By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
“The Silicon Valley assault must be turned away, not because they’re bad people but because they are peddling snake oil,” says veteran education writer, John Merrow.
Merrow is referencing education technology sales. In the last 10 years, titans of the tech industry have dominated K Street. Hi-tech is now the big dog, spending twice as much as the banking industry on lobbying lawmakers.
They funds think tanks to promote their agendas like coding in every public school in America or one-to-one initiatives (a digital device for every student) or digital learning. Researchers working in think tanks like the New America Foundation will be disciplined if they upset a corporate leader like Google’s Eric Schmidt. Ask Barry Lynn.
Writing for the Guardian, Ben Tarnoff reports: “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages.” The premise is that coding is “a skill so widely demanded that anyone who acquires it can command a livable, even lucrative, wage.”
The flaw here is that there is no need for a flood of new programmers. It will only drive down wages, which have already stagnated, and that is the point. A 2013 Economic Policy Institute research paper stated:
“For every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.”
“In computer and information science and in engineering, U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more students than are hired into those fields each year; of the computer science graduates not entering the IT workforce, 32 percent say it is because IT jobs are unavailable, and 53 percent say they found better job opportunities outside of IT occupations.”
School leaders are the primary targets of the ed-tech sales pitch. They are flown to conferences at pricy resorts where vendors pay thousands of dollars to meet with them. Writing for the New York Times, Singer and Ivory report about Hewlett Packard’s big score in Baltimore via the office of Superintendent Dallas Dance. They observed:
“In some significant ways, the industry’s efforts to push laptops and apps in schools resemble influence techniques pioneered by drug makers. The pharmaceutical industry has long cultivated physicians as experts and financed organizations, like patient advocacy groups, to promote its products.”
Personalized Learning and Summit Schools
Diane Tavenner is the Board Chair of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). Her bio at CCSA informs us:
“In 2003, Diane founded Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City. Today, Summit Prep is ranked by Newsweek as one of 10 miracle high schools in the nation that is transforming student lives. 100% of Summit’s graduates exceed the entrance requirements for the UC/CSU system and 97% of the graduates have been accepted to at least one four year college.”
Kristina Rizga’s lengthy article in November’s Mother Jones magazine is called “Inside Silicon Valley’s Big-Money Push to Remake American Education – Personalized learning is the latest trend to catch the eye of tech moguls—and Betsy DeVos. But does it work?” Her article, focuses on Tavenner’s schools. With 97% of graduates accepted to a four-year college, Rizga reports a fly in the ointment:
“But even as students thrived and Tavenner began opening more Summit schools around the Bay Area, administrators started learning that high school success wasn’t translating once Summit students headed off to college. In 2011, when Tavenner and her team surveyed students from their first class, the responses depressed them: Only a little more than half were on track to graduate.”
In addition, they learned that more than one-third of their students in colleges required remedial classes which indicated a high risk of not graduating. The reality was that students over at Mountain View High School, where Tavenner once taught, were being better prepared for college. The “miracle” schools were not that miraculous.
Originally, Summit schools focused on personalized learning like that championed by the popular bay area private schools, Montessori and Waldorf. Each student would have a personalized learning plan instead of the typical structure of lectures and textbooks, identical worksheets and being sorted by age. With the depressing 2011 data in mind, Tavenner added a new wrinkle, marring personalized learning with technology. Summit gained enhanced attention from education leaders, policy makers, and enthusiastic tech billionaires.
In 2013 Mark Zuckerberg offered to help. The new core of Summit’s personalized approach is the Summit Learning Platform, designed in partnership with Facebook. The software provides students with a daily overview of their responsibilities and progress, which are marked against their yearly personalized academic goals.
Since 2014, a total of 330 schools in 40 states have signed up to adopt the Summit model. They are betting on an untested hypothesis that tech can save costs, increase engagement and allow teachers more time to provide individualized instruction.
Huge sums of money are flowing into this endeavor. Rizga writes:
“In a recent speech, Zuckerberg said he plans to “upgrade” the majority of about 25,000 public middle and high schools over the next decade. He and Chan have also pledged to donate “hundreds of millions of dollars per year” to bring personalized learning to other schools through the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, …. They aren’t alone: Bill Gates’ foundation has committed $300 million to the movement since 2009, and Netflix founder Reed Hastings has invested at least $11 million into personalized math software.”
Julian Cortella worked at Summit from near its beginning. He left in part due to concerns about the new tech infused Summit. The low-tech Summit campus, where he taught, was outscoring the tech infused ones.
Rizga paraphrased him: “A former mechanical engineer who spent significant time working in Silicon Valley startups, Cortella is not against technology in the classrooms. Instead, he says his 13 years of hands-on classroom experience tell him that the tech enthusiasts rely too much on untested assumptions.”
Larry Cuban taught Tavenner at Stanford. She credits Cuban and Linda Darling-Hammond with being particularly inspirational. Rizga shares his observation:
“Cuban told me one of Summit’s key strengths is its skilled, well-trained teachers—teachers get eight weeks of paid time to improve their craft during the school year, in addition to one paid month during the summer—who use technology to achieve specific goals and their professional judgment to make decisions on how and why certain learning will take place.”
Not only are Summit’s achievements over-blown, but it is not a model easily replicated. What public school can offer teachers competitive wages and this much professional development? Public schools don’t get money from Eli Broad, Bill Gates and the Silicon Valley Foundation.
Experimenting on Other People’s Children
Many of the education initiatives coming from Silicon Valley are also reckless experiments. A recent experiment was called Altschools. A 2015 news release from Altschools said:
“May 4, 2015 – AltSchool kicks off Teacher Appreciation Week with $100 million in funding to further its vision to reinvent U.S. education from the ground up. Founders Fund and Andreessen Horowitz led the round with Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s donor-advised fund at Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Additional investment came from Emerson Collective, First Round Capital, Learn Capital, John Doerr, Harrison Metal, Jonathan Sackler, Omidyar Network and Adrian Aoun.”
“In 2013, founder Max Ventilla and his team … began AltSchool by asking, how would school look if we designed it from scratch today?”
“In 2013, there were 20 students in one school. This year, there will be up to 500 students in eight schools. And soon, AltSchool will start offering its model to schools nationwide, so that each child can access a high-quality education that will help them reach their full potential.”
On Novermber 1, Bloomberg reported:
“Max Ventilla sold investors on a promise to build modern, technology-infused schools that would revolutionize education. The former Google executive convinced Mark Zuckerberg and prominent venture capitalists to commit $175 million to his startup, AltSchool. The company built at least nine grade schools in California and New York, some equipped with ceiling-mounted video cameras, an abundance of computers, custom apps, robots and 3D printers.
“But five years after opening, the for-profit venture has yet to solve a basic business equation. Despite charging about $30,000 for tuition, AltSchool’s losses are piling up as it spends at a pace of about $40 million per year. The San Francisco company is now scaling back …. In an interview, Ventilla said it’s all part of the plan. The startup is shifting its focus to selling technology to other schools, a business which has struggled to date but that he said has a more promising future.”
So that means, those rich kids in Palo Alto are looking for a new school. They will be fine, but the bad news is now we have another software company peddling their unproven wares. Watch out Reed Hastings, DreamBox has a new competitor!
No Independent Rigorous Research Supports Recent Technology Spending by Schools
An Edweek article by Benjamin Herold opens with a quote from veteran teacher, Tiffany Dunn of Kentucky. ‘”This whole thing is coming from the tech industry, which doesn’t understand that what kids need is someone to love them and get excited about them,’ Dunn said. ‘I’m not aware of any research that says sticking a child in front of a computer for hours on end does them any good.”’
The massive purchase of technology here in San Diego is not an aberration. Herold reveals, “Schools are buying in: 97 percent of district leaders surveyed by the Education Week Research Center last year indicated that their districts had invested in some form of personalized learning.”
In the article, Herold also reported that Alfie Kohn called personalized learning, “behaviorism on a screen.” Also, Michael Petrilli said it encourages a “reductionist type of education” that “breaks learning into little bits and scraps and bytes of disparate skills, disconnected from an inspiring, coherent whole.”
Herold shared some quotes from ed-tech experts. Audrey Watters has written: “When Facebook promises personalization, it’s really about massive data collection.”
And from Stirling University in the United Kingdom, Lecturer Ben Williamson says: “We need to open up a bigger debate about whether we really want Silicon Valley establishing this new model of data-driven schooling. These are people whose vision for reforming public education puts their own industry in charge.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contracted with the Rand Corporation to make a study of digital learning, the results seem legitimate but not that supportive. The best the lead researcher, John Pane, could say to the Hechinger Report was, “What I hope happens is people see this is a promising approach, but it requires a lot of things to fall into place for it to work right.”
Susan Payne Carter, assistant professor of economics at the United States Military Academy, Major Kyle Greenberg, research analyst at the Army’s Human Resources Command and Michael S. Walker, research analyst at the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense wrote about a West Point study of laptops in the classroom. The study at West Point results:
“Overall, students in our sample did relatively well on the final exam, but those who were prohibited from using Internet-connected devices during class did best. … Students in classrooms where only tablets were allowed under strict conditions did slightly better, with an average score of 71.4 percent, but they still had lower scores than students in the technology-free group.”
Carter et al also share the from the literature:
“In K–12 schools, where students do not typically take lecture notes, a growing body of research has found no positive impact of expanded computer or Internet access. For example, a 2002 study by Joshua Angrist and Victor Lavy found that installing computers throughout elementary and middle schools in Israel had no effect on student achievement, even though their teachers used more computer-aided instruction. Another study, published in 2006 by Austan Goolsbee and Jonathan Guryan, found that the federal E-Rate program expanded California students’ Internet access by 66 percent over four years but did not have an impact on student achievement (see “World Wide Wonder?” research, Winter 2006). Other studies have found no link between enhanced student outcomes and expanded information-technology spending, universal-laptop programs, and providing students with home computers.”
Large amounts of money are being wasted. Massive spending on ed-tech is not supported by research and in fact may be doing great harm. Will some ed-tech products come to be viewed in the same way people now view the miracle drug thalidomide? The “Digital Promise” is a digital Trojan horse fleecing tax payers and stealing from children.