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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Five Things I Learned About Ed Tech While Playing ‘Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

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I don’t mean to brag, but I just beat “Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”

 

This summer I sat down with my 9-year-old daughter and together we played the most popular Nintendo Switch game for hours, days, weeks.

 

And at the end of all that time, I came away victorious – something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do when I started.

 

There are so many buttons to learn, two joy sticks, various info screens and menus.

 

But when it was all over, I had cleared all four divine beasts. I got all 18 captured memories. I completed about 80 shrines. I mastered about 45 side quests. I shredded guardians, lynols and bokoblins. And, yes, I opened a major can of whoop ass on Calamity Gannon.

 

As the kids say, I’m jelly.

 

My video game skills are lit.

 

You can’t handle me, bro.

 

And so on.

 

 

But I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man.

 

Didn’t I have anything better to do?

 

Couldn’t I have found a more productive use for all that time?

 

Maybe. Maybe not. However, beyond the sheer fun, I did learn something from the whole experience.

 

As a public school teacher, I learned about my students by following in their footsteps.

 

That’s really why I started playing in the first place – my middle school kids this year loved that game.

 

I got more Zelda doodles, more Hyrule poetry, more Link fan fiction than you might at first believe.

 

The world of the game was really important to my children and having even a passing knowledge of that world helped me relate to them.

 

I even asked for a few tips after class.

 

One of my best students took her Switch out of her backpack and showed me a prime location to pick hot peppers so I could withstand the cold of Mount Hyrule (Don’t ask).

 

It was worth doing just for that – I showed my willingness to be the student and for them to be the teachers. I showed them we were all a community of learners.

 

At least, that’s my hope.

 

But now that the dog days of summer are here and my video game victory is complete, I keep thinking of the implications of my experience in Hyrule on the world of education.

 

Specifically, I’m thinking about education technology or Ed Tech.

 

I’m thinking about how we use various software packages to try to teach students and how they invariably fail at the task.

 

Well-meaning administrators hear about this program or that classroom management system or an assessment app and they spend beaucoup bucks on it.

 

We’re instructed to give up valuable instruction time so our kids can sit in front of a computer while a digital avatar attempts to do our job.

 

Kids listen to a cartoon person instruct them in the rudiments of grammar or literacy, play loose skills exercises and earn digital badges.

 

It may sound like fun to us, but they hate it.

 

The reason: nine times out of ten it’s little more than a standardized test given on a computer.

 

Sure, there are lots of bells and whistles, but the kids catch on mighty quickly. There is no student as bored as a student forced to play an educational video game.

 

I have real concerns with issues of student privacy and how the data being collected by these apps is used. I have real problems with how this technology facilitates dumbing down the curriculum – narrowing it to only that which can be measured on a multiple choice assessment. I take umbrage that these programs are used by some as “evidence” that human educators and brick and mortar schools are unnecessary. And I shed real tears at the massive amounts of funding being funneled to corporations that could be better spent in our own districts.

 

But playing this game has given me hope.

 

In seeing how “Zelda” succeeds with kids – because it succeeded with me – I think we can illuminate some ways ed tech goes awry.

 

I found five distinct lessons from the game, five areas where “Zelda” succeeds where ed tech fails.

 

Perhaps these could be used to improve the quality of ed tech devices to make them better at teaching students.

 

Or they could show why ed tech will never be as effective at teaching as flesh and blood instructors.

 

In any case, here is what I learned.

1) Focus on Fun

 

One of the biggest differences between ed tech and “Zelda” was the focus.

 

The games we make children play at school are designed to teach them something. That is their purpose. It is their raison d’être. The point behind the entire activity is to instruct, test and reward.

 

By contrast, the purpose of “Zelda” is fun.

 

Don’t get me wrong. “Zelda” can be very educational.

 

There are points where the game is actively trying to teach you how to do things usually associated with game play.

 

You have to learn how to make your character (Link) do what you want him to do. You have to learn how to manipulate him through the world. How to run, how to climb, how to heal, how to use weapons, how to cook and make elixirs, etc.

 

However, the point behind the entire game is not instructional. It’s fun – pure and simple.

 

If you have to learn something, it is all in service to that larger goal.

 

In the world of the game, learning is explicitly extrinsic. It helps you have more fun playing. Only the pursuit of winning is intrinsic or even conceptualized as being so.

 

In real life, this may not be the right approach to education, but it seems to be a rule of virtual experience. If it is superseded, the game becomes just another class assignment – lifeless, dead, boring.

 

If educational software is going to be effective in the classroom, it must find a way to bridge this divide. It must either put fun before pedagogy or trick the user into thinking it has done so.

 

I’m not sure this is possible or desirable. But there it is.

 

2) Logic and Problem Solving Work but not Curriculum

 

There are many aspects of “Zelda” one could consider educational.

 

However, when it comes to things that have importance outside of the game, the biggest would be problem solving and logic games.

 

A great deal of game play can be characterized under this umbrella.

 

The ostensible mission is to defeat the bad guy, Calamity Gannon. However, to do so you often have to solve various puzzles in order to have the strength and skills to take him down.

 

The most obvious of these puzzles are shrines. There are 120 special areas throughout Hyrule that Link needs to find and solve.

 

Each one involves a special skill and asks the gamer to decipher problems using that skill. For example, one asks you to manipulate fans so that the air flow makes windmills turn in a pattern. Another asks you to get a ball through an obstacle course.

 

In each case, the emphasis is on logic and critical thinking.

 

That has tremendous educational value. And it’s something I’ve seen done easily and well in many educational video games.

 

The problem is it doesn’t teach any particular curriculum. It doesn’t teach math, science, English or social studies – though it does help contribute to all of these pursuits.

 

 

Ed tech games are not nearly so coy. They often try to go right for the curriculum with disastrous results. Ed tech software, for instance, will have you find the grammatical error in a sentence or solve an equation in order to move on in the game.

 

That just doesn’t work. It feels false, extraneous and forced. It’s doesn’t seem like an organic part of the experience. It’s something contrived onto it from outside and reminds the gamer exactly why you’re playing – to learn.

 

3) Option to Seek Help

 

One of the most surprising things to me about playing “Zelda” on the Switch was how much of an on-line gaming community has formed around the whole experience.

 

If you get stuck in a particular area, you can find numerous sites on-line that will help you get passed it. You can even find gamer videos where YouTubers will show you exactly how they solved this or that problem. And they don’t all have the same solution. Some provide elegant, well-detailed advice, and others seem to stumble on it and offer you their videos as proof they could actually get the job done somehow.

 

It’s a lot different from when I was a kid playing video games. Back then (30 years ago) you had your friends but there were few other places to go for help. There were fan magazines and a few video game companies had tip hotlines. But other than that, you were on your own.

 

One of my favorite YouTubers this summer was Hyrule Dude. His videos were clear, informative and helpful. However, I didn’t always agree with his solutions. But they invariably helped me find things that would work for me.

 

It reminded me a bit of Khan Academy and other learning sites.

 

If kids really want to grasp something today, they have so many places they can go on-line. As educators, it’s hard to incorporate them into a classroom environment because there are certain things we want kids to find out for themselves.

 

For instance, as a language arts teacher, I want my students to do the assigned readings on their own. Yet I know some of them try to skip to the on-line summaries they can find and use that instead of reading the text. I have no problem if they access good summaries and analysis but I don’t want them to take the place of trying to comprehend the text on their own first.

 

I think there are ways to use this larger social media community to help support learning without spoiling the hard work kids need to put in on their own. But it’s something we need to think about more and find better ways to incorporate.

 

4) Open Ended

 

One of the most striking things about this new “Zelda” is how much choice the gamer has. In most games you have to complete the first board and then the second and so on until you win.

 

On the Switch, the world you’re thrust into is incredibly open ended. You can do pretty much what you want, when you want. Or at least you can try.

 

At first, your character is limited to one area of the world – a plateau. But once you complete a certain number of the challenges there, you get the paraglider which allows you to access most of the rest of the world.

 

It’s a huge area to explore – impossible to travel the entire length of it without spending hours of game play. And it’s entirely up to you where to go and what to do next.

 

The central mission of the game is to defeat Calamity Gannon in Hyrule Castle. However, that would be incredibly difficult early on. You’re advised to get the four Divine Beasts first. And you can do them in any order you want.

 

Moreover, I mentioned shrines earlier. When you complete four shrines, you can either increase your hearts (the amount you can be hurt without dying) or your stamina (how long your character can do something hard like climbing or swimming without having to rest). Technically, you don’t have to complete more than a few shrines, but doing so makes your character stronger and better able to get the Divine Beasts and defeat Gannon.

 

There are also side-quests (totally optional) that reward your character with money, items, etc.

 

I think this is the secret to the game’s success. It’s why game play is so immersive and addictive.

 

Ed tech software is exactly the opposite. You must do section A before section B before section C. It’s little more than a multiple choice test with only limited possible answers of which only one is correct.

 

In “Zelda” there are often multiple ways to achieve the same end. For instance, I would assume the programmers wanted me to fight my way through every room of Hyrule Castle to get to Calamity Gannon. However, I simply climbed over the walls and swan through the moats – a much quicker and efficient method.

 

If we could recreate this freedom of movement and multifarious solutions within educational software, we might really be onto something. But, frankly, it’s something that even traditional video games have difficulty being able to recreate.

 

5) Choice to Play or Not

 

And speaking of choice, there is the choice whether to play or not.

 

Video games are one of the things kids choose for leisure. When we force kids to play them in school, that choice is gone.

 

They become a task, a trial, an assignment.

 

Moreover, not every child enjoys video games.

 

We can’t mandate kids learn from games – even the best of ed tech games. At best, they should be an option. They could be one tool in the toolbox.

 

In summary, I think the goal of the ed tech industry is deeply flawed.

 

Ed tech will never adequately replace brick-and-mortar schools and flesh and blood teachers.

 

At best, it could provide a tool to help kids learn.

 

To do so, games would have to primarily be focused on fun – not learning. They would have to be organized around critical thinking and logic – not curriculum. They would need to utilize the on-line community for help but not cheating. They would need to be open ended worlds and not simply repackaged standardized testing. And finally, students would need the choice whether to play them or not.

 

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that the ed tech industry would even attempt to incorporate these ideas in its products.

 

They are market driven and not student driven. The corporate creatures behind these products don’t care how well they work. They only want to increase profitability and boost market share.

 

Cheaper commodities are better – especially when the consumer isn’t the student forced to play the game but the politician or administrator in charge of school policy.

 

Ed tech’s potential as a positive tool in a school’s toolbox has been smothered by the needs of business and industry. Until we recognize the harm corporations do in the school, we will be doomed to dehumanizing students, devaluing teachers and wasting our limited resources on already wealthy big business.

 


 

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

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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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When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.

Gamification – The Hottest New Trend to Monetize Education

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When I was a kid, Super Mario Bros. was my jam.

 

After school, I couldn’t wait to take on the role of plucky plumber Mario or his brother Luigi. I’d jump on a few turtle shells, bounce over a bottomless pit and smash just the right secret brick to get my flashing star power up and wipe the floor with endless levels of Koopa Troopas.

 

But through it all, I never really learned anything.

 

With the possible exception of a few Italian stereotypes, the only knowledge I gained was where the warp zones were, which blocks to hit and the muscle memory necessary to defeat the next bad guy.

 

However, now-a-days that’s all changed.

 

Someone in marketing and accounting has decided that the same techniques I used to save Princess Toadstool would make an exceptional method of pedagogy.

 

They call it gamification, the process of making academic lessons, courses and objectives look more like video games.

 

Sure, the process has applications in the business world and advertising, but its biggest market has been education.

 

In fact, the Gamification industry is worth $2 billion worldwide and some estimate it to jump to $22 billion by 2022.

 

Want to teach grammar? Welcome to the good ship Verb sailing on the seas of Nouns and Pronouns. Interjections, A-hoy!

 

Wish your students knew fractions? Let them blast away the wrong numbers so only the correct numerator matches with the correct denominator.

 

That kind of thing.

 

It’s incredibly popular in some circles.

 

Advocates claim it increases student engagement and enthusiasm, provides instant feedback and the opportunity for social interactions.

 

Critics say it reduces students’ attention spans, narrows the curriculum and replaces human interaction with canned interfaces.

 

But when something is bringing in this kind of cash for big business, it’s kind of beside the point whether it works or not.

 

It’s the latest form of snake oil out of the cobra factory, and your teacher may be forced to pour it into your children’s brains.

 

That’s just Education 2018. Under the old model, the hucksters would have to approach each teacher one-at-a-time and convince them to try the shinny new toy in the box. But when you remove teacher autonomy, that frees all the used car salesmen to go right to the one person in your district – often the technology coordinator or academic coach – who controls the purse strings and convince him or her to buy what they’re selling.

 

In short, I’m not a fan.

 

In fact, I think gamification is one of the dumbest fads to hit public schools since standardized testing.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

Games can have limited use in the classroom.

 

My students love reviewing already mastered material in teams or competing against each other individually.

 

But there’s a big difference between playing Jeopardy or Kahoot with soon-to-be-tested material and plopping kids on an app or software package that pretends to teach them the concept.

There’s a world of difference between a 10-minute detour and an entire curriculum structured around game theory.

 

The biggest problem seems to be this.

 

Games are not intrinsically valuable.

 

They are good or bad based on the amount of fun they provide the user.

 

Be honest. No one really cares if Link puts together the Tri-force. No one is losing any sleep over rampaging Metroids on the loose. No one is putting out an Amber Alert the next time Princess Peach is inevitably kidnapped by Bowser. The only thing that matters is if meeting these objectives and countering these fictional bad guys is fun and exciting.

 

However, the same is not true for the ends of education.

 

People care whether you can read and write. You may lose sleep over being unable to add, subtract, multiple and divide. Co-workers will be alerted if you don’t comprehend the basics of science and history.

 

And the higher the skill we’re aiming for, the greater the degree of importance.

 

Gamification divorces these two ends. It turns education from an intrinsic activity into an extrinsic one.

 

This is a big deal.

 

Students shouldn’t struggle through a reading passage so they’ll get a score or a badge. They should actually care about what they’re reading.

 

My students and I just finished reading Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and they loved it.

 

After the first few chapters, they weren’t reading for a grade or to please me, their teacher. They truly wanted to know what would happen next. And to fully understand that, they had to exercise and refine their reading skills.

 

Look at it like this.

 

When I was playing Super Mario Bros., I often took a few warp zones to the last board so I could beat Bowser quickly and win the game. But that means I skipped over most of the first seven boards.

 

This didn’t matter because the only reason to play was to win. But if those first boards had included something important to the experience, skipping them would have greatly diminished my experience.

 

Gamification reduces learning until its meaningless. Why would anyone want to know something unless it carried with it a video game like reward?

 

And that’s merely the worst part.

 

In practice, most of the applications and software being pushed on kids to increase enthusiasm and motivation aren’t really very much fun at all. After a few times through, there isn’t much reason to plow through exposition heavy content with little to do. This material doesn’t connect to students’ lives, it doesn’t foster authentic competition, it doesn’t stoke their sense of wonder – it’s just a boring set of hoops to jump through to satisfy the instructor.

 

Admittedly, it does provide instant feedback, but that doesn’t matter if students don’t care about the matter at hand.

 

Social interactions are possible here but rarely have I seen this opportunity explored. A good group project will get students more engaged socially than messaging back and forth about the software challenge du jour.

 

Education can be so much more than this.

 

Students are being robbed of authentic interactions, authentic instruction and authentic learning.

 

Not all things should be turned into a game.

 

Gamification is another example of trying too hard to market something to people who won’t actually be using it in the hopes that they won’t notice it doesn’t actually work that well.

 

The consumer isn’t the gamer – it’s the administrator who buys the program. And the people best suited to assess the program’s success – teachers and students – aren’t even part of the equation.

 

It’s about monetization, not education.

 

Mario may grab a bunch of coins on his way to save the princess, but it is the corporations who are getting rich off this sad fad.

 

All that glitters is not gold, just as all that is new and technological is not cutting edge.

 

 

Can we stop letting big business drive the field and let education be determined by educators?

 

 

Otherwise, it will be game over for an entire generation of kids duped into accepting crap for curriculum.

Betsy DeVos – Extreme Image Makeover as Champion of Special Needs Children

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Meet Betsy DeVos, Champion of Students With Special Needs.

 

At least that’s who she’s pretending to be this week.

 

The wealthy Republican mega-donor who bought her position as Secretary of Education published an article in the current issue of Education Week called “Commentary: Tolerating Low Expectations for Students With Disabilities Must End.”

 

It was almost like she expected us all to forget who she actually is and her own sordid history with these kinds of children.

 

Up until now, the billionaire heiress and public school saboteur always put the needs of profitizers and privateers ahead of special needs children.

 

During her confirmation hearing, she refused to say whether she would hold private, parochial and charter schools receiving tax dollars to the same standard as public schools in regard to how they treat special education students. Once on the job, she rescinded 72 federal guidelines that had protected special education students.

 

But now she’s coming off like a special education advocate!

 

What a turnaround!

 

It’s almost like David Duke coming out in favor of civil rights! Or Roy Moore coming out in favor of protecting young girls from pedophiles! Or Donald Trump coming out in favor of protecting women from crotch grabbing!

 

It begs the question – who exactly is she trying to fool?

 

Does Education Week really expect us to buy

this crap? Or has the so-called corporate media enterprise simply caved to the Trump administration’s demand to publish a puff piece for rubes without any journalistic integrity?

 

Real journalists might have published this BS, but only after giving readers the proper context.

 

Not Education Week. The only nod toward objectivity was inserting the word “Commentary” in the title of DeVos’s article.

 

It’s almost like saying – DeVos ALLEGEDLY champions students with special needs.

 

Give me a break.

 

She’s championing a feel good decision from the US Supreme Court from March. Way to get on that, Betsy!

 

Moreover, the decision isn’t exactly substantive.

 

It basically says that public schools need to ensure their special education students make more than minimal academic progress.

 

Great! Who doesn’t want that?

 

Has Congress jumped on this decision to increase federal aide to help public schools meet this requirement?

 

Nope.

 

And neither is DeVos calling for any additional federal help. In fact, her administration is proposing CUTTING federal special education funding.

 

Yet when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted in 1975 by the Gerald Ford administration, the federal government was supposed to fund 40% of the cost of all special education students. It has never met that promise.

 

Today, the federal government only shoulders 15.7% of the cost with the states and individual districts picking up the rest.

 

This is extremely unfair.

 

It costs roughly twice as much to educate a special education student as a non-special education student. Yet the numbers of special needs students are on the rise.

 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 statistics (the most recent available), students with special needs account for 8.8% of the population. That’s up an additional 100,000 students from the previous year.

 

And the areas with the largest increase of special needs students are the most impoverished.

 

So we’re expecting the poorest communities to take up the largest percentage of the tab.

 

There are several bills in Congress demanding the federal government increase funding to the 40% threshold, but DeVos didn’t see fit to mention them.

 

To her, money is a thing only worth being lavished on private, parochial or charter schools.

 

Instead, she mentioned “personalized” education as a remedy for special needs students in public schools.

 

She wrote:

 

“No two children are the same. Each has his or her own unique abilities and needs. Personalized, student-centered education can help all children thrive, especially children with disabilities.” (Emphasis mine)

 

Though few people really disagree with this statement, the use of the word “Personalized” sets off alarm bells.

 

The term has come to mean “personalized learning” or “competency based education” which is code for making students sit on a computer or a device for hours at a time completing stealth assessments. These are programs made to look like video games that really just assess the same standardized material on the typical fill-in-the-bubble high stakes test.

 

And the results of these assessments are likewise used against schools and students as an excuse to privatize and strip them of local control, legal protections and mandated transparency.

 

There are authentic ways to use technology to help kids learn, but the rush by corporations to cash in on this emerging market has been largely unregulated, unstudied and unchallenged.

 

DeVos has already noted her commitment to edtech solutions to academic problems.

 

At a conference for edtech investors earlier this year she said:

 

“We’ve just scratched the surface in the role technology can play. I only have to look at my young grandchildren to see how powerful tech is. It is a thousand flowers, and we haven’t planted the whole garden.”

 

Another place she can look is her investment portfolio.

 

Both she and her husband have a $5 million and $25 million investment in a shady “brain performance” company called Neurocore. DeVos even sat on the company’s board until she got her job as Secretary of Education and had to step down.

 

The company claims to be able to train young brains to think better by hooking kids up to hats with wires hanging out of them.

 

I’m not kidding. The whole things goes against just about every peer-reviewed study in the field of neuroscience, but DeVos claims her company can help cure attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, memory loss and migraines.

 

In other words, hooking kids up to machines of dubious scientific value is the cure for special education.

 

This is where we are people.

 

Our government is run by frauds and hucksters.

 

And the media calmly gives them an unchallenged platform to spout whatever nonsense they like with little to no skepticism.

 

So Betsy DeVos is a champion for students with disabilities, huh?

 

File that under B for Bullshit.


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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.

 


 

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