I Can’t Shield My Daughter From Both Coronavirus AND Edmentum – Our District’s Crappy On-line Learning Platform

Being a parent during a global pandemic means having to make difficult decisions.

The most pressing of which seems to be: from which Coronavirus spawned horror should I shield my child?

As schools slowly reopened in my neck of the woods, it was basically a choice between in-person instruction or remote learning.

Do I allow my child the benefits of a living, breathing teacher but risk the COVID-19 incubator of a physical classroom environment – or do I keep her safe at home but parked in front of a computer all day?

It’s not an easy call.

On the one hand, in-person learning is nearly always more effective than distance learning.

On the other hand, I don’t want her to get sick or become a Typhoid Mary bringing the disease into our house and infecting the rest of the family.

In any sane country, I wouldn’t have to make such a choice. Where infection rates are moderate to high, schools should be closed and all instruction virtual.

But American governance in 2020 is not nearly so rational.

In the absence of strong, sane leadership, each school district is its own fiefdom marching to the beat of its own discordant drum.

Even in Western Pennsylvania, my neighborhood school is leaving it up to parents whether to potentially endanger their children or not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We could refuse to take chances. We could keep all students online and that would increase our academic options.

After all, there is more than one way to do remote learning.

We could ask the district’s classroom teachers to design instruction tailor made to their students but merely delivered online.

Or we could use a prepackaged platform to deliver that instruction.

To me, it’s obvious which is better.

One maximizes academic outcomes by making the virtual experience as much like the in-person experience as possible with multiple daily interactions between teachers and students. The other delegates the responsibility of educating to a corporation with minimal social interaction between students and educators.

The teacher led option is the way to go, but it only works at most districts if they give up the myth that they can make in-person instruction feasible during a pandemic that has already infected more than 7 million people in this country and killed 200,000 and counting.

In districts like mine where community leaders and even some school directors are committed to keeping the buildings open so that they can justify keeping open restaurants, bars and other establishments, there is a disincentive to even allow this third option. If the public chooses it, the local economy might suffer.

So they’re committed to giving people a choice – just not THAT choice.

If they can only choose between canned cyber curriculum or fresh but dangerous in-person models, they’re betting parents will choose the latter.

And in many cases they are. But a significant number are not.

In the McKeesport Area School District (MASD), where I’ve lived most of my life, nearly a third of the parents have chosen distance learning for their children instead of a half day hybrid model. One would think that would free up enough classroom teachers to offer synchronous, authentic instruction. Students could have lessons from a certified district employee with years of experience instructing children of that age, grade and subject matter. Kids and teachers could develop trusting and caring relationships and work together to create the best possible learning environment.

Some local districts are actually doing that.

But not McKeesport.

Instead the district is using its existent on-line credit recovery program for all virtual students.

The platform is Calvert Learning, a product of the ed tech giant Edmentum.

This multi-million dollar global company (it was sold for $143 million in 2010) is best known for creating Study Island and other standardized test prep based learning platforms.

The problem is it was never meant to be used as the sole provider of coursework for thousands of students in a single district.

In fact, the specific Edmentum product being used by MASD – Calvert Learning – was originally intended for home school students.

It was created for K-8th grade, but when added to Edmentum’s Coursework platform, the company claims to be able to offer credit recovery – I mean academic classes – for K-12 and beyond.

As a parent who has spent countless hours helping his daughter navigate it, let me tell you – it’s a mess.

The instruction and assignments it provides are developmentally inappropriate, assesses things it hasn’t taught, and are filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Moreover, the pace it prescribes violates the guidelines Edmentum gives to parents about how much time students should spend on-line.

According to “A Parent Guide: Supporting Your Child During Virtual Learning,” provided by Edmentum, cyber students should limit their time online. Elementary students should spend not more than 1-2 hours a day, middle school students 2-3 hours, and high school students 3-4 hours.

My 6th grade daughter typically spends 7-8 hours a day just to barely get things done – and that’s not counting 2-3 hours on the weekends.

I’ve seen her struggle through passages that are written far above her reading level.

For example, she completed a unit on characterization where she was required to read O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

I know the story well, because as a middle school teacher, I’ve taught it to my 7th grade students from time-to-time. However, the version I’ve used is not the original that O. Henry wrote. It is brought down to the level of a middle schooler and unnecessary attitudes of the time are downplayed.

In the original, one of the characters, Sam, uses big words to show how smart he is. The version I use still has him do that but reduces its frequency so that middle schoolers can understand him. After all, 6th graders shouldn’t have to wrestle with “philoprogenitiveness,” “chawbacon” and “whiskerando” just to grasp a pretty basic plot.

Moreover, the story was published in 1907. The original text throws out numerous instances of casual racism against Native Americans that serve no point in the story. Does my daughter really need to be subjected to dehumanizing native peoples as mere “red skins” just to get a lesson on characterization?

Clearly this unit was not developed with child psychologists, practicing middle school Language Arts teachers or even people of color in the room.

If that weren’t bad enough, the questions are full of grammatical errors and typos.

One question about homophones asks students to consider this sentence:

“Select the correct answer.

Is the boxed word used correctly?

I’d like a PEACE of pie for desert?”

Students were asked if “PEACE” is correct – Yes or No. They should know that PIECE is actually the right word.

However, the question made no mention of the misuse of “desert” when the authors clearly meant “dessert.”

That’s the kind of thing that really confuses a student trying to make her way through a program all by herself.

On many assessments, she is asked things that were never taught in the section that was meant to be assessed. I know this is status quo on standardized tests, but is it fair to ask this of a child navigating an online program without even a living teacher to offer support and guidance?

In a social studies assessment on Neolithic peoples, many of the questions had nothing to do with the subject matter. They asked students to infer something based on a passage and none of the multiple choices were entirely correct. You had to pick the option that was least incorrect.

This is some crappy academics being pawned off on parents and students.

And it’s not cheap.

MASD paid $146,302.25 for 40 licenses to Calvert, Exact Path K-5, Courseware for 6-12 and other online services. When hundreds of additional parents asked for their students to be put on the cyber program, the district purchased 500 more licenses from Calvert for a bundled rate of $112,500. That’s $225 per license. Normally they are $450 per license.

Imagine if we put our tax dollars and our teachers to educating these students instead of seeding our responsibility to a corporation for hire.

And we could do it, too.

I work at Steel Valley School District.

Unlike MASD, we began the year with a 100% virtual program for all students. We conduct fully synchronous classes online designed entirely by the classroom teachers. And we post materials on Google Classroom so that students who miss the live Zoom meetings can watch videos of the lesson and do the work.

I’m not saying it hasn’t been difficult or that it’s without problems. Nor is such an endeavor better than in-person learning in a safe environment.

But the teacher-led remote model is the best that can be provided under the circumstances.

Districts that throw students to the whims of corporate educators for hire are shirking their duties.

They should face the realities of the world we live in.

If Coronavirus infections are significant in your county, you should not be offering in-person schooling. You should be offering the best remote option available – and that’s the teacher-led cyber option.

If only my home district knew it.

Meanwhile, my daughter has to struggle through with the cold comfort that at least she won’t get sick jumping through the hoops her school board is too partisan to eliminate for her.

I’m right next to her at the dining room table feeling guilty for putting her through this.

But what else could I do?


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The First Taste is Free: Ed Tech Follows Drug Dealer Sales Techniques with Schools During Coronavirus Crisis

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“Pst! Hey, Kid! Come here!”

 

Educational technologies are a multi-billion dollar industry.

 

“Who? Me?”

 

The coronavirus pandemic has closed schools across the globe, and districts have tried to solve this problem by putting their classes online.

 

“Yeah, you. I’ve got some… candy I want to give you.”

 

Nearly every ed tech company has offered help with this processes.

 
“Oh boy! I sure love candy… Wait a minute! How much does it cost?”

 

Teachers, parents, students and education activists are wary of educational technologies in the classroom, and research backs them up. Ed tech has been shown to widen socioeconomic divides, it hasn’t lived up to its promise of increasing academic gains, and – perhaps most tellingly – Silicon Valley executives restrict their own children’s use of technology and send them to tech-free schools.

 
“Nothing. It’s free.”

 

These for-profit corporations are offering limited time promotions – they’re providing additional services for free that would normally be behind a paywall.

 

“Oh goodie!”

 

Districts are jumping at the chance. They’re encouraging teachers to use apps, services and software that have never been tried before locally in an attempt to abide by continuity of education guidelines written by departments of education.

 

“That’s right. Absolutely free. But if you want some more, next time I’ll have to charge you a little something…”

 

So when the pandemic is over and classes eventually are reopened, a great deal of the technology that schools used to get through the crisis will no longer be on the house.

 

Continuing to use them will require an additional fee, and if districts end up budgeting for them, the money has to come from somewhere. So that means fewer books, field trips, tutors, classroom aides, and – yes – teachers.

 

In short, well-meaning governors, law-makers, administrators, school directors and even educators are participating in a program that in the long run may enrich private corporations but not be in the best interests of the students we’re supposed to serve.

 

I bring this up not to stop schools from using online learning during the crisis. Unfortunately that ship has sailed. Nor do I voice my objections to criticize teachers, parents or students. We all have to do what needs to be done to get through all this.

 

However, it is vital that we are aware of the compromises being made today so as to better avoid the pitfalls ahead.

 

When teachers use Zoom, Google Classroom, or any of dozens of other ed tech products during this season of social distancing, we must be aware that these should only be temporary measures. Do not resign yourself to any of this becoming the new status quo.

 

When classes resume, we can’t simply go back to normal. Nothing can ever be normal again. Normal is what got us into this mess – a society ill equipped to meet this pandemic – ill equipped to take care of its citizens, provide basic resources, equity and put people before profits.

 

The post coronavirus world must be one of universal healthcare, a social safety net for all and a robust, fully funded system of public education. We cannot allow it to be a dystopian world of edu-tech vulture capitalism where the economics of street corner drug pushers is used to dictate how public money is spent.

 
There are many clear reasons why.

 
First, education technologies are almost completely unregulated. Cybersecurity and student privacy laws are woefully out of date if not entirely nonexistent.

 

These applications collect a torrent of data on students. So do teachers, in fact, to calculate grades. However, if an educator were to share this information with outsiders, she could be sued. But if a corporation did the same thing, it falls into a legal no man’s land.

 

Each state has different laws denoting the limits of privacy.

 

The main federal law safeguarding student data privacy, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), was written in 1974 before much of these technologies even existed. It hasn’t been significantly amended since 2001.

 

So it’s left to individual districts, administrators, school boards and teachers to navigate these murky waters.

 
They end up trying to decipher the individual terms of service agreements and privacy statements with these companies that are often full of legal loopholes. In many cases, decision makers don’t even bother or give the job to school lawyers unversed in cybersecurity concerns or law.

 

While Congress has neglected its duty to regulate the industry, the matter is important enough that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) put out a strong warning. Two years ago, the Bureau cautioned consumers about the risks of classroom management tools like Class Dojo as well as student testing and remediation applications like Classroom Diagnostic Tools and Study Island.

 

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

 

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

 

And these are many of the same applications being used today for distance learning initiatives.

 

Education advocates have been sounding the alarm for years.

 

Commonsense.org – a nonprofit studying education issues – conducted a three-year review of 100 ed tech companies. It concluded that 74% of these businesses hold the right to transfer any personal information they collect if the company is acquired, merged, or files for bankruptcy. And since many are start-ups, this often happens.

 

The authors wrote that there is “a widespread lack of transparency, as well as inconsistent privacy and security practices” in how student information is collected, used, and disclosed.

 

Leaking student data is often not a security failure. It’s part of a company’s business model.

 

This is valuable information about one of the most lucrative demographics in the marketplace. Companies use it to help sell products targeted directly to consumers. And they can even sell student data as a commodity, itself.

 

For instance, imagine how much more effective the hiring process would be if businesses had access to applicants school attendance records. Imagine if businesses had an applicant’s entire academic record.

 

Employers could buy vast amounts of data and use algorithms to sort through it looking for red flags without fully comprehending what was being compiled. Imagine an applicant being turned down for a job because of low middle school attendance but not being able to explain that this was due to a legitimate illness.

 

There are reasons we protect people’s privacy. You shouldn’t have to explain your score on a 1st grade spelling test the rest of your life or have the need for special education services damage your credit rating.

 

Yet all of these things are possible when student data is up for grabs.

 

No one is protecting our children from this kind of mercantile future – one which will only be exacerbated if we allow educational technologies to become common place after the current crisis.

 

And tightening our student privacy laws, will not solve everything.

 

Hardly any attention is being paid to how these technologies can be used for harms unrelated to business and industry.

 

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

 

Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. Other children could use it to bully and harass classmates.

 
It’s hard to imagine how children could be protected on such devices without increasing surveillance and thereby running similar risks. Using them will always involve a chance of endangerment so they should be kept away from the youngest and most vulnerable potential users.

 

How did we let ed tech get so out of control? Like so many problems of the pre-coronavirus world, money was allowed to dictate policy.

 

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Global venture capital investments in ed tech finished 14 times higher by the end of the decade than they started. Investments went from $500 million in 2010 to $7 billion in 2019. And insiders expect that to triple in the next decade to more than $87 billion.

 

The two biggest spenders by far are China and the US.

 

Yet enthusiasm for such technologies are not nearly as prevalent among educators.

 

A 2019 study of educator confidence in ed tech conducted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt found that 60% of teachers were concerned that implementing technology tools could damage the student-teacher relationship.

 

Moreover, education research in the United States concluded these technologies only widen the gap between different socioeconomic groups. Global initiatives like the One Laptop per Child program, which distributed 25 million low-cost computers with learning software to children in the developing world, failed to improve language or math results.

 

Meanwhile, students seem to be telling us they prefer more old school methods of instruction. Studies have shown preference for everything from physical books over eBooks to having “ordinary, real-life lessons” and “a smart person at the front of the room.”

 

Parent Blogger Alison McDowell has studied these issues in more depth than nearly anyone else. She warns that adaptive applications become the gatekeeper of children’s educations. They only allow students to move on once they’ve demonstrated mastery on a previous academic standard – or at least once they’ve been able to guess which one answer a programmer thought correct:

 

“The “personalized learning” model conditions students to view themselves as independent operators, free agents attempting to navigate a precarious gig economy alone. Screen-based isolation and an emphasis on data-driven metrics steadily erode children’s innate tendencies to creative cooperation. Which is ultimately better for society, an algorithm that learns each student in a classroom and delivers a pre-determined reading selection that they review and are quizzed on online, or a human teacher who selects an all class reading in which there is lively debate? The first scenario forecloses creative thought in service of data generation and reinforces there is but one correct answer. The second opens up chances for students to gain new insights while limiting opportunities for digital surveillance.”

 
Ed tech may allow us to stumble forward during the coronavirus quarantine, but it is not a central part of a healthy education system.

 

It may play a limited role in remediation and augmentation, but it cannot be the fulcrum around which everything else revolves.

 
I’d like to see a new education system built from the ashes of the old where every child has the chance to learn, a system that forgoes standardized testing and corporate-written academic standards for individualization and human interaction. I’d like to see a world where charter and voucher schools are things of the past, where schools are integrated and differences valued, where teachers and learning are respected and esteemed.

 

That is not an ed tech centered world. It is a student centered one.

 

It is a world where our priorities are such that even the promise of the new and the free won’t encourage us to indulge in practices that put our children in greater danger.

 

It is a place where the pusher has no power because his product is seen for what it is – treacherous and unnecessary.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

book-3