Tag Archives: Venture Capital

Rick Smith Interview with Thomas Ultican

20 Mar

By Thomas Ultican 3/20/2020

Rick Smith is a radio talk show host from Pennsylvania. He moderates the Rick Smith Show. On Wednesday (3/18/2020) Rick had me on his two hour show for a 15 minute segment. The central point of our discussion revolved around cyber education which students throughout America are being forced into because of the current pandemic.

 

 

Amplifying Profits Selling Harmful Pedagogy

19 Feb

By Thomas Ultican 2/19/2020

Amplify education Inc. has a two decade history of trying to profit by selling education technology. The bottom line is even if their pedagogy was good – which it is not – it would be unhealthy for children. The big dream of replacing teachers with digital screens and making gobs of money has a fatal flaw. The last thing 21st century children need is more screen time. Amplify’s lessons are dangerously unhealthy and deliver low quality teaching.

A History of Profiteers and Disrupters

Greg Gunn a former associate of the Carlyle Group who had earned a Masters of Electrical Engineering from MIT joined with Larry Berger to found Wireless Generation. Berger was a graduate of Yale University with a BA and had been a White House fellow working on Educational Technology at NASA during the Clinton administration. In 2010, News Corporation paid $360 million dollars to acquire Wireless Generation and renamed it Amplify Education, Inc. Including performance incentives, Larry Berger pocketed $40 million and agreed to stay on as head of curriculum.

Amplify Political Celeberties

Amplify a Commercial Venture Profiteering off Public Education

The mogul, Rupert Murdoch, proposed buying a million I-Pads for delivering classroom instruction. However, the Apple operating system did not allow the flexibility needed to load the Wireless Generation software. Amplify chose a device manufactured by the Taiwanese company Asus. The android operating system met their needs and the tablets were well regarded in the market place but they were not designed to withstand the demands of school use. One other issue was that Wireless Generation had never developed curriculum but Murdoch wanted to beat Pearson and Houghton Mifflin to the digital education market place.

In July 2012, Amplify publicized its development partnership with AT&T. Ralph de la Vega, President and CEO, AT&T Mobility declared, “Together, we plan to bring to market a 4G mobile tablet-based experience that we believe will significantly enhance teaching and learning for grades K-12.”

The following March, Amplify announced its new tablet for teachers and students. CEO Joel Klein stated,

“We want to transform the way teachers teach and students learn. Technology has revolutionized the world, but not the classroom. Our hope is that this tablet will help change that.”

That same March of 2013, Amplify also won a $12.5 million dollar contract with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop a digital library of formative assessments. It was the second contract awarded to Amplify by Smarter Balanced. The first one came in 2012 calling for Amplify to partner with ETS developing software to analyze results from common core assessments. Both were part of the $175 million dollar grant by the US Department of Education to the Smarter Balanced Consortium.

The corporate plan was rolling along nicely and then the wheels came off. In Guilford County, North Carolina the school district won a Race to the Top grant of $30 million dollars which it used to experiment with digital learning. The district’s plan called for nearly 17,000 students in 20 middle schools to receive Amplify tablets over the next three years. When a charger for one of the tablets overheated, the plan was halted. Only two months into the experiment, not only had a charger malfunctioned but another 175 chargers had various issues and 1500 screens had broken.

The following year Amplify tried to reestablish itself as a leading player in the digital learning markets. CEO Joel Klein called the new offerings a potential “game-changer” and “unlike anything anyone has ever seen in public education.” The company claimed the Guilford County problems had been fixed.

By August of 2015, News Corporation announced it was exiting the education business. The corporation took a $371 million dollar right off to get out of the digital curriculum business. The next month, News Corporation announced it had sold Amplify to members of its staff. In the deal orchestrated by Joel Klein, he would remain as a board member and Larry Berger would assume leadership of the company.

A New Billionaire Savior Appears

It was soon learned that the real buyer of Amplify was Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Steve Jobs co-founder of Apple. She purchased Amplify through her non-profit the Emerson Collective.

Ed Surge reported, “Emerson Collective has also invested in a slew of edtech startups including AltSchool, FreshGrade, Nearpod and, most recently Udacity’s $105 million round. She is also on the board of NewSchools Venture Fund (an investor in EdSurge.)” In the same month that she bought Amplify, Powell Jobs launched XQ: The Super School Project, a $50 million challenge inviting teams to submit plans to re-invent high schools.

Laurene Powell Jobs has no respect for public school educators and the schools they work in. When Wiki Leaks leaked the Clinton campaign’s emails, Powell Jobs’ recommendations to Hillary Clinton were revealed. She offered four uninformed policy positions in a conversation with Ann O’Leary:

  1. “Re-design entire K-12 system – we know how to do it, but it comes down to political will.
  2. “Think about Charters as our R&D … must allow public schools to have leaders that can pick their team and be held accountable.
  3. “Need to increase IQ in the teaching sector: Teach for America; they are a different human capital pipeline.
  4. “Need to use technology to transform – technology allows teachers and children to focus on content mastery versus seat time; …”

When “we know how to do it” does not include significant input from practicing professional educators, the reasoning is obviously erroneous.

Charter schools have been R&D for fraud, embezzlement and abuse but certainly not for delivering positive innovations. Her slap at teachers unions and work place protections for teachers is consistent with other billionaires and with creating professional educator shortages.

While I was working in public schools, I found the teachers to be every bit as intellectually competent as any of the engineers I met while working in Silicon Valley. Suggesting that Teach For America teachers are even remotely competent to lead a classroom shows gross ignorance of education reality. They are uneducated and untrained.

Technology has a place in education. It is essential for schools to have modern functional lab equipment. Students need access to good word processing programs and video recording equipment to engage in creative endeavors. Some lessons can be supplemented by technology but screens will never replace a live professional educator.

Real education requires life to life communion between teacher and student. Daisaku Ikeda, writes in his book Soka Education,

“Recognizing each student as a unique personality and transmitting something through contacts between that personality and the personality of the instructor is more than a way of implanting knowledge: it is the essence of education.”

Socrates likened this to being “kindled by a leaping spark” between teacher and student. Low cost learning at a screen is spiritless, amoral and dead.

There has been a refocus on “personalized learning” since the Powell Jobs acquired Amplify. (How can isolation at a screen be called “personalized learning?”) In a puff piece about Amplify, Ainslee Harris claims,

“Amplify booked $59 million in revenue in 2016, its first year of independence, and $74 million in 2017. This year, it’s on track to book $125 million, making it one of the few education startups to break the $100 million mark.”

The Powell Jobs team has taken control of the Amplify board. Russlyn Ali (Managing Director of Education at the Emerson Collective), Brad Powell (Managing Partner of Emerson Collective) and former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings have joined Larry Berger on the board. People like Stacy Childress (CEO of New Schools Venture Fund), Linda Roberts (Office of Education Technology, US Department of Education) and James B. Hunt Jr. (Former Governor of North Carolina) have departed.

Bad Pedagogy and Unhealthy Practices

The vast majority of America’s school principals believe that students are experiencing too much screen time and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said in a 2015 report that heavy users of computers in the classroom “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.” The OECD runs the international testing known as PISA. They came to their conclusion by analyzing the results from the more than 70 countries whose data they monitor.

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.”

A recent post by Nancy Bailey addressed problems with Amplify’s Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program for teaching reading. Teacher evaluation committees from Rochester, New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma condemned the program. Some of the comments:

“It builds on content so kids in primary grades learn about ancient civilizations, and it shows some vertical articulation, but it doesn’t have good scope and sequence when learning skills. It’s not developmentally appropriate to introduce a skill or curriculum or new learning concept and then not refer to it again for a very long time.”

One teacher said that her principal was “very disappointed that there wasn’t a lot of neat stuff in the hall, but CKLA doesn’t allow for much creative-type work. I didn’t want to hang worksheets in the hall.”

“I wouldn’t want my children taught this way. I don’t know the rationale behind adopting it. The curriculum doesn’t light up the eyes of kids. It removes the autonomy from the teacher. I guess if people have come through an alternate route and don’t have a teaching degree, you can teach it without much experience.”

The math and science programs are just as regressive. In Seattle, an anonymous donor paid $100,000 to have Amplify Science piloted in 20 middle schools. An NPR report noted,

“Former school board member Peters said it’s difficult to compare results the first year of a new test: Pass rates dropped across the board in 2018 when it was introduced. But her analysis shows pass rates dropped the most at the Seattle schools using Amplify Science — despite the curriculum’s promise to help students meet the new standards.”

‘“The students that fared the worst were low-income students using Amplify Science,’ Peters wrote in an email to the board.”

Because of political pressure to implement computer learning, Seattle’s school board ignored the pleas of teachers and parents and bought the Amplify Science program. Its biggest selling point was that it is aligned with the Next Generation Science standards which are also an abomination.

Conclusion

The reason schools are buying these terrible education technology frauds is that professional educators are no longer making curricular decisions. All large modern businesses including schools require a significant digital infrastructure. This means that there must be an information technology group headed by an expert. That expert who loves technology and has no pedagogical expertise becomes the leading voice concerning the purchase of digital equipment. That explains in part why school districts in financial difficulty are still purchasing pricey education technology software and hardware. Board members believe they have no choice and that they are implementing professional advice.

Amplify Education, Inc. is another modern snake oil salesman. The only reason they did not disappear in 2003 is that the federal government and investors like Rupert Murdoch have poured billions of dollars into this company. It is past time for the fraudulent STEM ideology, education testing scam and the sale of low quality education technology products to be stopped. Taxpayers are being fleeced, schools are being bankrupted and children are being harmed.

Twitter: @tultican

Ed Tech about Profits NOT Education

10 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/10/2019

Anthony Kim founded Education Elements in 2010. He sold Provost Systems – which built virtual schools – to Edison Schools in 2008 and was ready for a new project. His new company sells personalized learning systems and consulting services to several school districts. Education Elements is one of more than a hundred ed tech companies being supported by venture capital organizations hoping for one big score. It is representative of the education technology startup business.

With education businesses there is opportunity for magnificent profits because of the large scale of education spending. The United States alone spends $650 billion a year on public education. If businesses can convince people that learning at a digital screen is equivalent to or even better than a teacher led classroom, education technology would become America’s next great profit center minting many new billionaires. This allure of lavish profits is driving education technology.

The Venture Capital Firms

Crunchbase, which analyzes venture capital and startups, lists five venture capital companies investing in Education Elements.

Harmony is the only one of the five venture funds that does not focus specifically on education technology. They simply say, “Over the past 20 years, we have invested over $750 million in 80 companies.” They list their current investments which includes Education Elements.

NewSchools Venture Fund is the most strident in its commitment to disrupting public education. NewSchools is a non-profit that claims they are a “venture philanthropy working to reimagine public education investing in education entrepreneurs.” Their venture portfolio contains more than 150 companies.

Every year NewSchools hosts a “Summit” in Oakland, California which they state brings together more than 1,200 educators, entrepreneurs, community leaders, funders, and policy makers to share ideas on how to “reimagine learning.” The “Platinum” sponsors for the 2020 gathering are the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and The Walton Family Foundation who are also well-known leaders in the movement to monetize and privatize public education.

New Schools Venture Fund Donors

Twelve Organizations Contributing $5 Million Plus to NewSchools Venture Fund

Eleven of the twelve organizations listed above are known for promoting market based education reform. The twelfth, Anonymous, most likely has the same ideology.

Rethink Education is the third venture fund. It claims to focus on Crucial Life Skills, Personalized Learning, Vocational Preparation, Curation of Workforce Learning Resources, College Dropout Prevention.” Jenny Abramson is the founder and Managing Partner of Rethink. She is a former Teach For America (TFA) corps member and a board member of the Washington DC charter school, DC Prep.

Imagine K12 is the forth fund investing in Education Elements. It was founded in 2011 as a startup accelerator for education technology companies. In 2016 Imagine merged with Y Combinator. The joint companies have invested in over 100 education technology focused companies.

Tugboat Ventures is the fifth fund invested in Education Elements which is one of its 35 listed properties.

The Board of Directors

Board of Education Elements

The Education Elements’ Board – (from Elements’ Web Page)

Dave Whorton, the founder of Tugboat Ventures, was also a founding board member of the NewSchools Venture Fund serving there from 1998-2015.

Howard Behar was a former president of Starbucks until his retirement in 2003. He served as a Director on Starbucks board 1996-2008. In 2014, Behar became a board member of the Biller Family Foundation. The Biller Foundation from Seattle Washington is notoriously pro-public school privatization. They have partnership relations with Green Dot, Partnership for Los Angeles, Stand for Children and Summit Public Schools.

Green Dot is a large charter school chain originally founded in Los Angeles. Partnership for Los Angeles was established by former Los Angeles Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa when his efforts to take over the school system were thwarted. Stand for Children is a dark money pro-school privatization organization from Portland, Oregon. Summit Public Schools is financially supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. It provides computer based learning.

Jack Witlin was a Deloitte Consulting Principal. He retired in 2014 after a 44-years career. Witlin became a director of Education Elements in 2017.

Michael B. Horn serves as the head of strategy and senior partner for the Entangled Group, an education venture studio. He is also the co-founder of and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. He has written extensively about disruption as the savior of public education. He calls for disruptive change driven by technology and school privatization.

In a delightful takedown of disruption theory in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore riddled Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” One of his big examples was Seagate Technology. According to Christensen, Seagate disrupted the computer industry with its 5 ¼ inch floppy disk but was disrupted and doomed to failure when it was late to the market with a 3 ½ inch drive. Lepore noted,

“In 1997, the year Christensen published “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Seagate was the largest company in the disk-drive industry, reporting revenues of nine billion dollars. Last year, Seagate shipped its two-billionth disk drive.”

Most educators and anyone with common sense would tell us that the last thing students in a poverty stricken community need is more disruption.

Education Elements’ Leaders

Anthony Kim is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Elements. He started his career in education by helping higher education institutions with technology projects and data. He founded Provost Systems which developed online schools. After selling Provost to Edison Schools in 2008, he spent two years there as Executive Vice President of online education. Kim founded Education Elements in 2010.

Amy Jenkins, the Chief Operating Officer and Managing General Partner, began her education career as a TFA middle school English teacher in Oakland, California. After two years, she left the classroom for the education “reform” industry including a stint with NewSchools Venture Fund. Jenkins earned an AB in political science from Dartmouth and an MBA from Harvard.

Angela Kennedy-Toon is also known as Angela Chubb. She is another Managing Partner at Education Elements. She claims to have started her education career in a classroom 27-years ago and to have founded a charter school in Pennsylvania. Angela lives in Wichita, Kansas and was married to the late John Chubb who along with Terry E. Moe co-wrote Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. That 1990 publication gave great momentum to school privatization and recommended ending locally elected school boards.

Angela says she follows Checker Finn, Michael Horn, Frederick M. Hess, Wendy Kopp and Jeanne Allen. People who have been observing education politics will recognize this list as all strident supporters of privatizing public education.

Angela’s facebook page has some wonderful pictures with Todd and Sarah Palin. Sadly on my recent trip to Anchorage, I learned that Todd and Sarah are divorcing.

Keara Mascareñaz is also a Managing Partner. After graduation from college she joined TFA and taught in a primary classroom for two years. She then worked for TFA for five years. Keara became a NextGen Fellow at the Pahara Institute in 2016 before joining Education Elements. Reed Hastings and Diane Tavenner are on the Board of Directors at Pahara which is a strong indication of the pro-public education privatization bias of Pahara.

Ray Rozycki is listed as Executive Advisor. He previously worked with CEO Anthony Kim at Provost Systems where he served as Chief Officer of Digital Education and VP of Virtual Education. Ray is involved with designing instructional and assessment platforms and developing formative assessments and eCourses.

Selling Bad Pedagogy and Enfeebled Expertise

Do to lobbying by billionaires like Bill Gates and Reed Hastings, the latest update to the national education law turned the US Department of Education (USED) into an education technology sales hub. Critically for companies like Education Elements, the federal technology pitch includes Competency Based Education (CBE). In order to have an inexpensive cyber based education system, there must be small skills that can be drilled and then tested. The USED says,

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.

Unfortunately CBE is just an update of previous failed teaching strategies. In the 1970’s it was called Mastery Learning and in the 1990’s it was called Outcome Based Education. CBE is simply putting Mastery Leaning on a computer instead of using worksheets and paper assessments. It is still bad pedagogy. Computer based credit recovery is the fraud engendering the recent soaring graduation rates.

With no evidence to support their claim, Education Elements posts, “Personalized learning improves student engagement and achievement, develops students to be lifelong learners, and better prepares them for college and careers.” However, a Rand study commissioned by Bill Gates found no evidence for this claim. Also, the vast majority of school principals believe that students are experiencing too much screen time and 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.

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.”

Education Elements also sells its consulting services to school districts. It asserts;

“We help your best people improve in several ways:

  • Develop action steps to prioritize and implement instructional approaches aligned to your district’s strategic plan.
  • Design new processes and methods to increase capabilities of teams.
  • Develop fluency in problem solving through design thinking strategies.
  • Build skills needed to become designers of learning focused on classroom design, content selection, and other key competencies for personalizing learning.”

There are few districts in America that do not have a deeper bench when it comes to education theory, practical application and leadership talent than Education Elements. If a school district is buying these kinds of services and education technology programs, they are wasting money and harming students.

Twitter: @tultican