FBI Warns EdTech Puts Student Safety at Risk

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Pandora’s box may not be a heavy wooden chest.

 

It might just be a laptop or an iPad.

 

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) issued a warning late last week about the proliferation of educational technologies (EdTech) in schools and the dangers they pose to student safety and privacy.

 

The devices and applications singled out by US domestic intelligence services all involve software that asks for and saves student input.

 

This includes classroom management tools like Class Dojo and eBackpack as well as student testing and remediation applications like Classroom Diagnostic Tools and StudyIsland.

 

The alert cautions schools and parents that the widespread collection of student data involved in these applications could cause safety concerns if the information is compromised or exploited.

 

It’s just such technologies that have proliferated at a breakneck pace in districts throughout the country while legislation, cybersecurity and even awareness of the danger has lagged behind.

 

The Bureau is concerned about EdTech services because many are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”

 

The Bureau clarified that use of EdTech applications was not, in itself, the problem. They are a tool, and like any tool, they can be used for good or ill.

 

Advocates say when used correctly, these systems offer the potential for student collaboration, and for teachers to collect and compare information about students to help design better lessons. On the other hand, critics warn that the problems with most EdTech is essential to the way it operates and that it is designed more for the purposes of student data mining and profitization by corporations than with academic success for children in mind.

 

In either case, the dangers posed by such devices are indisputable.

 

The amount and kinds of data being collected about students has not been well publicized or understood. Many school boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students may be using EdTech without a full appreciation of how it often surreptitiously collects data on children.

 

Analysts listed several types of student particulars being stockpiled:

 

  • “personally identifiable information (PII);

 

  • biometric data;

 

  • academic progress;

 

  • behavioral, disciplinary, and medical information;

 

  • Web browsing history;

 

  • students’ geolocation;

 

  • IP addresses used by students; and

 

  • classroom activities.”

 

This is highly sensitive information that could be extremely harmful to students if it fell into the wrong hands.

 

Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. It could even be sold to unscrupulous corporations or exploited by other children to bully and harass classmates.

 

These concerns are not merely academic. Data breaches have already occurred.

 

According to the FBI:

 

“…in late 2017, cyber actors exploited school information technology (IT) systems by hacking into multiple school district servers across the United States. They accessed student contact information, education plans, homework assignments, medical records, and counselor reports, and then used that information to contact, extort, and threaten students with physical violence and release of their personal information. The actors sent text messages to parents and local law enforcement, publicized students’ private information, posted student PII on social media, and stated how the release of such information could help child predators identify new targets.”

 

Though the Bureau did not mention them by name, it cited two specific cybersecurity failures in 2017 at two large EdTech companies where millions of student’s private information became publicly available.

 

The FBI seems to be referring to Edmodo and Schoolzilla. Hackers stole 77 million user accounts from Edmodo last year and sold that data to a “dark web” marketplace. Likewise, Schoolzilla stored student information on a publicly accessible server, according to a security researcher, thereby exposing the private information of approximately 1.3 million children.

 

It was these data breaches that prompted the Department of Education to issue a Cyber Advisory alert in October of 2017 warning that cyber criminals were targeting schools that had inadequate data security. Criminals were trying to gain access to this sensitive material about students to “shame, bully, and threaten children.”

 

In February, another cybercrime was reported by the Internal Revenue Service. The agency released an “urgent alert” about scammers targeting school districts with W-2 phishing schemes.

 

Of particular concern to the FBI are school devices connected directly to the Internet. They offer hackers an immediate link to private student information. This is true even if a school device is in the student’s home.

 

Tablets, laptops or monitoring devices such as cameras or microphones could be exploitable by tech savvy criminals – especially since many EdTech programs allow remote-access capabilities without the user even being aware of what is happening.

 

Indeed, some EdTech companies collect information on students’ feelings; become student data brokers and use voice-activated speakers in the classroom.

 

 

The FBI listed several recommendations for parents and families:

 

  • “Research existing student and child privacy protections of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and state laws as they apply to EdTech services.

  • Discuss with their local districts about what and how EdTech technologies and programs are used in their schools.

 

  • Conduct research on parent coalition and information-sharing organizations which are available online for those looking for support and additional resources.

 

  • Research school-related cyber breaches which can further inform families of student data vulnerabilities.

 

  • Consider credit or identity theft monitoring to check for any fraudulent use of their children’s identity.

 

  • Conduct regular Internet searches of children’s information to help identify the exposure and spread of their information on the Internet.”

 

The warning concluded by asking those who have information about cybercrimes or who have been victimized by data breaches to file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.

 

For some, the FBI’s warning highlights the need for greater education funding for cybersecurity.

 

“While other industries are investing in greater IT security to protect against cyber threats, many schools are facing budget constraints that result in declining resources for IT security programs,” staff members from the Future of Privacy Forum wrote on their blog. “Schools across the country lack funding to provide and maintain adequate security,” they wrote.

 

Others see the problem as one of antiquated legislation not keeping up with changing technologies.

 

The FBI memo highlights a need for Congress to update federal student privacy laws, said Rachael Stickland, co-founder and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

 

At present, these issues are covered haphazardly from state to state, a situation Strickland finds intolerably inadequate.

 

The main federal law safeguarding student data privacy, The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, should be updated, she said. It must address exactly which ways districts should be allowed to share data with EdTech companies.

 

“What we need is a comprehensive approach at the federal level to address these outdated federal laws,” she said. “We really need these modernized to address not only the cybersecurity threats but also the potential misuse of this data.”

 

However, some critics are skeptical of the very use of EdTech in the classroom, at all.

 

They see the potential dangers being so massive and difficult to guard against that any remedies to fix the problem would be counterproductive.

 

Instead of spending millions or billions more on cybersecurity measures, we should use any additional funding for more essential budget items like teachers, tutors, nurses and counselors.

 

The goal is to provide a quality education – not to provide a quality education with increasingly complex technologies. If the former can be done with the latter, that’s fine. But if we have to choose between the two, we should go with proven methods instead of the latest fads.

 

EdTech corporations are making staggering profits off public schools while almost every other area goes lacking. In the nexus of business and industry, we may be losing sight of what’s best for students.

 

The question is have we already opened Pandora’s box, and if we haven’t, can we stop ourselves from doing so?

 


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There is Virtually No Difference Between Nonprofit and For-Profit Charter Schools

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Stop kidding yourself.

 

Charter schools are a bad deal.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re for-profit or nonprofit.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re cyber or brick-and-mortar institutions.

 

It doesn’t matter if they have a history of scandal or success.

 

Every single charter school in the United States of America is either a disaster or a disaster waiting to happen.

 

The details get complicated, but the idea is really quite simple.

 

It goes like this.

 

Imagine you left a blank check on the street.

 

Anyone could pick it up, write it out for whatever amount your bank account could support and rob you blind.

 

Chances are you’d never know who cashed it, you’d never get that money back and you might even be ruined.

 

That’s what a charter school is – a blank check.

 

It’s literally a privately operated school funded with public tax dollars.

 

Operators can take almost whatever amount they want, spend it with impunity and never have to submit to any real kind of transparency or accountability.

 

Compare that to a traditional public school – an institution invariably operated by duly elected members of the community with full transparency and accountability in an open forum where taxpayers have access to internal documents, can have their voices heard and even seek an administrative position.

 

THAT’S a responsible way to handle public money!

 

Not forking over our checkbook to virtual strangers!

 

Sure, they might not steal our every red cent. But an interloper who finds a blank check on the street might not cash it, either.

 

The particulars don’t really matter. This is a situation rife with the possibility of fraud. It is a situation where the deck is stacked against the public in every way and in favor of charter school operators.

 

But most people don’t want to take such a strong stance. They’d rather find good and bad people on both sides and pretend that’s the same thing as impartiality.

 

It isn’t.

 

Sometimes one side is just wrong.

 

Policymakers may try to feign that there are good and bad charter schools and that the problems I’m talking about only apply to the nefarious ones.

 

But that’s a delusion.

 

There is no good way to write a blank check and leave it on the street to the whims of passers-by.

 

Most apologists want to draw the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit charters.

 

But as Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”

 

These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.

 

The law is full of loopholes that allow almost any organization – not just charter schools – to claim nonprofit status while enriching those at the top.

 

We live in an age of philanthrocapitalism, where the wealthy disguise schemes to enrich themselves as benevolence, generosity and humanitarianism.

 

So-called “nonprofit” charter schools are just an especially egregious example. No matter what label you pin to their name, they all offer multiple means to skim public funding off the top without adding any value for students.

 

For instance, take the use of management companies.

 

A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.

 

A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.

 

All I have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then my management company can cut services and pocket the profits!

 

It’s really that simple! I turn over nearly all of my public tax dollars to the management company that then uses it to operate the school – and keeps whatever it doesn’t spend.

 

 

Heck! It doesn’t even matter who owns the company! It could even be me!

 

The law actually allows me to wear one hat saying I’m nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat I’m wearing at the time!

 

SO I get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.

 

flowchart960
SOURCE: Florida Sun Sentinel

 

I may even be able to buy things with public tax dollars through my for-profit management company and then if my “nonprofit” school goes belly up, I get to keep everything I bought! Or my management company does.

 

So the public takes all the risk and I reap all the reward. And I’m still graced with the label “nonprofit.”

 

Oh, and speaking of spending, being a “nonprofit” doesn’t stop me from the worst kind of real estate shenanigans routinely practiced by the for-profit charter schools.

 

Both types of privatized institution allow for huge windfalls in real estate. If I own property X, I can sell it to my charter school (or management company) and then pay myself with tax dollars. Who determines how much I pay for my own property? ME! That’s who!

 

And I can still be a nonprofit.

 

Think that’s bad? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Thanks to some Clinton-era tax breaks, an investor in a charter school can double the original investment in just seven years!

I can even get the public to pay for the same building twice! And even then taxpayers still won’t own it!

 

But that’s the complicated stuff. There’s an even easier way to get rich off the public with my “nonprofit” charter school, and operators do it all the time: write myself a fat check!

 

After all, I’ve gotta’ pay, myself, right? And who’s in charge of determining how much I’m worth? ME!

 

I can even pay myself way more than my counterparts at traditional public schools who oversee exponentially more staff and students.

 

For instance, as New York City Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza is paid $345,000 to oversee 135,000 employees and 1.1 million students. Meanwhile, as CEO of Success Academy charter school chain, Eva Moskowitz handles a mere 9,000 students, for which she is paid $782,175.

 

And this is by no way a unique example.

 

There are just so many ways to cash in with a charter school even at a so-called “nonprofit” – especially if I want to dip my toe into legally dubious waters!

 

I could do like the almost exclusively “nonprofit” Gulen charter schools and exist solely as a means to raise money for an out-of-favor political movement in Turkey.

 

I could use charter funds to finance other businesses. I could decide to discontinue programs that students receive in traditional public schools such as providing free or reduced lunches but keep the cash. I could fake enrollment and have classes full of “ghost students” that the local, state and federal government will pay me to educate.

 

Fraud and mismanagement are rampant at charter schools because we don’t require them to be as accountable as their traditional public school counterparts.

 

If a traditional public school tried this chicanery, we’d almost certainly catch it at the monthly meetings or frequent audits. But charter schools don’t have to submit to any of that. They’re public money spent behind closed doors with little to no requirement to explain themselves – ever.

 

And all of this – nearly every bit of criticism I’ve leveled against the industry – doesn’t even begin to take into account the educational practices at these types of schools.

 

There is plenty of evidence that charters provide a comparable or worse education than children routinely receive at traditional public schools.

 

Where it is comparable, the issue is clouded by selective enrollment, inadequately servicing students with special needs and generally encouraging the hardest to teach to get an education elsewhere. Where it is worse, it is colossally worse, robbing children not just of funding but what is likely their only chance at an education.

 

But we don’t even need to go there.

 

We only need the issue of fiscal responsibility to bring down this behemoth.

 

Charter schools are no way to run a school. They are a blatant failure to meet our fiduciary responsibilities.

 

Traditional public schools are the best way to run a school. They protect the public’s investment of money and resources while providing a quality education to students.

 

So all this talk about nonprofit and for-profit charter schools is either a mark of supreme ignorance or a ploy for weak willed politicians to weasel their way out of taking a stand on an issue whose merits are obvious to anyone who knows what really happens in our education system.

 

It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on this expensive fraud.

 

 

It’s time for the charter school experiment to end.

 

 

And it’s way passed time to support fully public schools.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Cyber School Kingpin Gets Slap on Wrist For Embezzling Millions from PA Students

nick-trombetta

 

Nick Trombetta stole millions of dollars from Pennsylvania’s children.

 

And he cheated the federal government out of hundreds of thousands in taxes.

 

Yet at Tuesday’s sentencing, he got little more than a slap on the wrist – a handful of years in jail and a few fines.

 

He’ll serve 20 months in prison, be on supervised release for three years, and payback the tax money he concealed.

 

As CEO and founder of PA Cyber, the biggest virtual charter school network in the state, he funneled $8 million into his own pocket.

 

Instead of that money going to educate kids, he used it to buy a Florida condominium, sprawling real estate and even a private jet.

 

He already took home between $127,000 and $141,000 a year in salary.

 

But it wasn’t enough.

 

He needed to support his extravagant lifestyle, buy a $933,000 condo in the Sunshine State, score a $300,000 twin jet plane, purchase $180,000 houses for his mother and girlfriend in Ohio, and horde a pile of cash.

 

What does a man like that deserve for stealing from the most vulnerable among us – kids just asking for an education?

 

At very least, you’d think the judge would throw the book at him.

 

But no.

 

Because he took a plea deal, he got a mere 20 months in federal prison.

 

That’s less than two years in jail for defrauding tens of thousands of students and multiple districts across the Commonwealth.

 

In addition, once he serves his time he’ll be on probation for 3 years.

 

And even though there is no mystery about the amount of money he defrauded from the Internal Revenue Service by shifting his income to the tax returns of others – $437,632, to be exact – the amount he’ll have to pay back in restitution is yet to be determined.

 

One would think that’s easy math. You stole $437,632, you need to pay back at least that amount – with interest!

 

And what of the $8 million? Though I can’t find a single explicit reference to what happened to it in the media, it is implied that the money was recovered and returned to Pa Cyber.

 

Yet there seems to be no discussion of a financial penalty for embezzling all that money. If my checking account dips below a certain balance, I’m penalized. If I don’t pay the minimum on my credit cards, I’m charged an additional fee. Yet this chucklehead pilfers $8 million and won’t be docked a dime!? Just paying it back is good enough!?

 

But what makes this sentence even more infuriating to me is the paltry jail time Trombetta will serve.

 

The judge actually gave him 17 months LESS than the minimum federal guidelines for this kind of case! He should at least be serving 37 to 46 months – 3 to 4 years!

 

Nonviolent drug charges often lead to sentences much longer than that!

 

For instance, in 2010, Kevin Smith was arrested for drug possession. He was locked up in a New Orleans jail for almost 8 years (2,832 days) without ever going to trial!

 

But then again, most of these nonviolent drug charges are against people of color. And Trombetta is white.

 

So is Neal Prence, a former certified accountant who pleaded guilty to helping Trombetta hide his ill-gotten gains.

 

Prence will serve a year and a day in prison and pay back $50,000 in restitution.

 

It’s a good thing he didn’t have any drugs on him.

 

And that he didn’t have a tan.

 

This is what we talk about when we talk about white privilege.

 

And speaking of that, compare this crime with the sentences given to the Atlanta teachers who were convicted of cheating on standardized tests a few years back.

 

These were mostly women and people of color.

 

Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts received the harshest sentences.

They each got three years in prison, seven years probation, $10,000 in fines and 2,000 hours of community service.

 

So in America, cheating on standardized tests gets you a harder sentence than embezzling a fortune from school kids.

 

I’m not saying what the Atlanta teachers and administrators did was right, but their crime pales in comparison to Trombetta’s.

 

Think about it.

 

Atlanta city schools have suffered under decades of financial neglect. The kids – many of whom are students of color – receive fewer resources, have more narrowed curriculum and are forced to live under the yoke of generational poverty.

 

Yet their teachers were told to increase test scores with little to no help, and if they didn’t, they’d be fired.

 

I can’t imagine why they tried to cheat a system as fair as that.

 

It’s like being mugged at gunpoint and then the judge convicts you of giving your robber a wooden nickel.

 

The worst part of all of this is that we haven’t learned anything from either case.

 

High stakes standardized testing has become entrenched in our public schools by the newly passed federal law – the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

And though Trombetta resigned from his post as CEO of PA Cyber in September 2013, cyber charters are as popular as ever.

 

These are publicly funded but privately run schools that provide all or most instruction on-line. Think Trump University for tweens and teenagers.

 

You can’t turn on the TV without a commercial for a cyber charter school showing up. You can’t drive through a poor neighborhood without a billboard advertising a virtual charter. They even have ads on the buggies at the grocery store!

 

Yet these schools have a demonstrated track record of failure even when compared to  brick-and-mortar charter schools. And when you compare them to traditional public schools, it’s like comparing a piece of chewed up gum on the bottom of your shoe to a prime cut of filet mignon.

 

A 2016 study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools.

 

Keep in mind there are only 180 days of school in Pennsylvania!

 

That means cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

 

When it comes to reading, the same study found cyber charters provide 72 days less instruction than traditional public schools.

 

That’s like skipping 40% of the school year!

 

And this isn’t just at one or two cyber charters. Researchers noted that 88 percent of cyber charter schools produce weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

 

They concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.

 

AND THAT’S ALL LEGAL!

 

In Pennsylvania, nearly 35,100 of the 1.7 million children attending public schools are enrolled in cyber-charter schools. With more than 11,000 students, PA Cyber is by far the largest of the state’s 16 such schools.

 

 

If Trombetta had just stiffed Pennsylvania’s students that much, he wouldn’t have been in any trouble with the law.

 

However, he got even greedier than that!

 

He needed more, More, MORE!

 

Justice – such as it is in this case – was a long time coming.

 

Trombetta was first indicted back in 2013 – five years ago.

 

 

He was facing 11 counts of mail fraud, theft or bribery, conspiracy and tax offenses related to his involvement in entities that did business with Pa. Cyber. He pleaded guilty to tax conspiracy almost two years ago, acknowledging that he siphoned off $8 million from The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

 

He has been free on bond all this time.

 

His sister, Elaine Trombetta, agreed to cooperate with prosecution, according to federal court filings. She pleaded guilty in October 2013 to filing a false individual income tax return on her brother’s behalf and has yet to be sentenced.

 

It was only yesterday that her brother – the kingpin of this conspiracy – was ultimately sentenced.

 

Finally, he’ll have to face up to what he did.

 

Finally, he’ll have to pay for what he’s done.

 

Just don’t blink or you’ll miss it.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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School Vouchers and Runaway EdTech Pave the Way for the Destruction of the Very Concept of School

andres

 

School is where you learn to learn.

 

A teacher with an advanced degree and decades of experience devotes her time to figuring out what helps you comprehend the world around you.

 

And, if she’s good, she imparts that lesson to you as well.

 

Imagine if we took that away.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many EdTech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

And school vouchers are helping them do it.

 

Take Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and other market based privatization schemes.

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

At a public school all that money must be spent on the student. At a charter school some of that money can be pocketed as profit by the private company who runs the school.

 

Public schools provide a better alternative because the funding must be dedicated to the student, living within a district’s coverage area guarantees enrollment, the school must be managed by an elected school board with open meetings and a plethora of other amenities you won’t find at a privatized institution. But at least the charter school is a school!

 

However, an ESA or other voucher would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school where organizers can use it however they like – pocketing some and using the rest to help the child as you’ll find in most charter schools.

 

But as bad as that is, vulture capitalists want to add another destination for that money – let it pile up in the bank where it can be used for discrete education services provided by the EdTech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without the loving parent being in charge.

 

It goes by many names – a learning ecosystem, personalized learning, competency based or individualized education.

 

But it’s really a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 

Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. We just transform a crappy job market where workers bounce from a few hours of minimum wage labor here to a few hours of minimum wage toil there – all without benefits or union protections – into learning. Children bouncing from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

In short, it’s school without the school or teachers.

 

And make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to rubes as innovation.

 

The wealthy will still get institutions of learning. They will still be educated by the most qualified teachers in the world. They will still learn how to learn.

 

The best path to becoming a truly educated person involves human interaction and mentorship. You need experienced professional educators who use the empirical evidence they see in the classroom about your child to tailor lessons to their needs. The wealthy would never dream of making their children learn from the academic equivalent of an automated check out aisle or telemarketer robocall.

 

It is only the poor and middle class who will be released like chickens into the pasture of a learning ecosystem.

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin! So all the stability of the pre-crash housing market! What could possibly go wrong!?

 

Let me be clear – this is the ultimate goal of the school privatization movement.

 

Charter and voucher schools are only the tip of the iceberg. They still require real human beings to act as teachers (though they need not be as well educated or have as much experience as public school teachers). They still require buildings and grounds.

 

But this depersonalized learning approach allows them to do away with all of that. They can just provide students with an Internet accessible device and some dubious on-line tracking and management system.

 

Then they can pocket all the rest of the money taxpayers put aside to educate children and call it profit.

 

And they can use the programs students access to “learn” as a way to gather valuable marketing data about our kids. Everything students do on the device is free market research – every word they input, every keystroke, every site visited down to the slightest eye movement.

 

This is the logical conclusion of the monetization of education and an economy that only sees value in others as human capital that can be bought, sold and exploited.

 

This is where the privatization movement is going. And they’re laying the groundwork in legislation being proposed in our state capitals today.

 

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Senate Bill 2 proposes the creation of just such ESAs. If approved, the immediate result would be to boost private and parochial schools.

 

However, given a few years to strengthen the technologies and systems needed for a full learning ecosystem, the same law would allow taxpayer money to be used in this way.

 

And it’s something hardly anyone is talking about.

 

We’re fighting the privatization systems of today as the plutocrats set up the privatization systems of tomorrow.

 

Even if school vouchers never take off to the degree necessary to scaffold the most robust learning ecosystems, EdTech lobbyists are trying to install as much of this garbage as they can into our existing schools.

 

They are using one-to-one iPad initiatives and grants to fund up-to-date computers, Wi-Fi networks and software packages to pave the way for this brave new world of digital exploitation. They are selling our test score obsessed bureaucrats software like iStation and IXL that bridge the gap between test prep and learning ecosystems lite.

 

You can walk into many schools today where students spend hours on-line earning digital badges for watching videos and taking stealth assessments.

 

Few people are sounding the alarm because few people understand what’s going on.

 

This is not conjecture. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is the goal the edtech entrepreneurs will gladly tell you all about hoping you’ll invest.

 

There are hours of videos, pages of documents, mountains of graphs, charts and graphics about how this scheme will pay off for investment bankers and venture capitalists. (See below)

 

The only true way to win this battle is a cultural shift away from dehumanizing runaway capitalism.

 

We need to stop thinking that the private sector is always better than the public good. We need to stop allowing big business and corporations to get away without paying their fair share. We need to increase the voice of citizens and decrease the megaphone of money and privilege.

 

Otherwise, the science fiction dystopias of books like “Ready Player One” will no longer be fiction.

 

They will become the reality for every school child in this country.

 

A reality where school, itself, is a thing of the past.

 

And education is reduced to the mercenary collection of discrete skills that add up to nothing of value for the students except their own enslavement.


 

But don’t take my word for it. Here is the learning ecosystems model from the EdTech industry, itself, in corporate officers own words and graphics:

LEARNING IS EARNING – the scariest 6:58 video you’ll ever see.

 

KNOWLEDGEWORKS Vision for the Future of Education:

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Graphic as a PDF

More on KnowledgeWorks

Listing for PARENTS AS CONSUMERS Symposium

Read all about it here.

 


FIGHT BACK AGAINST SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION AND RUNAWAY EDTECH:

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Twenty-One Reasons People Hate, Hate, HATE Betsy DeVos

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Lesley Stahl: Why have you become, people say, the most hated Cabinet secretary?

 

Betsy DeVos: I’m not sure exactly how that happened…

I’m more misunderstood than anything.

 

 

The above exchange from last night’s 60 Minutes interview highlights an important point about our Education Secretary.

 

She is deeply unpopular, but not because she’s misunderstood. If anything, she’s understood too well.

 

We know what she stands for and we don’t like it.

 

If she was really so misunderstood, why didn’t her answers in the interview veer away from the same usual canned responses she’s given time-and-time-again to the same type of questions?

 

What’s wrong with schools? NOT ENOUGH CHOICE.

 

How do we prevent school shootings? LET SCHOOLS ARM TEACHERS.

 

You didn’t really even need DeVos to show up to the interview to be able to guess with a high degree of accuracy what her answers would be.

 

In fact, many of her responses seemed to have been coached – as if someone had prepared her with talking points before the interview even took place.

 

So without further ado, here is my exhaustive list of all the reasons I can think of why people really, REALLY hate Betsy Devos. If I’ve left something out, please feel free to add it in a comment.

 

WHY PEOPLE HATE BETSY DEVOS:

 

1) She didn’t earn her position as Education Secretary. She bought it. And even then it took a tie breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence to shove her down our throats.

 

2) She wants to spend tax dollars to boost privatized schools in which she has a financial stake.

 

3) She doesn’t mind taking funding away from public schools to do it.

 

4) She wants to destroy the entire system of public schools which enroll 90% of America’s children.

 

5) She doesn’t really know what public schools are, having never attended one or having never sent her children or grandchildren to one.

 

6) She wants to arm teachers not because it will protect kids from school shooters, but because that boosts her family’s investment portfolio. (i.e. her brother’s mercenary army for hire, Blackwater)

 

7) She won’t make charter and voucher schools give the same services to special education kids as those provided by traditional public schools.

 

8) She’s getting rid of students’ civil rights protections while adding protections for nefarious student loan providers and fly-by-night on-line schools.

 

9) She’s rescinded rules that protected trans students.

 

10) She’s considering rescinding rules that protect minority students from being unfairly and disproportionately disciplined by schools.

 

11) She’s made it harder for victims of sexual assault and harassment to report abuse and easier for those accused to avoid prosecution.

 

12) She talks about state’s rights to determine their own education systems while using the power of the federal government to coerce them to doing things her way.

 

13) She wastes public tax dollars. She is the only Cabinet member protected by Federal Marshals, which costs us nearly $1 million a month. Whether this is necessary or not, as a billionaire she could save the taxpayers money by taking on this cost, herself.

 

14) She doesn’t care if the public doesn’t want her at their school or event. She goes anyway and then pretends to be angry that protestors showed up. She doesn’t seem to understand that as a public servant she should serve at our pleasure – not the other way around.

 

15) She uses tragedy as a photo-op – as she did when she visited the Parkland school to promote arming teachers. She didn’t meet significantly with students or staff. She didn’t listen to their concerns. She even bailed on her own press conference there when the queries weren’t to her liking.

 

16) She has no problem whitewashing black history as she did when she claimed historic black colleges were pioneers of school choice. In reality they had no choice. For many African Americans at the time, it was create black colleges or forgo post-secondary education at all.

 

17) She is ignorant (purposefully or not) of the results of her own policies. Her advocacy of school choice in her home state of Michigan has weakened that state’s public schools, not strengthened them.

 

18) She’s out of touch with average Americans. She’s the richest member of Trump’s cabinet and often travels in her on super luxury yacht.

 

19) She’s rich not because she earned it, but because she was born into it and married into even more wealth. Moreover, much of her wealth is due to her family’s Amway fortune – basically it’s founded on rooking average people out of their hard earned money with what’s essentially a pyramid scheme.

 

20) She’s arrogant. She smiles vacantly at topics that don’t deserve a smile – they deserve serious regard.

 

21) She is extremely biased and partisan. She is supposed to serve the public interest, but her radical Christian Fundamentalism and anti-LGBT activism make her untrustworthy to serve in that capacity. Statements such as “There is 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,” do not help.

 

Okay. That’s all I can think of – though more may pop into mind as soon as I publish this. If I missed something please include it in the comments.

 

Hopefully this answers DeVos’ question about why she’s hated.

Creating a Charter or Voucher School is Like Designing a Utopia – Biases Prevail

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Create your own Utopia!

 

Go ahead! Don’t be shy!

 

What kind of government would you like? Republic, Monarchy, Dictatorship, Anarchy? Some combination or original system?

 

It’s all up to you.

 

How would you structure the economy? Capitalistic, Socialistic, Communistic? Something else?

 

You decide.

 

What would a family look like in your perfect society? How would careers be prepared for and chosen? What level of technology would you choose?

 

All these and more must be answered when creating the ideal community for you and I to live in.

 

And that’s exactly what I had my 7th grade students do this week in preparation for reading Lois Lowery’s science fiction novel, “The Giver.”

 

In small groups, my little ones clustered together at their tables and gave social planning a go.

 

It was stunning the variety of societies they created.

 

One group had a nominal anarchy with an inherited monarchy controlling the military. Another had an oligarchy of the smartest people who got the best grades to make all the decisions while everyone else played video games.

 

 

One of my favorites though was a group who decided to let women make all the rules except who could marry whom. That was decided only by the men, but women got to decide when to have kids and how many to have.

 

It was fascinating to see how their little minds worked.

 

But it was all a preview to Lowery’s novel of a futuristic society where utopia soon descends into dystopia.

 

As it often does.

 

So it made me wonder about the most utopian thinking we find in modern life – education policy.

 

The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.

 

Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.

 

 

But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of the assignment my kids did this week.

 

After all, what is a charter school but some naïve person’s ideal of the perfect educational institution? What’s a voucher school but a theocracy elevated to the normative secular level?

 

In each case, these world builders do the same as my middle schoolers – they build a system that would be perfect – from their own individual point of view.

 

In his book, “Utopian Studies: A Guide,” Prof. Gregory Eck writes:

 

Because… utopia is rooted in theory, it will not always work.  In fact, more is written about the failure and impossibility of utopia than of its success, probably because the ideal has never been reached.

 

 

And why is that ideal never reached? Margaret Atwood, the author of more than a few dystopian novels, has an answer.

 

“Every utopia,” she says, “…faces the same problem: What do you do with the people who don’t fit in?”

 

One person’s paradise is another person’s Hell.

 

So the idea of designing one system that fits all is essentially bound to fail.

 

But doesn’t that support the charter and voucher school ideal? They are marketed, after all, as “school choice.” They allegedly give parents and children a choice about which schools to attend.

 

Unfortunately, this is just a marketing term.

 

Charter and voucher schools don’t actually provide more choice. They provide less.

 

Think about it.

 

Who get to choose whether you attend one of these schools? Not you.

 

Certainly you have to apply, but it’s totally up to the charter or voucher school operators whether they want to accept you.

 

It is the public school system that gives you choice. You decide to live in a certain community, you get to go to that community’s schools. Period.

 

Certainly some communities are more accessible than others, and they are more accessible for some people than others – whether that be for economic, social, racial or religious reasons.

 

But you have much more choice here than you do from a bunch of nameless bureaucrats making decisions in secret that they never have to justify and for which they will never be held accountable.

 

What about curriculum? Don’t charter and voucher schools offer choice of curriculum?

 

No. They have one way of doing things. They have one curriculum. Either accept it or get out.

 

This is how we do things at KIPP. This is how we do things at Success Academy. You don’t like it, there’s the door.

 

By contrast, public schools tailor their curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. Each teacher does something different for every child in his or her charge whether those children are in special education, regular education, Emotional Support, the English as a Second Language Program, the academic or honors track.

 

Charter and voucher schools are naive utopias.

 

They propose one ideal way to teach all children and they expect parents to jump at their cultish schemes. All students will wear these sorts of uniforms and chant these sorts of phrases in response to these orders, etc. All children will be expected to provide marketing research to corporations on competency based learning programs and let their data be mined by these advertisers.

 

Because at these schools the emphasis is not on the curriculum. It’s on the system, itself.

 

These are privatized schools. They are schools run by private industry – not the public.

 

Decisions are not made by duly-elected representatives of the community in the light of day. They are made behind closed doors by corporate stooges.

 

THAT is the great innovation behind these schools. Everything else is mere window dressing.

 

If one of these schools found a better way to teach, public schools could pick it up and do it even better because the teachers and principals would be accountable for doing it correctly.

 

Funny how that’s never happened.

 

These so-called lab schools have never produced a single repeatable, verifiable innovation that works for all students without cherry picking the best and brightest.

 

Not once.

 

That’s because the utopia these policy wonks are interested in building isn’t for the students or parents. It’s for the investors.

 

They want to maximize return on investment. They want to decrease costs and increase profits. And whatever happens to the students is purely secondary.

 

It may be the ideal situation for the moneymen, but it’s often pure dystopia for the students. Charter schools are closed without notice, the money stolen under cloak of night. Voucher schools fool kids into thinking creationism is science and then are no where to be found when reputable colleges want nothing to do with their graduates.

 

Let me be the first to say that public school is no utopia.

 

We have real problems.

 

We need adequate, equitable and sustainable funding. We need integration. We need autonomy, respect and competitive pay for teachers. We need protection from corporate vultures in the standardized testing, publishing, edtech and school privatization industries.

 

But at heart, public schools are a much better choice because they don’t pretend to be perfect.

 

They are constantly changing. Teachers are constantly innovating.

 

A handful of years ago, I never had students design their own utopias before reading “The Giver.” But a colleague came up with the idea, I modified it for my students and we were off.

 

If I teach the same course next year, I’d modify it again based on what worked and what didn’t work this year.

 

I’m not expecting to be perfect.

 

I’m just doing the best I can.

 

Or as Jack Carroll puts it:

 

Perhaps the greatest utopia would be if we could all realize that no utopia is possible; no place to run, no place to hide, just take care of business here and now.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Check it out!

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The Staggering Naivety of Those Criticizing Public Schools as Out-of-Date

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There is a popular idea going around that public schools need to change because they’re outmoded, obsolete and passé.

While public schools certainly could do with a great deal of change to improve, this criticism is incredibly naïve.

It’s the intellectual equivalent of displaying a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses prominently on your bookshelf without actually having read it.

It’s like demanding everything you eat be gluten free without actually having celiac disease or a wheat allergy.

It’s the conceptual analogue to learning a trendy “word of the day” and trying desperately to fit it into your every conversation regardless of need or propriety.

America’s public school system is incredibly complex. And like most complex things, any criticism of it is at least partially correct.

There are ways in which the system is antiquated and could use updating. But to claim that the entire system should be scrapped in favor of a largely untested, disproven and – frankly – profit-driven model is supremely stupid.

The criticism seems to be well encapsulated in a flashy animated video from Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based charter school network operating 165 schools in 25 states and nine countries. The organization has been heavily praised by the likes of former President Barack Obama and philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates.

Let’s examine the six main components of the video explaining why the charter operators think public schools are out of date and should be replaced:

1) Public Schools are Relics of the Industrial Age 

The criticism goes like this. The public school model was created in the Industrial Age and thus prepares students to be factory workers. All day long in public schools students follow orders and do exactly what they’re told. Today’s workers need different skills. They need creativity, the ability to communicate ideas and collaborate.

First, while it is true that the American public school system was created during the Industrial Revolution, the same thing can be said for the United States, itself. Beginning in 1760 and going until 1840, manufacturing began to dominate the western economy. Does that mean the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped? Clearly our form of government could do with a few renovations, but not by appeal to its temporal genesis, to when it was created.

Second, IS it true that America’s public schools expect students to do nothing but listen to orders and follow them to the letter?

Absolutely not.

In fact, this is exactly what teachers across the country DON’T want their students to do. We work very hard to make sure students have as much choice and ownership of lessons as possible.

We often begin by assessing what they know and what they’d like to know on a given subject. We try to connect it to their lives and experiences. We try to bring it alive and show them how vital and important it is.

Do we exclude creativity, communication and collaboration from our lessons?

Absolutely not.

In my class, creativity is a must. Students are required to write journals, creative fiction, and poetry. They draw pictures, maps, posters, advertisements. They make Keynote presentations, iMovies, audio recordings using Garage Band, create quizzes on Kahoot, etc. And they often do so in small groups where they are required to collaborate.

The idea that students are somehow all sitting in rigid rows while the teacher blabs on and on is pure fantasy. It betrays a complete ignorance of what really goes on in public schools.

2) Lack of Autonomy

The criticism goes that students in public school have no choices. Every minute of the day is controlled by the teacher, principals or other adults. However, in today’s world we need workers who can manage their own time and make their own decisions about what to do and when to do it.

Once again we see a complete ignorance of what goes on in public schools.

Today’s students are not only expected to make decisions and manage their time, they could not pass their classes without doing so.

Teachers often go to great lengths to give students choices. Would you like to read this story or that one? Would you like to demonstrate your learning through a test, a paper, an art project or through a digital medium?

For instance, my students are required to read silently for 15-minutes every other day. But they get to select which books to read. Eventually, they have to complete a project using their self-selected book, but they are in charge of ensuring the book they pick meets the requirements, how much they read each day in class and outside of class, and whether they should complete a given book or pick a new one.

Even when it comes to something as mundane as homework, students have to develop time management. I give my students the homework for the entire week on Monday, and it’s due on Friday. This means they have to decide how much to do each night and make sure it gets done on time.

Today’s students have much more ownership of their learning then I did when I went to school. Those throwing stones at our public school system would know that, if they actually talked to someone in it.

3) Inauthentic Learning

Critics say most of the learning in public schools is inauthentic because it relies on memorization and/or rote learning. It relies on a generic set of knowledge that all children must know and then we measure it with standardized tests. Learning should be deeper and its subjects should be something students intrinsically care about.

Once again…

Actually this one is kind of spot on.

Or at least, it’s partially true.

It accurately represents one kind of curriculum being mandated on public schools from the state and federal government. It’s called corporate education reform, and as pervasive as it is, you’ll also find the overwhelming majority of school teachers and community members against it.

This is why Common Core is so unpopular – especially among teachers. This is why almost everyone wants to reduce standardized testing and the kind of narrowing of the curriculum and teach-to-the-test practices it brings.

However, there’s something incredibly disingenuous about this criticism coming from a charter network chain. The educational practices these critics of public schools often propose replacing this standardization with are often just a rehash of that same standardization using more modern technology.

Business interests, like Big Picture Learning, often propose using competency based education or personalized education programs on computers or devices. These are extremely standardized. They follow the same Common Core standards and use computerized stealth assessments to determine whether students have learned the prescribed standard or not.

In short, yes, corporate education reform should be challenged and defeated. However, as in this instance, often the same people criticizing public schools for these practices don’t want to undo them – they just want to expand them so they can be more effectively monetized by big businesses like them!

4) No Room for Student Interests

Critics say the standardized public school system requires each child to learn the same things in the same ways at the same times. However, each of us are different and have individual interests and passions. The current system has no room for self-discovery, finding out what children enjoy doing, what they’re good at and where they fit in.

Once again, there is some truth to these criticisms.

The corporate education model is guilty of exactly these things. However, teachers have been pushing to include an increasing amount of individualization in lessons.

This struggle is inherent in the essential dichotomy of what it means to be an educator today. We’re told we must individualize our lessons for each student but standardize our assessments. This is fundamentally impossible and betrays a lack of vision from those making policy.

If the lawmakers and policy wonks who made the rules only listened to teachers, child psychologists and other experts, we would not be in this predicament.

As it is, many teachers do what they can to ensure students interests are part of the lesson. They gauge student interest before beginning a lesson and let it guide their instruction. For instance, if students want to know more about the weaponry used by the two sides in the Trojan War, that can become part of the unit. If, instead, they wonder about the role of women in both societies, that can also become part of the curriculum. Just because the higher ups demand students learn about the Trojan War doesn’t mean student interest must be ignored. In fact, it is vital that it be a component.

Moreover, creative writing, journaling and class discussion can help students grow as learners and engage in authentic self-discovery. Two weeks don’t go by in my class without a Socratic Seminar group discussion where students debate thematic and textual questions about literature that often spark dialogues on life issues. When students hear what their peers have to say about a given subject, it often results in them changing their own opinions and rethinking unquestioned beliefs and values.

In short, less corporate education reform means room for more student passion, interest and self-discovery.

But these critics don’t want less. They want more!

5) They Don’t Respect How We Learn

Critics say that each student is different in terms of how they learn best and in how much time it takes to learn. As a result, students who comprehend something at a slower rate than others are considered failures by the current system.

In the corporate model, this is true. However, most districts take great pains to give students multiple chances to learn a given concept or skill.

The fact that not all students will know the same things at the same times is built in to the curriculum. Teachers are familiar with their students and know which children need more help with which skills. Concepts are reviewed and retaught – sometimes through copious mini-lessons, sometimes with one-on-one instruction, sometimes with exercises for the whole class.

The further one gets from standardized tests and Common Core, the more individual student needs are respected and met.

But again that’s not the goal of these critics. They blame public schools for what they only wish to continue at higher intensity.

6) Too Much Lecturing

Critics say that under the current system, students are lectured to for more than 5 hours a day. However, this requires students to be unable to interact with each other for long periods of time. Students are at different levels of understanding and nothing can be done to help them until the lecture is over. Wouldn’t it be better to let students pursue their own education through computers and the internet so they could proceed at their own pace like at the Khan Academy?

And here we have the real pitch at the heart of the criticism.

People who wish to tear down public schools are not agnostic about what should replace them. They often prefer privatized and computerized alternatives – like the Big Picture charter chain model!

However, these are not entirely novel and new approaches. We’ve tried them, though on a smaller scale than the traditional public school model, and unlike that traditional system, they’re an abject failure.

Giving students a computer and letting them explore to their hearts content is the core of cyber charter schools – perhaps the most ineffective academic system in existence today. In my state of Pennsylvania, it was actually determined that students would learn more having no formal schooling at all than to go to cyber charter schools.

The reason? It is beyond naïve to expect children to be mature enough to control every aspect of their learning. Yes, they should have choice. Yes, they should be able to explore and develop as individuals at their own pace. But if you just let children go, most will choose something more immediately gratifying than learning. Most children would rather sit around all day playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty than watch even the most interesting educational video about math or science.

Adolescents need structure. They need motivation. In short, they need a teacher – a human authority figure in the same room with them who can help guide their learning and hold them accountable for their actions.

The mere presence of information on the Internet will not make children smarter just as the mere presence of a book won’t increase their knowledge. Certainly some children are self-motivated enough and may benefit from this approach, but the overwhelming majority will not and do not.

Our public schools do need a reformation, but this edtech-biased criticism only hits part of the mark.

The major problems are corporate education reform and standardization. And unfortunately edtech plans like privatization and competency based schemes only seek to increase these pedagogies.

Public schools are not outdated. They have changed and evolved to meet the needs of the students attending them. The fact that they serve every student in a given community without weeding out the less motivated or those with special needs as charter chains like Big Picture do, demonstrates this very flexibility and daily innovation.

They can be robust systems fostering self-discovery, autonomy and deep student learning. We just need to have the courage to support them, strengthen their autonomy and avoid trendy, shallow and self-centered criticisms from charter chains hoping we’ll buy what they’re selling.