked for education are being spent on technology. It is likely that much of this spending will cause harm and that schemes like “personalized learning” will not deliver benefit to anyone who is not invested in a hi-tech industry.

These dollars could have been spent on better facilities, smaller classes, and better teacher education. Instead, the money is wasted on dubious theories propounded by leaders in hi-tech industries and forces looking to privatize public education.